Last Updated : 19/08/07
s anyone who's been around Cardiff will tell you there's not a massive amount of scooping potential in town. There's an un-naturally high number of McSpoons around the place, most with extra bars hidden upstairs to keep their occasional scoops hidden, and then we're into those places unashamedly aimed at the specialist drinker or the few other pubs situated outside the city centre. So, for the benefit of those who don't know Cardiff that well, here's my quick run-down of where to scoop, or at least try to.
Unless you require any Brains' beers (if you do then you have plenty of choice, but personally I'd drink dark in the Old Arcade or any special brews in the Cottage) then you're going to have to work for your admittedly thin chance to score anything more interesting. The city centre is almost a desert for winners – excepting the three places mentioned next - which means you may as well take a train to Treforest (for the Otley pubs) and stop off in Taff's well on your way back for Fagin's ale house before visiting the other pubs in Cardiff.
The only two pubs apart from the various McSpoons where you might possibly get a winner are handily situated a few minutes from each other just north of the centre and a mere ten-minute walk from St Mary's Street. The first is the Cayo Arms, once part of the Watkins empire but now owned by Marstons yet strangely it still sells near enough the full range of Watkins brews. The other, just around the corner on Sophia Close, is the Mochyn Du (black pig) which has a guest or two amongst the other chaff and is sometimes a Vale of Glamorgan or Dobbins & Jackson beer.
Now we're firmly into the realms of the category called "other"... The first place is technically not available for casual visiting as it's the social club of Glamorgan council which is housed in a glorious red-brick Victorian pile opposite the entrance to the Millennium stadium on Westgate Street. I say technically as you can get signed in or show your CAMRA card to gain entry, but no-one seems to care as long as you behave yourself and so, with this proviso, I recommend the "club" as the best scooping venue in the city - as long as you don't expect quiet, besuited gentlemen daintily sipping their halves of bitter; the club isn't like that and, once you've been once, you'll either love or hate it’s atmosphere and clientele; I love the place, but some may not! Three guest beers from all over the UK (but mainly Wales) are on the bar for extremely democratic prices and even if you don't scoop a beer you'll almost certainly find something decent on tap with Bullmastiff and Vale of Glamorgan making regular appearances.
The city's other star attraction is a good walk out in the East but, if you're a fan of German beers, then it's an essential visit. Chapter bar is rather surreally located in an old school which is now an arts centre staging non-mainstream cinema/plays and, as a bonus for beer drinkers, it also serves four cask ales (which can sometimes produce scoops) as well as their famous fridge full of bottled German brews; there's no beer list, annoyingly, so it's generally necessary to stand by the door and peer into the fridge in the hope of locating a winner. If the existence of beer-filled white goods isn't good enough for you the food served to your table should be, as it’s top-notch for a pub and includes some interesting dishes at modest prices, and so a visit to Chapter can potentially fulfil all your beer and food requirements for the evening! As an added bonus the classic little Brain's pub just along the road - The Old Butcher’s Arms - also has a guest beer although it's generally only of the regional variety and there’s the Ivor Davies, a Wetherspoon, just along Cowbridge Road too.
Add to these quirky bars the six other McSpoons scattered around the city and you have the potential for a decent evening out with the only issue being Chapter's distance from the centre, although buses ply Cowbridge Road regularly and can whisk you back to the centre in a few minutes - if you're not tempted to scoop one of the many curry houses along the way that is
Right, that's the pub gen done, it's time for the report... And you'll doubtless be amazed that it's a positive and upbeat yarn in direct contrast to my usual vitriol-laden accounts of yet another beer-less trudge around some one-horse crap southern town or other; yes readers, it’s a happy report, but make the most of it as they're as common as a pint of cask mild in London and the next one may not be along for some time, just like a bus…
Monday 30th April 2007.
An evening to myself.
I was happy to be spending two nights in Cardiff - particularly as work were paying for the enviably located Holiday Inn hotel overlooking the rugby grounds - and was also impressed that my visit coincided with the Wetherspoon beer festival where I required a few scoops and so I decided that, with all the McSpoons around Cardiff, I must surely scoop one or two of my required brews!
I'd arranged to meet Brian Francis the second evening and so the first was mine to do as I wished with; the obvious move was to head off to the three central McSpoons before sampling the atmosphere of the Glamorgan social club and finally some food and German winners in Chapter to finish off the evening. I usually try to stay at the Holiday Inn as it's the closest big hotel to the club as well as having it's own carpark and so it was with considerable relief that I found out that was where I was staying after all.
My first call was the Great Western Lloyds No1 close to central station. I remember this area of Cardiff being slightly seedy during my university years with two distinctly dodgy pubs, the Glendower and the Custom House, just under the railway bridge and most other buildings boarded up; the intervening fifteen years have seen Cardiff transformed into a bright, fresh and buzzing modern-day European capital city with a great atmosphere – but somehow there’s a feeling that something has been lost along the way, thrown out with the bathwater in the headlong rush to sanitise everything, and that something isn’t coming back. I’m talking about part of the city’s character here; yes, it’s all very nice and clean now, but where’s the vaguely seedy (and characterful) pubs and streets?
Even Caroline Street, that once unbroken stretch of sex shops and kebab houses alongside Brains’ brewery, is now a gentrified road with only the wonderfully downmarket Tony’s chippy to lower the tone - and even the brewery has gone. Cardiff is generally (but incorrectly) pushed as “Europe’s youngest capital” although with the creation of many new countries in the Balkans during the last few years, not to mention Bratislava in Slovakia, Cardiff’s 1955 seems positively ancient by comparison – but don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great place for a beer and it’s nightlife is legendary – with Brains’ real ale part of local tradition although, sadly, the brewery are now pushing nitrogenated versions of their beers too.
Pausing at the door, I cast a glace at the still boarded-up York hotel - complete with “for sale by auction” board - nestled into the railway viaduct and grinned as I remembered sending a pint back (we were a bit nervous about the landlord’s reaction but he was fine) in the very early 1990’s on a night when almost every pub in town was selling an infected batch of Brains’ bitter, and then reminisced how this very building I was entering had been a decrepit shell in danger of demolition; how times change.
Inside the bar was quiet and relaxed – a particularly endearing trait Lloyds have in relation to their bigger and brasher Wetherspoon brothers – although this is marred by the limited amount of cask ales available, four in this case, of which one was a scoop in the form of Caledonian Top Banana (4.1%). This wasn’t the beer I’d hoped to see but, in it’s defence, I’d heard it was 200% better than the appallingly artificial Charlie Wells fluid and so I decided to give it a go and to be honest it wasn’t too bad with a strange, sweetish taste overlaid by some subtle and real-ish tasting banana flavours which, despite being better than I’d though, didn’t entice me into wanting another!
I headed back north and had a quick look into the Prince of Wales Wetherspoons just around the corner; this is a huge place (with two bars) installed in a lusciously Gothic ex-cinema alongside the bus station which serves many more beers than the Lloyds bar but somehow contrived to have nothing I wanted to drink on handpump! After the mammoth walk up and down the stairs to the top bar I was tempted with a swift half of the excellent St Georgenbräu Kellerbier whch, unlike most of the casked European beers Wetherspoon sell at their festivals, actually works in cask as it’s supposed to be served that way but, conscious of the time remaining and the distance to Chapter, I reluctantly declined a European classic and moved onto my favourite pub in the centre – the Glamorgan social club.
Smoke in the beer, not the air.
I don’t know what I can say about the club that will fully – or comprehensively – encapsulate everything it stands for and seems to be, but I’ll try and give a brief overview of what to expect if you’ve never had the opportunity or inclination to visit this eccentric place… the club is a place where time seems to rewind twenty years on entry with the bad wallpaper, elderly clientele who always seem to be pissed and a general feeling of being in a different age – a feeling probably brought on by the low prices! As I said earlier it’s not a place to take your Gran for Sunday dinner but, if you’re a beer lover with appreciation of eccentric and characterful (full!) pubs, then I wager you’ll love the club.
As I also said earlier it’s officially the social club of Glamorgan council but Cardiff CAMRA seem to have access to it so I generally tag along on their ticket, not that I’ve ever been asked for any ID, but obviously you’re supposed to at the very least be signed in by a member so I shall leave the entry part of proceedings to your better judgement and simply say that as I walked up the road there was something wrong; people were stood on the steps in a way I’ve never seen before and I suddenly wondered if maybe the management had changed, or if some kind of protest was going on… I gingerly weaved through the throng on the steps, still none the wiser, and made my way to the bar where everything was apparently business as usual with three guest beers available (I required all three!) and the usual faces behind the bar. Now I know I’ve never been lightning-fast on the uptake, but as I stood there with Vale of Glamorgan Last Smoke on the pumps and the windows wide open a spark of realisation dawned on me; of course, Welsh pubs had gone smoke-free on the 2nd April, and that also explained why I could see my hand in front of my face inside the club!
I began with the Boggart Crazy Chick (3.7%) which brings me to a rant; why are Boggart beers so rubbish? What has happened to them? Every beer I’ve tried for the past three years at least has overwhelming burnt, phenolic tastes to them and, frankly, it’s not pleasant so why the hell are they selling beers with obvious problems (I don’t believe that any beer is supposed to taste like this) and who keeps buying them? I can only assume it’s the wholesale customers who take a few with every delivery but, whoever it is, I shan’t be drinking any more if the next one I try is as bad as this and they will join the illustrious ranks of Lloyds, Archers, Fullers, Youngs, Greede Kerching and others on my boycott list!
Next up was the with Vale of Glamorgan Last Smoke (4.2%) and it would be difficult to think of a greater contrast in quality between the Boggart and this superb brew; okay, you have to like smoked malt and I agree that the flavour of sweetcured smoky bacon isn’t something normals generally expect a beer to taste of, but this was a cracking attempt at a Rauchbier – albeit an ale, not a lager – and had all the hallmarks of the superb brews of Bamberg with a near-perfect balance of sweet, juicy maltiness and that amazing bacon-like beechsmoke from rauchmalz. I stood there in awe of this beer and slowly sipped it to extract the full spectrum of flavours from the beer and without a doubt it was one of the finest brews I’ve tried this year; of those who attempt smoked beers most over-egg the pudding but this example showed the deft touch of a brewer who knows what balance is… obviously not an American, then!
The next beer couldn’t really compete with the flavours of Bamberg – or so I thought – but Breckonshire End of the Road (4.8%) was yet another cracker! This time it was hops not malt which had the starring role, and according to the clip it was the “last ever 93/50 hops in existence” (they’re now called Susan!) which I’m assuming are test hops from the Wye research establishment in Kent. It would be a shame if these hops will never see a pint glass again as they gave off a dry, grassy, flower-meadow taste with a subtle hint of lemongrass (or was it fairy liquid?) before degenerating into a full-on powdery bitterness which left me reasonably impressed. Three scoops in the club, two of them good beers, what a great start to the evening!
Siarad Gymreig, Saesneg?
I was extremely happy with the quality of brews in the club, and I think I almost sang a little ditty (if you can call Dropkick Murphys songs ditties) as I skipped along to my next call, the Gatekeeper Wetherspoons, handily situated only a few doors down from the club. Thankfully the strange habit they used to keep of having the front doors locked with entrance via a little alleyway around the back had been abandoned and I was soon at the bar examining the pumps for winners; nothing was obvious but as I checked the beers against the list on my mini-Aston I suddenly realised that I required Titanic Steerage (3.5%); I’d never have guessed I needed this as I’m sure I’ve seen it dozens of times but, with all probability, I’d assumed the same all these other times and left a scoop in the line…
I must admit that I think Titanic beers have gone downhill over the last five years and now have that strange silage-like taste of wet straw and mouldy malt that also affects Dent beers too; I’ve no idea what causes it (apart from a wild guess at mouldy malt!) but it puts me right off their beers and this is a shame as I have fond memories of supping excellent pints of Captain Smiths and Mild in the Railway at Stafford back in the days when that was a pub worth stopping off at on the way back North from a day’s bashing DMU’s in the West Midlands! I stoically sipped my glass of Steerage, wishing it was the Vale of Glamorgan instead, when I felt the eyes of someone looking at me.
Now having been a student in South Wales for four years I know a lot about the mindset of the people there and know many of their ways and traits; many South Walians profess to dislike the English but what they actually mean is the “Southern English” or anyone from a line which vaguely hovers around the Stafford area. The bloke next to me, who was in his late forties and had obviously had a few pints of whatever fizzy dross he was drinking too much, noticed me look around and muttered,
“Why don’t you get that back in London?”
Superb! I must admit that I find this parochial, insular attitude amusing and grinned as I have a trump card up my sleeve when in Wales. Whilst I was a student I lived in a house with the son of a sheep farmer from Builth Wells whose first language was Welsh; he was a great bloke and taught me some basics of his language to use in case of this very occasion (or see here!)
“Da Iawn, butt!” I replied, “Siarad Cymraeg?” (Very good mate, do you speak Welsh?)
The bloke’s eyes opened far wider than I had guessed they physically could and he stared at me with a look on his face which told me he knew he’d picked on the wrong person.
“Are you English?” he asked me, to which I replied the positive and told him that I’d lived in Treforest for four years and thus spoke some Welsh.
He broke into a smile and evidently decided to test my ability to speak Welsh.
“Twll Din Pop Saes!” he said, still grinning.
I knew that meant “Arseholes to all English” and so grinned and replied “Cachau Bant!” (fuck off) to which he clapped me on the back with a roar of laughter having obviously decided that I was Welsh enough to speak to. He proceeded to tell me that his daughter lived near Bolton and her friends sounded like me, before reeling off various tales about his rather tedious escapades in London with other Welshmen who also knew a few words of the language. Having finished my half of liquefied mouldy malt it was time to go and so, wishing him all the best, I finally managed to get away from my new best friend and headed off towards Cowbridge Road and the Chapter bar – via another Wetherspoons which just happened to be a winner!
A McSpoon interlude.
This small piece of bigotry had amused me and I trudged along the road in good spirits, inhaling the spicy fumes from the curry houses I passed, until I finally reached the Ivor Davies. This pub is a typical Wetherspoon in that when inside you could be in almost any of the estate as it looks identical to most others I’ve been into, but I wasn’t there to critique the décor but to see if any more of my winners from the beer festival list were available. One was, but yet again if I could have chosen any of them I didn’t want then this would have featured pretty highly on the inventory; Wadworth George and the Dragon (4.5%).
Okay, so my last couple of experiences with Wadworth have been surprisingly pleasant, but I wasn't holding out much hope for this one and was sadly right in my assumptions as the beer had that horrible Wadworth taste which I really, really don’t like; to my taste it’s a mixture of very earthy maltiness and peardrops which I find particularly nauseating and I struggled through as much of the copper-brown fluid as was physically possible without projectile vomiting the evening’s winners across the pub. I surrendered to the inevitable with a third left and made a quick exit just in case my body decided to reject this unnatural intruder and act appropriately.
Back on the proper beer!
It’s only a short walk to Chapter and on the way I had a sly look into the Old Butcher’s Arms, a classic street-corner Brains pub which normally has a guest beer on draught, but unfortunately not on this occasion. On I went and was soon in the surreal bar of Chapter which really does look like a school assembly hall on account of it having been a school! With nothing of interest on the four handpumps I immediately went into lurk mode at the end of the bar in an attempt to see what winners were skulking in the fridge; this procedure is necessary as the pub – for some inexplicable reason – doesn’t produce a list of beers in stock so peering into the fridge in search of scoops is therefore the only way forwards! I’d soon acquired a bottle of Langbräu Benedikt XVI (7.5%) and retired to my table to see if it tasted as interesting as the label looked.
With the beer poured and being a typical German pale bok beer with a strong sweetish malty taste, some alcohol, and a herby hop finish although nowhere near as interesting as I’d hoped for the strength, it was time to satiate the rumbling in my belly with some of the superb food available there. I chose a Welsh Black Beef steak with extra mozzarella garlic bread and a mezze (as work were paying) and got another beer as I waited for my food to arrive. Penning Hetzelsdorfer Frankiches Vollbier (5%) was my next choice and I had high hopes for this one as it came from the generally excellent Franconia region which produces some of the best lagers in the world.
Sadly this wasn't one of that illustrious crowd and, although it was toffeeish, malty and quite tasty, it just didn’t quite hit the spot for me with it’s slightly overbearing caramel aftertaste. My food soon arrived and was as good as I’d hoped; the steak was a delicious huge hunk of cow with a flavour which came close to that sublime lomo I’d been amazed by in Buenos Aires the previous year and, when I finally laid down my cutlery, I felt replete and satisfied by the first-rate food. Draining my glass of vollbier, which tasted better for having a huge steak inside of me, I waddled back to my lurking position by the fridge to pick out my final beer of the evening.
Krug-Bräu Lagerbier (5%) was my choice and it was a decent-enough brew with an attractive copper colour, a toasty and reasonably malty flavour, then a grainy and slightly grassy aftertaste with more of the toasted maltiness; not bad, in fact it was quite suppable, but it just cemented my opinion that German beers are best on draught at the point of origin and they lose that “something” in bottle! With my evening complete all that remained was to wander back along Cowbridge Road to the Holiday Inn trying to avoid the impulse-buy of a curry on the way, although still being full of steak and beer was just enough to persuade me I’d eaten enough for one night…
Tuesday 1st May 2007.
Back to the club.
I’d arranged to meet with Brian Francis for a few beers and so you find me once again at the bar of the Glamorgan club once more holding a scoop, this time in the shape of Banks & Taylor Golden Fox (4.1%) which was sweetish, fruity and grainy without being particularly interesting. I’d already had a look in the Gatekeeper and had discovered that it – in common with many of the Cardiff Wetherspoons – had an upstairs bar and it was here that I found my scoop; Robinsons Dark Horse (4.3%) was a beer I’d been trying to find for quite a while on the recommendation of John Clarke of Stockport who was determined to show me that Robinsons could actually brew decent beer and not just churn out bland regional junk! To be fair it wasn't a bad beer and I felt it was quite good for a regional brewer although I’m not quite sure what style they were aiming at; modern-day Porter or dark bitter both fit, but whatever type of ale it was supposed to be it’s not a bad stab at a tasty, toasted malt beer with more bitterness than usual for normally staid big brewers such as Robinsons.
Brian soon arrived and partook of the Breckonshire I’d enjoyed the previous evening before we set off for a quick trip around the valleys in search of a few winners. He told be that he’d not heard of anything interesting anywhere local so if we did find a scoop then it would be a bonus! Our first stop was Fagin’s at Taff’s Well where I required nothing and so happily supped a half of RCH as Brian desperately scored some random Archer’s beer. We then headed off to various pubs around Caerphilly mountain in search of something unusual but all we found was Felinfoel Double Dragon (admittedly rare in this part of Wales) and Theakston’s Old Peculier whose origin we knew not now that Tyne brewery has closed, but if it’s now brewed back at Masham again it certainly didn’t taste as good as I remember it many years back when it came from there!
A text message told us that Dobbins & Jackson Usk Vale Bitter (4.2%) was available for scooping in the Tarw Du and so we raced back into the centre with barely ten minutes to spare before stop-tap. The pub was showing football on a large TV at a totally ludicrous volume for the handful of people watching it and certainly didn’t make for a fun visit as we tried to find a relatively quiet spot away from the blaring device; apparently this pub has been voted “Pub of the year” although I can’t see the attraction myself; okay so it’s not a bad boozer and serves it’s guest beer in decent condition, but unless you like excruciatingly loud sports then I can think of plenty of better pubs in Cardiff!
The beer was surprisingly bitter and was heavy on the citrussy hops with a balancing maltiness, although the finish was slewed heavily in favour of a characterful lemony bitterness which certainly made for a refreshing brew; I know it’s a bit out of touch to be surprised by Welsh beers being bitter – after all, we’re not talking regionals here – but it does seem that most of the micros which have started up in the principality are a little shy about coming forwards with the wolf plant with the honourable exceptions of Vale of Glamorgan and (sometimes) Bullmastiff.
Another text message told Brian that there was only a Jennings scoop available in the Cayo Arms around the corner and nothing in the Beverley Hotel over the road and so that was the evening done. Okay so my scoops tally for the night had crept up to a mere three, but I’d visited some pubs I’d not been to before and had scratched the surprisingly hoppy Usk Vale bitter so, with everything in perspective, I’d not done too badly especially if the previous night’s nine scoops were factored into the equation; roll on the next visit!
As much as Cardiff isn’t the scooping mecca of, say, Sheffield it’s definitely not as bad as many other cities I could mention and twelve winners in two nights isn’t bad at all! Admittedly it can be hard work to score beers in the city and it also helps if you like German beers, but there’s usually enough ticks scattered around to keep most people happy for at least one evening. With the seven (yes, seven!) McSpoons in town you’re assured of a large variety of brews to choose from (don’t forget the upstairs bars, too!) but the real star of the show, as usual, has to be the Glamorgan social club for it’s atmosphere and range of guest beers; I scored four in two visits which is particularly good! Chapter was as good as usual for choice of rarer German bottled brews and the food was delicious and very reasonably priced too, but beware that the kitchen closes early at around 21:15 so if you want to eat there you need to be early through the doors!
Apart from these pubs mentioned there are many Brains ones scattered throughout the city; the capital’s brewer still has a near-monopoly on real ale in Cardiff and you’ll struggle to find any which don’t sell it even if they’re owned by someone else. The Old Arcade at 14 Church Street has been tarted up from it’s days as a rough and ready rugby pub but the beer is still pretty decent, especially the dark, and the Cottage on St Marys’ Street serves any specials Brains might happen to be doing at the time, otherwise expect something regional and boring. Apart from that, the Vulcan at 10 Adam Street is threatened with demolition but remains a superb locals’ pub in every sense of the word although it only sells bitter and SA as, according to the landlady, “The dark drinkers died off!”.
It’s not as quirky, edgy or interesting as it was city-wise, but Cardiff has never had it so good beer-wise in the last twenty years; all it needs now is a city-centre brewpub and a few more pubs selling proper micro guest beers and it’ll be right up there alongside Manchester and Birmingham, although Sheffield’s reign as scooper-centrum isn’t likely to be broken any time soon.
Beer and Pub of the week.
What constitutes a pub? Do I count the club even though – technically – I’m not supposed to go in there and drink the superb beers they sell? And how about Chapter with it’s generally lacklustre range of cask ales but interesting and changing selection of German bottled beers? Well, obviously, the rules are up to me and I have no hesitation as selecting two winners this month on the pub side! For British beer there can only be one winner, the unique and quirky Glamorgan Staff Social Club, but for their tremendous German beer range, top quality food and off-beat atmosphere the Chapter bar wins the spare award I have floating around for “best foreign beer bar in Cardiff”. As for the best beer, well again there’s not a lot of difficulty in choosing that, although admittedly the Dobbins & Jackson Usk Vale Bitter came close. So, for it’s superb balance, complexity and sheer difference the best beer award goes to Vale of Glamorgan Last Smoke, which rates amongst the best beers I’ve had this year from anywhere.
For more info, have a look at this Cardiff Pubs website and Cardiff CAMRA’s website where I especially like the “coming on” lists for the local scooping pubs!
My Google map of the city's pubs is here.
|The superb Glamorgan Club||A Fantasy Gothic McSpoons!||From when Brains brewed stout...||The long-closed York pub in Cardiff June 2007||Chapter's famous fridge!|
© Gazza 15/05/07 V1.0