Last Updated : 04/06/07
t Albans is a city I know well; I lived five miles from it for a number of years and, towards the end of this marathon stint, knew every decent pub within the city – and most within a fifty-mile radius too. A typical evening would find me either stomping purposefully around the city in search of scoops or, alternately, pounding up the A1 in the direction of Biggleswade or Knebworth. All this ended when I moved to Tamworth in 2001 and I’ve not been back since – or not until I was working in Welwyn Garden City for a couple of days and decided that I’d much rather stay in St Albans than Welwyn; those who have visited Welwyn will understand my reasons!
I arranged to stay in the Quality Hotel on London Road with some trepidation; I don’t know on what basis the owners of said chain judge quality, but it’s certainly not the same scale I use and if work weren’t paying I don’t think I would have given them my custom… it was, however, convenient for getting out of the city in the morning and also just a five-minute walk to the Farmer’s Boy so I was happy to accept the crummy décor and below-par facilities for the chance to be within walking distance of the city centre.
Thursday 25th May 2007.
It ain’t half hot, mum.
Having checked into my room early in the afternoon I had the opportunity to complete a decent chunk of my “From Siberia to Iberia” reports although the proximity of the railway line behind the hotel meant that every few minutes the whole place would shake violently as another express thundered past; that kind of thing puts you off writing, but add to the perpetual rail-based distractions the fact that the temperature was in the mid-20’s with a blazing sun coming in through my window – which didn’t open properly – and you’ll see why I was soon out of the door and into the evening’s scooping session!
I’d decided to trek over to the furthest pubs first and so I huffed along in the stifling heat, sweat trickling down my nose, with a determination that I was going to get a beer at the end of this meteorological torture! Half way through my march I passed the Glass house on Latimer Road which was a poncey café-bar with loads of fizz on tap but, even worse, the sole handpump was dispensing Greede Kerching IPA! Onwards…
After fifteen minutes of uncomfortably warm yomping I gasped through the door of the Mermaid in sweaty disarray and slumped against the bar to the understandable consternation of the barman. Looking around, however, I was soon revived by the beer board which told me, amazingly, that I required all three guest beers on sale… suddenly I felt a lot better and, much in the spirit of Hillary after he’d climbed Everest, immediately felt that all that pain wasn’t without gain and so, with a new-found fervor for my quest, I ordered my first tick and prepared to start the evening’s scooping with an unexpected haul of winners!
My first beer arrived (Vale Hop pole bitter, 4%) and I got stuck into it immediately in the hope of quenching a raging thirst brought on by my mile-and-a-quarter march. Sadly the name was somewhat of a misnomer and, instead of the fresh, quenching hoppy and bitter flavour I was expecting, all I got was a decent toffee-malt taste with some balancing dryness; not quite what I was after, to be honest! I quickly got a half of my next beer, Bateman Gemini Double Trouble (4.4%, although I originally had this in 1996 at 4%!) and whilst there were more hops in this beer the character was ruined by the typical Batemans double-whammy of pear drops and an acerbic bitterness with, just for good measure, a nauseating sickly-sweet caramelly taste too so I suppose it was really a triple-whammy.
By this point I’d already decided that it wasn’t going to be my day and resigned myself to not liking the final beer, Nethergate Boneshaker (4.2%), and I wasn’t far wrong as it had a very “old fashioned” taste of sweet malt, rich fruitiness and a strange bitter twang but none of the flavours really meshed together and it seemed as if my tastebuds were under attack by three separate armies of flavonoids, each determined to beat the other two into submission… so, three beers scooped but nothing good taste-wise yet; not the pub’s fault as all beers had been in good condition, but the fact remained that none of the beers had been particularly pleasant. Ah well, next pub it is, then…
A barren spell.
I trekked along Hatfield Road and was soon passing the Hogshead where, back in the days when some Hogsheads were actually worth drinking in, I used to pop in with a vague hope of scoring something interesting. A quick look through the windows told me that there would be no point in even looking so, ignoring the Greede Kerching-owned Cock over the road, I turned left down St Peter’s street with two McSpoons next on my list; oh joy.
The first was a winner for me and, owing to the crap address given by the McSpoons website, I walked right past it twice but eventually realised where it was, right next to the civic centre where the beer festival is held. I was slightly surprised to see it was a Lloyds No.1 but, knowing the level of the lowlife which frequents the Cross Keys up the road, I hoped that the clientele’s knuckles here wouldn’t rip the carpet by dragging on the ground. A quick check along the bar was all I needed to know; nothing exciting, just the usual regional dross and a Caley beer, so excuse me if I don’t partake! I must admit that the building has been very well done, actually looks old and as if it’s been a pub for hundreds of years, and so I’ll pencil it in for a look next time I’m in town ahead of my next call, one of the crappiest McSpoons I’ve ever been in, the Cross Keys on the corner of London Road.
There were the usual chavvy types hanging around outside – and inside, thinking about it – but I was only interested in the beer and was hoping there would be nothing on… thankfully there wasn’t and I must state now that the beer range was total shite being comprised of W&D dross plus a single guest beer in the form of Grand Union Bitter! As much as I like Grand Union beers there was no way I was drinking amongst the still-evolving primates within and so was back out of the door as quickly as possible.
The Boot on Market Place was next up and I had much higher hopes for this pub; it’s always done a guest beer but, so I’d been told, this range was now increased and I may find a scoop in there. Very busy would be one word for the pub as I struggled through the door to see a veritable range of larger micro beers plus Woods Pot ‘o Gold which I’ve only previously scooped from a bottle but, as I was having trouble physically getting to the bar, I abandoned my semi-scoop and decamped to my next target, the White Swan just along Upper Dagnall Street, where I hoped I might be able to reach the bar…
This was indeed the case as there were only two other customers inside when I arrived although one look at the pumps sent me recoiling back out into the street; Greede Kerching IPA wasn’t exactly what I was after, but luckily Butcombe bitter was also on and so, still thirsty from my exertions earlier, I decided I had plenty of time for a swift half of what is – in my opinion – a vastly under-rated beer and settled down at the bar to enjoy it. Happily the beer was in great nick and had all Butcombe’s normal spectrum of flavours for me to taste: which I did, as I looked around this old pub that I’d never bothered to visit whilst living in the area on account of it not selling anything worthwhile. Now, less desperate in my old age, I appreciated the Butcombe and the pub’s relaxed atmosphere and decided I’d missed out all those years ago in not coming in.
In the GBG – why?
Gravity now assisted me in my walking as Upper Dagnall Street descends a hill, becoming Lower Dagnall Street in the process, and took me to my next pub, the Farrier’s Arms, and this is another pub which I have problems with; it’s been a CAMRA favourite for years and is invariably in the GBG, but in my opinion this is for purely sentimental reasons as the beer sold there, McMullen, must surely be some of the most mundane and boring of any of the remaining regional brewers and it baffles me why, with pubs selling far better beers, this one always gets into what is supposedly a “good beer” guide? I can only assume that the “old guard” of CAMRA like it as it’s a very old fashioned “mild & bitter” pub…
Anyhow, I cast a furtive glance through the open door as I passed and saw the new McMullen “cask” beer was available; now I was in a quandary as, although I don’t like any McMullen beers, I was walking past a brand new one and I thought I may as well give it a go! My half appeared in a stemmed “Castle pale ale” glass (obviously only women drink halves in there) and was as predictably bland, boring and watery as I’d hoped it wouldn’t be; the prominent advertising for the new beer seemed to be that it was made with “whole hops”, but on the basis of my tasting they’d forgotten to put the little beauties in. The pub itself was cool and quiet although I just don’t really like the atmosphere of the place; maybe it’s just too much of a different era for me?
I struggled through the glass of hopless crap slowly and was happy when I eventually escaped back into what was, by this time, a lovely evening. I passed the Verulam Arms in hope of a winner but sadly nothing remotely scoopable (or even interesting, to be frank) was on the pumps and so it was off to a pub I used to know very well, the Lower Red Lion on Fishpool Street. This was my base camp when I lived locally and I’m happy to say it’s still as good – if not better – than it used to be with less of the dodgy beers which used to infest the place and more of the excellent brews from Alehouse.
Yet another boycott broken.
I must hold up my hands here and say I’ve avoided Alehouse beers thus far as I’ve seen so many quoted at festivals I assumed they were all either rebadges or simply mixes/dry hoppings and therefore missed some excellent beers; I know this as the two I had in the LRL that evening (Technician’s Pale 4.3% and Robust Porter 4.3%) were both cracking beers with plenty of taste and hops in their makeup. I was also pleased to see that virtually nothing had changed in the pub with the passing of six years and it’s still as calm and sociable as it ever was.
No sooner than I’d perched myself at the bar when in walks “Little Chris” who I thought had sold up and gone from the pub; yes he’s sold up, but he’s still to be seen around from time to time and it was good to see him again. I was then introduced to Kev, the landlord and brewer at Alehouse, and a good conversation was had with him about topics as varied as hop varieties, the Scoopgen e-group, beer scooping and common acquaintances! Whilst we talked I enjoyed the aforementioned Alehouse beers (which both scored 3.5, a tremendous score for a UK beer) and also a swift half of Salamander Salacious (3.8%) which was decent enough but they can do a lot better than this one in my opinion!
Time was now of the essence as I needed to be back in the hotel for the evening meal curfew of 22:00 (well, work were paying so why not?) and so it was with some reluctance I bade my farewells and headed across the pleasant Cathedral grounds, full of people lazing about in the grass owing to the particularly balmy spring weather, towards Sopwell lane. Passing the Goat, which used to be a famous real ale pub years ago when the standard was much lower, I noticed nothing remotely interesting on the four pumps and so carried on to yet another pub-scoop for me in the form of the White Lion where - in a surreal link with my last visit - ex-LRL landlord David was now at the helm.
Race against the free-food curfew.
Sopwell lane is a very picturesque old road with the crooked, twisty houses stringing themselves along it in a very haphazard manner and the White Lion is no exception to this and must be a seriously old building. I entered the pub and immediately the strange décor struck me; it was like walking into the house of some octogenarian with extremely poor taste in furnishings, but I magnanimously didn’t mention this to the barman and ordered a half of – erm – something which I can’t remember now! There were six beers available but, despite none of them being scoops, the range was decent enough and I chose the one which I fancied most at the time and have subsequently forgotten. So, in an amazing piece of coincidence, the synapses wiped out which each pint of beer apparently destroys just happened to be the ones I’d stored the beer information in… apologies for my tardiness, I’ll write the beers down next time…
As I stood by the bar admiring the fixtures and soft furnishings with what must have been a look of mild distaste, who should appear than David the Landlord who, amazingly, recognised me straight away and broke into conversation about when I’d last been to St Albans! I had no idea he’d remember who I was and so I can only assume I must have done something pretty bad for this amazing bit of facial recollection to occur.
My beer finished I carried on past the White Hart Tap which, unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit on this occasion and on to the Farmer’s Boy. Having done some research before I’d come to town I was intrigued to see the new sign which, apparently, has sparked off all sorts of controversy by being… erm… well, a bit minimalist as far as I can tell. I soon had chance to admire the sign for myself and have to agree that whilst it’s a touch modern for a pub which brews it’s own beers (it looks like some crappy wine bar sign or even a video rental shop) it’s just a bloody sign! I mean, the old one was total shite and had only been there since the late 1990’s or so, consequently it’s not as if it was a prehistoric monument! Some people really have nothing better to do if they need to complain about pub signs such as this …
That’s that rant out of the way, back onto the beer. If the new post-minimalist sign potentially turned away any beer drinkers all they needed to have done was to look through the door and they would have seen the four handpumps on the bar which, in my experience, isn’t something usually associated with wine bars or video rental shops (sorry, showing my age now, it’s all DVD these days, so apologies for being such an out-of-touch old git).
The pub was pleasantly busy and I had a scoop in the form of Alehouse Dark Mild (4.5%) which wasn’t as good as the beers I’d enjoyed in the Lower Red Lion, but then it wasn’t that bad either, having a dry and almost anthracite-like taste with a toasty, dry aftertaste. As I stood by the bar I suddenly noticed a jingling sound coming from the garden and it was with mild horror I saw that this noise was coming from some Morris dancers “performing” there! I doubled my drinking speed but I still saw some of the Morris dancers as they continually chinked and jingled their way past clutching sticks and/or hankies.
I’d been informed by Kev in the Lower Red that the two Verulam beers were brewed to exactly the same recipes as they’d always been so there were no scoops there, but he’d also tipped me off that a brand new brew using Polish Marynka hops - which are a spicy, resinous and quite excellent hop from the Lublin area of Southeast Poland – was coming on next. I broached the subject of this beer with the barmaid who seemed amazed that a stranger walking into her pub should know what the next beer coming on was to be, especially since the pumpclip was upside down, although she informed me that it wasn't yet tapped and would follow the Taylor’s Landlord through the pumps.
Not wanting the beer enough to consider finishing the firkin of Landlord single handedly, and with the added hazard of Morris men jingling through the pub, it was time to head back to the hotel and my appointment with a mammoth evening meal – I had enough credit to have a pizza and steak, much to the amazement of the waiter – and, as I sat in my room munching the remains of said pizza, I ruminated on how little St Albans has changed in the six years since I fled to the Midlands, but what a good drinking town it still is.
Granted, St Albans is an expensive, yuppie-infested, stockbroker belt-type place with a surfeit of pretentious knobs called Tarquin or Christian who drive a “Por-she”, but there’s also a disproportionately large number of good, beery pubs for such a snobby, Tory-infested place. If anything the number of pubs worth looking in has expanded since I used to pound St Alban’s streets, and it’s now a good wander around the cream of them – I scooped eight beers and could have probably had more if I’d allowed myself sufficient time to do the lot!
So, amazingly, another positive report from me – my second in a row – and I’m now seriously worried that I’m going soft in my old age and mellowing out when I should be ratcheting up the grumpy dial in large steps. Ah well, I’m sure a visit to somewhere like Yeovil would sort me out and resurrect the cynical, miserable bastard within… watch this space! Oh, and if you don’t understand the title, let me elaborate; Saint Alban was allegedly the first Christian martyr in Britain and was beheaded for sheltering a priest. It is said that when Alban's head was eventually lopped off, it rolled down the hill where, as it came to rest, a spring burst forth at what is now Holywell Hill. So now you know.
Mermaid, 98 Hatfield Rd
Waterend Bar, Behind St Peter’s Street near the Civic Centre.
Cross Keys, 2 Chequer St
Boot, 4 Market Place
White Swan, Upper Dagnall St
Farrier’s Arms, 32 Lower Dagnall St
Verulam Arms, 41 Lower Dagnall St
Lower Red Lion, 36 Fishpool St
White Lion, 91 Sopwell Lane.
White Hart Tap, 4 Keyfield Terrace
Farmer’s Boy, 134 London Rd
© Gazza 06/06/07 v1.0