Last Updated : 29/01/06
was amazed by the phone call from work - surely there had been some mistake? I suspiciously checked my schedule and, to my surprise, there it was - Belfast for 2 days in December with an overnight hotel stop! I cackled to myself with the warm feeling that only having a trip away scooping at someone else's expense can provide - this was an opportunity to have a look round Belfast and, hopefully, scoop a few beers in the process - and all on work's account! Happy with this thought, I started planning the evening's wanderings.
A few hours later and I was less enthusiastic. My massive search for cask ale outlets had turned up less than ten in the whole city and some of these were either closed in the evening or too far out of the centre to feasibly get to in the short time I had there. Ah well, I thought, at least I'll get to scoop a Whitewater beer or two and actually drink Hilden in Northern Ireland... oh the foolishness of youth!
Thursday 8th December 2005.
The early scooper catches the plane.
The flight was early – 07:00 from Birmingham – which meant I was out of the house by 05:00. After a short 40-minute trundle along the deserted motorways I was soon on the shuttle bus from the carpark to the terminal – for what it was worth; it’s only a five-minute walk anyway, but it was spitting with rain and I just couldn’t be arsed at that time in the morning. After a constitution-bolstering espresso and cake I felt ready to board the plane and so went through security and waited patiently for the call to the gate which soon came. We all boarded the bus for a thrash over to the lines of waiting aircraft where, I hoped, I would scoop a new type of plane – at least that’s what the website had told me!
We soon arrived opposite a BAe 146, as promised, and I looked at it with distrust – surely something this small can’t fit this many people aboard? I was wrong, as usual, although the seats were a bit cosy and the lockers below the wings were ludicrously tiny. We departed bang on time and I was impressed by the ferocious acceleration of the little regional jet as we climbed towards the Irish sea into the breaking dawn which turned the horizon into an explosion of maroons, oranges and golds and transformed the wings into swirling canvases of colour as the rising sun caught them in it’s glow.
The flight had been timed for 70 minutes so imagine my surprise when, after only half an hour, we were coming in at a disconcertingly low altitude over Belfast’s eastern suburbs! City airport is a small affair, squeezed in between the mammoth cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which loom over the city like giant goalposts, and the Sydenham bypass – one of the main routes into the city. We touched down a good 35 minutes early and, as if to emphasize the point, the pilot slammed on the brakes hard – or was that to prevent us ending up in the harbour? Whatever, we were soon strolling through customs and I took a taxi to the hotel where we were working; the Holiday Inn right in the centre of the city.
There I met my co-worker and we had a good discussion about music, politics and popular culture which shortened the day somewhat and I was accused of ranting - surely not. We were swapping laptops for Co-op insurance and the job was fairly boring, enlivened only by the free cakes and coffee on offer courtesy of the hotel! Needless to say I indulged endlessly and even managed to blag a free lunch on the co-op account which, after all, is only paying them back for when I was overcharged in Worcester a few months back by 20p and couldn’t be arsed to go and complain when I found out later…
A good start...
At last we had finished work and I was free to do what I’d come here for – to scoop some beers! My first stop was the famous Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street, opposite the station and Hotel Europa – once the most bombed hotel in Europe, apparently. The outside was gloriously tiled and ornate but the inside was even grander with stained glass, a tiled floor and some superb carved wooden “compos” with closing doors – unfortunately, due to the time of day, full of locals having a great time by the sounds which came over the doors. After feasting my eyes on the Victorian grandness of my surroundings I decided I was thirsty and surveyed the bar for scoops; I was very pleased to see a pair of handpumps standing tall amongst the masses of keg fonts – and both beers were winners!
I ordered a half of each beer, Whitewater Belfast ale and Crown Glory, and started with the Belfast. It was a copper-brown beer, heavy and malty in character, with a pronounced toasty and chocolatey overtone to the malt flavour and an easy going toasty, malted barley finish. Not bad but on the other hand not interesting although, in a city with so few beers, I’d have to take what was available! I got stuck into the Crown Glory which was, unfortunately, very bland with a faint malty taste and finish but not a lot else. Ah well, there’s another two lines in the book!
According to my gen I’d culled from the internet the pub next door, the Beaten Docket, sold real ale too so I strolled in – but couldn’t see any sign of the promised beer on the predictably keg-crowded bartop so I asked the barman who knew exactly what I wanted;
“Try next door!” he said, pointing to the Crown in a well-rehearsed manner.
I took the hint and left, scratching the place off my pitifully short list of venues. I now had a choice of pubs, and did something I’d usually think of as heresy in Britain – I decided to visit Wetherspoons!
This wasn’t as bad an option as it may seem, however, as the place has been credited with making real ale more available in the city centre (although where I’m not so sure) and was rumoured to have the most handpumps in the city – four! I soon found the pub, called the Bridge House, opposite the BBC and Holiday Inn but hesitated on the doorstep as it looked very full – so full I wasn’t sure I’d actually get in through the door! After a bit of deft weaving, however, I was soon stood by the bar examining the handpumps which were dispensing Inveralmond Ossians, Caley Deuchars and Lorimer’s Special (which I flagged but, on subsequent investigation, it turns out that I require – D'oh!) so I naturally chose the micro beer and was soon in possession of a half of Ossians.
The beer was as I remember it; nutty, malty and with a dry, simple grainy taste which, whilst not being that exciting, was in decent enough condition. Owing to the crowds trooping into the pub to imbibe the cheap beer and alcopops I chose to leave after this half and head to my next pub on the list, the bar in the Linenhall library on Donegall square. I soon found it – closed! The place wasn’t the pub I’d imagined but a kind of information centre which closes at 17:30 or so at night – cheers then! I was, by now, becoming alarmed at the speed at which my list of real ale pubs was diminishing and decided it was time to play the trump card – Hilden.
Snatched from my grasp (well, I nearly touched it).
I trudged up to Donegall street (which is nowhere near Donegell square!) and soon located the bar I’d been looking forwards to – the John Hewitt, where the ultra-rare Hilden ale was sold, the only outlet apart from the brewery tap for miles around. The pub looked bright and happy sounds wafted out of the door into the cold night so in I plunged and saw, to my immense relief, Hilden ale on the sole pump… result!
“Pint of Hilden, please” I proclaimed with the kind of smugness which, with hindsight, you just know is going to result in a severe case of “getting your come-uppance”.
Predictably, the handpump bubbled, hissed and frothed as it was pulled and my confidence sank with the foam it emitted; "All this way and it’s run out on me!" I fretted internally. The barmaid apologised and said that some more would be on in 20 minutes; I decided that this was worth waiting for and settled for a swift half of Guinness as, if it’s still brewed in the province, I required that too! (now that’s desperation). Predictably, it was thin and burnt with a slight sweet fruitiness and caustic bitterness although at least I could taste it - I'd been offered the "Extra-cold" or "Original" and had gone for original as I didn't fancy having my oral temperature reduced to absolute zero by a semi-solid slush.
A barman soon appeared with the necessary bucket and proceeded to pull the beer through but I was getting anxious; the pumpclip he was going to put on didn’t look anything like a Hilden one! My fears were soon confirmed as he attached the clip – not Hilden, but Bank Top Flat cap! Now don’t get me wrong here; I really like Bank Top beers but this wasn’t what I’d come here for… The barman must have read my expression for he smiled and said,
“Don’t like Bank Top, then?”
“It’s not that!” I wailed, “I’m only here for one night and I really wanted to drink some Hilden! Is there none left in that cask you just took off?” I pleaded pathetically.
He confirmed that it was indeed empty and the Bank Top was on as Hilden had done some beer swaps with them – just my luck! Ah well, I thought, and ordered a half of the beer. Notwithstanding my intense disappointment with missing the Hilden – nay, having it snatched from my grasp – the Bank Top was excellent with a fresh, citrussy, racy hoppiness and full bitter flavour and hop oils escaping all over the place. I enjoyed the beer but still secretly wished it had been the promised Hilden… ah well, maybe next time!
The pub was showing a film about the Socialist revolution in Venezuela so I sipped my beer… and another… whilst I watched and learned that it’s not just me who dislikes Bush and his bully-boy foreign policies. Up the revolution, I say! I came away with a book on Socialist revolution (DO try this at home - are you listening, Tony?) and a good feeling about the pub and vowed to return the next time I was in town and drink the Hilden dry!
The final chance.
I was now running out of viable options so chose the best one I had left – the Kitchen Bar on Victoria square. My map showed the whole area as being “under construction” and indeed a massive hole seemed to have appeared in the city with all manner of construction hardware toiling away in the mud behind the fences – surely no pub could survive this amount of destruction? Sue's old GBG had said the pub was to be demolished but, strangely enough, several websites had maintained it had been rebuilt as before – this I had to see!
I headed for the only building visible amongst the mass of steel and arclights and saw, to my amazement, that it was indeed the Kitchen Bar, jutting out into the Somme-like crater and seemingly invincible to the onslaught of the mammoth cranes and piling machines. It took some time to find the entrance, which was along a taped-off path beside a precarious-looking fence guarding the deep crater beyond, but eventually I walked through the door and saw two handpumps gracing the bar – result!
Only one beer was available, however, and it was from a company I didn’t know a lot about – Strangford Lough brewing company. Rick’s site (and others) says it’s a retail company which sells beers brewed in England (?) under their name although they do have plans to brew themselves at some point (I've recieved an email from SLBC who state they are "in the process" of moving brewing to Ulster in partnership with Whitewater, whatever that means...!). I’d seen the beers in Booths supermarket in bottle but here was the real thing on cask! I quickly got a half of the beer, Barelegs brew 4.5%, and sampled it; “amber, bitterish and quite plain” is what I wrote which wasn’t really what I’d been hoping for.
The other pump had a turned-around clip which turned out to be Whitewater Sanity Claus at 4.5% and, when I enquired as to it’s availability, the barman kindly pulled me through a wine glass full of what turned out to be very cloudy spicy-smelling beer. I took a few sips of it, enough to work out that it was the kind of beer I don’t like at all - laden with Christmassy spices and not tasting an awful lot like beer - so I left most of it and made off into the night, happy with my winners, but still not sure about the Strangford beer as the barman had told me he didn’t think they brewed. Well, that was about me done for the evening as the other bars on my list were too far out to be worth going to at 21:15 on a Thursday night so, reluctantly, I made my way to the hotel – out by Stormont castle – and just made the last food order by 3 minutes!
The next day we had time for a quick couple of beers before our 20:45 flight so we had a couple in the Crown followed by a surprise scoop in the Christmas market - bottle-conditioned Strangford Lough (yes, them again!) St Patrick’s Ale, 6%, which was mid-brown and spicy with a good maltiness and was a lot better than the beer I’d had the previous night. This capped off my visit well and I’m already hoping for another job to crop up in Belfast; if it does then I’ll be first in the queue! I’m just hoping there’s some Hilden available next time…
Belfast isn’t a beer city – well, it isn’t a cask beer city. Almost everything is keg; Guinness (which I think is still brewed in Ulster), Bass (for some reason) and various other abominations fizzed up and forced through garishly illuminated keg fonts which jostle for attention at the bar; some bars have around 20 of these things which seem to be competing with each other for the most gaudy lighting and/or ludicrous height prize, although this is a lot like the “extended penis” analogy with most being total crap products - the bigger the font the more shite the stuff that they emit seems to be.
Cask ale is available, but you need to be prepared before you go and you need a bit of luck (Hilden…!) for the right beers to be available. It’s also an expensive city; most beers come it at around £2.75 a pint with the Crown being more expensive still; I suppose they’ve got to pay for all that Victorian pomposity somehow! Whitewater seem to have mopped up the local cask ale market with only their beers available in most bars which sell real stuff in town with the exception of Wetherspoons (Bridge House) and the John Hewitt although the beer brewed for the city, Belfast Ale, won’t impress those who love hops – it’s not a bad beer, but more of a brown ale in style than anything else I can think of.
When I told some people I was going, I received the usual jibes about “flak jackets” and the like but I found Belfast to be a friendly, easy-going place and the people sociable. Obviously walking around the Falls road late at night may not be the best suggestion for a long and healthy lifespan but as long as you act sensibly I think you’d have to be pretty unlucky to find any trouble – and there’s enough trouble around any British city centre at weekends to put that into perspective.
I travelled with FlyBE from Birmingham which is mainly a business service and priced accordingly, although some cheap offers crop up sometimes. Belfast City airport is a mere 3 miles from the centre and the Airbus 300 from the Europa bus terminus, conveniently situated opposite the Crown Liquor Saloon, goes there every 20 minutes (£1.20 single). There’s a rail station near the airport too – Sydenham – which has at least two trains an hour to the centre (City station is nowhere near the centre; you need Great Victoria Street) and a courtesy bus can be had to the station on request from the airport arrivals lounge. Beware though – Belfast International, where almost everyone else flies to, is 15 miles west in the middle of nowhere and the bus takes considerably longer – Airbus 600 services this airport also from the Europa terminus; see the plane gen section at the end for more information on who flies where. You can also take the ferry from Liverpool (Norse Merchant Ferries) or from Stranraer (if you want to drive miles to somewhere really out on a limb) with Stenaline.
Transport services around the province are operated by Translink and Ulsterbus, who mainly operate outside Belfast. There is an hourly train (called “Enterprise” for some unknown reason) which trundles between Belfast GVS and Dublin Connolly although you should reserve a seat as these services get very busy. If you want to scoop some Hilden in, then take the train to the namesake station and it’s apparently a short walk from there.
There are quite a few hotels in the centre – the Holiday Inn is on Ormeau Avenue, opposite the BBC, the Jurys Inn is on College Square close to the Crown and there’s a Travelodge on Brunswick Street behind the Crown.
Thanks must go, once again, to Chris Fudge who provided me with another great list of pubs to try and also Dave Unpronounceable who reinforced some of the suggestions. Finding gen about beer in Ulster was surprisingly difficult, hopefully this page will go some way to remedying the situation although quite how I managed to get 3,500 words out of a few beers is a mystery - me and my gibbering fingers, eh?
Pub gen (as at December 2005).
Crown Liquor Saloon, 46 Great Victoria Street, BT2 7BA. ()
Built for the inauguration of the rail service from the station opposite (which is hidden behind the Europa hotel), this classic feast of over-the-top Victoriana serves 2 cask ales from Whitewater, one a house beer. The style of the pub reminded me a lot of some of the more gaudy Edinburgh bars such as the Abbotsford and the Guildford.
Beers : Whitewater Belfast Ale 4.5% (), Crown Glory ()
Beaten Docket, 48-52 Great Victoria Street. ()
Next door to the Crown but didn’t have any real ale on and no obvious means of dispense for it. The barman’s advice was to “try next door”! Supposed to serve cask though…. Any offers?
Bridge House (Wetherspoons), 37-43 Bedford St, BT2 4HF. ()
Opposite the BBC and Holiday Inn, this busy place serves up to four cask ales although the customers are liable to be a bit raucous.
Beers : Inveralmond Ossian's Ale ()
John Hewitt, Donegall Street. (off Waring St, by St Anne’s cathedral). ()
Excellent little bar with (usually) cask Hilden ale. Be prepared for some good old-fashioned socialist, or other non-conformist, propaganda being aired!
Beers : Bank Top Flat Cap 4% ()
Kitchen Bar, 16-18 Victoria Square, BT1 4QA. ()
Rebuilt and reopened amongst the enormous crater which will become a new shopping centre, this pub has two beers on cask and a friendly welcome. Hard to find the entrance amongst all the upheaval; try along Hill Street. Two changing beers.
Beers : Strangford Lough Barelegs 4.5% (), Whitewater Sanity Claus 4.5% ()
Others I didn’t have chance to try…
Linenhall Bar, Donegall Square North. At the NW corner of the square, this is the bar in this exhibition complex and opens vaguely shop hours. Don’t know if the beer is served as it was closed when I got there.
Botanic Inn, 23-27 Malone road. A fair way south, near the Botanic gardens, but apparently does Whitewater.
McHugh's, Queen’s Square, Custom House. Claims to be Belfast's oldest pub, dating back to 1711, as well as the city's oldest remaining building. All that and it serves Whitewater too.
The King’s Head, 829 Lisburn Rd. Rougly in the same direction as the Botanic, and sounds even further out, but does two beers.
Plane gen – who flies where.
FlyBE (from City, BHD) to – Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, Manchester. Gatwick, Newcastle, Norwich and Southampton.
easyJet (from International, BFS) to – Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness (!), Liverpool, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Newcastle.
BMIbaby (from International, BFS) to – Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester, East Midlands.
Jet2 (from International, BFS) to – Blackpool (!), Leeds/Bradford.
Beer of the Trip.
Erm... the best beer I had was actually Bank Top Flat Cap! I really wanted to like one of the Irish beers better, but I didn't...
© Gazza 29/01/2006, v1.2