3 June 2008

Leicester Missions - Four Hours, Six Pubs

I'd been looking forward to the Dark Star tour myself until recently, however a change in the date of the visit meant that I was sadly unable to attend thanks to the very inconvenient timing of my sister's wedding - seriously, some people just have no consideration!

Finding myself thus encumbered with the role of Usher while my cohorts were merrily quaffing it off, I set to work planning some small personal compensation in the form of a mini crawl around my native Leicester. Fortunately I had the Beer Monster with me, so quality company was not going to be an issue...

Having made it through the pre-wedding dinner on Friday night, the wedding and subsequent reception on Saturday - a delightful affair despite the fact that the hotel had run out of their only ale (Theakston's Best Bitter) and no one had been down to the cellar to replace it, with the result that we ended up consuming a truly vast quantity of Hardy's Stamp Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon - and the post-wedding barbeque the following day, we returned to Leicester late on the Sunday afternoon and decided that, realistically, any attempt at hitting the town that night was likely to result in two people falling asleep in their beer. Accordingly we decided to get some solid shut eye and gird ourselves for the following day.

As it transpired, the weekend's emotional and physical excesses had drained the pair of us more than we'd realised. As a result a large chunk of Monday had elapsed before we roused ourselves from our slumber and we ventured out, bleary eyed, to greet the rather grey and overcast world...

After lining our stomachs with burgers from my local TJ's Burgers & Kebabs (damn fine chilli sauce!) we finally reached our first pub, the Black Horse on Braunstone Gate at approximately 6pm - rather unfortunate since we needed to back home for 10.45 and the start of the Apprentice special!

This Everards pub is a classic victorian boozer, divided by the bar into two seperate drinking areas; from the front door you enter the lounge area, with comfortable seating and tables. This area is also used for live bands at weekends, the pub being a haven for blues-based bands. The rear bar, which is much more of a traditional drinking area, can be accessed from the lounge or directly from the street via a side entrance. This bar is popular with the older regulars, is much smaller than the lounge and generally has more of an atmosphere.

Although a managed house, the licensee has a strong commitment to real ale and offers up to four guest ales on handpump selected from the Everard's Old English Ale Club in addition to the usual Everards range, plus guests sourced from Brunswick Brewery, which was bought out by Everards in 2002. The pub also offers Carling and Kronenbourg 1664 for the lager massive and Westons Old Rosie from handpump for the battery acid heads.
On our visit we found Gold from the Purity brewery alongside Marston's Merrie Monk and Brunswick Gaffer's Gold on offer; all three were sampled, and the condition was found to be good but let down slightly by temperature. Both the Monk and the Gaffer's were rather warmer than one would hope, while the Gold suffered the reverse and was rather to cold - evidently there are some problems with the ambient temperature in the cellar here.

Nevertheless, the Black Horse is well worth a visit; the commitment of the landlord to real ale can only be applauded, and temperature issues aside you are always guaranteed a decent pint of something worth drinking in here. The bar maid is very friendly and helpful, and this is now the only traditional pub in an area overrun by soulless modern bars.

Departing from the Black Horse we made our way a short distance up the road to the Western on Western Boulevard - formerly one of the more rough and ready inclusions within the Everards portfolio, recently bought up by the Steamin' Billy Brewing Co. and now a fully renovated and refurbished up market establishment.

Situated on the corner of Western Boulevard, this imposing red brick pub is divided into two large rooms, both accessible from the front door. Turning right takes you into the main bar, which itself comprises two distinct areas. This area is furnished with comfortable seating and tables, and is light, airy and spacious.

Turning left through the front door takes you into the larger of the two rooms, comprising a bar and dining area furnished with dark wood tables and chairs. The pub offers a tempting menu of bar snacks, light bites and pub grub along with traditional Italian style pizzas, although we didn't dine there on this occasion.

Both rooms are decorated with eye catching breweriana, though for my taste the layout is a little too clinical - I like things a little more organic in their arrangement, but that's just nit-picking really!

We decided to do our drinking in the front bar, and were pleased with the selection of four ales on offer - two Steamin' Billys, a Leeds Brewery and a Leatherbritches; after brief deliberation we opted to sample the Leatherbritches Dr. Johnson's and the Steamin' Billy Billy Porter. Both were found to be in very good condition, although the dispense was a litlle on the cold side.

The transformation which the Steamin' Billy team have worked on this place is quite remarkable - in its former days it was very much a pub of ill reputation, and it is quite unrecognisable now; the hilariously ghetto car on the other side of the street gives a fairly good idea of the kind of area it is!

I was delighted to learn that there will be a beer festival taking place at the pub over the weekend, commencing Thursday and ending on Sunday ... needless to say, I will be there and will post on it shortly afterwards.

After finishing our drinks at the Western we made our way up through the DeMontfort University to the Leicester Gateway, part of the Castle Rock estate situated on Gateway Street.
If you can get past the less than inspiring exterior the inside of the pub is quite pleasant; formerly a hosiery factory, this single room, open plan drinking establishment with its pool table, jukebox, low cost food and range of draught continental lagers now caters primarily to the student market. Luckily for us though this was a Monday night and, as a reult, we were able to enjoy the place in relative peace and quiet.

An impressively long bar offers nine handpumps, of which one is dedicated to Westons Old Rosie; of the remaining eight we found the ale range a little limited on our visit, though I'm given to understand that there are usually more micro brews on offer.
Faced with a choice of seven nationals inluding Banks's Bitter, Caledonian Deuchars IPA, Shepherd Neame Spitfire and Marston's Pedigree with one micro option in the form of Overture from Spire Brewery it wasn't a difficult choice - we bought in the Spire and took a seat.

As we were feeling a little peckish by this point we opted for a £2 bowl of chips, which I have to say were very good and a generous portion to boot. It being a rather quiet evening the bar man charged up the jukebox and then informed us there were fifteen free plays and to help ourselves - he may have come to regret this given that I found a tasty selection of early 90's Old Skool to get my teeth into!

Although we spent only a short time in here, and despite the lack of excitement ale-wise, I still found myself pleasantly surprised by the Gateway; the ale was well kept and the dispense good - the bar man had no qualms about removing the sparkler, and the atmosphere was very pleasant.

I'd certainly recommend a stop here for anyone doing a real ale crawl around the city - and if you can time it when the students aren't around so much the better!

From the Gateway it was a short stroll around the corner to the Swan & Rushes on the corner of Infirmary Square, and a pub for which I have a great deal of admiration.

Divided into two distinct rooms, the Swan comprises a main 'L' shaped bar area and smaller lounge, with both rooms served from the same central bar. The lounge is used to host live music
on Saturday nights (usually blues-based) and is also frequented by the Leicester Ultimate Frisbee team. To the rear of the building is a small courtyard / beer garden which also houses the stillage and external bar at the beer festivals which the pub regularly holds.

The Swan is held in high regard by local ale afficionados on two counts, firstly for it's consistently excellent quality of real ale and secondly for its extensive range of bottled foreign beers, which includes german kolsches, bocks, dunkels, rauchbieres and the occasional altbiere alongside Belgian Abbaye and Trappiste brews and a good range of lambics. The pub also stocks a selection of American bottled craft beers, Czech Budvar, Polish Tyskie and Thatchers single varietal bottled ciders.

Those with an eye for breweriana will notice that the emphasis here is on Belgian material, particularly lambic and Orval, for which the owner is one of the UK ambassadors - there's certainly a lot in here to take in!

Complementing the extensive bottled range the Swan also offers twelve handpumps dedicated to real ale, although some of these share the same barrel. In addition to pub stalwarts JHB and Bishops Farewell from Oakham Ales you will usually find either Bateman's XB or Samuel Smiths Old Brewery Bitter and up to six guest ales - strictly no nationals.

For those with a taste for draught lager there is a choice of Amstel or Heineken Export or, for those of a more adventurous palate Het Anker's Margriet and a choice of Lefebvre's Blanche de Bruxelles or Babar is also available from the tap. Draught cider lovers have a choice too with either Samuel Smiths Cider Reserve or a 6-8% battery acid option available from the cellar.

During our visit we sampled Newton's Drop from Oldershaw and Inclined Plane from the Langton Brewery. As anticipated both were in tip top condition and served at optimum temperature.

Unlike most city pubs, the Swan & Rushes has no jukebox, fruit machines or pool table - although there is a much loved and well used bar billiards table. It's a measure of the care and attention given to the beer that vinegar is not used or permitted in the pub!

Finishing our ales we left the Swan and walked the short distance up the road to her former sister pub the Criterion, situated on the corner of Millstone Lane.
You might be forgiven for thinking, based on outside appearance, that this is a rather rough and ready pub; the reality however could not be further from the truth, and a trip inside is well worth the effort.

Divided into two rooms, each with its own bar, the Cretin as it's affectionately known draws a broad mix of people from all walks of life. The basic, wooden floored front bar contains a dart board, hosts regular live (and quite heavy) music and is often closed to the public for private bookings, monthly CAMRA meetings and suchlike.

The carpeted and more comfortable lounge bar is popular with students and professionals alike and houses the pub's jukebox; a tendency towards rock and alternative within the playlist reflects the establishments strong ties to this demographic - the pub is just around the corner from Leicester's leading alternative venue The Charlotte and is a popular pre-gig venue. In terms of decor and fittings, the pub offers traditional dark wood tables, cushioned pew-type seats and stools and is pleasantly decked out with a similar range of breweriana to the Swan - a legacy of the former owner.

On our visit we found a selection of seven real ales on offer - two from the Rugby Brewing Co. who now own the pub, two from Oakham Ales and one apiece from Dark Star, Rudgate and Coastal. In addition to the real ales there are ever changing draught german and belgian beers, a draught cider and usually a real cider to boot - plus a solid selection of bottled foreign beers which almost rivals that of the Swan & Rushes.

The Criterion also hosts regular, themed beer festivals which are usually well worth a visit.
We decided to stay for a couple here, sampling Rugby Cement, Dark Star Mild for May and Oakham Inferno. All were found to be in good form and served at the correct temperature, which I was pleased to find; there have been some problems with conditioning here recently, however it looks as though these may have been resolved.

Food is served at the Criterion, however the pub is best known for its stonebaked Italian style pizzas; sadly these are not available on Monday evenings, but from previous experience they're certainly well worth trying and are exceedingly well priced.

Having finished our beers off we decided there was just enough time remaining for us to hit one more pub, so it was up and off again, this time roughly twenty five yards down the road to the Rutland & Derby - one the new school of Everards pubs.

Until a couple of years ago the Rutland was a very seedy boozer, catering to the less salubrious town centre drinkers; a massive refit and refurbishment has transformed the place into a very trendy drinking establishment. The large, heated courtyard to the rear has seating for a sizeable number of people and makes the pub a popular destination in winter and summer alike.

As a rule this is a venue I tend to avoid, catering as it does primarily to the younger crowd of Up Fer It types - a fact reflected by the strong range of chilled continental lagers and fruit beers available on draught (including krieks and frambozens). There's also a very impressive selection of spirits on the backbar counter - the pub offers cocktails, shooters and all those blended concoctions the kids go crazy for, and as a result is usually heaving from Wednesday night onwards.

On my previous visits I've found the range of real ale rather limited - the usual Everards brews and a selection of nationals such as Greene King IPA and Old Speckled Hen; on this occassion however there were two offerings from the Titanic brewery available and a special, one off ale, brewed by the licensee himself (I'm assuming this was brewed at the Brunswick brewery, though I can't be sure).
Time was very much against us by this point, however we stayed long enough to try this interesting little find (David's Coppernob, 4.5%) and found the beer to be in surprisingly good condition - in my previous experience line cleanliness and beer conditioning has left a fair bit to be desired, however it seems that the current licensee knows how to run a cellar.

I'll certainly be popping back in here again, though as with the Gateway, serious real ale fans may find it better to visit during the day or early in the week.

All in all then a successful mission ... and we made it back in time for the Apprentice!



  1. Nice write up. I get to Leicester fairly often and have blogged about it a few times. Intersted in your comments re The Criterion:

    a) I didn't know it is owned Rugby Brewery - when did that happen?

    b) I've never found quality to be an issue. Is Russell still there? I've not been in for a few months.

  2. Maeib,

    Many thanks for your comment, nice to receive a compliment from a true pro! Sorry for my delayed response but I've been having some technical issues at this end.

    Up until a few months ago the Criterion was owned by the Pig Pub Co. who have now been bought out by Rugby - hence the new affiliation. Russell does still work there, although unfortunately there have been some real grumbles from Leicester's ale fraternity of late concerning slipping standards and poor conditioning.

    Hopefully this will prove to be a temporary blip - the Criterion has been the stand-out pub in Leicester for a good 3 or 4 years now and it would be very sad to see it slip. My last couple of visits show that the beer range is increasing again and conditioning has improved, possibly in response to the aforementioned grumbles.

    One place that has blossomed recently, however, is The Queen Victoria on Southampton Street, close to the station. Unusual ales (5 new beers come on every Friday) and well worth a look next time you're Leicester-way.


  3. When next in Leicester I suggest you try one of best
    pubs in Leicester as since it has changed hands it has vastly improved.

  4. Used to drink in the Black Horse and Western in the mid 80s both were great pubs then. The western used to be overrun by local Hells Angels which made it an interesting place for a beer. I really must drop in next time I'm in Leicester. I believe Len who used to run the Black Horse dies a couple of years back...sad loss. He was a good bloke who was years ahead of his time when it came to 24 hour drinking!!!! Does anybody know if the Bowling Green is still open? or the Princess Charlotte?


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Add to Google Add us to your Google Homepage or Google Reader