3 July 2008

Seeking Out the Ales in Lager Land

Last Friday, in a moment of what I can only assume was passing madness, I decided to make a long overdue journey along the length of the Narborough Road and Braunstone Gate, Leicester, to see whether any of the bars along the route are quietly selling real ale…

The Narborough Road area is very much the social hub for students from the DeMonfort University, and has a prolific spread of trendy bars catering to the young and the cool; it also has a reputation as something of an ale desert (with the exception of the Black Horse, reviewed in my “Leicester Missions” entry, and the Pump & Tap – more on that later).

I kicked off with a visit to Loaf Bar & Restaurant, a pleasant venue with bar upstairs and restaurant downstairs, situated on the corner of Braunstone Gate and Western Boulevard.

The focus here is primarily on food and cocktails – though the wine list is pretty decent too. The bar has a solitary handpump dispensing Marston’s Pedigree, which I sampled and found to be in pretty good condition, though I suspect they may have lost their hop filter given the bits of hop flower floating around in my half!

Upon enquiring I was informed that the Pedigree is their permanent ale, which is a bit of a shame but perhaps not surprising – it makes sense for them to go with something they know will sell consistently and that most people will recognise … mind you, at £2.80 a pint it’s not somewhere I’d be keen to drink unless I happened to be out for a meal.

This is a pleasant little place, with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. The decor is pleasant and suits the ambience of the place – it’s easy to see why it’s so popular.

It had been my intention to move on from here to the George Mason, a two-tiered bar and restaurant next door to Loaf with a reputation for decent, contemporary live music, however since losing their chef the place has been closed for the last week or so.

This place started selling real ale from 2 handpumps in October last year – originally dispensing Grainstore Cooking and Timothy Taylor Landlord, however peering through the barred doors revealed only one handpump with a pump clip, and that sadly turned out to be Hardy & Hanson (GK) Best Bitter.

I will be popping in here the next time I’m down the Narb’ and will reserve judgement until then…

With the George Mason out of the picture I decided to cross the road and see what the O Bar had to offer.

This 2 storey pub, part of the small Orange Tree chain (pubs in Leicester, Loughborough and Nottingham), is another with a strong cocktail focus – however they also offer a selection of the more commercial draught continental beers (Becks Vier, Starapromen, Leffe etc) plus a draught
kriek (Belle Vue), one real cider and one guest ale, both of which are on rotation.

On my visit the ale option was Caledonian Deuchars IPA, and although the dispense was a little warm the beer itself was on good form, nice and clear and served without a sparkler – something of a rarity in this part of town!

The pub itself is open plan on the ground floor, with comfortable seating and the kind of décor that the younger, student set seem to go for. Upstairs are the (rather nice) toilet facilities and more comfortable seating. The upper floor is divided into two rooms with the usual sofas, seats and tables that have become de rigeur for places like this.

The pub has Happy Hour prices on their cocktails every day from open ‘til 8pm, and if that’s not enough to get the students tanked up they can apply for a free loyalty card which extends this pricing strategy to cover all hours of business – so nice to see another place doing its bit to encourage responsible drinking eh?!

From the O bar I decided it was time to move off the Braunstone Gate and venture further up the Narborough, into the territory which I had always regarded as a real ale wasteland.

As it stands, “wasteland” is perhaps a little strong – there are actually a couple of places up here offering options for the ale drinker, but don’t expect anything too exciting and be prepared to run away if necessary...

First on the list was the Nine Bar, perhaps the dodgiest name for a pub that I’ve come across in a long time. Situated on the Narborough Road itself, this place used to have a slightly dubious reputation, although I believe that things have been turned around somewhat.

The building comprises a ground floor bar with seating area looking on to the street, decorated with urban art by local artists – plenty of graffiti and ghetto influence here – with the bar done out quite strikingly in a matt silver, a theme followed on the swan neck clips; no instant brand recognition here, you actually have to look and read.

As with most of the bars in this area there are some of the “trendier” common lagers available (Becks, Kronenbourg and San Miguel) plus a range of cocktails and selected continental bottled beers.

There is also an underground area accessible from the bar via stairs. This houses pool tables and plays host to dj’s and the like at weekends. Outside is a cordoned area with covered seating for the smoking community.

Sadly the only ale on offer here is Pedigree again, and this is a permanent fixture. I sampled a swift half, dispensed through a sparkler, and found the condition to be average and a little warm.

At £2.60 a pint this place is a fair bit cheaper than Loaf, but the beer condition isn’t as good and the surroundings are somewhat less conducive to a pleasant drinking session. Of the two I know where I’d sooner be.

Leaving Nine Bar I made my way up to the outermost pub on my itinerary, the Huntsman, situated a fair way up the Narborough.

Part of the Trust Inns chain, this managed house is a very traditional boozer frequented primarily by the more rough and ready lager drinking blokes in the area – think petty criminals and tattoos basically. The pub sits on a slight rise, set back from the road. This gives it a similar aspect to the Bates Motel in Psycho – only somewhat more menacing...

The décor is very sparse and a little tired; I don’t think there’s been a refurbishment here in a long time. The interior layout hasn’t been messed around with anywhere near as much as so many other pubs – if it wasn’t such a rough place there’d be massive potential here. Naturally there’s a pool table, darts, gambling machines and Sky Sports, plus the usual commercial lager options – everything that the typical drinker in here could possibly want!

It’s certainly not somewhere I’d feel comfortable drinking in the evening, or over a weekend - it’s easy to imagine the icy silence that would descend on the place if I walked in on a busy night; we’ve all seen those classic moments in the western movies – however fortunately this was the middle of a Friday afternoon and, although there was a contingent of loud and rather unsavoury looking types drinking here, they were all sat outside while I had gone with the indoor option.

Although this really isn’t my kind of drinking establishment the bar man proved a very friendly, chatty individual and I had a very pleasant conversation with him.

Beer options were limited to Tetley Bitter and Theakston’s Mild, both of which are from keg rather than cask. Despite my strong reservations on the keg ale subject, I nevertheless sampled the Theakston’s and found it drinkable enough – for all it’s faults, this pub does at least keep clean lines.

Finishing my beer I decided it was time to head back down and finish my roaming with a visit to the Pump & Tap, situated just off Braunstone Gate on Duns Lane.

This is a pleasant little place, set on its own and backing onto the arches of the Great Central Railway. The pub is split into 2 rooms which run parallel to one another, with a small, central bar serving both sides.

Refurbished a couple of years ago, the interior décor is tasteful and quite modern, with flat screen tv’s showing sports as required or pleasant screen savers (tropical fish for example). The ubiquitous sofas make an appearance here too.

To the rear is a well sized beer garden, partially set beneath the arches, which ensures you can stay dry even in the rain. The beer garden is laid out on wooden decking, with a large fish tank containing gold fish set in the middle. Suspended from the ceiling of the arch is brewing equipment – a nice touch.

As with the other pubs in the area, the range here is not overly exciting and sourced from the bigger breweries. Four handpumps are available, with three “core” beers and a rotating guest. On my visit I found the core range (Greene King IPA and Abbot plus St. Austell Tribute) with the guest taking the form of Deuchars IPA.

Faced with this uninspiring selection I opted for the St. Austell, which I found to be in reasonable condition albeit rather on the warm side. Prices were again a little on the high side at £2.60, although a large glass of pepsi (best part of a pint) set me back a mere £1.35.

The Pump enjoys a very strong following amongst the more mature live music fans, both for the music nights that it hosts itself and as a pre-gig venue for events at the Music Café across the road.

Sadly the future of the pub, and the railway bridge behind it, are under serious threat due to planned demolition and redevelopment. Despite an ongoing petition it appears pretty much a certainty that the pub will soon close.

Finishing my beer I shouldered my rucksack and set off for home, reflecting on my findings during the course of the afternoon.

It had certainly been an interesting little foray, and reasonably productive; one thing is for certain though: there may be a couple of places on and around the Narborough Road dispensing real ales but, frankly, if you’re either a serious ale fan or a scooper there’s nothing to tempt you. Why bother wasting your money on overpriced, mass produced commercial rubbish when we have so many truly fine ale houses within the city centre?


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