At the tender age of 15 I was allowed to take the National Express from Heathrow to Digbeth to visit my big brother who was at Aston University in Birmingham. Neither binge drinking or alcopops (which these days seem to have been accorded a level of false dignity by calling them ‘ready to drink’ beverages) had been invented back then so even though our parents knew we’d be straight in the pub the minute I got off the coach they had no qualms about letting me go and little fear about my safe return other than the usual paranoia mums and dads have about kids coming to harm when they are out of parental sight.
They weren’t the best days of my life – I still had a year of school to do – but I have great memories of going to pubs like The Pot of Beer, The Sacks of Potatoes and The Barrel Organ quaffing pints of Ansells bitter (if I remember correctly, alas I didn’t keep beer notes back then) and the horror of going to gigs at a subterranean club called The Kaleidoscope where they only sold nasty lager!
Birmingham seemed a bit of a rough and ready place back then, which made it rather appealing to my teenage self in search of real life, but it has changed enormously over the last couple of decades and regenerated into a modern European city with a glut of shops, restaurants and fabulous places to drink great beer – which is not only fantastic generally but feels personally very satisfying given my relationship with the place and because I always recall those teenage interludes whenever I go back.
So, Birmingham is now a brilliant destination for a bit of beer tourism or an ale-themed mini break, which is more or less what I did a few weeks ago. My first port of call was a new speciality beer bar called The Post Office Vaults, which is in New Street. As the name suggests, it’s an underground bar – but unlike the aforementioned terrible Kaleidoscope – there is plenty more on offer including eight cask ales, a selection of kegs and more than 200 bottled beers. In case you find it a bit tricky to locate, it is right next door to Greggs. As it doesn’t serve food it invites patrons to bring their own and, should you have brought something other than finger food from the aforementioned bakery, offers plates and cutlery to make the experience more civilised.
The beers it keeps are listed on its website ( and you will find the same list kept in a leather folder on the bar. On the busy Friday evening I went there I found the staff very friendly, welcoming and knowledgeable and they responded enthusiastically when they discovered I too was a bit of a beer buff.
I started off with a bottle of Odell IPA, a decent if not outstanding 7% American IPA and then indulged in a social beer sharing session with my two companions – one of whom was Birmingham’s own Beer Beauty, Marverine Cole. Indeed two of the three beers were her choice, Schneider Weisse Aventinus and Brasserie de la Seine Zinne Bir, the third being the recommendation of the manager – Brouwerij Bosteels Tripel Karmeliet. We quaffed and enjoyed and things were so convivial I made no tasting notes – but I think the Aventinus was my best of the three, perhaps because I know and love it already.
If I had to make any criticism of The Post Office Vaults it would be that their bottled beers are served rather too cold and the menu is weighted quite heavily in favour of Belgian ales, but I will confess I did not feed this back to them while I was there because the place was always so busy, from which you will be able to tell that there is much more they are doing right that wrong. In any case I suspect my gripes are minor glitches that will be ironed out in time because the Post Office Vaults is actually the baby sister of the well-established Wellington, at 37 Bennett’s Hill. This Birmingham real ale institution has 16 handpumps which it lists on a screen in the bar requesting customers order by the beer’s number Chinese takeaway style.
Its regular beers are Wye Valley H.P.A, Purity Mad Goose, Black Country Ales B.F.G, Pig on the Wall and Fireside and then there is a quickly revolving selection of guest ales.
I managed to partake of four of its guest beers over the course of a couple of visits and I think my favourite was Coastal’s 8% ‘Erosion’ a stout/porter that may have tipped me over the edge a little because reading over my notes the next day I found I had written “ Woah!” next to the ABV and “Woo! Yeah!” under other notes. Although this could also be read as a ringing endorsement of The Wellington itself.
There are few things that can persuade me away from somewhere that does fabulous beer, but one of those is an incredible curry house. Manzil in Digbeth is just that and although Birmingham is famously blessed with many fine Indian restaurants it is to Manzil I always return when I am in town (with thanks to Neil Dodd, who first introduced me to the place while we were on a New Model Army tour a few years ago). If you’ve never been to Manzil I highly recommend it; if you have I suggest we start petitioning the place to trial a few more beers as the introduction of a selection other than the usual Cobra, Kingfisher etc would take the place from being curry heaven to…Woo! Yeah! Although it isn’t far off that already.
By Sunday, I could feel the late nights catching up with me a little and so the magnificent Old Joint Stock, a Fuller’s Ale & Pie house that also houses a theatre was the perfect place to make my final Birmingham pub of the weekend – and thanks must go to Marverine for suggesting it, particularly on the basis of its fine food.
Along with its incredible décor what struck me about the place was that it offered a number of guest ales alongside the extensive variety of Fuller’s own beers. Hats off to the Chiswick brewery for this! Although I still opted for their own London Porter, a 5.4% dry, chocolatey keg beer with an almost floral aftertaste. I thought it only right to have a pie to go with my ale and opted for the shepherd’s, which was very tasty but would have benefited from a more generous filling.
Before too long it was time to get back on the train to the South West, but I’ve already got another trip to Brum booked because not only is it a great destination for its pubs it is also one of the locations for Beer Beauty’s special events for beer- curious (and beer-loving) women.
The second of these annual FemALE bashes takes place on Thursday 29th March at the swanky Malmaison Hotel in the city centre. It is organised jointly by Purity Brewing Co and the hotel and hosted by the marvellous Marverine Cole, Purity’s MD Paul Halsey and the lovely Paul Corbett of Charles Faram the hop merchants.
The evening will be a glamorous celebration of beer, bringing home the message (for those women not already in the know) that there is SO MUCH MORE TO BEER than jars of fusty, brown sock water put away by old men in flat caps or pints of ‘wife beater’ chucked down the necks of lager louts.
So, ladies, get yourselves to Birmingham for a night of gourmet beer and tapas – six beers matched with six dishes – in one of the city’s most fashionable hotels with a goody bag to take home. Just £25 for a ticket – which is pretty bargainous for beer, food and a goody bag. In fact, once you’ve got a taste for beer why not make a weekend of it and check out some of the fine hostelries I’ve mentioned above?
I don’t need an excuse for a trip to Birmingham but I think this event is great reason to go back.
- To book tickets to the FemALE event visit the Malmaison website: http://www.malmaison.com/hotels/birmingham/local-events.aspx
With thanks to Rachel Woolgar-Leason for her photos of Marv & me and The Old Joint Stock, her marvellous company in Brum and her growing enthusiasm for great beer!