The Craft City Line

We’ve been out drinking for about six hours, we’ve lost a lot of people and one of us is bleeding. In a few minutes one of us is going to try to pick a row with a train driver. I am cool hunting in the suburbs of Birmingham, and it’s going poorly.

train

Here are two things that are hot right now: craft beer, and Birmingham.

So hot are these two things that when The Guardian ran yet another piece a piece on how Birmingham is cool now, craft beer formed a central part of its thesis:

“Two years ago, you struggled to get a pint of real ale, let alone craft beer, in most of Birmingham. Now, from Colmore Row, down John Bright Street, to Digbeth, the city centre is awash in the stuff. It’s as if a phalanx of hipsters, fleeing London’s housing market, have swept up the West Coast mainline to alight at New Street.”

Now that’s not true (we’ve had real and craft beer for at least two and a half years*) but it doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. If craft beer is a measure of how cool a place is, then just how cool is Birmingham? And what would be a fair test?

I’ve got an idea.

All aboard

It takes just 47 minutes by train to get from Blake Street to Kings Norton on the Cross City Line. The return journey will take me a lot longer as I’ll be jumping off every time there’s an interesting boozer, which for the purposes of this project means every time that there’s a craft beer bar nearby. This isn’t the full run of the Cross City Line, but it does take me from the northern-most station that’s within Birmingham to the deep, deep South; another two stops and six more minutes on a London Midland run British Rail Class 323 EMU and I’d be at Longbridge, which is the polar opposite to Blake Street — the last Birmingham station before you break out into Worcestershire. “Basically” says Stu, here as my nominated beer expert for this trip “this is two stops shy of a complete run of the Centro Supported Area”. I eye him darkly; we need to start drinking, work off all this train geekery.

Neil joins us at Bournville (alight here for Cadbury’s World, the tourist friendly signs say) which is near his house. He’s my local history expert today. I go running with Neil quite a lot and he often organises our routes to take us past pieces of public art that I never knew existed, mostly because they’ve been hidden in really stupid places. His need to teach me about the world gives him the air of a cool uncle.

It’s good that Neil joined us here as we’re now just one stop from Kings Norton and neither me nor Stu know what we’re doing or where we’re going when we are down this way. “Kings Norton — Alight here for Cotteridge Wines”. The signs don’t say that but, as I’m about to learn, they probably should.

Cotteridge Wines

Neil, as tour guide, is trying to land some quick wins as we walk through Kings Norton’s compact centre to the Pershore Road and then on to Cotteridge Wines. Straight away he points out a chip shop in Kings Norton, called Sophie’s Choice, and that’s it: we’re all off on the banter bus, and we’ve found the day’s level.

Kings Norton gives seamlessly to Cotteridge: I don’t see the join in the lovely Victorian terraces.

“And here’s Cotteridge Fine Foods” our guide says “They’ve been threatening to open for several years but haven’t managed it yet. I particularly like what they’ve done with the access ramp here.”

Neil points to an accessibility ramp on the front of this as yet unopened deli. It takes me a while to see what they’ve done, why it amuses Neil. The ramp affords access to fine foods, sure, but it’s been built across the front of another access ramp, on the neighbouring shop, rendering it totally unaccessible. This, then, is the Cotteridge vibe I think — a little ad hoc, a little thrown together with no real plan. It’s not clear where Cotteridge really is and whilst the architecture is solid, 120 year old, Victoriana the place itself feels a little ad hoc. Shabby chic? Avant-garde? Bohemian? Or just not really sorting its shit out properly? I think it’s the latter. It seems unlikely that we’ve arrived at the centre of something cool or hip as we walk down Pershore Road, dodging the dog poo, but we have: we’re at the centre of the Craft Beer Universe, we have arrived at a genuine tourist destination.

“People come up from London to buy from me” says Jaz Kandola, “they come from all over for my stock and because of my prices.”

We’re in the tasting room, a new little pub out the back of Cotteridge Wines’ well established shop. It’s pretty rustic out here. There is no natural light, and we stand on concrete floors, amidst white-washed walls. The kegs are on the floor behind the bar. We’re basically drinking in a cellar. I fucking love it.

“There’s been an off license here as long as there’s been a building. 120 something years.” Jaz says, pointing to a picture behind the bar which shows this building as it was in… well in black and white days. He runs Cotteridge Wines with his brother, Kal. As he explains the back story of the shop it becomes clear to me that they fell into craft beer by accident but quickly realised they were onto a good thing and embraced it. Starting out might have been an accident, but their response to it was shrewd. These guys are smart. Out front, in the shop, the choice is simply stunning and the prices, well they are definitely worth making a trip in a van for, worth making a booze cruise up the M40 from London or down from Sutton Coldfield come to that. It’s not surprising then that this shop, which from outside is a pretty unassuming off license on a pretty unassuming street, has been named the bottle shop of the year for two years in a row.

In the tasting room we have the first round down us: something by the Kernel, a To-OL Cloud 9 wit and a Brodie’s Clementine. We need to pace ourselves but we can’t resist one for the road (a Mikkeller single hop simcoe, a couple of Magic Rock High Wires). We drink these far too quickly because I have planned the itinerary with military precision and we must get the train in 6 minutes time.

What’s on?

In the tasting room there are 14 taps being rotated regularly. Bring a growler to fill up and take home, or buy a glass (1/3 of a pint, from £1.50) and take a seat. In the shop: just all of the beers, basically. All the things you know and love. All the things you’ve never tried. If you like beer you’ll be pleased you came.

Cotteridge Wines, 1825 Pershore Rd, Birmingham, West Midlands B30 3DN. Tel: +44 121 458 2839. Twitter: @cotteridgewines

The British Oak

We make our train just fine and we’re back off to Bournville. I am a master of project planning.

On your way out of Kings Norton look out for the famous skateboard ramps at Cotteridge Park, where graffiti meets middle class healthy eating messages, where the half pipe bears tags like ‘quinoa’, ‘lentils’ and ‘small batch organic’ or some such.

I’ll be glad to get out of the South, to be honest.

Now Bournville famously has no pubs but we’re walking over into Stirchley, to the British Oak. We are expecting we might pick up a few extra travellers here, and Neil’s partner is bringing the kids up to say hello, too. I feel bad about this as I’ve allowed a mere 15 minutes drinking time.

The main things of note near here are the Cadbury factory which we walk past, and the area behind it which I learn locals call ‘Little London’ because the streets are all named after squares on the Monopoly Board. Once again, it’s basically all Victorian architecture. The old swimming baths are getting rebuilt, repurposed as some sort of business centre. Nice, I guess, as it’s all been boarded up for a long time, but a shame it’s not being regenerated as a lovely olden time swimming baths. The British Oak lies just across from there, on the Pershore Road again. We could have walked here really and if you want foam cut to size and such like then do enjoy a walk down the Pershore Road for yourself.

When we arrive there are indeed some of our Internet friends waiting for us, and Neil’s family too. There are also some men who want to watch football. The pub hasn’t opened yet. “It’s like Eastenders, when they’re all waiting outside knocking on the door for the Vic to open” one of the newcomers quips. I laugh, but I’m worried about the time and I’m worried that Neil has been obsessing about crisps all of the way here. We don’t have time for this.

By the time the door opens there is just ten minutes drinking time left according to my plan. My rag tag bunch of public sector office workers and small children are very slow off the mark and the collection of bald headed men (an extended family of Mitchell brothers, perhaps) is at the bar quickly getting in a round of lots of Carling. Wise move really; they can tell that we are going to be a fucking disaster when we finally get to the bar, and they’re surviving: they are the bar fittest.

We’re finally at the bar, we have to negotiate what happens in the newly enlarged round and we need to find out the crisp flavours. My schedule is done for.

“I’m going to the toilet. Someone buy me a beer and you all let me know if we are leaving on time or waiting here for an extra half hour” I say as a I flounce out.

“We’ve decided” the foreman of their jury tells me when I return “that we’ll stay here a while”.

Second pub and the wheels have come off. This isn’t good.

“White IPA” says Stu, pointing at my beer, a bottle by a company called Bear Hug “White IPA is the beer this year, that’s the new saison”. I drink my white IPA far too quickly and I’m caught in limbo as there’s not enough time for me to get another drink but there’s far too long to sit here not drinking. I tell them all that I need to write my notes and I go to another table. Bastards.

So what was the point of this fifteen minutes (now 45 minutes) little stop off? Well, mostly to look at how the rise of craft beer is filtering out into this sort of place: your average community pub. This is a decent enough place, really. It’s clean, it serves the area (with football, with Carling). The building is nice though the overall setting it’s in isn’t so great. And now one of the things it has to do is offer craft beer. Mostly so that people like us — civil servants, university staff, and a guy who works for Tim Berners-Lee’s Quango — can get a drink that doesn’t offend their delicate sensibilities too much.

I’m too bitter about running late to tell you if I enjoyed my white IPA or not, but apparently it’s cool right now so I guess it’s good for my credentials to say it’s nice. I’m glad we came, but I’m relieved to be back on our way. Next stop: the city centre.

What’s on?

Roast Ox crisps. Carling. A bell jar with a candle in it that has “craft beer” written on it in crayon because reasons. The football. A range of bottled beers some of which are OK, most of which you already know. There’s a rumour, Neil tells me, that there will be kegs of craft soon.

The British Oak, 1364 Pershore Rd, Birmingham, West Midlands B30 2XS

The beautiful green wasteland

Back to Bournville station, the only station on the line where metalwork and other architectural fittings aren’t painted in the London Midland railway green and yellow — instead they’re in proud Cadbury purple.

We’re going to skip a few stops on the line, so let me tell you what you’re missing. We’re passing through the environs of Birmingham University, served by Selly Oak and University stations, and then heading into Edgbaston (which was served by the now closed Somerset Road and Church Road stations). This will be the prettiest view that we get from the train today. The Cross City Line runs close to the Worcester and Birmingham Canal here, the two transport links mirroring one another as they gently wind their way towards town. Tourists take narrow boat rides down here from the city centre, as far as The Vale — the large and very green student village that serves Brum Uni. We’re passing through because that trickle down of craft beer to community pubs hasn’t hit student land yet. A little further over in Harborne we’d have had better luck, but the train doesn’t go close enough to there to make it worth a look.

Up town

The plan for town is to get off at Five Ways and then move through town towards the next Cross City Line station (Birmingham New Street) making a few stops at some city centre pubs, the ones that the broadsheet newspapers have noticed.

Five Ways is near Broad Street and Brindley Place. Broad Street is our traditional British Friday night piss up High Street, the sort of street that features in grave segments on the evening news about young people today — all girls passed out next to bins, and lads in tight white shirts looking at each other funny; Brindley Place on the other hand is where people who would normally be on Broad Street go when they are on a date. I met my wife on Broad Street and we started our first date off with a quick half at All Bar One, Brindley Place. None of these places are on the itinerary today, but we’ll be five minutes away, tucked into a strange conflagration of warehouses, decrepit office spaces and swanky new apartment buildings.

The Craven Arms

We’re going to the Craven Arms, and we’re expecting to meet another new arrival there, M. M has been expecting us for more than half an hour. When we finally get to the Craven I’m the only one who apologises to him for our tardiness.

Some sights along the way: we walked past (or over) Birmingham’s hidden Jewish Cemetery and we walked around Birmingham’s Peace Gardens. The Peace Gardens are interesting and quite lovely in themselves but I learn today from my companions that they were moved, and rebuilt, brick by brick, from the bottom of Broad Street, presumably because you can’t get much peace when someone is stood next to you telling Darren to leave it because he’s not worth it and you can’t reflect when a guy in a white shirt is being loudly sick into a bin (next to which a girl is passed out). And then: the Craven itself, surely the most handsome pub frontage in Birmingham.

The Craven is part of Black Country Ales. That means it’s all a bit CAMRA. Now I’ve not got much time to go into all the beer politics stuff but a lot of people are still a little obsessed with how a beer makes it’s final mile and then it’s very final few metres to the tap. And of course they are, because they’ve been trained to make their beer choice a matter of distinction. So the CAMRA lot — the Campaign for Real Ale — lobbied for years for real ale, which is beer that’s still ‘alive’ and developing in a cask when it arrives at the pub. Historically that movement was about pushing back at the large commercial brewers who were forcing high margin shitty beers on people. The craft beer people send their beers to pubs in kegs. The beer is finished and ready to pour, and it is kegged so that it will last well and be just as the brewer intended. Historically that movement was about pushing back at the large commercial brewers who were forcing high margin shitty beers on people. Back at Cotteridge Wines, Jaz laid down the law on this, cutting through all the bullshit cleanly:

“Craft beer doesn’t really mean nothing. Good beer! It should be about good quality beer, whether it’s keg, cask, whether it’s brewed in Birmingham or London… if it’s good it’s good.”

Absolutely Jaz, but today is all about craft beer for me. And the Craven has a good selection of that too. It has a slightly more CAMRA-famous sister pub, The Wellington, down in town but I much prefer the Craven: the building is prettier, the inside is much lighter, and the staff have a good taste in music. Last time I was here they played Idlewild all night. I don’t say much to anyone in this pub today as I’m busy singing along to Carter USM’s 1992 The Love Album which is being played in its entirety.

We have time here for one drink and then we are off to somewhere that screams “CRAFT” at you.

What’s On?

Lots of cask ale, a few craft kegs, and plenty of interesting bottled craft beer. Great indie music but all albums are played through in full and you can’t change them. There should be cobs, but there were none today.

The Craven Arms, Upper Gough St, Birmingham, West Midlands B1 1JG

Brewdog

Birmingham’s Brewdog bar lies on John Bright Street, which is right behind New Street station. In a city of a thousand quarters, John Bright Street has become the Craft Beer one.

Things move in cycles, we know this. John Bright Street was already tailing off when I moved here in the 90s, and it spent the first decade of this millennium with only two landmark businesses: a “strip super club” and a sexual health clinic. Now it boasts a holy trinity of hip pubs: The Victoria, under The Alexendra Theatre, local hero Cherry Reds, and craft beer giant Brewdog. Behind them more restaurants and bars are emerging. These hipster pubs have regenerated this little pocket of town, just behind the mainline train station.

There is a schism in the group. Stu and I feel we need to do Brewdog to get this right, that it is important for the story, everyone else wants to go to Cherry Reds because they serve better food. I’m on rails even when I’m not on the train, so I go to Brewdog, because I must serve the story. Also the group tension gives good narrative, doesn’t it?

Brewdog’s interior design is a corporate simulacrum of that ‘we’re in a cellar’ vibe from the Cotteridge Wines tap room: all concrete and metal. To be honest it could do with a spot of whitewash to warm it all up. The staff are all identikit hipster-beautiful twenty-somethings: great beards, sharp lids, tattoos and piercings. They tend to have good product knowledge and ‘passion’ but there’s a touch of corporate patter in a lot of what they say. The staff seems to turn over a lot, like it would in ‘any’ city centre bar. I know this because Stu was a DJ here for a year until December and until recently it was all “your money’s no good here mate” for him, but today it’s all “alright gents how can I help you?” — he’s no longer a known quantity, it’s taken a mere month for him to be written out of the Brewdog crew’s temporary history.

Brewdog’s thing is being ‘punk’ about beer. They are known for being edgy and provocative, for taking the fight to the big brewers, for calling them out for serving such bad beer for so long. They’re on a mission, they tell you, to democratise good beer. Now I love their beers, but I hate their marketing. I hate their appropriation of punk. And most of all I hate the double-think they force me into when I have a ‘moment of truth’ with their brand.

Punk is about a lot more than being edgy and provocative. Punk is more than disrupting the spectacle. That is an aspect of punk in action, sure, but that’s not all that punk is. I don’t think it’s punk to develop a financial instrument called ‘Equity for Punks’ (share trading, pure and simple). I don’t think it’s punk to have a global brand roll out (Tokyo, Stockholm… watch this space for more). I don’t think it’s punk if, when you open your massive new brewery, you change the recipes of your core line to better suit your new mainstream market. And I think that democratising good beer sounds a bit like creating demand for a product.

Nonetheless I’m trying a Bourbon Baby, a small batch brew by Brewdog that promises to “tread the line between light and dark, like the beer equivalent of Batman”. Stu and I take up a station in Brewdog’s window. Neil is upstairs in Cherry Reds, also by a window, and he is sending me creepy text messages like “have a nice piss” when he sees me descend into the Brewdog basement. I sext him back a photo of the urinal. Weirdly it’s the only photo that survives the day. I don’t know what happened to all the other evidence I’ve gathered.

What’s On?

Regularly rotating craft beer line-up on tap made up of core beers by Brewdog, special brews by Brewdog, and beers by guest brewers. Beer cocktails (no, me either). Scotch Eggs (don’t, trust me). Hot dogs, burgers (YES).

Brewdog Birmingham, 81–87 John Bright Street, Birmingham, United Kingdom B1 1BL.

On top of Spaghetti

Neil, Stu, me: that’s all that’s left of our gang as we head to the North. It’s a running joke in Birmingham that people from the South won’t go to the North, because it is a cultural wasteland, because in the North the only graffiti on skateboard ramps says stuff like “Dave is Gay”. At my wife’s work when people move here, to Birmingham, from other places for a job they always end up being directed towards Kings Heath, Moseley, and now the Jewellery Quarter. We keep hearing about this gold rush to move from London to the Midlands, to Brum, and I’m fairly sure that none of these incomers are seeking digs in northern dormitories like Perry Barr, Castle Vale, or Kingstanding; if anything will test how cool the suburbs of Birmingham are, then going north of Spaghetti Junction in search of a decent pint is surely it.

The train winds out of New Street. Look left and you’ll see the magnificent Curzon Street station, proud gateway to a waste-ground-cum-car-park that will, one day, be the HS2 railway terminal. Limited services stop at Duddeston station, née Vauxhall, which train nerds assure me is incredibly historically important. I always find Duddeston a little creepy because it features some boarded up old train sheds which remind me of the horrific episode of Thomas the Tank Engine when Henry gets bricked up and his rails taken away because he’s commercially inviable. We’re not stopping here — the train isn’t, and we have no need of it in any case.

At Aston the train is suddenly filled by Villa fans who are weirdly subdued despite having just beaten midland rivals and bogey team Leicester in the FA Cup. We put it down to the fact that they have forgotten how to act when they win because this season, as my mate posts on Facebook every Saturday at 5pm, they are in “big fucking trouble”. Nearby the Aston Tavern has recently been refurbished, a costly job and a risky investment for a pub that sits under the M6, but we don’t know what beer they’re serving. We can’t be doing with sharing a pint with this gang of 36,000 miserbalists either so we crack on to Erdington (skimming through Gravelly Hill station first).

The Charlie Hall

They say you live in Erdington twice, once on the way up and once on the way down. Actually they don’t but I have lived here twice all the same. It takes a while to disentangle ourselves from the train full of Villa fans, and then we’re off up Station Road towards Erdington High Street.

I point out to the guys the grass embankment that runs up from the street to the Cross City Line, a patch of ground which the local Tory councillors have designated as a micro-park. Erdington’s local politics is weird, and I’m pleased to have found a soapbox to begin my routine patter on the matter.

We’re off to The Charlie Hall, the local Wetherspoons. If Brewdog can claim to be democratising good beer, then Wetherspoons have an even stronger claim to that, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the two listed companies behind these brands are in a strategic partnership, with the brewer supplying the chain of ‘freehouses’ with one of their house beers: This Is Lager.

Like The British Oak, The Charlie Hall (and all the ‘Spoons pubs) have noted the craft beer trend and have managed to pack it into their vast inventory. Unlike The British Oak, The Charlie Hall and its sister venues have gone large on craft, making it a core offering. So This Is Lager is on keg as a house beer, alongside The Devil’s Backbone American IPA, and the hand pulls tend to feature interesting collaborations between various Wetherspoons suppliers. Then there’s the bottles: Lagunitas is a recent edition, alongside some Brit-craft and Rogue Amber, which Stu and I are boycotting because of their awful industrial relations track record (you should too). Oh and then there’s the cans. Cans are the new bottles, and the Six Point Bengali Tiger (‘Now available as part of a Club Meal’) is well worth your time and £1.99 of your money. We buy extra cans for the walk back to Erdington station.

One of the crew we left in town arrives: M, the guy we were late to meet at the Craven. He had tried to get food at Cherry Reds but then didn’t fancy the wait. He jumped on a bus to track us down. He orders a roast dinner. “Mate, just to be clear when it’s time to go we have to go” I say. I know we left him waiting in town for a half an hour, that I owe him one, but I can’t get off schedule again. “That’s fine, I’ll get the bus anyway. I’ll catch you up” he says.

We get crisps, more beers, take in The Charlie Hall. It’s big. Like all Wetherspoons, it is really good at day-part trading: breakfasts, morning coffees, lunches, cheeky afternoon pints, evening meals and quick ones on the way home. It also serves a steady pulse of all day drinkers who anchor the day, the guys who start at 9am. The pub is named after Erdington-born Hollywood actor Charlie Hall, a regular collaborator of Laurel & Hardy — that’s the same Laurel & Hardy who have connections to the beautiful and historic real ale pub the Barton’s Arms, which was just too far from the Cross City Line to fit in today.

I tell everyone about when I first came to this pub. I was 20, I’d just moved to the area and I asked my neighbour where to go for a pint. “Don’t go to the pubs near the house, and be careful where you go on the High Street” he told me “The Wetherspoons is the safest bet for you”. So I walked up there that evening, bought a Guinness, went to the fruit machine put a pound coin in and then —

to my right there was a sudden commotion. I turned just in time to see someone fly over a table on the end of a big guy’s fist. Then the table goes over, everyone gets up and it’s all a bit Any which way but loose.

That remains the only proper Hollywood-style bar brawl I’ve ever seen, but it was vicious, not slapstick. I don’t know what Charlie Hall would have made of it.

M’s roast arrives, but the little hand on my watch says it’s time to rock’n’roll so we leave him to it. It looks great, though, and like all Club Meals it comes with a drink.

What’s On?

All the things, all day. Except for a jukebox, obviously.

The Charlie Hall, 49 Barnabas Road, Birmingham, West Midlands B23 6SH.

The Boldmere Tap

Just one stop, to Chester Road. We have a train beer. Things are starting to feel hazy. Luckily the place we’re going to is familiar though it has just had a reboot.

The Boldmere Tap, formerly The Boldmere Oak, will always be known locally as The Cork & Bottle. It nestles just inside Sutton Coldfield (the old boundary line, between Royal Town and City, being the other side of Chester Road) in a residential area. We have to walk down Highbury Road to get here, past a community theatre. I remember doing a project for the City Council to capture ‘Birmingham Culture’ as part of one of their many bids to be European Capital of Culture. I wilfully spent all of my time capturing the sort of stuff they, the City, aren’t interested in but which I think is worth talking about. I recorded a lovely interview with a lady from the front of house team at the Highbury: “We’re always up to something here but you wouldn’t think of it if you asked them all down in South Birmingham” she said. “It’s only a train ride, but we never see them”. Preach, sister, I couldn’t even get them here for a beer.

The Boldmere Tap has been relaunched by Joules — a Shropshire brewer. Joules are big on real ale and seem to have found the interior designers who did the original O’Neill’s pubs for the makeover here. I’m looking around, trying to find a bicycle nailed to a ceiling. We’ve come here on the promise of some craft beer, and that comes in the form of Green Monkey — a craft lager. It’s pleasant enough but it’s the least challenging thing I’ll drink today. There’s a dartboard. We have a game of 501 which is protracted as you’d imagine given the state we’re in now. M arrives, full of roast dinner. He’s got the bus again, but I let it go even though he should be on the train. We get another round in because we’re still working through the 501 and we end it just in time to get the train to our next stop.

I say just in time. There isn’t any time.

I remember running, thinking “we won’t make it”. I remember getting on the train. And then Neil is falling, he’s rolling, and the doors are trying to close.

What’s on?

Kitsch. Wine for the lady. Ale. Craft lager, and terrible, terrible darts.

The Boldmere Tap, 363 Boldmere Road, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, B73 5HE.

Quinto Lounge

There’s an announcement about passengers who need to act their age, not their shoe size. Neil is bleeding. M is lost, again.

I’m ready for an argument “Is he talking about us? Is he talking about us?” Stu is alternating between worrying about Neil’s knee and telling me that yes, we have been wronged by being told off over a PA, but really it’s all fine, and where is M anyway?

This continues, through Wylde Green (more suburbia, still Victorian, mostly, but grander houses as we are in Sutton proper and Sutton is the posh end of town). We get off at Sutton Coldfield. The driver doesn’t want to have a chat about his announcement. He has his back to me as he drives his train away. I was going to be civil, I swear, although my voice is rather loud.

It’s a long walk to Quinto Lounge, the latest of the Loungers chain to hit Birmingham. They’re lovely little pubs, these. They do good breakfasts, nice lunches, nice evening meals… It dawns on me that they’re basically a poshed up Wetherspoons, with slightly less choice and without the all-day drinking customer segment. The price we pay for the posher format is that it’s expensive compared to ‘Spoons. Their craft beer is a fairly unforgettable IPA — West Coast I think — which we decide must be made by Bath Ales, who also supply them with the lovely beer, Gem. We have chips. Never underestimate the restorative power of chips.

We have to go back the way we came, down Brassington Avenue, behind Sutton Coldfield’s main shopping precinct which is boring and safe, safe and boring, and in keeping with the reputation that the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield is a little dull: if you want to get a measure of how uncool and unhip Sutton is then you should know that the main preoccupation of people here is maintaining a reputation based on a royal nod of acknowledgement in 1528. That and this: when I organised a festival in Sutton Coldfield to celebrate local talent the main event featured a headline performance by one of the girls from Scooch.

On the other side of Brassington Avenue is a long-stalled “mixed use development”, a victim of the credit crunch. Half an hour earlier, still angry at the train driver, I was raging to Neil about how there’ll be a Frankie & Bennie’s on there one day and then South Birmingham would be sorry.

I am so glad we’ll be home soon.

What’s on?

One craft tap, one hand pull ale, and a few bottles. Brunch and tapas. Board games. You know the sort of place.

Quinto Lounge, 21–23 Birmingham Road, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, B72 1QA.

Cellar Door Drinks

So here we are, the end of the road. No need to get off at Four Oaks, we go through to Butler’s Lane, one train stop from Blake Street and the end of the trail.

Cellar Door is my local bottle shop — mine and Stu’s. Unlike Cotteridge Wines, this place is new, purpose built and craft from the ground up. It also keeps a range of wines, some great whiskies (Scotch, Welsh, American, Japanese and Indian), and they know a lot about gin too.

Jen Saunders & Si Clarke run the place, and they both have a background in pubs, catering, and beer.

“Education and innovation is at the heart of what we do” Jen says “We really wanted to showcase the best of craft beer, wine and spirits — we just wanted to create somewhere we’d like to shop.”

They host regular events themed around things like ‘American Craft Beer’ and ’Whiskies of the World’ and they run pop-up bars too, out at other peoples’ events. For the record, Jen cooks the best ribs in the world, but sadly there aren’t any here today. There are enough events here that some of my friends refer to Cellar Door as their local, as there is usually an event they want to go to most weeks.

It doesn’t have a tap room, like Cotteridge Wines, but it does keep real ale casks and craft in kegs for locals to buy as off sales — you can borrow a suitable container from them (on deposit) and taste before you buy. The vibe is boutique meets speakeasy, or as Jen puts it:

“We have a carefully curated range rather than an emporium, so we look to make sure that the important categories are well stocked such as IPAs, pale ales, stouts and porters, best bitters… they really are our bread and butter beers, after that anything goes!”

What’s on?

Usually 2–3 real ales, often a cask cider. One craft tap. A thoughtfully chosen range of bottled craft beers, bottled ales, and ciders. Gin. Whisk(e)y. Wine. Cigars. Good advice from lovely people.

Cellar Door Drink, 310 Clarence Road, Sutton Coldfield B74 4LT. Twitter: @CellarDoorDrink

End of the line

Stu’s got one eye on the clock when we arrive at Cellar Door and suddenly he has to go, home to get his lad off to bed. It seems the trouble with drinking in the suburbs is that suburban reality can bite in at any time. He rushes off in the dark, towards Blake Street and the finish line.

I’ve taken it upon myself to critique one of the customer’s beer choices. Jen & Si seem okay with this so far, so I carry on. I must be speaking awful rubbish. I’m probably trying to tell them something about cool, about beer and cool. I’m probably telling them about Brewdog’s punk schtick, about the trickle down of the bleeding edge of beer fashion into The British Oak and into every Wetherspoons in the land. And I’m probably telling them that isn’t it amazing that one of the coolest shops is here, at Cellar Door, in boring old Sutton Coldfield and at the other end of the tracks, at Cotteridge Wines? And I’m probably saying “this isn’t the sort of cool that you can sell though, that you can write about in a broadsheet newspaper, but this is the real city and it’s brilliant.”

I notice that Neil has gone. “He just went” I’m told. “I better go make sure he can find the train” I say, and then I start chuntering on about something else. I think maybe ten minutes have passed before I finally stumble out saying “I’ll just check on Neil, OK?”.

“Jon, he went that way”

“Yeah. Yeah.” I say, and I wonder off too.

 


 *that was a joke, just in case you weren’t sure

This piece was originally published by Contributoria, even though they didn’t really like it.

Big thanks to Stuart Harrison and Neil Holland for accompanying me,
also to Jaz at Cotteridge Wines and Jen & Si at Cellar Door.

Image CC: Michael Coghlan

By Jon Hickman

Jon moved to Birmingham from Guernsey in 1997. Many people are confused why. He is working hard to integrate himself. Bab. http://www.theplan.co.uk

Jon moved to Birmingham from Guernsey in 1997. Many people are confused why. He is working hard to integrate himself. Bab. http://www.theplan.co.uk

Posted in culture, history, identity, place Tagged with: , , , ,