The Kelham Island Tavern and the Fat Cat are two bastions of real ale that stand on Kelham Island, an area of Sheffield that now has a number of modern apartments but is still slightly haunted by the empty engineering works dotted around it.
The Kelham Island Tavern, dating back to 1830, has won many CAMRA awards since it re-opened in 2001, and has been CAMRA National Pub Of The Year twice, in 2008 and 2009. It was reasonably quiet on the weekday afternoon when we went in: a couple in the corner drank whilst a man with Doc Marten boots, who I think was an off-duty bailiff, discussed legal matters with the barman. A cat slept on a bar stool bathed in the afternoon sunlight.
After some helpful guidance I ordered a Pictish Brewer’s Gold, in lovely condition. The place livened up a little when three middle-aged tickers arrived and started excitedly discussing the selection. I noted that some of the beers at least seemed to be served without sparklers, but not to their detriment.
When we moved on to the Fat Cat around the corner, the atmosphere seemed a little more warm and relaxed, perhaps a bit less male, even though Kate and the bartender were the only ladies in the public bar. Surrounding the compact and ornate wooden bar itself, two groups sat on the benches and carried on a friendly conversation with each other, whilst the bar also offered baskets of pork pies and a big bottle of Sheffield’s iconic Henderson’s Relish to go with them.
The Fat Cat has a great history as well: dating back to the mid-19th century and originally called the Alma (it stands on Alma Street, named after the first battle of the Crimean War), it was a Stones pub from 1912 until 1981. In that year it was bought by Dave Wickett and Bruce Bentley and started its life as a free house.
Dave, who passed away recently, is justly regarded as one of the heroes of British beer, and he founded the Kelham Island Brewery here in 1990. As Roger Protz notes in his obituary for the Guardian, Dave was a consultant to Thornbridge during its inception, even recruiting Martin Dickie, which can be seen as a fitting passing of the torch, given the mark that Thornbridge has made on Sheffield in recent years.
I enjoyed a taster of Kelham Island White Rider, a cask wheat beer, but decided to have Pale Rider, an excellent US-hopped pale ale, CAMRA Champion Beer Of Britain in 2004, which made me fall further in love with this slightly aging pub and its informal, welcoming atmosphere.
The Fat Cat seems well-worn and comfortable, like a faded armchair that has gone slightly out of shape and is indented with the form of the sitter’s body, but is still the very best at what it does. I think that, if ever I had to try and explain the attraction of “the English pub” to a foreign visitor, I would bring them here.
In the spirit of exploring the world on our own doorstep, Kate and I spent two days in Sheffield to celebrate my 32nd birthday. Sheffield’s beer and pubs have changed massively since I graduated from the university in 2004, although the seeds of that were already evident in Dave Wickett’s Fat Cat pub and Kelham Island Brewery, of which more in a later post.
The Rutland Arms is a pub I had never visited or had even heard of when I was a student in Sheffield. Now it seems like a traditional pub but with a studenty/indie feel, a good jukebox and an exciting range of beers, including some from the relatively new, and related, Blue Bee Brewery.
It’s not far from the station (walk up from the station and take the first left after the Showroom Cinema) so made for a good first stop off the train It was a quiet Thursday afternoon, but that meant we almost got the bar to ourselves to stick some Pulp and Richard Hawley on the jukebox for some Sheffield indie nostalgia to set the scene for our break.
I enjoyed a classy fish finger sandwich and chips whilst Kate had a nice halloumi salad. It being IPA Day, I really enjoyed Dark Star Revelation, perhaps the cask IPA of the moment, and appreciated a dry-hopped version of Blue Bee Tangled Up IPA.
We left the Rutland Arms happier than when we had arrived off the train: relaxed and in the mood to enjoy more of Sheffield. It’s definitely on the list for our next visit, maybe for the quiz night.
Don’t get me started on Sheffield. I spent 2 years there (September 2002 – June 2004) when there were (to my knowledge at the time) a few good pubs with decent beer selections, such as The Fat Cat, Kelham Island Tavern and The Devonshire Cat. However two of those were in Kelham Island, which was a fair distance from where I lived and also a pretty overt red light district. As a result I spent most of my time drinking in a few nice pubs with a passable beer selection (The Cobden View, The Hallamshire House) as well as a few rubbish ones, as students do.
So I’m slightly irked by the gall of the place; becoming such a beer Mecca after I left. One of the main culprits is Thornbridge Brewery, which set up its 10 barrel plant in 2005, 17 or so miles to the south west of the city. Not content with conspiring with Pivovar to establish up the annoyingly good Sheffield Tap in the railway station, their pub estate in the city then expanded to include The Greystones and even, to rub salt in the wound, the refurbished Hallamshire House! The pub that was literally behind my house in my first year in Sheffield is now a Thornbridge craftpalace!
I did the pub quiz in the Hallamshire House on a regular basis! I’m pretty sure the burglars who robbed our house three times in a month used to “case the joint” from there! Now, its almost certainly full of students guzzling down Halcyon like it’s snakebite and black. It probably even does great Scotch Eggs, or pork pies you’d swap your LLB for. I don’t want to know. It’s dead to me.
Nowadays I don’t get to go to Sheffield very often, but we were down for a few hours on Saturday for a trip to John Lewis to buy some dogs’ heads for Christmas. We decided to go to Dada for lunch, yet another Thornbridge pub that just opened at the end of October on Trippet Lane, in the building that used to be Trippets Wine Bar. I liked the decor, with its mixture of quirkly artiness (objet trouvé bucket lampshades) and glorifications of the pantheon of Sheffield’s music scene (Cocker; Hawley; Turner; him off of The Human League). The link between Dadaism, music and Sheffield is Cabaret Voltaire, but I don’t think that the reason really matters. Dada is “the abolition of logic … the abolition of memory“.
There was obviously a great range of beer on cask, keg and in the fridges (Buxton, O’Dell etc). However I had to drive later, so we only had a meat and cheese platter and a couple of halves. I restricted myself to a 4.3% Thornbridge Browne: an “Australian Brown Ale” which had the sweet citrus and light caramel taste of C&C brown lemonade (spot the Northern Irishman) with some hops thrown in. Kate, who thought that the Browne’s flavour was like what kids imagine their father’s bitter to taste like, was able to go for the 7.2% Thornbridge/Kernel Coalition Burton Ale, a lovely hoppy, more viscous rich ale.
So yes, yes; da, da. Dada is good. As the Dadaists would have it:
Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”, “Get off my back”, “Be seeing you sometime”. In Romanian: “Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, definitely, right”. And so forth. […] How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness.
For more on Dada, see Reluctant Scooper.
A good Sunday, on which we went to Sheffield to walk around John Lewis with a scanner to assemble a wedding list. This turned out to be less of a chore than it might have been (“Yep, if someone wants to buy me one of those, that would be nice”) , and we got a free pot of tea and cherry Bakewell bun each in the John Lewis cafe for our efforts.
Afterwards I was rewarded for good behaviour with a trip to the splendid Sheffield Tap for a few beers before the train back to Leeds. A bottle of Thornbridge Versa, the brewery’s new Weisse Beer, was very nice: pleasant and banana-ey, basically a well-crafted and unimpeachable version of a style that doesn’t really excite me. Magic Rock High Wire was on solid form on cask and Thornbridge Raven, also on cask, remains a truly great beer. A bottle of Urthel Hop-It (9.5%; crikey) was a nice blonde hoppy Belgian, but far from being the US-influenced double IPA that I had expected for no good reason. Note for the future: if you want a US double IPA, just order one.
The main point of this blog post, however, is to ask your opinion on a matter of some recent concern to me: pewter tankards. Beer can be drunk from pewter in the Booking Office bar at St Pancras, as well as the Fox & Anchor at Smithfield. In both North and Further North in Leeds, regulars have their own pewter tankards hanging on the wall by their names.
But are they really any good? Do they add or detract from the drinking experience? You certainly see less of the beer, but does it taste more metallic? Do they keep the beer colder than glass? I’m thinking of adding a Sheffield-make tankard to my wedding list and your comments would be a great help.
I was interested to read in The Pubbing Advertlican that Osset Brewery are to open a Hop in Sheffield, after the first two music-meets-real-ale bars in Wakefield and Leeds. I think the Hop on Granary Wharf in Leeds is a good bar, with a selection of Ossett beers on cask as well as a number of pretty good guest ales. As can be seen from the purloined images in this post, the railway arches in which it is based are decorated with a selection of exposed brickwork and images of the great and good of Yorkshire indie (one of whom, the drummer from Embrace, is a part-owner).
Importantly for me, The Hop is a cask ale pub that looks a bit modern and trendy, so I can drag my work colleagues to it without most of them pissing and moaning about it being an “old man pub”, as if I think cask ale is best enjoyed in the presence of a farting, half-dead pub dog and a deeply worn, formerly-red patterned carpet covered in discarded betting slips.
When I was at Sheffield University I lived very near where the new Hop is opening on Devonshire Green. In fact I did most of my (hardly nutritionally balanced) grocery shopping in the Budgens that formerly used to be on the site, although I confess to having resorted to the excellent noodle bar next door on a more-than-weekly basis.
Sheffield is a fantastic place to go out for a drink, especially nowadays, but as I recall, the only really decent pub in that part of town at the time was The Devonshire Cat, which was very good but surrounded for about half a mile in each direction by the likes of Vodka Revolution, Varsity, Yates’ Wine Lodge, Flares, Walkabout, Wetherspoons and All Bar One, as well as a few definite “old man pubs”. Certainly when I was there, a pub like The Hop would have been a very welcome addition.