Where’s the Birmingham Tap?

Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but it strikes me that Birmingham is missing out on the wave of craft bars (by which I mean those who sell “craft” beer whether it is in keg, cask or bottle) that are readily establishing themselves in lots of other places.  Don’t get me wrong, Birmingham has some great pubs and bars, and there are plenty of places to find a decent cask ale (some of which may or may not be craft depending on your stance in that debate!) both in the centre and further out, but where are the likes of the Euston / Sheffield / York Taps, the Brewdogs that are springing up north and south of the border, the various other craft beer outlets that I’ve seen or at least heard of in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Bristol, Nottingham even (and apologies if there are others I’ve missed).  Why has the “second city” (putting aside any other claims Manchester may make to that title!) not caught up with this exciting wave of new beer?

Is the Birmingham population not interested enough, or at least perceived to be interested, in quality beer?  I find this hard to believe.  Quality and variety in cask ales isn’t really hard to find.  Within a few minutes walk of New St Station, my preferred catchment area as it allows a quick stopover between trains, there is the vast range to be had at the Wellington, the newly opened Post Office Vaults, the Shakespeare, Bennetts, Old Joint Stock and several others.  They all have their own charms and flaws, but they all serve a good selection of cask and generally serve it well.  Some also have a good bottled range, but this tends to be European beers rather than the current UK stars.  Move northwards out of the centre and the Jewellery Quarter is establishing itself as another good beer destination, or head south of the Bull Ring and you can stumble upon some real gems too.  So we’re not short of places to find a decent pint.

So is there another reason why Birmingham is slow on the uptake?  One thought that occurs about the list of cities above, is that they are all big student centres.  Is that part of what fuels the spread of craft bars in these cities?  But Birmingham has universities too, so what’s different?  Comparing individual universities, the University of Birmingham has the 10th largest student population but is behind 2 institutions in Manchester and one in each of Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham – all of who appeared in my list of craft bar cities.  Moreover, once you start combining all the universities in each city London leaps right up the list but Birmingham still struggles to make the top five.

Now, I don’t for one minute think that the only factor involved here is student populations, but there does seem to be some correlation between that and the emergence of craft bars.  And to be honest, Birmingham never seems to me to have the same student vibe as say Manchester or Nottingham.  So maybe Birmingham just isn’t demographically quite right to be at the forefront of this new wave.  To be honest, when I think back to the opening of the Wellington over ten years ago, it seemed to be a turning point for the widespread availability of good cask ales in the city.  What I don’t know is how the rest of the country was faring – I certainly didn’t have the same awareness of the beer scene nationally that I do now.  It seemed like a revolutionary change in Birmingham, but maybe it was actually just catching up with other more lively cities then too.

Whatever the reasons, I guess Birmingham may just have to wait a bit longer before it catches the bug.  On the other hand maybe someone is planning something right now, and change may be just around the corner.  I look forward to the day when I can jump off a train at New St and see both cask and keg beers from the likes of Magic Rock, Summer Wine, Hardknott, Camden and lots of others, across the bar, and fridges stocked full of the best UK bottled beer as well as international ones.  In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying the good cask ales I can find there and get the rest of my “craft” fix where I can.

Or maybe you know where in Birmingham I’m failing to look hard enough, and point me in the right direction?

6 Responses to “Where’s the Birmingham Tap?”

  1. I have a post lined up on this very subject but in reference to Stoke on Trent. While we are in no way the same league in terms of the size and the city, the situation is very similar here. For Birmingham I completely agree why no Birmingham Tap or Brewdog bar it seems madness, unless of course people are just not interested. I wasn’t going to post mine or was having second thoughts at least but sod it, no point blogging if you don’t publish what’s on your mind.

    Keep on spreading the word mate, cheers

    • Publish and be damned! Sometimes it just takes one person to say what everyone else is thinking and you never know when you’ll be that one person. Thanks for the interest and the kind comments!

  2. I would say that you are correct in the supposition that Birmingham takes a while to catch up. Until the early nineties there was the fantastic Atkinson’s Bar in the Midland Hotel, but little else unless you travelled to the Anchor at Digbeth. Atkinson’s closed in 1993. I worked in Birmingham City Centre at the time and would visit the Anchor once or twice a week, but for my major weekly night out I used to take the train to Derby, which was as a fantastic a drinking city then as it is now. I could get 5 hours decent beer drinking in in lots of different establishments in Derby, whereas Birmingham had one freehouse that took some time to get to.
    Since Nigel Barker opened the Wellington in 2004 that has all changed, but by then Birmingham was 20-25 years behind other major cities. It will take another trailblazer to introduce another new trend.
    I’m delighted that the cask scene is so unrecogniseable from years ago. That will do me fine. Perhaps the Birmingham attitude is contagious…..

  3. For keg beers The Junction at Harborne have Staropramen, Pilsner Urquell, Erdinger, Blue Moon, Sierra Nevada (Lager), Franziskaner, Fruli, Leffe & Brooklyn Lager on draught – all fairly obvious ones but better than nothing.

    It is true that Birmingham is fairly behind other mayor cities.

    There are a few places one can find Brooklyn Lager & Maisels Weisse on draught in Brum.

    Personally I’m surprised you’re not more impressed with the Post office Vaults. They currently have circa 150 bottled imported beers. I’m led to believe this is the largest selection in the UK outside of London. You are right that the list is mainly European but I think there are around 20 USA beers on their list. They do have plans to increase their range and introduce a guest keg beer. I know if you speak to the manager (Mike) and request a beer he will do his best to source it in for you as he did for a friend of mine. As the pub is only 1 month old and Brewdog are opening a bar in Birmingham I think the next 12 months may change Birmingham’s drinking culture as much as when The Wellie opened (as mentioned above).

    Better late than never!

    • My trip out to Harborne last autumn didn’t quite make it as far as the Junction, but as you say, that’s still a fairly obviously keg selection and doesn’t really do enough to draw me out that far from the centre by itself – as someone who works in the city rather than lives there I find trips out to places like Harborne aren’t really suitable for the more spontaneous one/two pint visits to pubs that fit around home commitments. I feel I must note here though that I do like the PO Vaults a lot, it has become my city centre pub of choice in Birmingham and is a good cask beer pub with the added bonus of a wide selection of foreign beers. Hats off to them too for including the Freedom lager and stout in preference to the usual lowest common denominators. However, it just wasn’t quite as mould-breaking as I was hoping for when I first heard of its arrival – since the excellent example set by the Wellie back in 2004 the cask ale scene has improved dramatically and the PO Vaults is another good addition within the same style. I’ve enjoyed several good ales in there over several visits, and one or two I wasn’t so keen on, but to me that comes with the territory of trying a variety of beers in preference to just tried and tested favourites. But I really want that variety to extend to some of the exciting UK breweries that seem to generally pass Birmingham by, not just with cask beer but with quality keg and bottled beers from the UK too. My understanding of the plans for a guest keg is, at least so far, geared around European beers again but I would love to find that this is different and see a Magic Rock or Summer Wine (or any of a variety of others generally mentioned in the same breath) on cask, keg or in bottle the next time I call by.

      It is fair to challenge though that I haven’t actually tried asking directly for some of the beers I’d really like to see, especially as additions to the bottle fridge. That said on the website the emphasis is on “Foreign Bottled Beers” but I shouldn’t take that as a refusal to stock anything from closer to home. I shall report back on my success, or otherwise…


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