I recently visited Liverpool and The Beatles (though I love their music) were the last thing on my mind. I started by checking out some of the city’s startlingly good museums, including the Walker Collection. It was packed with interesting exhibits but one little Toby Jug caught my eye – a rotund, pink, fleshy man sitting astride a cask prominently labelled ‘Home Brew’. That set me off on a discovery of the best pubs in Liverpool which lasted most of an evening and left me a little the worse for wear, but thoroughly appreciative both of the excellent local ales and of the great Scouse welcome I’d received.
My pub crawl in Liverpool
I started off at the Baltic Fleet pub on Wapping, just past the Albert Docks. It stands in solitary splendour, a last flamboyantly arcaded old building when all the rest has gone. In the evening sunshine, the front bar was full of light, and I sat nursing a pint of Wapping Stout by the window. There’s a lifebelt over the bar (in case you fall into your beer!) and all kinds of shipping memorabilia; and the pub offers ales from local micros such as the Liverpool Organic Brewery, while it also runs its own Wapping brewery in the basement.
Here, two locals borrowed my pen to mark up a planned pub crawl for two out-of-town drinkers; “fine”, I said, as long as they told me where all the good pubs were. That led to an interesting discussion but eventually I set off towards the Dispensary on Renshaw Street. This corner pub is resplendent with wood panelling and cut glass, and it was already humming with conversation. No wonder CAMRA made it Liverpool Pub of the Year in 2011. I wasn’t impressed by the George Wright mild, of which I was given a taster, so I had a half of a beer I already knew well – O’Hanlon’s Port Stout, served up in excellent condition.
she claimed she’d had her first beer at six weeks old!
Again I found friendly Liverpudlians happy to tell me how to get to the next stop on my destination – and warning me that it was the Roscoe Head I wanted, not the Roscoe Arms.
So up the road I went, and through narrow alleys to the Roscoe Head – one of only seven pubs to appear in every edition of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide, and Liverpool’s Pub of the Year for 2012. It’s a tiny pub, really quite bijou and divided by wooden partitions into tiny snugs which only hold six or seven people at a time. It was Friday night and I thought all the pubs would be crowded; but though they were busy, none were unpleasantly full.
The Roscoe offers ‘tasters’ of three one-third glasses of different beers for the same price as a pint, but I decided to go for the George Wright Mocne Piwo, a nicely fruity, quite strong, dark brown brew. Wright’s is a local brewery in St Helen’s – one of the great features of Liverpool is just how many local breweries there are and how well they’re represented in the pubs, giving you a great variety to choose from.
I met a lady here who was brought up in the world of Liverpool pubs – all the family were publicans and she claimed she’d had her first beer at six weeks old! She even offered to give me a lift to the next pub, The Cracke, though in the end I decided to wander up the road and get some spring rolls from the Chinese chippy on the way.
a huge mirror plaque is devoted to Lennon’s first band, the Dissenters
The Cracke is up a little alleyway and from outside looks like a throwback to the 1950s with its ancient Bass and Marston’s signs. It seems to be both The Crack and Ye Cracke, depending on where you look and I’ve been told it was the basis for the Rover’s Return in Coronation Street (set in Salford), though it’s better known for its connection with John Lennon.
In the base, a huge mirror plaque is devoted to Lennon’s first band, the Dissenters, but the Beatles have to share the walls with prints of nineteenth-century Liverpool and old breweriana. Even on a Beatles-free evening it’s almost impossible to avoid marks of their influence wherever you happen to be in the city.
I got myself a pint of Pinch’s IPA from Hart of Preston, and such is the nature of Liverpool pubs that I was soon drawn into discussing the relative merits of great folk singers – June Tabor, Sandy Denny, and Maddy Prior were all up for appraisal.
The following day, I discovered the Philharmonic Dining Rooms, an Edwardian gin-palace that serves some quite decent real ales. The selection of ales was good, but it’s the pub itself that is the star, right from the moment you enter the gilt wrought iron gateway. There are stained glass windows and skylights, wood-panelled snugs (called ‘Brahms’ and ‘Liszt’, neatly combining the themes of classical music and excessive drinking), twinkling chandeliers; brass gleams everywhere and big stuffed leather chairs to collapse into.
I’d been told by everyone that I had to visit the gents’ loo here – and that certainly wasn’t a wind-up. The friendly barman was happy to show me round – the urinals are made of porphyry, the walls are decorated with fine ornate tiling and it must be a privilege to have a piddle in there!
My final stop was quite a different experience – a dark back-street biker’s pub with rock music thumping out (“In the days before you had all these clever jukeboxes,” one guy told me, “they had the best jukebox in town”). Scary? Not at all – the same friendly welcome and the same great selection of ales, from which I chose North Yorkshire Brewing Company’s Flying Herbert, a dark strong ale that tasted like liquid toffee apples.
I had a whale of a time in Liverpool (perhaps an appropriate metaphor, as there were whaling ships here, though it was never a big industry for the city). In every pub I found someone to chat to me, locals who told me the next pub I should go to, or stories about ‘Liverpool in the old days’, or the local beer festival. No wonder Liverpool was voted the UK’s friendliest city by readers of Condé Nast Traveler in 2011 for the second year running.
But because everyone had another boozer to recommend, I’ve now got another six pubs to visit – and I am going to have to go back to Liverpool to see if they’re as good as my first half dozen!
Read about things to do in Manchester, a short hop from Liverpool.