I made a first-ever trip to Stockton-on-Tees the other week and found a lively, bustling town with some excellent bars and pubs and a style of serving beer unique to a number of pubs and clubs in and around Teesside....
Every now and again, I like to take myself off and go somewhere I have never visited before. It doesn't matter whether it is a tourist attraction as such, as more often than not I find that some of the most interesting places are ones that wouldn't immediately strike you as having much to attract the casual visitor. That is not in any way to take away from Stockton's attractions and past; here history was made by George Stephenson in 1822 when the first tracks of the Stockton and Darlington railway were laid in the town, with the first passenger service in the world opening to nearby Shildon in 1825. The town had grown as a port since the Tees had been straightened to allow larger ships to dock here, and the railway made it easier for shipping coal from the Durham coalfields. The town's roots date back to the 1300's with Stockton Castle, a fortified manor house dating from 1376. It was briefly occupied by the Scots in the 17th century but was destroyed by order of Oliver Cromwell at the end of the English Civil War. Industries such as shipbuilding and rope making had taken place in the town, with engineering taking a hold in the 19th century. The town has many historical buildings and yards (or passageways), particularly around the high street, which is the widest in the country.
I had of course come to Stockton to check out some of the town's pubs, which like many towns in the north east includes a number of micros. I alighted from the train at Stockton railway station on a bright and sunny late autumn Saturday morning, and after walking down a quiet road, I then had to negotiate the kind of kamikaze road junction that always crops up when you are visiting a place for the first time and you are not 100% sure of the direction to where you need to be, and passed the impressive art deco Globe Theatre, realising that I had arrived at the afore-mentioned high street.
I walked around for a few minutes, getting my bearings, and settling on my first pub of the day. I opened up Google Maps, followed the directions, arrived, but where was it? I walked around the block with the river below and came to a narrow entrance beside the closed Wasps Nest leading into a yard. Here was Hope and Union, a modern pub already with several customers dotted around. The pub is named after the second locomotive and a horse-drawn coach used on the Stockton and Darlington railway. I ordered a pint of North Riding Cascade from the friendly girl behind the bar, found a seat, and chilled out for half an hour enjoying an excellent pint (NBSS 3.5) whilst listening to a 80's/90's soundtrack, and planning my afternoon, the CAMRA GBG app frustratingly playing up. The bar started to fill up, plenty of people coming in to dine on the generously portioned food it seemed.
The Wasps Nest was still closed, so I walked up into another yard, where another on my list, Lucifers, was also closed, with a recently completed planning application for outside seating in the window, so not terminal then. My frustration was compounded when after finally realising that the names of the yards leading off the High Street were laid in the pavement if not displayed above the ginnel itself and finding Hambletonian Yard, the micropub therein, The Golden Smog, was closed until 2.
I pressed on and across the road at the end of the yard, down an entrance to a shopping mall was another on my list. And, to my relief, the Tipsy Turtle was open! Now this micro was not featured in the 2022 CAMRA Good Beer Guide, but as I had received my copy of the 2023 edition during the week, I had discovered it was now included, although with the guide not officially published for a few more days CAMRA protocol required that I kept quiet about its status. I walked in, music was playing out of the speakers, a lady was sat at one table, and a guy was stood by the bar. A dark-haired lady behind the bar greeted me and from the choice of three beers on hand pump I went for a pint of Shield Maiden, a 3.8% golden bitter from Three Kings, very reasonably priced at £3.10, and then went and sat by the window. I looked around the room; clutter but in a cared for way, a few barrels by the bar, chalkboard, fridge stocked with cans, sandwiches on the bar, books, and all sorts of ephemera on the walls and shelves. I was enjoying the beer (NBSS 3.5) and got talking to the seated lady who seemed to be involved with the place although she said she was not one of the owners. She told me they had acquired the premises next door to use as an overflow and cocktail bar, and proudly invited me to have a peek. I enjoyed the atmosphere in here, and had halves of the other two casks, they had on the bar; Petham Cross, a 4.3% pale from Bingley featuring Chinook hops (NBSS 3.5), and a 4.6% stout from Scarborough Brewery (NBSS 3). Both were reasonably priced, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Tipsy Turtle.
I made my way back towards The Golden Smog, which thankfully was now open. This was the first of the town's micros and takes its name from the time before the Clean Air Act when the smoky atmosphere would glow at night from the lights of the steelworks and factories that were dotted along the lower Tees. The yard in which it sits has been brightened up by painted walls, and the Smog itself is painted in a warm golden yellow. Foldaway seats and tables attached to the wall are set up outside. Inside, there was a warm and friendly atmosphere, with a few people dotted around the single room. On the bar, beers from Black Sheep, Brew York, and Wilde Child gave a predominantly Yorkshire flavour to the cask selection, but spotting an old favourite, I went for Pennine Pale from Allendale in deepest Northumberland. And my choice was well rewarded, this refreshing pale ale was on great form (NBSS 4). More people came in, mostly seemingly known to Boomer, the lad behind the bar who was doing a sterling job running the show. People here were especially friendly and welcoming, happy to talk to this visitor from the south! I ordered another pint, as an old guy sat opposite kept us updated on the unexpected events in the Liverpool - Nottingham Forest game, and a couple of guys from Darlington came in having had their booster jabs, the conversation inevitably moving to National League football. I went upstairs to the loo, where a comedy soundtrack was playing which is not something you come across every day! I bade my farewells; the Golden Smog is a smashing place and I look forward to visiting again when I get chance.
Next up, I went back to the High Street, turned left and a few minutes later I arrived at another micro and another new entry in the 2023 Beer Guide, The Kopper Keg, situated on Dovecot Street. This had more of a bar vibe, but was pretty cool, with some decent music playing, and most of the tables occupied by a mixed clientele. I spotted an Almasty beer on the bar, a Simcoe Centennial, which made my ordering decision very straight forward, and my choice met the approval of Phil, the guy behind the bar. The beer was very good, another 4 rating, and probably just pipped that at the Golden Smog, but there was little in it. This was another friendly place that I can thoroughly recommend.
It was then on to experience something that is unique to the Teesside area. Whilst I had been in The Golden Smog, I had remembered reading a fascinating article in Pellicle magazine about banked beer a few months ago, and I had asked if there was anywhere nearby in Stockton where I could find it. I was pointed in the direction of The Sun Inn, which I had walked past earlier without really noticing, but with renewed purpose I approached this Craft Union house, which with the signage making more of the fact it had both Sky and BT Sport and offers on big-brand drinks, is not normally the sort of pub I go in, but hey, this was in the name of research for you guys!
So, what is banked beer? When industry was dominant in places like Teesside and other areas across the country, the guys who had just come off shift or were looking for a pint on their lunchtime would descend on their nearest pubs so that in anticipation of this the pubs would get themselves ready. Pints would be poured in advance, ready for the advancing hordes. But what made Teesside different was that half a pint would be poured using a tight sparkler on the pump and left, or 'banked', on a shelf or in a fridge. When a pint was required, it would then be topped up with beer where no sparkler was used, which produced a foamy, dome-like head on the pint. Like so many local traditions, there are less places where this can be found these days. Here at The Sun, when I asked for a pint of Bass, the only cask beer, the lady behind the bar immediately went to the fridge, produced a half full pint glass, and topped it up. The resultant pint had a distinctive foamy crown, and at £2.95 was great value for money. The beer I thought was refreshing, lighter, and more quaffable than I remember for this 4.4% ale (NBSS 3.5), the first few sips impossible to drink without your nose dipping into the foam which clung to the glass all the way down. The pub was busy, with most tables occupied, mainly by blokes keeping an eye on the incoming football scores on TV, but the atmosphere was welcoming, and I left leaving thinking I had had a proper Teesside experience!
I had one more place to visit, which sadly was the most disappointing of the day. Just around the corner, overlooking the Tees, was the Wasps Nest which had been closed when I had visited the neighbouring Hope and Union earlier. It is set in an attractive building, but opens out to a long, fairly bland interior. I ordered a half of Session IPA from North Riding (NBSS 3). The Wasps Nest was pretty busy, and was ok, but it just seemed to lack any of the character of anywhere else I had been over the day; maybe if I had gone in earlier, it wouldn't have been as noticeable.
I had to make tracks as I had a train to catch. Somebody had suggested it would make sense to walk over the bridge to catch the train from Thornaby rather than backtracking to Stockton station, so, spotting a footbridge over the river, I made my way there and walked over to the other side, spotting a road bridge a little further up the river. It was only when I was walking past deserted office park after deserted office park with the time moving on that I realised that they had meant the road bridge, but I had of course moved on from where they were! So, an hour to wait at Thornaby station (not recommended), although the location of the car park between the two platforms gives it a point of difference. Fortunately, it did not detract from a really enjoyable afternoon in an interesting town with some great pubs and lovely, warm people. I look forward to going back soon....
The title of this blog was in part inspired by the name of the rustic lager Big Foam, brewed by Donzoko Brewery, owned by Reece Hugill who wrote the article referred to above.
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