The six towns of the Potteries don’t have a reputation for being the most picturesque place roundabouts. Ask outsiders their opinion and you tend to get the old, “…but they’re such friendly people” response, which, when it’s clear that you’re enquiring about the architectural merits of Blurton or Sneyd Green, is such an obvious distraction answer that it doesn’t wash. Saying that, Potteries’ folk are really friendly in my experience – the friendliness that is borne out of close friends and families working cheek by jowl for generation upon generation; the friendliness borne out of industrial disintegration; the friendliness borne out of, let’s be honest, poverty. Unlike many British towns and cities built round one industry, at least Stoke* has been spared ‘heritage town’ status. You can see more than the marks of its industrial legacy; there remains a major ceramics industry – not perhaps the scale of the past and certainly in a very different form – but there all the same. Most often, today’s potters are in new(er) factories, but not solely. And the old Potteries’ vista is still there too – the eponymous pot banks pushing up like young asparagus shoots, searching for the air above the skyline – a skyline they once filled with smoke. Or the enormous brick factories, as long as a road, or queuing up along the canal sides. Some of these brutally beautiful buildings still have potteries in them (take a trip to Emma Bridgewater just outside Hanley, as one example, to see the potter’s skills being practiced still http://www.emmabridgewaterfactory.co.uk). It’s a setting, a culture, a way of life that has understandably defined the people of the area.
And where there was heavy industry, there was beer. It might not be the same open roaring fires of steel mills and hammer shops, but it was tiring, back breaking work all the same. Digging, heaping & milling the clay; lumping the wares; stacking the pot banks; making the saggars (and the saggar bottoms**) and the crucial job of firing the bank and judging its progress. Works up a thirst just recounting it.
I’m from the other side of the regional line, in the north west, with the Potteries being south from me, in the very north of the north midlands. It’s a city I’ve known all my life; close enough to feel defensive about it when people have a go but distant enough to be distant when needs be; and too distant to support either Port Vale or Stoke City. Yet, when it came to beer, there was always an attraction to the traditional old Potteries pubs when I was growing up. Round my way, the pubs were either large, ‘developed’ town pubs or country pubs of a more idiosyncratic nature. And my locals were normally Robinson’s or Greenall Whitley (‘I wish I was in Greenall Whitley land’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzsL6uE1ypg). But Stoke: well it was the land of the big Midland brewers: Bass Worthington, Ansell’s, Marston’s and ‘Jolly’ pub names: The ‘Jolly Carter’, the ‘Jolly Collier’ and of course, ‘The Jolly Potter’. And many of the pubs were, well, just public…houses. Go in the front door, left for the public bar, right for the lounge; two rooms and two beer choices, maybe three if the lager was on, and perhaps a bottle of Mann’s Brown or Bass No.1 behind the bar. And not much else. My, it was exotic.
It seemed strange to me though that such a big city, such an industrialised city, didn’t have a brewery of it’s own. Perhaps being so well connected by canal to Burton on Trent and Birmingham was the reason, but it’s something that has righted itself today. There are a number of brewers in the Potteries with one in particular beginning to make a wider mark. That brewery is Titanic, named after that ship’s captain who was a Burslem man, and its stories and legends infuse the company’s beers without, it must be said, leaving you with that sinking feeling. Quite the opposite in fact: these are grand beers and in an ironic twist, Stoke’s beers are now regularly available on the shelves and bars of Burton on Trent. For research purposes, I drank three.
Not as green as cabbage looking is not the name of the beer, but Stokey dialect for not being easily fooled. And you won’t be with White Star, a deceptively drinkable classic pale ale (4.8%), with a bready-malt aroma, colour as bright as a new pound coin and a distinct hop bite. This is a beautifully structured beer, from a lovely head formation & retention to a well-hewn body. It drinks well with little assertive aftertaste. It’s a midlands-strength session beer – by that, it’s a session beer of full strength (like Pedigree or Bass – that are considered ‘premium’ or strong elsewhere.)
Goo dine th’ pub fer us and gerrus parnt; well you probably wouldn’t say that, as off-sales didn’t come until later, but gerrin’ a parnt of Captain Smith’s (5.2%) is well worth the finding. Again, a bold beer; this time with a red-brown colour; the maltiness and alcohol conducive to a lovely head and lacing. To taste, there’s a gentle natural carbonation from secondary conditioning and a mild, chewy toffee flavour with perhaps, a touch of liqourice in the background giving that slightly bitter moreishness. Well rounded, well brewed, fit for a captain.
Dunner rattle on duck; well I’ll try not to, but Titanic Stout (4.5%) is a cracking, secondary conditioned classic. You should tack yer tarme over it: enjoy the pitch black body, with a head the colour of chicken liver pate and just as compact and dense (albeit more pleasant in my view). The aroma wafts out: leafy hops first, followed by roastiness – a nice order, a great combination. To taste, this is a hop forward stout, but not assertively so and deceptively light in taste with a medium body: not heavy and cloying, not light and unsatisfying. As stouts go: it has the robust appearance of a proper old school stout with drinkability; flavour interest and no aggressive aftertaste. The best of the bunch I reckon.
The brewery has pubs too; in that curious thumb-nosing to the Beer Orders, more and more craft breweries are coming full circle and seeing that having a small, high quality pub estate is not a nice to have, but essential. Titanic’s pubs are worth seeking out (http://www.titanicbrewery.co.uk/c/our-pubs) and in particular, it’s worth heading to Burslem, where they’re based. Here, you can not only experience that Potteries’ friendliness but also go beyond the stereotypes and see a fine, stately town. Hidden a bit perhaps, but there all the same. And now they have beers of which the locals can be equally proud.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014
* ‘Stoke’, ‘The Potteries’ and ‘The Six Towns’ are used interchangeably throughout this post. What is meant is that area containing the conurbations of Stoke-on-Trent, Burslem, Tunstall, Hanley, Fenton, Longton and Newcastle under Lyme, although many would argue about the inclusion of the last one. It’s a bit posh after all.
** Considered a less skilled job than the saggarmaker, and hence the genesis of the lovely term: the saggarmaker’s bottom knocker.