Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Cask night

One of my favourite pubs in Glasgow is the Laurieston Bar. It stands just south of the Clyde in an area which was largely demolished during the 1970s, but the handsome facade of the former Bridge St railway station, the original terminus before the construction of Central Station on the north bank, remains, and the Laurieston is right next to it, although it has lost its original upper storey at some point over the years.

I’d never been in the Laurieston until the book Scotland’s True Heritage Pubs came out a few years back. A friend and I visited one Sunday afternoon and were instant converts. Not just because of the unique formica-heavy 1960s interior which got it into CAMRA’s National Inventory and the guidebook; it was, as my pal said, the friendliest pub he’d ever been in. We started telling people what a gem they were missing and got more and more fond of the place. Not a few evenings have been spent here, listening to the whimsical jukebox that occasionally plays “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius” from Hair instead of the track you’ve selected. Sometimes we have a pie from the vintage pie heater that says “McGhee’s” on the front. The pies still come from McGhee’s. I like that.

The only thing wrong with the Laurieston is that Fürstenberg is the best beer they sell. Often I find myself drinking smoothflow mild, keg heavy or even Guinness. It’s worth putting up with all that, just for the brilliant crack.

Comparable pubs in Edinburgh or Manchester would sell real ale. This is a Glasgow-wide problem; a cultural divide rooted in the extermination of cask here in the 1960s. There’s a long-standing notion that quality beer will only sell in the West End and the Merchant City, though thankfully this is changing.

Badgering reluctant licensees to sell cask permanently doesn’t often work; it’s a risk to stock a new, perishable beer when you have no idea who, if anyone, is going to drink it.

A different approach was needed. The Americans treat cask as something special: bars make an event of tapping a cask and invite people to come along specially. Perhaps that would work here. Nervously I asked James, who runs the bar with his brother John, if he would consider having a cask for one night only during Glasgow Beer Week. At first he was cautious, saying “Well, we don’t really do promotions here,” as if I had suggested having dolly birds handing out bottles of Heineken.

But he agreed to let me put a brewery in touch, and Fyne Ales agreed to supply a nine of Highlander heavy and lend the pub a handpump. We set a date during Beer Week, and every time I pop in thereafter James seems more enthusiastic, until he is positively bouncing the day before when I look in to check that the beer has arrived.

The brothers have been in the trade long enough to remember when all draught beer was cask-conditioned. I was lucky enough to be invited to see the cellar. Remember I mentioned the unaltered 1960s interior? The pub itself and the cellar are much older than that; we think it probably dates from 1890, contemporary with the railway station next door. Down in the cellar, raw stone surrounds the delivery hatch, which is big enough for the barrels and hogsheads that would have been in daily use when
the pub opened. James nonchalantly picks up a thermometer to check the temperature in the cellar. It’s a promotional one with the name of a brewery on it. Except the brewery is Campbell, Hope & King (closed 1970). This thermometer is older than me and it’s just lying around in the cellar, a reminder of a defunct brewery.

Every time I see James after that he looks happier, and has some anecdote to relate about the old days when they had to hose the wooden beer casks down with water in the summer to keep them cool. He’s also realised that serving real ale means not having to buy CO2 — an advantage which, it seems to me, CAMRA has neglected to emphasise in its promotion of cask to publicans.

The appointed day arrives and we pile into the pub at the ordained time. We each take our turn to receive our foaming pints — a tad warmer than I’d like it, but in marvellous condition. The pub slowly fills up and the quiet of the afternoon session is replaced by the gentle murmur of an evening’s chat. Charlie has come down from the brewery. Veteran Camranauts are here, attracted by the beer. West End scenesters are here, attracted by the beer. One pint goes down, then another. Same again? we ask, unnecessarily.

This is proper old school drinking. There is one kind of beer. You drink lots of pints of it. Food is crisps or toasties. Entertainment is talking to your friends. It is completely stripped-down, essential pub. And it’s bloody brilliant.

Tom goes to the bar for another pint; the handpump sputters and spits and the cask is finished. We have killed the Highlander. A cheer goes up; we are all talking rubbish and happy. Except Tom, who has no beer left. Poor Tom.

Since this night the Laurieston has put in a couple of further orders for cask beer. I am hopeful. There is a further post devoted entirely to the Laurieston’s wonderful tables over at Glasgow Bars and a Crane.


  1. Wow, you're an activist alright. What a result. And what an interior! Reminds me of the spooky, abandoned Valiant Soldier, only the Laurieston is still operating.

  2. Good piece that. I felt I was there, but maybe that's because I have been there, or similar, umpteen years ago. Great stuff.

  3. As well as having the great inside and people have you stopped to have a look at the outside.
    Use this link to see some of my other pictures from there and the outside;

  4. Well done. It is like pulling teeth over here to get a bar to consider cask beer. Cask events and cask nights are a nice way to get people interested at least. This kind of story makes me hopeful.