Pub/Bar of the Month April 2011: Bunch of Grapes
The Bunch of Grapes, Pontypridd, UK
Pontypridd: a place not traditionally associated with outstanding beer, but now home to one of the best pubs in the UK.
The old South Wales market town, at the foot of the Rhondda and Merthyr valleys, has long been plagued by the domination of keg beer.
When I grew up in this part of the world, I knew nothing of the subtleties and nuances of fine cask ale. All I had to cut my drinking teeth on was dull, gassy keg beer from national breweries.
If only The Bunch of Grapes had been around in my formative days. I could have avoided several wasted years and discovered my love of great beer so much sooner.
The Bunch (as it’s familiarly known) is not easy to find. Hidden away in a terraced street on the far side of town from the railway station, its presence is unassuming.
But step through the door and the picture is somewhat different. Here is a confident beer emporium that is equally well appreciated by diners, with one of the best regarded restaurants in the area.
The reputation of the pub comes in no small part from the efforts of Nick Otley. A former fashion photographer in London, he moved back to Wales ten years ago to take over the pub, one of three owned by the Otley family in and around Pontypridd.
At the time, The Bunch was hardly doing well. A succession of managers had failed to realise its potential and the lone handpump serving just Hancock’s HB – a rather bland beer from the Bass (later Coors) stable – summed up the extent of their ambitions.
Nick set about changing the whole ethos of the place, beginning – as so many publicans wisely do – with the beer. Out went the HB and in its place five new handpulls began dispensing more exotic cask beers.
The number of handpumps has now grown to nine, with three of them usually reserved for beers brewed by Nick and his family at the Otley Brewery, which they opened a few miles up the road in 2005.
The other pumps are primed with an ever-changing selection of guest beers, perhaps from Hop Back, Three Tuns or even as far afield as Tryst in Scotland. International beers on tap include Erdinger, DAB, Brooklyn and Lindeboom, and there’s a good range of bottled beers to complete the list.
Every two months, The Bunch stages a themed beer festival, generally based on a particular beer style.
In the conservatory area just beyond the main bar, they keep an extra serving counter that, when brought into play, hugely extends the number of casks on offer. For instance, last June, at the annual Otley-only beer festival, 22 different beers were available.
Helping foster a spirit of good beer camaraderie is the pub’s own beer academy, which organizes visits to breweries and hosts beer tasting events, including showcases for beer and food, tapping in to the pub’s other great strength, namely its kitchen.
I’ve not eaten here myself but reports have been extremely positive, with imaginative, well prepared dishes attracting visitors from all over South Wales. There’s even a delicatessen within the pub.
And yet, despite the heights the pub scales with food and drink provision, this is no haughty ‘gastropub’. The exposed stone walls, bare-board flooring and old beams keep things down to earth and offer an indication of the age of the premises.
It was built around 200 years ago, possibly to slake the thirst of the chain makers working just the other side of the Glamorgan Canal that once carried iron and coal from the valleys down to Cardiff and on to the wider world. A tiny stretch of the navigation still stands behind the pub and there are hopes it can be restored.
If and when that happens, it’ll provide yet another reason to visit this excellent pub.
Ynysangharad Road, Pontypridd CF37 4DA
Tel. (01443) 402934
Opening Hours: 12–midnight (11–1am Friday & Saturday; 11–midnight Sunday)