Pub/Bar of the Month October 2011: The Three Tuns, Bishop's Castle, UK
The Three Tuns, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, UK
It’s been famously noted that, when CAMRA was founded in 1971, there were just four home brew houses left in the UK.
While consolidation in the beer industry in general had been brutal up to this point, the way in which the brew pub had been removed from the national brewing picture was perhaps even more dramatic.
In 1830, the Beer House Act of Parliament actually encouraged home production, so much so that, according to brewing historian Martyn Cornell, almost 13,500 new brewers became licensed and active in England and Wales over the subsequent 14 months.
As the 20th century arrived, however, many of the pubs were acquired by expanding commercial breweries, or it made more sense for most of the brewer-publicans who stayed ‘free’ to take beer from large breweries that offered economies of scale and hence a cheaper pint.
So, by the turn of the 1970s, just four stoic survivors brewed their own. As the idea of preserving British brewing heritage took hold, and the CAMRA movement gained momentum, these pub breweries became objects of pilgrimage.
Tents were pitched in nearby fields just so diehard drinkers could taste some of this rare nectar.
The Four Survivors
The four surviving pubs continue to brew today. One, The Blue Anchor at Helston, Cornwall, has never stopped.
The other three have endured small interruptions of supply: The Olde Swan (familiarly known as Ma Pardoe’s) in Netherton, West Midlands; The All Nations at Madeley, Shropshire; and this month’s selected pub, also in Shropshire, The Three Tuns at Bishop’s Castle.
The Three Tuns is a genuine national treasure. It first obtained a brewing licence in 1642 and the redbrick, tower brewery alongside was constructed by the then owner, John Roberts, at the end of the 19th century. His family was still in charge when CAMRA was founded.
There have been numerous scares about the brewery’s survival in recent times and, indeed, the ownership of the pub and the brewery are no longer the same. That said, the pub still serves the excellent beer.
The premises were refurbished in 2005–6 but the timeless atmosphere has not been destroyed. There are still lots of corners, nooks and crannies in the four drinking areas that form around the central bar.
Two of the rooms are separated by an enormous fireplace and chimney, with log stoves now burning on either side. Beamed ceilings and creaky floorboards are a major part of the appeal.
With the refurbishment came a new extension that offers a view over to the brewhouse. This added area has been sensitively handled. Its bright, airy character contrasts with the comfortingly sombre parts of the old building and the minimalist furnishings ensure that there’s none of the feeling that the old girl has been inappropriately tarted up.
Spotlessly clean and efficiently run, the pub serves three regular beers, brewed just across the yard, along with seasonal beers. A mixture of handed-down recipes and newer creations, these include the simply named XXX bitter, the light-tan-coloured Cleric’s Cure and 1642, a golden ale.
There are also plenty of good choices on the dining menu and, completing the perfect, down-to-earth pub package, walkers are welcome and traditional pub games, such as cribbage and dominoes, can be played.
The Three Tuns is a great example of how an ancient pub with character can be adapted to today’s business and recreational needs. Never mind the 1970s, I reckon it is worthy of a pilgrimage today.
The Three Tuns Inn, Salop Street, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire SY9 5BW.
Tel. (01588) 638797
Opening Hours: 12–11; 12–10.30 Sunday