Cardiff by Pub
Not so long ago, the choice of beer in Cardiff was not the greatest in the land. With most pubs tightly tied to the local Brains brewery, variety was not an option and, however much you enjoyed Brains beer, you sometimes yearned for something a little different.
How times have changed. Cardiff is now rapidly climbing the ladder of UK beer cities and, to give credit where it is due, this transformation is owed at least in part to Brains, as I discovered on my latest pub crawl.
I began my tour in the student heartland of Roath, aiming to check out the latest in the small chain of Rhymney Brewery houses.
I remember Rhymney's famous 'hobby horse' logo from my childhood days in South Wales but I never had a chance to taste the beer before the brewery closed in 1978.
In 2005, the hobby horse rode back from the dead when the brewery name was revived by a new business in Merthyr.
Now based in Blaenavon, Rhymney is growing nicely and it has four pubs to call its own. The Cardiff outlet is called the Andrew Buchan, after the founder of the original brewery.
Occuping a corner site on a bustling main street, this former video shop, with its glass front, bright lights and flashing fruit machines, looks disconcertingly more like a bookmaker's than a pub as you approach. Inside, however, there's a friendly, comfortable atmosphere helped along by a wood burner just inside the door.
The long, pale wooden bar (pictured above) dispenses five of Rhymney's offerings. I enjoyed the old-fashioned tastes of Bitter, Dark and Export, each full-flavoured and in tip-top condition.
Handsome Brains House
From the Andrew Buchan, it is but a short step down a sidestreet to one of Cardiff's best traditional locals.
The Albany is a handsome, 19th-century Brains house, catering well for its neighbours and visitors in a nicely-upholstered lounge, an equally well maintained, although slightly more basic, public bar and a separate skittle alley.
Leaded windows pick out the old Brains logo in stained glass while the bar picks out a selection of the brewery's beers.
There are five on handpump, as well as a guest ale – on my visit, St Austell Tribute.
Back on the streets, I quickened my step into the city centre, a brisk, 20-minute hike, cutting beneath railway lines, to a converted townhouse called The Pen & Wig.
This Stonegate pub company house, as its name suggests, caters for the local legal fraternity, as well as shoppers from Queen Street just a few blocks away.
The selection of eight cask ales (pictured on the Inside Beer home page) is impressive and always changing. I found ales from Blue Monkey, Otley and Red Squirrel, among numerous breweries, and enjoyed the slightly upmarket atmosphere in the single, but nicely-divided, room. There's also a large courtyard at the rear.
I made next for the Rummer Tavern, a genuinely old pub, slap bang opposite the main entrance to Cardiff Castle. An appropriately historic-looking, black and white facade, with leaded windows and a solid door, conceals a long and narrow bar room, panelled and floored with wood.
The bar sits towards the rear. Beer here has gained new credibility in recent times and the pub is now on the ale circuit.
The selection is not over-extensive but good, with regulars Wye Valley HPA and the old local favourite Hancock's HB joined by two or three guests.
Just around the corner, on High Street, stands The Goat Major, which, when I was growing up, used to be called The Bluebell.
It's a very impressive Brains pub, broadly L-shaped inside, with a tiled floor, plenty of wood panelling and swanky House of Commons green banquettes.
Unusually here, I found Brains SA on gravity dispense, adding to a number of the company's beers on handpump and a fridge well stocked with envelope-pushing bottled beers from the Brains internal microbrewery.
Tipping back – far too easily – a glass of a new, low-gravity beer called Amber, at this point I realised the day was racing away.
This meant I reluctantly had to forgo the pleasures of such places as Chapter Arts Centre, to the west of the centre in Canton (already featured on these pages); the Mochyn Du, conveniently adjacent to Glamorgan Cricket in Sophia Gardens; and The Cottage (another historic, narrow Brains pub), as well as The Queens Vaults (run by a company that has half-a-dozen pubs in South Wales) and a branch of the Zerodegrees brew pub chain, in order to make time for two must-visit venues.
The first of these was The City Arms (pictured below), a long-standing Brains pub that has been transformed – much like Cardiff itself – into an ale magnet. Brains beers are served, of course, but so are many guest beers.
Banks of handpumps line each side of the island bar, while fridges loaded with international beers also catch the eye.
Bottles and pumpclips provide much of the decor in this pared-down, multi-area alehouse that testifies to the way in which the city's major brewery has shrewdly moved with the times.
Step from the front door of The City Arms and you fall into my final port of call.
The Urban Tap House is now the city's craft beer hub, run by the highly-regarded Tiny Rebel brewery just down the road in Newport.
The building operated for many years as the staff club for local council workers then reinvented itself as a bar called Fire Island a year or so back, before Tiny Rebel stepped in.
Towards the back, which is where you enter if coming from The City Arms, seating is set out around the sides, some in booths, some using upturned casks as tables.
Exposed air conditioning tubes snake above your head and brickwork remains deliberately exposed to create the urban atmosphere the name suggests. Other rooms, in a variety of styles and bookable for functions, can be found to the front and upstairs.
Tiny Rebel's beers share centre stage with ales from other breweries (Dark Star on this visit), as cask and keg compete for your attention, with international bottled beers adding to the extensive variety.
As you leave the Urban Tap, the Millennium Stadium's main entrance is directly opposite, which should tell you that you'll be very lucky to squeeze in on match days. But, as is abundantly clear, Cardiff now has many places that cater admirably for the discerning drinker.
Plan your visit now.