Taking St Albans’ Blacksmiths Arms against a sea of troubles

There’s a lot of history as well as good beer wrapped up in the Blacksmiths Arms at the junction of St Peter’s Street and Hatfield Road in St Albans city centre. The tall and imposing building, with some mock-Tudor beams around the gable, is thought to stand on the site of an inn that once supplied ale to St Peter’s Church a few yards away.

What is beyond dispute is that, thanks to the efforts of manager Mark Frazer, it has one of the best portfolios of real ale in the city, with many of the beers sourced from far-flung corners of the country. The pub has been listed in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide for three years but that accolade once seemed unlikely as a result of the turbulent ownership of the pub in the first decade of the new century.

The Blacksmiths was owned by the giant national brewer Whitbread that had a big stake in St Albans as a result of buying J W Green, the large Luton brewery. Greens had been no slouch in takeovers itself – it was best known for buying Flowers Brewery in Stratford-on-Avon but much earlier, in 1936, it had taken over the St Albans company, Adey and White. This gave Greens control of 56 pubs and a major presence in the city.

Fast forward to 2000 when Whitbread took the momentous decision to leave brewing and pubs, and concentrate on hotels and coffee shops. Most of the group’s pubs were bought by Laurel Inns, including the Blacksmiths. Laurel decided that, as the Blacksmiths was used mainly by students and other young people, real ale would be of little interest to its core customers. As a result, all but one of the handpumps were ripped out. The beer that remained, Charles Wells Bombardier, is an excellent brew but is scarcely a stranger in the city, with Wells’ Jolly Sailor close at hand.

Laurel, you will not be surprised to learn, went into administration and its pubs passed to Town and City, which had a rather more sensible attitude to what drinkers – both young and old – prefer. When Mark Frazer, from north-east England, took over, he was encouraged to expand the range of cask beers. The handpumps quickly grew to eight and now number 10.

Mark concentrates on beers from small independent breweries. The turnover is staggering. The list of the beers that will feature in the Blacksmiths in November runs to more than 50. As well as the beers on the bar, there are also monthly themed beer weekends, with as many as 32 beers served straight from casks. A Halloween weekend proved especially popular. In the summer, beer festivals are staged in the large rear garden and an inflatable marquee is used to hold talks and tastings.

Local brewers whose beers are often on sale include Tring, whose Side Pocket for a Toad is always popular, Buntingford with both a golden ale and an oatmeal stout, and Red Squirrel, which won beer of the festival at the St Albans CAMRA event in September for its London Porter.

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Beers from further afield include Orkney in the far north and Sharp’s Doom Bar from Cornwall. In between, you will find and savour beers from Castle Rock in Nottingham, Oakham from Peterborough, Elland and Ossett from Yorkshire, Thornbridge from Derbyshire and Maxim from Mark’s home patch in the North-East. Beers are priced, according to strength, from �2.95 to �3.45, which is good value for St Albans.

The Blacksmiths is spacious and split level. Mark and his staff use every part of the pub to good effect. Groups play every Friday and Saturday nights and many areas are set aside for diners. As well as lunch, there are themed evening meals, including gourmet burger night on Tuesday, spice night on Wednesday for curry lovers, and a grill night on Thursday. Breakfasts are served from 10am and there are vegetarian options at all times of the day.

Christmas will be celebrated in style. The pub will be open until 5pm on Christmas Day and as well as festive food Mark will source Christmas beers from brewers from far and wide.

Pub companies tend to come and go like the snows of winter. I discovered from Mark that the Blacksmiths has changed hands yet again, as a result of a merger between Town and City and part of the national pub company, Mitchells and Butlers. M&B is represented in St Albans by a number of pubs, including the King William IV and the Old Fighting Cocks. Some 333 M&B pubs were bought to turn Town & City into a company called Stonegate.

The beer policy hasn’t changed. The Blacksmiths will continue to focus on cask beers from craft breweries. Real ale accounts for 50 per cent of beer sales and – to show just how wrong Laurel Inns were – the pub and its real ales remain popular with young people.

Follow Roger on Twitter @RogerProtzBeer. He edits the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.