The UK brewing revolution has continued unabated at a dizzying pace.
The gradual rebirth of real ale due to the genesis of CAMRA turned into a tidal wave with over 2000 breweries now plying their craft in the UK.
The vast percentage of them produce cask conditioned beer, either exclusively or as well as craft keg.
However the narrow historical traditional choices of bitter, mild, porter and stout have been augmented with a plethora of new styles to entice the palates of drinkers, with IPA or Pale Ale most recognisably in vogue.
The last beer census in York revealed that there are over 300 different real ales available at any one time in York’s pubs and that is testament to both the appeal of cask beer and the pubs that champion them.
Choosing just ten of the best real ale pubs is a nigh on impossible task, but here’s my selection where you can be assured of both quality and choice.
The Blue Bell
53 Fossgate, York YO1 9TF
For years this pub’s red glazed brickwork signified somewhere that stood alone as a beacon of good beer in an epicurean desert that is now one of the eating and drinking hotspots in York.
Six bars now ply their trade on a pretty street just 150 metres long, but the plaudits go to a pub that has traded on this site since 1798 and continues to thrive and more than hold its own against the newcomers.
The Blue Bell has the last 19th century pub interior in York to survive intact. It’s wood-panelled throughout, with small front bar complete with real fire and a small back room and connecting corridor, both served through a hatch.
Meetings in this pub led to the formation of York City FC in 1922.
Despite its size, it manages to pack seven handpumps onto the bar, with regular beers from Bradfield, Kelham Island, Roosters, Rudgate and Tim Taylors.
114 Micklegate, York YO1 6JX
This is the pub that trailblazed the rebirth of Micklegate as a civilised eating and drinking area.
It stood in defiance of the general louche area vibe where drunken pub crawls were the norm and good pubs the exception.
The capacious bright and airy interior, with light varnished wooden floors is comfortable and equally welcoming to diners and drinkers. The ground floor bar area leads to a lowered floor lounge area, while upstairs is a period Georgian function/ dining room.
The new extended seating area to the left as your enter caters during the day for diners and the daily menu features upmarket traditional pub food using seasonal and locally sourced produce.
Ten handpulls dispense beers from local Yorkshire breweries such as Great Heck, Turning Point, Mallinsons and Brass Castle plus unusual for York – Okells from the Isle of Man.
Continental and craft keg beers plus bottles ensure there’s something for everyone.
2 Cromwell Rd, Bishophill, York YO1 6DU
A heritage pub of national importance that is a modern day beacon to community integration in the Bishophill area of the city centre.
It is York’s only cooperative pub – the lease being purchased by 183 investors who wanted to keep this much treasured asset in local hands.
A listed building, national heritage experts describe its “unusual” planning, seating area and “a distinctive ceramic signature” in the glazed bricks and tiles, and rare tiled counter front in the relatively untouched 1929 front bar.
The Golden Ball’s raison d’être is to serve the local community and hosts musicians; artists; poets; bar billiards teams; mothers and toddlers groups; themed parties; community group meetings and sales of local produce such as artisan bread.
Seven beer engines on the bar dispense mainly Yorkshire real ale with regular beers from the likes of Little Valley; Half Moon; Copper Dragon and Treboom.
2 Piccadilly, York YO1 9NU
Perched on the corner of Piccadilly and Coppergate, The Pavement Vaults is a handsome renovation of part of a group of empty buildings whose stagnation blotted the landscape for over 30 years.
The bar and eating area is a contemporary mix of exposed brick and aluminium fittings juxtaposed against muted heritage matt paint. Full length glass panels give drinkers a window on the world outside. The iron spiral staircase leads to an atmospheric subterranean seated lounge.
It’s a multifaceted venue with all the different ingredients combining to ensure a satisfying visit. There’s the full smokehouse experience from an open kitchen and if you’re not a pitmaster convert there’s a wood fired pizza oven ready to oblige.
Eight handpulls dispense real ales of diverse styles from Yorkshire such as Thornbridge and Tapped (their own brewery) and from further afield the likes of Atom; Arbour and Tiny Rebel. Artisan craft ales and lagers complete the line-up.
75 George St, York YO1 9PT
This heritage pub dating back to 1790 nestles just inside the historic city walls near to the York Barbican.
The Phoenix is the last surviving pub inside the walls which served the cattle market in Fishergate.
Authenticity is a key in its appeal and to preserve the historic features of the pub a major refurbishment was completed in 2008-9, which led to a national conservation award.
There’s an emphasis on no TVs or jukeboxes and a real log fire crackles away in the comfortable front bar on cold evenings.
For those who prefer music with their ale there are longstanding weekly jazz sessions as well as regular Sunday afternoon jazz, swing and blues gigs.
The pub has five real ales with permanent ones from Timothy Taylors, Copper Dragon & Wold Top supplemented by two varying guests, most recently from Crooked Brewing in Church Fenton.
The Slip Inn
20 Clementhorpe, York YO23 1AN
The sister pub to The Swan, this unassuming independent local freehouse has thrived ever since it was purchased from Marstons.
Despite its location tucked down Clementhorpe such was its popularity with local residents of the Bishy Rd area, it necessitated alterations to provide more drinking space.
The pub is fairly open plan with a small bar both separating and serving the bijou front bar and the far more expansive back lounge which includes a snug which used to be a separate room, but now feels a lot more inclusive with its lowered wall.
There’s a large courtyard-cum-garden where they hold regular beer festivals and which doubles as a covered smoking area.
Five well-kept real ales include regulars Taylors Boltmaker; Rudgate Ruby Mild and Leeds Pale supplemented by 2 guests from the likes of Brass Castle and Oakham.
The Snickleway Inn
47 Goodramgate, York YO1 7LS
A flourishing hostelry in a timbered building dating back to the 15th century, with the sort of delicious history to jazz up any CV.
In previous incarnations it’s been both a brothel and a gunpowder store for Charles l in the Civil War. It’s also noted for its active gaggle of ghosts.
Known previously for 98 years as The Anglers Arms, the pub is a draw for many inquisitive tourists as well as a solid gathering of regulars.
The management don’t rest on its historical laurels, utilising every bit of the split level bar area, snug and miniature beer garden. There’s regular live music as diverse as the local male voice choir; jazz; rock and reggae – known as Snickledub, as well as a weekly quiz.
There’s six real ales on tap with rotating guests supplementing regulars such as Rooster’s Yankee; Jennings Snecklifter and Theakston’s Best Bitter.
16 Bishopgate St, York YO23 1JH
A bustling community hostelry that’s recently become a freehouse, which is emblematic of the tireless campaigning of its proprietor Paul Crossman, who has acquired a national reputation for pub campaigning and getting licensees a fairer deal from their pub companies. Look up ‘Pubs Code’.
The interior design dating back to 1936 is rare in that it is virtually intact with rectangular leaded lights, panelled doors, architraves, terrazzo flooring, hatches and leaded-glazed screenwork providing a lovely space in which to imbibe in two rooms plus a distinctly northern “stand up lobby”.
The Swan is forward looking in every other respect with a judicious beer selection keeping the hoards happy.
Swan Special Blond (brewed in collaboration with Treboom); Tetley’s and Taylor’s Landlord are “ever presents” on a bar dispensing eight real ales with five regularly rotating guest beers from far and wide – handily previewed on a blackboard by the bar.
Waggon & Horses
19 Lawrence St, York YO10 3BP
A welcoming busy family run pub with letting rooms a few yards from Walmgate bar.
Its former bold distinctive red painted Flemish bond brickwork is now a more refined gunmetal grey, adorning a building dating back to 1773. And the original gated entrance for horse drawn carriages now takes you into the small rear car park and beer garden.
The multiple drinking rooms are put to good use with the bar a mixture of open plan and smart dining cubicles with a large room on the left as you enter that is multifunctional with a bar billiards table.
Two smaller rooms at the rear are popular with local community groups for meetings with great beer.
Although Batemans own the pub they have an enlightened attitude to the beer tie and so there are multiple guest beers to accompany staples such as Batemans Gold, XXXB & Oakham Citra.
York Brewery Tap Room
12 Toft Green, York.
Having travelled a few feet from where it was brewed, beer doesn’t taste any fresher than the tap room in York Brewery, which when it opened in May 1996 was the first brewery within the city walls for 40 years.
The Tap Room is upstairs in the heart of the brewery and has that comfortable “lived in” feel with wooden beams, wooden barrels for tables and some comfy armchairs in an adjoining extension.
Most people would assume that its function is just to welcome visitors doing the popular daily brewery tours, but it’s open to the public from Tuesday six days a week.
Under the ownership of Mitchells there has been significant expansion of volume as well as range. The 6 draught real ales served on the bar consist of their core range – the likes of Guzzler; Otherside IPA and Centurion’s Ghost, plus a rotating selection of their seasonal beers.
Nick Love is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers and an experienced pub campaigner. He’s a regular interviewee on all things pub related on local and national Radio and TV and is York CAMRA’s Pub Protection Officer. He present’s Jorvik FM’s mid-morning show.