We, as Durham students, have the amazing opportunity to sample the cream of the crop of both British and more far-flung beers, and all right on our doorstep.
For this reason I have, with the help of some (unsurprisingly) willing volunteers, sampled some of the very best watering holes Durham has to offer, in order to provide you with a useful guide.
It shouldn’t be too hard, I would imagine, to coax you all out of the Bill Bryson and into a cozy tavern. With the help of this guide I hope to make you a more adventurous boozer and dissuade you from wasting your precious pennies on a lukewarm Carling at the New Inn.
Each pub that I review will be scored for its atmosphere, for the variety and quality of beers on offer and finally for the all-important price. A ‘good’ beer or pub guide is obviously a very subjective concept, but luckily we are spoilt for choice here in Durham and, as we shall see, there really is something out there for everyone.
Market Tavern, Market Square
Hidden in plain sight in the centre of Market Square is this little beauty. The Market Tavern is a surprisingly spacious traditional tavern with a good selection of ales, craft lagers and ciders on tap. The locally brewed ‘Pacifica’ was a personal favourite, a simple but refreshing session ale costing a very reasonable £3.45. Alternatively, the ‘Frontier’ Craft Lager (£4.50) has a much more interesting flavour than that of a regular lager with the same refreshing finish.
The label of a ‘locals’ pub should never put you off trying it out; it should be seen as a blessing that this pub is not always teaming with rowdy sports team socials. There are screens available to keep an eye on the game, but without any hint of the sports-bar vibe that can be off-putting to some.
Pub – 4/5
Beer – 4/5
Price – 3.5/5
The Shakespeare Tavern, Saddler’s Street
Built in 1190, this is one of the oldest pubs in Durham, and has successfully maintained its old-fashioned charm. The Shakespeare Tavern is a small and lovely pub with a small but lovely selection of beers. Although it would not be able to cope with crowds, it’s a perfect place for small groups or even (heaven forbid!) a solo drink after a stressful day.
The Shakespeare’s choice of beers is understandably limited, but the beers are well kept and the rotation of ales on offer allows for an interesting variety on every visit. The standout beer on my last visit was the ‘Edinburgh 3 Hop’ (£3.90), a very smooth, almost ale-like lager packed full of flavour. The pretty and quaint décor combined with the frequent live music performances and tasty beers also make the Shakespeare an ideal spot for a casual date.
Pub – 4.5/5
Beer – 3.5/5
Price – 3.5/5
The Dun Cow, Old Elvet
This tiny little inn on Old Elvet may be a little bit out of the way for any non-language students, but anyone who ventures this far will be richly rewarded with a snug and welcoming pub that offers hearty meals as well as delicious beers. While writing this article I have been lucky enough to sample some pretty special ales, but the ‘Copper Dragon’ (£3.30) blonde from The Dun Cow has to be my favourite. It is light and refreshing but with the intense depth of flavour normally associated with darker beers.
Whether you fancy a quick drink in the tiny front snug or a longer session with friends in the main lounge, The Dun Cow’s unique set-up makes it an ideal pub for all occasions.
Pub – 4/5
Price – 4/5
The John Duck, Claypath
It may come as a surprise to some that the John Duck features on a good beer guide, but it shouldn’t. For those of you who have frequented it between Sunday and Wednesday, you will have been treated to the ‘Real Ale Club’ offer of £2.50 a pint on a wide selection of on-tap ales and bitters. They are very good at regularly changing the selection, while keeping some consistency with the absolute favourites. On my last visit I thoroughly enjoyed a creamy golden bitter from Rudgate Brewery in York called ‘Viking’. For Lager fans, their ‘Revisionist Craft’ is absolutely delicious and among the cheapest of its breed in Durham, costing a mere £3.40.
This is a very different kind of pub to the others on this list, with huge numbers of screens to watch the sport, and a large dance-floor area for weekly salsa classes (Tuesday nights from 8, beginners welcome!). I would compare the John Duck to ‘The Library’ on the Bailey, but with a much less frantic and claustrophobic atmosphere and a wider selection of much better-kept beers.
Pub – 3.5/5
Beer – 4/5
Price – 5/5
The Head of Steam, North Road
It is this beer-lovers paradise just off North Road that really steals the show in Durham’s pub scene. The Head of Steam celebrates the very best beers from all over the world and therefore offers a hugely impressive selection and variety. Thanks to the clued-up and enthusiastic staff at the bar, you can quite simply tell them what you are looking for in a beer and they will do the rest. My personal favourite is a blonde Belgian beer called ‘La Chouffe’ (£4.95), which packs a punch at 8%, but (dangerously) does not taste at all strong. Those who are not yet convinced by beer, but are willing to give it a go, should sample their delicious ‘gateway’ fruit beers such as Kriek and Kasteel.
This premium quality unfortunately comes at a cost, and I would not therefore recommend making the Head of Steam your everyday local. However it is a perfect venue for a boozy slap-up meal, and an absolute essential for anyone interested in sampling the world’s finest beers.
Pub – 5/5
Beer – 5/5
Price – 3/5