The Real Deal

HUGO JONES on why his favourite tipple is real ale – and the best places in Cambridge to procure the dark stuff.

beer culture food Hugo Jones James Bond kingston arms Real ale The Champion of the Thames The Free Press The Maypole white russians

Real ale isn’t sexy, and to be honest it isn’t all that cool. There was a reason that Ian Fleming had James Bond sip upon a dry martini rather than a pint of Lighthouse. And why ‘The Dude’ drowned his sorrows with White Russians, and not a cheeky Timmy Taylor. Real ale makers often don’t do themselves any favours. The whole way in which it is packaged and sold makes it look like it is intended for that select group of people who find the idea of tucking into a pint of ‘Bumblethwacker’ an appealing prospect, rather than for people who still have all their teeth and taste buds intact.

Terrible pump clips – just one of the things the dedicated ale drinker has to put up with.

Recently, though, real ale has had a bit of a renaissance. In fact, it is hard to make a case against drinking real ale. Real ale is generally made by local people who produce it not to add another zero to the profit-column in their ledger books but because they love drinking it themselves.  It is generally produced with ingredients that haven’t been shipped half-way across Europe in a sweaty container before being shoved into a huge, clinical vat and left to stew for a few days with a couple of squirts of gas to make it fizzy enough that you don’t notice that it doesn’t taste of anything.

Without getting all technical, ‘hops’ are what gives beer its flavour. Real ales are packed full of the blighters, giving them their distinctive and individual taste. Best of all, ale tends to be the cheapest drink behind the bar in most pubs and if you are a stingy bastard like me, this is not a bad thing.

The problem for the real ale lover – or even anyone who fancies a pint now and again – is that most of the pubs in Cambridge aren’t great for it. College bars rarely have more than a tap or two of Adnams on offer and do not showcase the great ales brewed around Cambridge. High rents mean that there are Greene Kings a-plenty, but few independent joints showing off what the local area has to offer.

This is where The Kingston Arms comes into its own. The Kingston Arms is possibly the best pub in Cambridge. Not that many students get to it because it is a little outside of the centre – off Mill Road just before the bridge – but they definitely should. It does brilliant, meaty pub-food, all served up with one of the many local brews on tap. There will be a load of stuff here you have never heard of, whether you are a connoisseur or nervous ale virgin.

From hoppy bitters to light IPAs the whole shebang is on offer here. Best of all, it is cheap. Some of the beers are available for close enough to £2 a pint. In a pub. In the centre of Cambridge. And you can’t really argue with that. And if you can’t get to the Kingston Arms, why not try one of these lovely establishments.

Hugo’s hot hatrick for hoppy heaven:

The Free Press

Where: Prospect Row

Why: Tucked away between the rows of terraced houses bordering Parker’s Piece, this small pub has loads of great beers on tap, but be warned: it closes early during the week.

The Champion of the Thames

Where: King’s Row, a stones throw away from Jesus College

Why: Although this is owned by a big brewery, it has a fairly decent selection and the staff and regulars are friendly.

The Maypole

Where: Portugal Place, 10 seconds from the ADC

Why: It’s slap bang in the middle of the beaten-track for Arts students and music-whizzes, and has a surprisingly good collection.