The Head of Steam

April 5, 2018

Last night I was at a pre-launch evening for the Head of Steam, a big new pub on Market Street that opens tonight.  Run by Hartlepool brewers Cameron’s, it’s an intriguing initiative that shows how the more enterprising of the pub companies are responding to the changing market.

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There’s now 18 pubs around the country branded as Head of Steam, all of them marked by a really good range of draught real ales, cutting edge craft beers in keg, and some exotic Belgian and European specials too.  Leicester is no exception, with the current draught selection including – obviously  – a couple of Cameron’s own ales including their flagship ruby bitter Strongarm, plus local brews from Framework, Charnwood and Langton. Craft beers include the extraordinary hazy, full of tropical fruit pale DDH Engima Ekuanot from cult brewers Cloudwater, who also supply a Baltic porter, plus  various lambics, saisons, IPAs and wheatbeers.  Gratifyingly there are screens displaying information about the beers available and beer matching suggestions on the food menu  – there is an effort to actually sell the beer here, not just have it as window dressing.

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So far, so micropub. But this a big old barn of a place spread over two floors and which is a mile away from those cosy ale and conversation places that have made the running in the industry recently. There’s music, fruit machines and a few familiar lagers here too. There’s also a big cocktail and hoptail menu which were going down well last night but I don’t really hold with them so I stuck to the beers.

food1There’s plenty of restaurant space and a big food menu – burgers, pizzas, multicultural tapas and a few specials.  On this evidence it may not be worth a special trip but it’s perfectly competent pub food to soak up the beer. My chicken Milanese was crisp where it needed to be crisp and tender where it needed to be tender and harissa spiced salmon was tasty enough, though no great subtleties of flavour.

It’s hard to judge service on a trial night  – aspects of it were quite chaotic but the staff were by and large lovely and seemed well-chosen. They are going to have to sort out service routines quickly but the ambience is good. Given the somewhat grim, anodyne venue the Head of Steam replaces, this is a huge improvement. It’s great to have a big commercial venue with the clout to get some otherwise hard-to get beers and to support small-scale locals – creating more of a market should encourage them to invest and improve.

  • Edit February 2019: Cameron’s have announced they are closing the Head of Steam and rebranding to their Sanctuary format. They say that have “listened to Leicester” and that the new bar is “more aligned with the sport and late-night economy and demographic in Leicester.”
    So that doesn’t sound too promising – back to being a run of the mill drinking barn possibly.  But I can understand it too – the place had a poor start and I heard bad things about the management post-launch – but  it never seemed to match its beer offering with an appropriate atmosphere. I think beer drinkers in Leicester are still wedded to the idea of smaller, convivial environments – such as the very different Blue Boar and Two-Tailed Lion both just around the corner from the HoS.  Still, good news Camerons are sticking by Leicester and I will check the Sanctuary after its opening due on 1 March.

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