Dave Woodhall on the end of an era in Birmingham pub culture.
Pubs are closing all the time – almost every day another one bites the dust. Undercutting by supermarkets, changing demographics and social trends are the usual reaason, and very often a pub will go simply because the neighbourhood has changed and it’s now in the wrong area to survive. It’s a difficult trade in which to run a successful business and the temptation must be there to blame outside forces and quite literally throw in the towel. Particularly if your pub is in a distinctly unpromising location, surrounded by industrial units, scrapyards and derelict buildings, with parking difficult and the only nearby public transport links being a Metro stop a quarter of a mile away.
Yet not only has the Black Eagle, in Factory Rd, Hockley, survived but it’s become a legendary name in real ales circles, winning the CAMRA Birmingham Pub of the Year award half a dozen times and becoming a regular in the Good Beer Guide. At first glance it’s not got much going for it – no great architecture, no pleasant surroundings. It’s awkward to get to and if you didn’t know it was there you could spend a long time trying to find it. Nobody stumbles across the Black Eagle by accident.
So what make the Eagle so successful? It does decent food, spectacularly wonderful beer and has the sort of atmosphere that your grandparents will tell you all pubs used to be like. The only trouble with the Black Eagle is that this most quintessential backstreet local isn’t at the bottom of your street. But if it was you’d never go home.
And all this has been created by Tony Lewis, who this month stepped down as owner of the Eagle after 29 years. Birmingham drinkers now used to a range of wide beers available in a host of good venues might find it hard to believe, but when Tony took over the Eagle in 1989, the real ale scene in Birmingham outside the city centre consisted of a handful of pubs (the Lamp Tavern in Highgate, the Wellhead in the grounds of what was then Perry Barr Polytechnic and I’m struggling to think of anywhere else).
Even in the city centre there wasn’t much choice apart from a couple of Ansells houses where Burton Ale might be found or the legendary, much-missed Atkinson’s bar in the Midland Hotel, which itself served as an inspiration to Tony when he left an acting career in order to join the icensed trade.
“I wanted to open somewhere like Atkinson’s” he later said – and for many years he managed to do just that, in the process keeping real ale alive in the city during the barren years and helping inspire its current resurgence. Some of my best nights have been in the Eagle, usually, like all the great ones, completely unplanned. They just happened.
The Eagle isn’t a bar, it doesn’t attract many of the people who’ve decided that craft beer, whatever that might be, is the new in thing. It’s got a regular clientele who appreciate what it does offer and attracts customers from far and wide who’ve heard what a great pub it is. What I particularly like about the place is that no matter how long it’s been since your last visit, Tony would always welcome you as though you’d been in the night before. Like anyone with a natural talent, he made it all look so easy even though I’ve no doubt that keeping things exactly the same, year on year, is the hardest job imaginable.
Ton’s finally left, and the Black Eagle has got new owners. They’ll carry on in the same way as he did. They wouldn’t dare do any different.