Our beer expert, Andrew Nowell, visits the best pub in the land and delivers his verdict...
Hoppy Hour is a big fan of micropub Wigan Central, so when it emerged that the place had been beaten to Camra’s national Pub of the Year accolade by a venue just a few miles away it was clear a research trip was in order.
READ MORE: The varieties of beers on offer...
And after visiting the Cricketers Arms in St Helens it is clear that when it comes to running a traditional pub this place knocks most of the competition for six.
The pub, which is located on a housing estate close to the town’s Asda, has enjoyed a spectacular transformation since Andy and Denise Evans took it over when it was boarded up.
Even more impressively, 0ur taxi driver on our way to the venue says that before it was shut the Cricketers was so rough it was practically a no-go spot for the town’s cabs.
Arriving there now you would never guess that. The place is covered in congratulatory banners marking the Camra success and large signs of breweries whose beers can often be found on the bar.
And what a bar it is. A choice of 13 superb cask ales await while a fridge to one side contains 10 ciders (there are up to 20 at the height of summer). Throw in a good number of quality lagers and keg beers and the scene is set for a very pleasant afternoon.
What makes the Cricketers stand out is the attention to detail. The bar area is wreathed in hops. The windows have proper, high-quality wooden shutters. The toilets are generously appointed.
The choice of ales is superb. There is always a balanced offering, with a promise on a board outside that there will always be a mild, a stout, a porter, a real lager, two malty bitters, two IPAs and five hoppy session ales on.
This particularly delights Mrs Hoppy Hour, who is a devoted dark ale fan and is frequently frustrated when a ‘wide choice of beers’ turns out to be four golden brews and an IPA.
They are all extremely well kept. Ales arrive with good-sized heads, bodies bell-clear and immediately ready to drink. It is an indictment of some of the industry that you can almost forget that waiting five minutes at your table for your beer to settle is not a normal part of the drinking process.
This is all the more impressive as I am told that the pub has been packed out since the Camra award was given.
Among the beers we had which stood out were a moreish session sipper of a classic mild by Stoke concern Titanic, the deliciously tropical Juicy by Tiny Rebel which was a bit like drinking alcoholic liquid Starburst and the palate-cleansing, thirst-quenching, lemony White Rat from the brewery attached to the acclaimed Rat and Ratchet pub in Yorkshire. Patriotic
Wiganers will also be pleased to know Crafty Fox by the Wily Fox gang at Martland Mill was also in top form.
Long-established concerns jostle for attention on the bar alongside newcomers and names who combine cask with an interest in the craft beer scene. There’s something for everyone.
That is borne out by the fact the Cricketers is a genuine community pub. From family and friends groups sitting around the barrels which serve as corner tables, where the different generations mix (a peculiarly northern phenomenon as Wigan writer Laura Barton has pointed out)to a whole range of Saints fans getting a drink in before the match, the Cricketers clearly appeals to a wide cross-section.
A huge screen was showing Super Sunday but with the sound low enough for conversation, there is an outdoor area mainly used by smokers and adverts around the pub promise a lively range of events throughout the year including four beer festivals, one for each season.
We know that for some Wiganers making the trip across Billinge Hill to St Helens can be a tricky idea. But I cannot believe most ale fans would not thoroughly enjoy the Cricketers, now the country’s best beer pub.