I always do a bit of research before I go anywhere new, just to make sure I’m going in the right direction. When I do this I’m always mindful of my Dad’s saying, ‘Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.’ In this case, interpret ‘hear’ metaphorically and translate it into ‘read’. This is because there is hardly any mention of Cloisters Bar in any of the top ten, best pub reviews for Edinburgh. Many of which seem to be very similar and contain pubs which just shouldn’t be on any discerning persons list. But, each to his or her own I say.
Anyway I was indebted to the mixologist behind the bar at Andrew Ushers for pointing us in the direction of Cloisters Bar when I bemoaned their own lack of cask beers. Cloisters Bar is well off the tourist trail, far beyond The Grassmarket. It’s about 5 minutes walk south of the big traffic lights at Tollcross on Brougham Street. It’s quite an interesting area with lots of little bars, restaurants and pubs and worth walking or catching the bus out to. We found that the Lothian Buses £4 day ticket for 24hrs unlimited travel was invaluable for getting around cheaply and seeing the sights from the top of the (mainly) double deckers.
Cloisters Bar isn’t exactly in an old Church and it isn’t what you would strictly think of as ‘cloisters’ but it is sited within a very ecclesiastical building, complete with bare floors, high ceilings, lots of stone and wood and churchy features. Obviously they’ve put a bar in I don’t know where they got it from but it’s impressive and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something that’s been salvaged from the original building. If I’m honest, it’s not a traditional style boozer, but it’s very well done and has a real homely feel to it. On every table there’s a small posy, a (nice) artificial thistle in a little glass jar of malt. The only thing that needs fixing is the heavy front door. Okay there is a notice saying it sticks, but there was no way Mrs C was going to push it open. A bit of a rub down the latch jamb with some candle wax maybe, failing that a joiner. As soon as I walked in it felt good. For a start, I wasn’t the oldest person in the pub (unlike the nearby, 10mins walk, Hanging Bat). There were young people, old people, a few student cum academic types and the stand out feature, some real Scottish people; regular folk just out for an early evening drink. You know, blokes on their way home, sat reading the paper with a pint or a glass of Scotch. An old gadgie sat in the corner surreptitiously pulling his own packet of crisps from the multipack in his Morrisons carrier. He put them on the table and looked wistfully around the pub for a few moments before ripping in to them. I don’t blame you though mate, why do pub crisps have to be so dear?
The staff were perfect. The bubbly Scots lass behind the bar knew her stuff and went out of her way to assist when I told her what I liked;
‘I,ve not tried the Burning Sky Plateau,’ she said, giving me a taster, ‘what do you think’?
‘Wow. Smell it,’ I said, passing it back.
‘Oh Yes’, she says while pulling herself a sly one .
So that was my first half, very nice too. Beerwise the place would go down with both CAMRA drinkers and Craft beer buffs alike. There are nine cask lines, eight changing regularly, and ten keg lines, including lagers. I stuck on the cask ales but Mrs C, who likes a little bit of effervescence, as well as taste, in her beer went for and stayed on the Fyne Ales Jarl from the keg. I’m never going to end up dying in a ditch over the cask ale – craft beer thing, I’m pretty ambivalent, but if you want people in pubs, you’re going to have to give them what they want. And maybe that’s a bit of everything, which they had here?
Prices varied from a very cheap £2.95 per pint to just a bit over the average. I didn’t mind paying though, it was worth it. As well as the Burning Sky ale, I also had a Bad Day at The Office (4.5%) by Alechemy Brewing Co while I was there (£3.70/pint). It was a decent ale but I went back to the Burning Sky Plateau which was extremely tasty for a 3.5% brew and 10p a pint cheaper to boot. The distance travelled from Sussex, compared to the local brew must have almost cancelled out the 1% difference in ABV? Still, I was impressed to see a tap list that geographically covered from Cornwall to Orkney, via Bristol, Wakefield, yet retained a local heart. The toilets are in the basement, down a very broad, cast iron spiral staircase. Most impressive. The condition of the toilets was first rate, indeed the whole of the pub is very well kept. There weren’t many free tables, but every time customers got up to leave one of the bar staff was straight out from behind the bar to clear everything away.
The pub has been going since 1995, I know that because there’s the head of a barrel on the wall with it emblazoned on. It’s worth standing across the other side of the road and looking back at the illuminated pub and hanging baskets, which are real too. It’s tastefully done but, there’s no way you could walk past and miss it at night. You can pick out some of the weird eclectic architecture too. The door has a Gothick arch hood moulding above it, yet the adjacent ground floor windows have originally been set in Roman arches.
For me the stand out features were the beer, the customers and the staff, they even let me stand behind the bar to get a better picture of the tap list!. Top marks in both departments and Cloisters Bar is the best bar by far that I’ve been to in Edinburgh. In fact it was so good we went back to meet the team from Swannay brewery, but that’s another story entirely.