A few years ago, I asked my beer-loving friends for the name of the oldest pub they had ever been to. All in all, I received eighteen responses to my question.
Recently I got back in touch with as many as I could to get more of their memories of those famous pubs.
The following is Part One of a continuing series on the oldest pubs globally and what it is like to visit them.
I hope you enjoy the trip as much as they did.
Let’s get started!
1) The Bear Inn, Oxford, England (1242)
The Old Bear Inn, Oxford, England
“It was a while ago, but I’ll share what I remember. I was visiting with work colleagues before dinner. We had just merged with a company in Oxford, and I was spending a lot of time in London and Oxford in those days.”
“The first thing that struck me is that it is literally off the beaten path. If you did not know it was there, you weren’t going to find it by strolling down the Oxford main streets. It is near.”
“The second thing I noticed and greatly appreciated was the un presupposing nature of it. It looked its age, but, as with everything in Oxford, it wore it with dignity. It was not crowded at the time we arrived, but you could tell it was about to be.”
“It was funky, and smelly and absolutely delightful in a rustic McSorley’s kind of way without the sawdust and haphazard funk. Having not been there for a while, I do not know how or if it’s changed much.”
“Still, the best part of the experience was, at the time, it had the atmosphere of just another pub you went to for a pint after class/work, not the pub you had to visit because it is one of the oldest in the world.”
Andrew G Black
The Bear Inn: According to their Web Site, they are…
“A hidden gem, The Bear is the oldest pub in Oxford and situated just off the busy High Street hustle and bustle. Popular with students, locals, and tourists alike, The Bear is a beacon for anyone who enjoys a fantastic pint of real ale and good, home-cooked, traditional pub food.”
“Aside from its stunning longevity, the pub is probably most famous for its quirky collection of ties – dating back to the early 1900s and representing clubs in the Oxford area and, more recently, worldwide.”
“A great place to unwind, take off your own tie, and enjoy looking at everyone else’s!”
“Serving Oxford since 1242, we at The Bear Inn know what’s important… delicious food, a fantastic selection of real ales, and a warm welcome to locals and tourists alike. Seating just two dozen inside – but many more in our heated garden – we’re a small but mighty institution.”
The Bear Inn: As noted in Wikipedia…
“A distinctive feature of the Bear is a collection of over 4,500 snippets of club ties. It started in 1952 by the landlord, Alan Course, who has worked as a cartoonist at the Oxford Mail. Tie ends were clipped with a pair of scissors in exchange for half a pint of beer.”
“Originally pinned to the wall, they are now displayed in glass-fronted cases on the walls and even the (low) ceiling. The ties mostly indicate membership of clubs, sports teams, schools, and colleges, etc.”
Speaking of the tie collection…
“The Bear is featured in Colin Dexter’s novel “Death Is Now My Neighbour.” Inspector Morse seeks the aid of the pub’s landlords (and tie experts), Steve and Sonya Lowbridge, in identifying a tie from a photograph.”
2) Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham, England (1100s)
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem
“My oldest was Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem in Nottingham, England. As you may know or recall, I am a saxophonist and a bassist… While touring England with my hip hop band Spokinn Movement, I was also functioning as a tour manager.
Since I was developing excitement for brewing (still am actually), I ensured us time to visit real ale pubs and establishments everywhere we stayed to perform. This place was an absolute highlight for me. It reeked of history and had an atmosphere of long lost fairy tales, yet it was real.”
“Established in 1189 (so they say), it was a final stop for many knights of King Richard’s Crusades before heading off to Jerusalem.”
“The real ale was delicious, of course: adequately served with the option of 20oz British pints or 10oz half pints, at the proper temperature and wonderfully clear.”
“But as the atmosphere trumped the whole of my memory, I am sad to say that I can not remember what they were pouring and what I drank of it (the tour was in 2008). I often say that beer can only be as good as the people you choose to drink it with, but clearly, sometimes beer is only as good as where you decide to drink it.”
The Visit Nottinghamshire folks note the following on their site…
“As England’s oldest inn, the pub is nestled beneath the cliff on which Nottingham’s historic castle stands, and was once a well-known pit stop for crusader knights. It is said that King Richard the Lionheart and his men are more than likely to have gathered at this historic royal dwelling before journeying to Jerusalem in 1189AD. This is giving the pub its unusual name.”
“Something of a cross between an inn and a museum. The pub features several bars, cozy nooks, and snug lounges filled with Nottingham’s curiosities and relics. You can enjoy a delicious pub meal everyday between 11am and 10pm in the Rock Bar, where you can warm up next to the fire in Yorkie’s Lounge. Or enjoy the expansive garden area when the weather is pleasant.”
“Beneath the pub, cave cellars root deep into the sandstone cliff and, like many of Nottingham’s 800+ caves, have for centuries been used for storage of ale. Located in the cellars is an old cockfighting pit. Part of the Castle Gaol was said to be housed in the cellars at one time.”
“This included the condemned cell, a small cell with a low ceiling with small holes drilled to allow a little air to flow through. The Gaoler would have sat just outside the cells on the ‘Gaoler’s Chair,’ which was etched out of the rock and can still be seen today.”
“Whether you are simply after a refreshment while you drink in the history of Nottingham, or are looking to sample some choicest fayre as you contemplate the wealth of heritage around you, you will find a cozy nook, lounge, or bar room at The Trip to suit your needs. So, come along, take a step back in time and soak up this piece of England’s colorful, sometimes bloody, past!”
The good folks at Wikipedia note the following regarding the origins of Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem…
The oldest pub in England?
“Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is one of several pubs claiming to be the oldest in England. Other pubs claiming to be the oldest include Ye Olde Salutation Inn and The Bell Inn also in Nottingham, and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, north of London.”
“The pub claims that it was established in 1189 AD, the year that Richard the Lionheart became king and Pope Gregory VIII called for a Third Crusade to the Holy Land.”
“However, there is no documentation to verify this date. Evidence suggests caves in the rock against which the pub is built were used as a brewhouse for Nottingham Castle. The brewhouse may date from around the time the castle was built in 1067.”
“Oldest parts of the current building were likely constructed between 1650 and 1660. A map by John Speed shows a previous building in 1610. In 1751 the building was used as an inn called The Pilgrim. Shortly after that date, it was purchased by William Standford. The first record of the use of the name Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem dates from 1799.”
3) McSorley’s Old Ale House, New York, NY (1854)
“For me, McSorleys is the place we had heard about as kids in the NJ suburbs…almost as a myth.”
“When we finally got there and waited in line, the smell of McSorley’s hit me. It is a unique smell, which has not been changed (or I worked in too many bars to notice it) with the smoking ban.”
“It is a slightly soured smell of the sugars in the wort. There is no other bar or brewpub with that smell of the high sugars. I would guess it has soaked into the woodwork and dust for the last few hundred years.”
“It clearly is a landmark tavern.”
Casey Raskob III
My Interview with the late owner Matthew “Matty” Maher
Over the years, I spent many hours, afternoons, and evenings, standing at the bar enjoying conversation, beer and cheese, and onions.
However, one event I remember most was a conversation with the late owner Matthew “Matty” Maher.
It was a late afternoon, and only three other people were standing at the bar.
I had been talking about the history of McSorley’s with the bartender when Matty stepped up with the mail. Being a social sort, and knowing who he was, I just had to ask him how he ended up at McSorley’s.
Here, with only slight exaggeration and interpretation, I present the story as he told me…
“When I was a young lad in Ireland, my father had a farm and a large family. As it was the tradition at the time, my place in line was reserved for the priesthood. So off I was sent to the seminary. After two or three years, I began asking the holy fathers how I would know if I have been called to be a priest.
They always replied, “You hear it calling.” Well, I was a good lad and always kept my ears peeled to hear the calling. It was one fine summer day when I was on the way home from seminary school to me father’s farm.
Now his farm was situated in such a way that the road bordered part of it, and the other part was bound by a fine small river. Now every summer, the tinkers would come into town, and they would camp alongside the river. And so it was this fine summer afternoon that I got down from the bus I began walking towards home.
It seems that at this very same time, a group of young ladies traveling with the tinkers had decided to go bathe in the river. Now that was what I heard… I heard their beautiful voices and laughter, and I knew at once exactly what it was… it was a calling, a powerful calling. And that’s why I ended up here. You see, it just wasn’t in me to be a priest.”
The good folks at Wikipedia note the following regarding the history of McSorley’s Old Ale House…
“McSorley’s Old Ale House, generally known as McSorley’s, is the oldest “Irish” saloon in New York City. Opened in the mid-19th century at 15 East 7th Street, in today’s East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. It was one of the last of the “Men Only” pubs, admitting women only after legally being forced to do so in 1970.”
“The aged artwork, newspaper articles covering the walls, sawdust floors, and the Irish waiters and bartenders give McSorley’s an atmosphere reminiscent of “Olde New York.” There are many items of “historical” paraphernalia in the bar. One example is a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs, which are connected to the bar rail. Not one piece of memorabilia has been removed from the walls since 1910.
There are also wishbones hanging above the bar; supposedly, they were placed there by boys going off to World War I, to be removed when they returned. The wishbones that are left are reminders of those who never returned.”
“Two of McSorley’s mottos are “Be Good or Be Gone” and “We were here before you were born.” Before the 1970 ruling, the motto was “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies”; the raw onions can still be had as part of McSorley’s cheese platter.”
“New York magazine considered McSorley’s to be one of New York City’s “Top 5 Historic Bars”.”
4) Brazen Head, Dublin, Ireland (1198)
My wife and I were only in Dublin for 24 hours and we had no real plans. High on my list was to visit the Guinness brewery, but for whatever reason it was not open for tours that day. We were told that if we stopped in The Brazen Head, we would have the opportunity to taste the freshest pint of Guinness outside the brewery (it was only a mile or so away).
The exterior was a simple brick edifice, but the sign was plenty to catch one’s attention. Inside was dimly lit and it took some time for the eyes to acclimate. It was small and rather cramped; the bar had fewer than 10 seats and there was a smattering of small tables, chairs and benches.
Towards the back of the space was a tiny stage where locals played jigs and reels to their hearts’ delight. Between the music, the beer and the lilt of the brogue, there was no place better to spend an afternoon in Ireland’s capitol city.
I was inspired enough to write this poem (not a Limerick):
“The Kindest Pint”
Along the Liffey we took a stroll
Through the crisp Autumn night, dark as coal
Knowing the pleasure that did us await
Our pace quickened once near St. James Gate
Wending our way to the Brazen Head
Our throats afire and our noses red
Warming the chill deep within us
We sipped a velvety pint o’ Guinness
The building dates from 1288. It is the oldest building in Düsseldorf, my hometown. It is in the Alstatst (old town).
It so happens that Düsseldorf got its city charter in the same year, 1288, after the Duke von Berg and a coalition of warriors won one of the bloodiest battles in the Middle Ages (a largely unknown battle in North America), against the Bishhop of Cologne. The skirmish is known as the Battle of Worringen. You can search for it on Google. Duke John I of Brabant, incidentally, also fought on the Düsseldorf side in that battle. John’s Flemish/Latin name is Jan Primus, which is since been mangled to Gambrinus. He was a good boozer and is still considered the patron saint of the Belgian Brewers Guild.
I do not know the original purpose of the building of 1288, but when I grew up it had been an Altbier pub of long standing. Cozy, old-fashioned, with worn-out wooden benches. I like to hang out there. There is a good probability that this was indeed the oldest pub where I ever had a beer.
On one of my returns to my hometown, however, shortly after the turn of the millennium, when the picture was taken, the pub had been gutted and turned into a teeny bar, with red plastic seat cubicles, a neon coca cola watch on the wall, and super loud, screaming music. The romance was all gone! A part of Altbier history down the drain. Sad!
You will find a common theme running through the descriptions of all the great old pubs and bars mentioned in this posting. Each one has stayed unassuming. And each one welcomes all who visit drink and conversation. All have remained steeped into a past that is unconcerned with the world outside.
Welcome to their world for a while and enjoy!