Damon Fairclough reckons there’s still life in an old brand
THERE'S an old beer back in town. “Higson’s” – though if you remember it from the old days, you might not recognise it now.
Things have changed. Take that apostrophe for instance. Over the years – ever since the Higson’s/Higsons beer brand was first brewed in Liverpool back in 1780 – the apostrophe has come and gone and come back again, much like the beer itself.
This is a brewery whose ownership saga rivals a Norse legend in complexity, but with fewer dragons and more beards. A sip of Higson’s Bitter was the first alcohol to pass many a Liverpudlians’ lips and it remains a brand steeped in beery nostalgia.
Now Higson’s has returned. This time based in a couple of converted warehouses on Bridgewater Street in the Baltic Triangle incorporating a brewery, a distillery (making the new “Ginsmiths of Liverpool” gin), plus a bar and kitchen called H1780 Tap & Still.
Behind the project is Stephen Crawley, originally a Wirral man, but more recently, managing director of Edinburgh’s Caledonian Brewery. Having acquired both the Higson’s brand and the Liverpool Craft Beer Company, Crawley’s aim is to create a venue where city drinkers, beer tourists and gin lovers can eat, drink and be modestly merry amongst the mash tuns and boiling chambers in which their drinks are made.
The Baltic Triangle is already home to a few craft brewery-based bars; the excellent Black Lodge is just around the corner and Mad Hatter co-founder, Gaz Matthews, opened his new Gibberish venture there just before Christmas – but it’s immediately apparent that H1780 dances to a different beat.
This is no hastily hammered together DIY bar with experimental beer and a low-budget approach to comfort. Instead, there’s a sense of scale and solidity about H1780 that hints at some serious investment. On a chilly Saturday afternoon sliced through by Mersey gusts, it feels gloriously welcoming and warm.
Ceilings are lofty, bricks are exposed, but this venue’s sense of industrial chic is positively inviting and almost theatrical in nature, thanks to various spotlights and shadows, girders and gantries. A very long bar featuring fourteen keg taps and two cask handpulls extends down the length of the main space, while large windows look out to urban work-in-progress on one side, and in to the brewery and distillery on the other.
This place isn’t reaching for the outer limits of brewing, but there’s still a spectrum of choice. More traditional tastes are catered for under the reawakened Higson’s brand, with beers simply named Pale, Amber and Pilsner. The old Liverpool Craft Beer Company range now appears under the Love Lane brand, for those who prefer modern American-influenced flavours. On my visit, there were also a handful of guest German beers on tap, along with Stone Brewing’s refreshing White Ghost.
A half of the Higson’s Amber (£2) on cask felt like a safe way to kick things off. Its light toffee nose, thinnish body and gentle bitterness (like a beery equivalent of Jacob Rees-Mogg) seem to be the nearest that H1780 gets to an old-school bitter, while the keg-dispensed Higson’s Pilsner (£2.20/half) brings the brand kicking and screaming into the late 20th century.
It’s left to the ex-Liverpool Craft Beer brews to bring things up to date, with a half of the Love Lane Black IPA (£3). Weighing in at 7% ABV it was the strongest on offer, and with its chocolate orange flavours melting into creamy coffee with a slightly salty edge, it tasted luxurious and indulgent.
Ginsmiths Marshmallow Gin with Thomas Henry tonic (£5.50) was deemed “soft and mellow” - a pleasingly perfumed glassful, but perhaps better suited to late evening drinking than as our afternoon livener.
More conventional was Ginsmiths Dry Gin (£5.50), from the in-house distillery, but it was their Merchant Navy gin and tonic (£6.50) that went down the best. Punching its way out of the glass like a sailor in a dockyard brawl, its orange citrus scent was accompanied by a curl of grapefruit zest the size and shape of a Kettle Chip.
However, where the drinks were generally good, the food bordered on brilliant.
Leek rarebit on chewy sourdough toast (£5) was tangy and pungent, with the garnish of white cabbage and caraway seeds, lamb’s lettuce and chicory adding a fragrant, peppery bite to contrast the gloriously gloopy cheese.
Beet salad (£6) was served as a vivid purple puree topped with yellow beetroot chunks, pickled walnuts, blood orange segments and a scattering of seeds. There were earthy notes and vinegary, nutty hits, all skilfully combined within a tangle of lightly dressed rocket. Although these were listed as starters, each could easily work as a light lunch.
Standards set by these initial dishes never slipped on the mains. Grilled cauliflower (£10) was superb, presented as a split cranium of brassica perched on a cushion of borlotti beans and kale. There were lentils and breadcrumbs dotted with mint, and a densely delicious onion stock.
Roasted cod (£15) was also a stunner; the pearlescent hunk of fish crowning some orange and purple carrots and a pile of nutty green lentils. A dollop of school-custard-coloured saffron aioli added a delicate creaminess. With such generously proportioned meals, we hardly needed the sage-speckled parsnip crisps (£3.50), but again, the quality was so high that we easily cleared the bowl.
Staff were well drilled; beaming and bursting with enthusiastic chat. Information about beer, gin and food was offered unbidden, along with excited hints at future plans including an expanding range of drinks, brewery tours and new menus.
It’s the attention to detail that impresses at H1780 Tap & Still, and it’s to be hoped they maintain these high standards as they embark on what is clearly a journey of considerable ambition. They may not offer the most exhilarating drinks menu in this novelty-hungry area of the city, but what it lacks in beery pizazz, it more than makes up for in quality and commitment to its cause.
The Higson’s name may be a handy flag of convenience for a venue with little connection to the brand’s glory-days gone by, but nevertheless, H1780 Tap & Still is doing something fresh for Liverpool. Apostrophe or no apostrophe, it’s good to have this new face in town.
All scored Confidential reviews are paid for by the company, never the venue or a PR outfit. Critics dine unannounced and their opinions are completely independent of any commercial relationships.
H1780 Tap & Still, 62-64 Bridgewater Street, L1 0AY. Tel: 0151 305 1292
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind in the area: fine dining v the best fine dining, Sunday roasts against the best Sunday roasts, etc. On this basis, the scores represent...
1-5: The dog's dinner; 6-9: Netflix and chill; 10-11: In an emergency; 12-13: If you happen to be passing; 14-15: Worth a trip out; 16-17: Very good to exceptional; 18-20: As good as it gets.
Parsnip Crisps 8/10; Leek Rarebit 8/10; Beet Salad 8/10; Grilled Cauliflower 9/10; Roasted Cod 9/10
Informative to a fault