Thursday 1st May 2014
Although Edinburgh has a number of historic and architecturally notable pubs there are not so many Victorian era street corner locals that cater for the cask ale drinker. Luckily the Blue Blazer is still with us and fulfils this role perfectly. It sits in the shadow of Edinburgh castle which looks down on the pub from its lofty perch on a craggy rock.
The pub is located between the Grassmarket area of the Old Town and Lothian Road. It’s to be found on the corner of Spittal Street and Bread Street and this gives it its rounded frontage.
The pub is situated between two theatres, the Traverse and the Royal Lyceum and it is said that it is frequented by both actors and patrons. However it must be said that the usual clientele consists of a very large cross-section of society.
As appropriate to its title the exterior is painted blue and there is a nice carved hanging sign depicting a blazer.
Inside the main bar counter and gantry (bar back) are to be found on the left. Both are made from varnished wood and there is a large fitted mirror looking down on the customers. There are a large number of unusual spirits available; obviously rare whiskies are here but they also stock around 70 rums.
Another barrel, this time complete, is upended opposite the counter and serves as an additional table when the pub is crowded. Around the walls there are built-in benches fitted with stuffed blue cushioning. There is also a beautiful carved wood fireplace surround that incorporates a semi-circular mirror.
There is a smaller back room and this is decorated in a similar style and also has a fireplace.
We know the pub was built in 1893 yet subsequent details of its life are scant yet we can piece together some details. There is an embossed window on one side of the building advertising the India Pale Ale of T & J Bernard. This was one of the many Edinburgh breweries established in the 18th and 19th Centuries; in the UK the city was second only to Burton-on-Trent is volume of beer produced.
A large number of these breweries were concentrated in the Old Town and, as can be imagined, there was no scope to enlarge their premises in line with the continual expansion of population. So the end of the nineteenth century saw them moving away from the area. Another reason was that they needed connections to the railway to import malt and hops and that was better achieved in the suburbs.
Thomas & James Bernard Co., the full title, moved to premises just off Slate ford Road in 1888. Interestingly their brewery was close to that of the present Caledonian Brewery, then owned by Lorimer & Clark. In the seventies I drank a lot of Lorimer’s Best Scotch in Northumberland, especially in and around Berwick. This was because Lorimer’s had been taken over by Vaux of Sunderland and their only cask beer was for consumption in England only in Vaux pubs, how times change!
Sorry about that digression. T & J Bernard traded uneventfully for many years until they were taken over by Scottish Brewers (a combination of William Younger and McEwan who merged in 1931). This occurred in 1960, the same year that Scottish Brewers merged with the Newcastle Brewery to form Scottish & Newcastle. 1960 was also the last year that the T & J Bernard brewery brewed beer.
Interestingly it’s still with us as the brewery was taken over by the North British Distillery. The maltings and fermentation / storage buildings were used for whisky maturation.
Another rather strange development occurred during the 1990s when several of the Scottish & Newcastle pubs south of the border acquired T & J Bernard branding. Odd really, considering there hadn’t been any Bernard beers for over thirty years!
Back at the Blue Blazer there are some internal glass screens promoting Younger’s India Pale Ale and Monk Export along with McEwan’s Export. These must have been installed during the 1960s. Enough on the subject of beers past, please allow me to tell you about beers present, at least as they were on Mayday 2014.
The bar is host to two Scottish tall founts of a type that looked different to the common Aitken type. On the occasion of my visit these dispensed Cairngorm (Aviemore) Trade Winds (4.3%) and Stewart (Loanhead, Edinburgh) Ka Pai (5.2%), a beer that uses New Zealand hops. One of the hand pumps dispensed cider in the form of Thistly Cross (South Belton, Dunbar, East Lothian) Original (7.2%).
The remaining five hand pumps offered the following: Caledonian (Edinburgh) Deuchar’s IPA, which I would suspect to be a regular; Pilot (Leith) Blønd (4.0%): Rooster’s (Knaresborough, North Yorks) Yankee (4.3%); Orkney (Quoyloo, Orkney) Dark Island (4.6%) and the beer with the longest name in the world: Arbor Ales (Bristol) Freestyle Fridays #44 2014 Excessively Hopped Black IPA (7.0%)!
It is so nice to visit a totally normal pub as I remember them over forty years ago with the bonus of it serving a selection of good cask ales. There is even some food offered in the form of pies from Saunderson’s of Leven Street and toasted sandwiches of many varieties. The Blue Blazer comes thoroughly recommended.
The Blue Blazer, 2 Spittal Street, Edinburgh EH3 9DX. Tel: 0131 229 5030
Open: Monday-Saturday 11.00-01.00; Sunday 12.30-01.00
Being close to Lothian Road with its many buses that is the best place to head for and walk the rest. However, the no 2 bus runs past the door on the way from Gyle Centre to Musselburgh via Dalry, Grassmarket, Craigmillar and Niddrie. The 35 also from Gyle Centre runs fairly close to the pub via Slateford, Holyrood, Easter Road and terminates at Leith Ocean Terminal.
Note: neither of these buses operate through the city centre or along Princes Street.