Secret Pubs of Cambridge: The return of the king

the warm grunginess of the interior Image credit: Sian Avery
We assure you - the exterior looks less forbidding when it's not a cold winter night Image credit: Sian Avery
more warm grungy interior Image credit: Sian Avery

During Michaelmas 2014, your favourite reviewers embarked on an epic quest to discover the ultimate ‘Secret Pub of Cambridge’.  We left no stone unturned; ranging from The Red Bull near Newnham all the way down Regent Street to the Flying Pig and up the hill to the Architect gastropub, we braved the autumnal elements to bring you the holy grail of pubs: the Perfect Pint.

Alas, in the turmoil of the end of term, our review was lost to the ages, like Shakespeare’s Cardinio, but with more beer. While obsessive Shakespeare scholars continue to fruitlessly trawl through archives, happily for you, dear reader, our crowning review has been rediscovered. 

The Elm Tree ticks all the boxes: it is both suitably secretive and boasts the perfect pints.  This is exciting news, we hear you cry.

Cry no longer. It is easy to find, although, despite having previously ventured to the Cricketer opposite - a Thai restaurant-pub itself worthy of a visit - it nonetheless eluded Sian’s navigatory skills as she led us to the opening of multiple shadowy alleyways.  We’ll admit it: we used Google Maps. The Elm Tree is a small establishment tucked away from the road beyond Parker’s Piece. While it might be familiar to the inhabitants of the nearby Emma accommodation, and pub aficionados, it’s unlikely that the sheltered Cambridge student will have stumbled across it.

Eventually entering the pub, we were pleased to find the interior struck the perfect balance between quirkiness and cosiness.  Amongst the bric-a-brac which plastered the walls there were some unique choices in decoration, including a large and rather hairy vampire bat suspended from the ceiling. The decor reminded us of our earlier trip the the Flying Pig, whose red-lit warm grunginess is certainly worth a visit; however, the more restrained vibe in the Elm probably appeals to a greater range of people.

Decorations aside, the crowning glory of this place is undoubtedly the beers. Indeed, this is a veritable Eden for the avid beer lover, which features 10 micro-brewed real ales on tap. Of these, we went for the Dragonslayer, which at 8% was potent enough to live up to its name, and the Dark Mild, which was another pleasing winter warmer.

The Elm’s speciality, however, is bottled Belgian beers, which you can peruse at leisure from the menus scattered across the tables.  Offering the sort of lavish descriptions more often found for wines, we were spoilt for choice (though sadly, not for cash, opting to share one of the 33cl beers averaging around £7).  In the spirit of the season we went for the Bush de Noël, which the menu assured us was the “classic Christmas nightcap”.  Of course, months later, the menu may well have changed, although we trust its continued quality and range.

The barman, too, is one of a kind.  Requesting that the Bush de Noël not be poured out as we were sharing it, Julia found the barman’s reverence of all things beer-related to be in keeping with this serious dedication to diversity, as she was sternly told it was wrong in so many ways and, added in a low voice, that it would “anger the elder gods”. Months later, the wrath of Thor is thankfully yet to descend on us.

Torn between the “brainchild of the master brewer Pierre Celis”, the St Bernadus Grottenbier, and the 2009 “best Wiesbier in the world”, Julia eventually settled for the former, intrigued by the fact that it had been stored in an underground grotto for three months before bottling.

Perfect for both normal-priced pints and indulgent treats, the sheer variety of the Elm’s menu coupled with the slightly quirky but cosy atmosphere makes it ideal for a relaxed exam term evening off. The Elm Tree is a difficult pub to beat.

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