The Golden Smog: The Best in Real Ale & Smoggie Hospitality
Early evening. Stockton. How Cat came to find herself in Hambletonian Yard, she did not know. Nothing much seemed to be going on in the alleyway. The shops were closed. Angela’s Tearoom had long since served their last cup of tea. But there was a beautiful smell in the air, the smell of hops and laughter and something else. Up ahead an amber haze drew her on. And then she saw it. The Golden Smog. Carefully, she pushed the door open and made her way through the wobbly tables and leather covered tabourets to the copper taps dripping with malty liquid. Thick honey. Silky bronze. Foamed espresso. Ales. Porters. Stouts ...
The first time I walked into The Golden Smog it was a quiet Wednesday evening. I’ll never forget the feeling of amazement as I stood facing a familiar-looking gazelle — a springbok — overlooking the service counter. Created by Teesside’s reputed street artist, Karl Striker, I remember seeing this particular work online and wishing I could see it in real life.
And there it was. In what used to be stables, now converted into a micropub — the first of its kind in Stockton — in a side alley, the walls pinched so close together, that you could not find it if you didn’t know what you were looking for. The Adidas-striped springbok might not be in its original location anymore (it was originally painted on the outside of the Springs Health Club in Teesside Park, now demolished), but it was the original piece of wall, proudly placed on display since The Golden Smog opened its doors in 2014, and now holding it up so to speak.
“Everything else is sort of attached to that,” owner John Christie tells me, “if he [the person who loaned it] gets it back, the pub would probably fall down.”
That Wednesday evening, my eyes went from the Karl Striker to the bar counter, which put what really mattered in the spotlight. Beer. Good beer. Sanjeev and Phil were in that night and immediately put me at ease by recommending that I taste the beers on tap before deciding. And there right next to my taster glasses I spotted a plate of droëwors (a traditional South African cured beef snack).
I later learned that everything — from the Karl Striker to the plate of droëwors to the large golden bell in the left corner (used to announce last drinks before closing time at 10pm) — almost everything in the pub was contributed by one of the regulars. More than any pub I have visited there was an undefinable but clearly audible sense of community. A sense of community that kept the pub standing (together with the Karl Striker) regardless of whether there was a single other customer drinking with you or not.
And that is what a great pub is all about for John. The quality and variety of the beer come first of course. Great care is taken in looking after the casks of real ale - living, fermenting and developing in the pub cellar, to give customers the best, full-flavoured drink they can hope for. “But it is the people who go to the pub”, he tells me, “that makes the pub more than the pub itself.” After all, pubs are meant as community centres and in the less spacious micropubs they encourage people to talk more than anywhere else. What sets Golden Smog apart is the ease with which people not only become friends but also help each other out for no other reason than to be friendly and support one another.
The fulfilment of watching new bonds form between his regulars was not the first thing that crossed John’s mind when he decided to fulfil his dream. The Golden Smog was born out of a desire to have a place to find varied, good-quality beers. As John puts it, “There was nowhere for me to drink in Stockton with decent beers … so, I opened it for myself really.” He was correct in thinking that if he really liked real ale and foreign imports such as Belgian beer, than other people must as well. And in the years that followed, Teesside saw a boom in micropubs offering customers something other than mass-produced beverages.
Proof of their success in providing world-class beer is their previous nomination as Cleveland CAMRA Pub of Autumn 2016, which is judged mainly on the quality of the beer served. They were also the runner up to CAMRA North East Region Pub of the Year 2016, an award judged on all aspects of a pub.
By adding ‘golden’ to the word smog — a reference to the name “smoggies” for people from Teesside because of the ‘smog’ created by pollution — John wanted his pub to be a positive reflection of his hometown. The Golden Smog has truly come to embody everything its name was meant to stand for and more. In that small enclave in Hambletonian Yard, its hard not to smile as you look around at all the photographs capturing bits and pieces of Teesside's history: its bridges, its towns, its monuments, its people and the very river around which it was formed.
In several ways The Golden Smog outgrew the original bounds of its owner’s dream and became a place for the community created by the community. And as it is with smog, it spreads quickly, finding its way in everything — clothes, posters, records, coasters — subtly leaving its golden-tinged warmth everywhere and becoming an irreplaceable, beautiful fixture of life in Teesside.