The Fat Cat, 49 West End Street, Norwich NR2 4NA
On the face of it, the Fat Cat is a fairly unprepossessing sort of pub. It’s a typical Victorian street-corner pub sitting in the middle of some typical Victorian terraced housing. Look a little more carefully, though, and you’ll see the seating area outside with four solid wooden tables. There are four signs declaring this to be a Free House, but look closer. Two of them say ‘Free Mouse’. More telling, perhaps, are the piles of empty casks that frequently stand in front of the pub. The sheer quantity and variety should be a clue to the fact that there’s something extraordinary going on inside.
I visited the Fat Cat on a very warm, sunny afternoon in the middle of June. The pub was clearly very busy already. Many people were seated at the wooden tables outside the pub, and many others were just standing around on the street. We walked in and immediately found a seat. Clearly, people were outside to enjoy the rare English sunshine rather than because the pub was crowded.
The interior seems to retain much of its original Victorian look and feel. A black and white tiled floor and little partitions making small semi-private areas all added to the old fashioned ambience of the place. This pub was first mentioned as such in 1854 (when it was called the New Inn) but was badly damaged by enemy bombs in 1942. Much of what we see now must, therefore, be rebuild. The bar is along one wall, long and sturdy, and all over the walls are memorabilia from brewing days of old. Old pub signs from vanished local breweries – Bullards, Morgans and Steward & Patteson, and hanging prominently from the ceiling, a Watney’s Red Barrel – an ironic statement, no doubt.
This pub had been strongly recommended to me before I came, and looking at the bar and the blackboard showing what beers were on offer, I could see why. Twelve ales on handpump and a further fifteen on gravity!
The Fat Cat also has its own microbrewery, which is located at the Fat Cat Brewery Tap, a short distance from the Fat Cat itself. Looking down the list of available beers, I saw that six of their own brews were amongst them. These I targeted first.
Each time I went to the bar, I found the young bar staff to be enthusiastic, helpful and polite, that’s something which always endears a pub to me.
The first beer sampled was Fat Cat Bitter. At 3.8% this is a traditional bitter, darker than the golden ales which everyone seems to be brewing today. It had the taste of a proper bitter, rounded maltiness with a good bitter hoppy finish. Next, I went for contrast with Fat Cat’s own take on the ubiquitous Golden Ale. This is Cougar, weighing in at a respectable 4.7%. It’s a much paler beer than the bitter, as one would expect. As with many goldens, the taste is predominantly hops – good and strong with a real zing. The hops impart a real bitterness which is both satisfying and refreshing – perfect for a warm afternoon.
Next, I was tempted by the Fat Cat Honey Ale. Modest at 4.3%, I was curious how this beer would taste, as honey doesn’t always work for me in beer. It has an instantly recognisable flavour which can be either pleasant or not – the vagaries of the art of brewing. As it happens, Fat Cat have got it right, in my book. The honey taste is apparent, but it’s subdued. It provides a smooth, sweetish undertaste which contrasts very nicely with a hoppy, bitter overtaste. I love a nice contrasty beer, and this is one such. Both flavours are held in the mouth at the same time and provide a great taste experience.
By now, I was getting more comfortable and confident in Fat Cat’s ability to brew, so I plumped for a stronger ale, Marmalade Cat. From the name, I expected the beer to have a bitter, orange flavour, and it did not fail to deliver. The beer is not as good-looking as the previous ones tasted, having something of a slight protein haze to its warm orange colour. Made it look more like marmalade, I suppose. The first sensation is of a wonderful smoothness, well-rounded and bitter, leading to an orange flavoured bitter finish. The orange was not apparent to my palate until the end, but there it was. Very satisfying.
Feeling less and less pain by the minute, I next opted for another take on the traditional bitter. This was Top Cat, a significantly stronger ale than the Bitter, at 4.8%. This should probably properly be referred to as a Best Bitter. The colour was a bright, deep orange, a beautiful shade that made it almost a crime to drink it. Almost. Again, the first sensation is smoothness. Then a caramel flavour grows in the mouth, warm and chewy. Maybe not a very sophisticated flavour, but utterly lovely.
I finished my tour of Fat Cat ales with another strongish one. Wild Cat is a bright, yellow ale with an ABV of 5%. Lots of fruit in here, very full-flavoured. A hint of apple and pear drops intercedes over the bitterness, which grows and grows and continues to develop long after the swallow. This is good beer.
I was disappointed that there were no home-grown dark ales on offer, but I did manage to buy a bottle of Fat Cat Stout Cat. The bottled beers from Fat Cat are bottle conditioned, so this was the next best thing to drinking from the cask. Stout Cat is, as you might expect, a stout. Stouts are one of my favourite beer styles, and it annoys me that the style has been completely overshadowed by a Dublin-brewed beer which is not representative of stout. It’s not even a particularly good stout, in my opinion, and when it’s sold in its emasculated, sterilized form (and even worse – ‘Extra Cold’), it’s really nothing to shout about. It is a great demonstration of the power of advertising. Stout Cat, however, is a different thing altogether. It comes in at 4.6% ABV and is a deep rich ruby-red in colour. Sometimes, when you taste a beer for the first time, you just close your eyes and whisper ‘Oh…’ Stout Cat did that for me. It is simply beautiful. Very smooth with sweet roasted malt opening the taste, like treacle. A wonderful warming taste which becomes ever so slightly dry at the finish. Absolutely wonderful!
What more can I say about the Fat Cat? It’s a Mecca for beer drinkers from all over the country. It’s within easy reach of the train station, so what’s your excuse? For myself, I will most definitely be back. Time and time again, I suspect.
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