It's last odours at the bar for Damon Fairclough in Liverpool's own Smoke Newington

When I was growing up in Sheffield in the 1980s, the most exciting shop in town was called Bringing It All Back Home. Named after a Bob Dylan album and beloved of the city’s Thatcher-era anarcho-hippy set, it was a labyrinthine Georgian building packed with trinkets, fabrics, clothing and jewellery, all brought back by the owner from his regular trips to India, Morocco, Nepal and beyond.

It also stank of incense. All the time. And it is this vivid olfactory recollection that immediately springs to mind when I visit the Newington Temple pub just off Bold Street. Because this boozer seems to have spurned the usual perfume palette favoured by most British drinking dens – the heady scent of drip tray and Toilet Duck – and gone instead for the billowing fug of Neil’s bedroom from The Young Ones.

The longer you spend inhaling the authentic odour of a Tibetan monastery, the more used to it you get​

Although the smell of incense can be pleasant, and the instant tumble through a mental time-tunnel into my lost teenage shopping expeditions for henna and Guatemalan slipper socks is enjoyable enough, it isn’t the best ambient odour for a pub.

This is revealed to me as I gulp at my first pint – Purity Brewing Company’s Mad Goose pale ale (£3.90) – and attempt to scoop up a noseful of its hoppy aroma. Instead, all I get is a dense cloud of weaponised sandalwood that renders the beer’s volatile flavour compounds all but mute.

Still, I find a pleasing corner spot and perch myself on a high stool with a perfect view of a subtitled Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. There are worse ways to drink away a couple of hours and, as with all things, the longer you spend inhaling the authentic odour of a Tibetan monastery, the more used to it you get.

Until recently, the Newington Temple was called Bier. In that guise it was all white tube-station tiling, pints and Pieminster pies – although if I’m honest, it never quite offered the degree of beery excitement that its name promised. Its cask line-up was a little conservative, and I had wondered if things might have got a bit more interesting.

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However, now that it has new branding and the dominant colour palette has switched from dark green to grey, the beer focus seems to have been downgraded. True, there are two cask ales on offer, but although there’s a healthy number of keg taps, none of them pour forth anything extraordinary. It’s all Amstel, Moretti, Guinness Extra Cold, that kind of thing – your standard array of football beers.

The Mad Goose is OK though, a middle-of-the-road pale ale with just enough citrus bitterness to hold the attention. At 4.2 per cent ABV it’s made for quaffing, and on a steamy, rainforesty Liverpool afternoon, it goes down well enough.

I follow up with a half of the other cask beer – another offering from the Purity Brewing Company, called Pure Ubu (£1.95). This is a darker, maltier brew that weighs in at 4.7 per cent ABV and is billed as an amber ale. It winds back the hops but delivers flavours of mild malted chocolate. It’s a beer with a pleasing hint of Ovaltine Lite.

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Although a little of Bier’s turn-of-the-decade tiling remains at the Newington Temple, most of it has gone and the pub is now decorated with pale plaster walls and some tongue-and-groove cladding in grey eggshell. There are a few 1960s psych posters here and there – ads for The Doors and The Who with swirly-haired Art Nouveau ladies looking laid-back and lysergic – along with a saucy array of Aubrey Beardsley illustrations. To quote that great film Gregory’s Girl, they feature “Tits, bum, fanny – the lot”.

The main seating area opposite the bar offers a few cosy corners in which to sit and nuzzle your pint, and there’s also the more open booth-like space at the back where I’m sitting up to a tall zinc-topped table. Fresh Prince has now given way to Friends, and I’m enjoying revisiting that once-ubiquitous show with its fresh-faced cast hidden beneath rolling layers of pre-skinny-jean 1990s attire. 

The 90s theme carries over to the pub’s sound system, which booms with the bass-lines and profanities of a selection of that decade’s most head-noddy hip-hop – The Pharcyde, Hieroglyphics and the like. The pub’s customers come and go – a bunch of chortling lads, a flurry of after-work women – and the joss sticks are constantly replenished.

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Longing for a breath of fresh air while watching the Fresh Prince of Bel Air

Finishing off with a bottle from the fridge, the helpful lad on the bar recommends Einstök’s Icelandic White Ale (£4.25). It’s a decent choice, being a 5.2 per cent Belgian-style witbier that’s a little peppery, a little orangey, and which is loaded with oats for a smooth, rounded mouthful. The fridge selection isn’t huge, but with a couple of Einstök beers along with the likes of Stevens Point and Liverpool Craft Beer Co., it’s good to know there are some craftier options available should you favour a fuller-flavoured beer.

With so many new restaurants on Bold Street, Newington Temple is handily placed for a pre- or post-prandial bevvie, and although the music is confined to the juke box while I’m in residence, they get the decks out on a few nights each week and host events that take in garage psych and 60s soul. Maybe that’s when the incense makes more sense.

While Newington Temple no longer pays lip service to a focus on beer, there’s enough here to help punters maintain a fleeting friendship with decent ale.

But the pungent aroma – that’s more of an issue. I make my peace with it after a while, but initially I almost turn on my heels and leave. Because although the times we’re living in may call for a bit of that 1980s’ anarcho-hippy political spirit, there’s no need for our world to smell like it too.

Newington Temple
8 Newington, Liverpool. 
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  • Drinks 3/5

    Middle of the road

  • Service 4/5

    Ready to help

  • Ambience 3/5

    Joss a minute

  • Concept 3/5

    Subtly psyched