Food and Drink: There's no finer spot for a pub crawl: Michael Jackson enjoys a nostalgic tour of Edinburgh's drinking establishments

IT WAS once one of the world's greatest brewing cities; it still has more beer pumps per head than any other in Britain, and there is nowhere I would rather pub- crawl. When the pub, an English institution, finally flings itself across the Cheviot Hills and into Scotland, it becomes quite florid. Edinburgh has some spectacular examples, along with boxy little bars, identified by their founders' surnames, that would not look out of place in Ireland.

As a teenage immigrant, I took two buses across Edinburgh to the Canny Man's (237 Morningside Road) because I liked the Belhaven beer. No one understood why in those days, long before that brew became fashionable with the birth of the Campaign for Real Ale. Thirty years on, the beer still has that remarkably light malty dryness, and the pub's accretion of bric-a-brac has extended into the garden and former stables.

A tabloid newspaper dubbed the fastidious owner 'Dickensian' for making his staff address regulars by their surnames, but such are the dynamics that make Edinburgh pubs a delight; autocrats and democrats, gown and town, Scots and Irish, earnest debate, and often free newspapers behind which the eavesdropper can hide.

See the Canny Man for lunch, and make sure you try the home-baked bread and olives in virgin oil. Or have a pint before the Dominion Cinema or a fringe performance at the Church Hill Theatre, the Mad Abbot or George Watson's.

Down the road I found a gentle pint of Sandy Hunter's at 159-161 Bruntsfield Place, in Montpelier's, a newish combination of pub, French cafe and American diner. It is open from 9am for breakfast, ranging from black pudding to bagels.

Among Edinburgh's classics is Bennet's, founded in 1839, next to the King's Theatre in Leven Street. The stained-glass doors show swing-top bottles of Jeffrey's Lager, a reminder of Scotland's early devotion to the continental style. Inside are arts-and-crafts tiling, a back-bar full of rare malt whiskies such as Glenburgie, Mosstowie and Lochside, and the malty 70/- ale from Caledonian, the city's finest brewery. Those shilling ratings, applied by the barrel in Victorian times, represent ascending strengths. The Caledonian 70/- evokes the beer of Bernard's, one of the great Edinburgh breweries lost in the merger mania that scarred my youth. Look out for Caledonian's yet-maltier Double Amber inspired by the past glories of Campbell, Hope and King.

Duck into the 1700s and the Old Town, at Cowgate and Niddry Street, to visit Bannerman's in a cellar-like warehouse under South Bridge. This is the most studenty of pubs, with folk music. I had a hoppy pint of Deuchar's, named for another long-gone brewery but again produced by Caledonian. Where South Bridge meets High Street, a bank has been turned into a bar and elegant but moderately priced hotel. The tellers' counter dispenses the hoppy Greenmantle Ale from casks in the former safe. The manager's office is a dining area. The Bank Hotel is at 1-3 South Bridge (031 556 9043).

Down from George IV Bridge is Victoria Street and the Bow Bar (80 West Bow), opposite Iain Mellis's wonderful cheese shop. With its mirrors and enamels, the Bow Bar looks like a comfortable veteran, but it is a relatively recent conversion. It is one of my favourites for knowledgeable service and for its dry, faintly roasty, Edinburgh Real Ale. In the West End I have a soft spot for Bert's Bar (29-31 William Street, behind Shandwick Place), with Arrol's soothingly medicinal beer, hot bridies and sauce bottles on the tables: it is one of the most pleasant chain-owned pubs I know.

At the same end of town, T G Willis (135 George Street) is a sumptuous food hall, but upstairs tea and breakfast is served from 7am, cocktails and serious beer from 8am. Behind the bar is a tiny 'snug' favoured by locals. As I sipped my fruity Harviestoun 70/- in mid-morning, I was eyed suspiciously by a man in tweeds. 'Are you a tax inspector?' he demanded. 'That's a disgraceful suggestion]' pronounced a dignified lady with white hair.

I sneaked into Rose Street, a shadow of its former sins, and headed east. Once, it was scarcely possible to have a half at every pub and reach the other end; today, it has been turned into Carnaby Street. But at number 55, the Rose Street Brewery serves its strong 90/- downstairs. Farther along, the Abbotsford is still pleasant, though not quite the literary spot it was.

Across in tiny West Register Street, the pub part of the Cafe Royal is worth a visit for guest beers and spectacular tiling, but I prefer to head round the bend to the Guildford, with its minstrels' gallery. When I was there the other day, the Guildford (1 West Register Street) had a flowery, hazy Heather Ale (brewed in a railway station near Oban) and the richly malty Dark Island (produced in a school house in Orkney).

My favourite Edinburgh pub? Currently, the Cumberland, at 1-3 on the street of the same name in the New Town. Many of this area's Georgian houses now accommodate law firms, architects' practices and other professionals. I hope the architects like publican Ian Whyte's allusively maritime woodwork. I certainly appreciate his perfumy Summer Ale, so popular that it stays on tap all year round. If you are in a hurry, do not ask him about the advantages of the Scottish tall fount in producing a genuine head on your beer.

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