Gone for a Burton?

I recently spent a few days in my home town of Burton, and like many other places, the UK’s capital of brewing seems to have followed the trials, tribulations and, more recently, triumphs of the beer world. After those years when Burton Bridge Brewery seemed to fly a lone flag of independence in the face of lager factories and takeovers, the glorious Coopers’ Tavern was abandoned by Bass as its brewery tap, and the Bass Tower was rebranded as Molson Coors it feels like we’re over the worst, at least for local drinkers*.

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Gone for a Burton

The closure of pubs by the big chains and the financial advantages available to small brewers have created opportunities for those who spotted market gaps. Whilst the metropolitan centres often feel that they’re leading the way, changes are afoot across the UK and Burton’s catching up.

Burton Bridge offered proper pubs in the town and Joules revived the Coopers but the town centre only offered the inevitable ‘Spoons, The Lord Burton, for those seeking a decent choice of beer. It’s been all change in the town in recent weeks (see the article by Nik Antona in the Burton Mail [23 May] for more details).

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The Dog Inn – normal service resumed

I hadn’t stepped into The Dog Inn since the days it was the domain of Dave Mackay of Tottenham and Derby fame. Strange to think of yesteryear when top footballers often left the pitch to spend time in pubs (sometimes as a landlord).

The Dog lost its way but it’s now been taken on by Black Country Inns. They’re a small chain brewing classic West Midland ales and offering a good selection of other hand pulled beers using swaps. As well as real ales, craft keg is also expected shortly. The landlord’s rightly enthusiastic about his pub & beers and the pub is pulling in a happy band of customers. (A thought – these days shouldn’t a pub called The Dog Inn have an outside area lit by flashing torches?).

Just down the High Street in William Worthington territory, the former Blue Posts was home to my younger Bass drinking days and like The Dog it’s gone through endless fizzy lager based concepts only to come out the other side to be opened as The Crossing Ale House and Kitchen (part of a small Derby-based chain). Whilst I’m not convinced about fish & chips in a wooden box it does provide a gastro pub and more beer choices in the town. With a few micro pubs opening as well, the drinkers’ life in Burton is much improved.

I finished my visit with a stroll down Station Street towards the Allsopp’s end of town. It’s impossible to walk past the Coopers and Burton Bridge Brewery’s Devonshire Arms – both too tempting. The Devonshire is the epitomy of an ‘old school’ pub. Nothing fancy but for my visit it was the perfect mix of a friendly welcome, a good choice of reliable and good value BBB beers (none of your mucky London beers here) and regulars welcoming visitors into their discussions.

After many years the old home of Britain’s brewing is living up to its reputation. Who’d have thought it, Burton as a destination for beer drinking and a League 1 football club. It’s time for a visit.

*Apologies to lovers of Pedigree, as I’ve said before it’s just not my cup of barley water.

The Only Way is the Essex Way

We started at Flatford car park (one of Constable’s lesser known paintings, much like JMW Turner’s ‘DFDS ferry at Harwich’) and headed to Manningtree station en route to promised pub perfection. Our walk took us past Flatford Mill and over the River Stour into Essex. The hedgerows were awash with Blackthorn blossom leading to thoughts of a bumper sloe harvest in the Autumn. Whilst I’ve gone through the usual sloe gin and vodka routines, I don’t think I’ve ever seen sloe infused beer on a bar – probably wise if it was anything like my ill-fated attempt at Sloe Sorbet. Anyway we wandered on to Manningtree and its famed station café. 

As well as excellent coffee it has a good selection of beer including Woodforde’s Wherry and Nelson together with Olde Trip from Greene King. Apart from take-away coffee there was no time for us to have a drink before setting off for a couple of stops down the Mayflower Line train to Wrabness. We passed the old Edme maltings and other quayside buildings at Mistley. Evidently there’s something of a battle over public access to the quayside. Edme malt extract – a name to conjure a smile on the face of any incompetent home brewer of yesteryear.

At Wrabness we wandered across the line and past the community shop and licensed café. These Essex folk seem ready to use any type of venue for a beer. And maybe that’s the way it goes, whilst the traditional ‘pub for all’ disappears, there’ll be a range of places, mini-pubs, beer shops, craft bars, pubs in aspic, ‘spoons etc. Are we seeing the emergence of drinking venues for every type of consumer as illustrated by M&B brands and perhaps the idea of a ‘pub for all’ is a myth anyway?

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A sign of community in Wrabness

Down to the Stour estuary and it felt like we’d been drinking already as Grayson Perry’s latest folly, A House for Essex, appeared before us. Like Perry himself/herself, it’s amusing, different and bound to get people talking. Nearly completed, this green and gold edifice will be taking holiday bookings later in 2015.

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Grayson Perry’s House of Essex

We strolled along the Essex Way alongside the estuary with wood anemones and wild garlic (good for pesto) carpeting the ground. After walking along the edge of Stour Wood and Copperas Wood we emerged into Ramsey and went across farmland towards the salt marshes on the other side of the peninsula.

A long slog into Harwich along the sea wall and then down Barrack Lane into Old Harwich, going past Redoubt Fort and the treadmill crane on the way – you’d need a beer after working on that. Despite the best efforts of poor 60s and 70s development, Old Harwich still hangs onto its historic past and it feels like the community is making an effort. A replica of The Mayflower (it sailed from Harwich) is being built from the scattered timber in the yard opposite the station. Good to hear from a friendly local standing outside The Stingray pub in his West Ham shirt that they want more tourists to enjoy the place they cherish.

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Alma’s pub perfection

We arrived after 10 miles at the door of the Alma Inn and Dining Rooms gasping for a beer. I was promised perfection and here it was. How is it that sometimes you open a pub door and it just feels so good? Pub busy, a very friendly welcome at the bar and a sense the pub has a tale to tell. Excellent beers – IPA from Mighty Oak, a bitter from Harwich Town plus Adnams Broadside and Woodforde’s Wherry. No overdone gastropub fuss, just high quality food with more than decent quantities of Skate & Chips and Roast Pork. This is pub perfection served with a natural joy and pride that a chain can’t deliver. It’s worth a trip out from Liverpool Street. You could even stay overnight at the Alma – as the menu gently teases, dirty weekend anyone? Or perhaps just the Redoubt Beer Festival at the end of July.

Romans I

A well-deserved pint after a saunter across hills is, to my mind, close to perfection. Whilst I’ve recently wandered across the few hills that the northern home counties have to offer, it’s led me to think that pub numbers have still someway to fall. When I’m not tempted to cross the threshold there’s a problem.

Childwickbury & Gorhambury – a double to win over 12 miles on the flat

I headed out from Harpenden on a sunny spring morning – few hills but a great walk in prospect across grand estates to St Albans. Across the Common and off the main road to Childwickbury (thought to have been built in the reign of James II). Stanley Kubrick used to reside in the manor house and his wife now hosts the Childwickbury Arts Festival. For a brief time during the filming of Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise & Kidman lived in one of the estate houses causing much excitement in the coffee shops of Harpenden.

Back to the walking – it’s an easy stroll along the quiet estate roads and paths passing St Michael’s church (designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott) and banks of rhodedendrons and azaleas. After passing the main gate there are fine views across the pastures often interrupted by the wave-like fight of green woodpeckers. Plenty of opportunity to lean on the metal fence looking across to the stud farm that housed both Derby and Grand National winners in the time of Jim Joel.

The path then heads through the woods before emerging near Batchwood golf course with views of St Alban’s Abbey. I called in at my local hospice, Rennie Grove, to find out more about their work. (I’m fundraising for them with a 300 mile walk later this year. More details here.) And then it was time to grab a pork pie, too early for St Albans’ pubs, and head north through the Gorhambury estate along the Ver-Colne Valley Walk. (It’s on OS maps but there’s not much up to date info anywhere else.) Again it’s all estate roads and paths, very quiet until the Royal Mail man gave his impression of Lewis Hamilton. Odd how delivery speeds have declined whilst mail van speeds have increased.

The walk back to Harpenden starts with Roman Theatre of Verulamium built in 140AD and then a walk alongside the meadows. Gorhambury House, home of the Earl of Verulam, a palladian pile is open on summer Thursdays. The estate path down to the ruins of 15th century Old Gorhambury (English Heritage) is often open with views of the main house but my route was east across the meadows. I look back to view the Abbey in the distance – a pilgrims’ view if ever there was one. A heron wafts across the fields as I head towards the river and then a kestrel, shiny russet-backed in the sun, glides out of the willow plantation on a seemingly effortless flight.

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Pilgrims’ View of the Abbey

Across the Roman Watling Street (now the A5183) to follow the gentle meanderings of the Ver to Shefford Mill and then passing close by the working Redbournbury Mill – in times past, solid dependable buildings offering hard grind in more ways than one. Who’d think it’s less than 25 miles to London.

On the edge of Redbourn I was ready for a pint with Chef & Brewer’s Chequers pub across the field. Tempted, of course? Quick look at the PerfectPint website and it’s Landlord or Landlord. Whilst I can think of few finer pints than Timmy Taylor’s Best in the Falcon at Arncliffe I’m not convinced a dusty chain food pub with hardboard for a window is what I’m looking for to deliver a great pint. The sign for the next clairvoyant evening didn’t really attract either.They might have known I wouldn’t go in.

It puzzles me as to why pub boards and banners often announce the latest ‘fruitcake’ event and a medley of meals that I could spot by viewing a 3663 catalogue. Hardly any pubs give any info outside or on their website as to what beer they’re offering. Whilst Perfect Pint does a great job it’s surely worth a pub telling you the beers they sell. Isn’t that what they do?

I walked on homeward bound along the Nickey Line and the footpath through the Rothamsted Research estate – it’s a strange mix of bluebell woods, trial crops and High Court protected GM cereals behind fences and security men.

A short train ride out of London St Pancras to Harpenden and you have one of Hertfordshire’s finest gentle strolls ready and waiting. Time it right and you could fit in the Six Bells in St Albans and the Cross Keys in Harpenden with only the briefest of detours – both serving Landlord and much more besides. Why not try it?

More tales to come in Romans II.

In praise of hipsters and homes

It’s easy for old miseries like me to slip into disparaging comments about hipsters i.e. younger people who are concerned about their appearance and willing to try new stuff. I suspect older folk had much the same attitude about the young metropolitan types who fuelled the growth of the Firkin pubs long ago. A trip to see the husband and Wife of Bath led me to question such attitudes.

First off, a stop at the Marlow Brewery Co to pick up some Rebellion Ales and reinforce drinking prejudices. They have truly made the brewing of ‘brown beer’ an art form. The ever reliable IPA provided the backdrop to the weekend and you can’t beat their lovely Roasted Nuts. For those craft brewers who belittle ‘brown beer’ I’d ask can you produce a beer to the standard of Harvey’s Best and Rebellion IPA?

A saunter along the Bath skyline and brought us to the Bath Brew House pub. Once a grotty pub in a modern block it’s had a craft beer bar makeover and as a result it’s packed to the rafters, mainly with younger folk. It offers hand pulled cask and craft keg including the products of its on-site brewery. I suspect it wouldn’t exist without the ‘hipsters’. And whilst pubs like the Bath Brew House might not be top of my list they are one of the few games in town for pub growth. They provide for a growing market in some locations and give me the chance of a decent pint in reasonable surroundings. For that I’m grateful – the Buxton Brewery’s keg Rednik Stout was as good as ever.

Thinking about my old trade of location analysis led me to consider how to select craft beer pub locations. Sufficient numbers of people with well trimmed beards, plaid shirts, clean work-style boots employed in graphic design, media and the trendier end of IT together with overheard references to BBC 6 Music might be a good start. Perhaps Joules should take note?

As myself and others have said these young folk would need to be forced into failing back street boozers and dead roadside pubs and so to preserve pubs at all costs is destined to failure. I’d argue that we need homes rather than failed pubs and so I’m happy that the vote to tighten planning regulations failed. Greg Mulholland’s assertion that outdated regulations protecting launderettes justify increased barriers to market-led development always seemed weak to me.

Recent articles in the Morning Advertiser report that, according to Christie & Co, average sale prices for pubs are on the rise (it’s not so good north of Milton Keynes) and Fleurets’ data suggests that the retention of freehold sales as pubs is at a five year high. Life for pubs is improving but slowing down the redevelopment of unsuitable locations would benefit no-one.

Time to dispense with the dispense?

I was in a country pub in the Midlands at the weekend (I’ll not name the pub as it’s not awful and merely typical of many in rural areas), it was a local CAMRA most improved winner in 2014 and is shortlisted for the CAMRA branch pub of the year. It had 3 beers on handpump including the inevitable Doom Bar. The Timothy Taylor’s Landlord wasn’t the worst I’ve tasted but it was well past its best.

The owner was complaining about the prices she has to pay for real ale, compared to the short-date prices paid by Wetherspoons (some would say this is a beer myth). She mentioned that there isn’t the volume to enable her to buy short-date beer and she’s struggling to get enough winter trade to keep three real ales on the bar. My drinking experience would seem to concur.

I’m of the view that the local CAMRA folk are pleased to see someone reviving a moribund pub and they like to see handpumps and so reward accordingly. I’m not a natural supporter of craft keg, my eyes will always tend to look out for a handpump rather than a something along the traditionally fizzy and tasteless section of the bar. However if a pub is struggling with volume and wants to offer a selection of beer in good condition then surely local craft keg should be a good option to replace a hand pump? Or is there a fear in some parts of the country that such an approach would upset the local CAMRA committee and lose the chance of a GBG listing?

As I’ve been around the country recently I’ve been in the habit of picking up the local CAMRA newsletters. The response to craft keg seems to range from the ‘we’ll let a guest writer say something positive’ to a more fundamentalist approach on the evils of keg personified by many of the strident letters to ‘What’s Brewing’.

The ‘Derby Drinker’ for Jan/Feb 2015 carries an article written by an anonymous local brewer arguing that “craft keg should be seen as an extension of cask beer rather than in direct competition…Anyone choosing to blindly ignore the amazing variety and enhanced beer experience that craft keg beer has to offer, risk alienating themselves from such an exciting progressive beer scene”. It’s a well-argued piece and I’m intrigued as to why the brewer didn’t want to use his or her own name.

In CAMRA ‘Pints of View’ for Hertfordshire (Dec/Jan) there was a generally positive review by Ian Boyd of Britain’s Beer Revolution (published by CAMRA) by Protz and Tierney-Jones. The review and the editor’s response illustrate the difficulties of CAMRA in coming to terms with the beer revolution in all its glory.

The reviewer reports that “since this is a CAMRA production, the choice of brewers highlighted has understandably more to do with real ale production than the overall taste explosion.” He goes on to mention, “a notable exclusion from the map of Scotland is Brewdog, arguably one of the most pioneering revolutionaries of them all”. Whilst the reviewer acknowledges the two pages covering Brewdog, he reflects that “this stilted recognition of Brewdog’s undoubted influences…surely has nothing to do with CAMRA’s past contretemps with the brewery?”. (I should say I’m no fan of Brewdog but I see where he’s coming from.)

The Pints of View editor, Steve Bury, responded with ..”a lot of very poor beer is being marketed as Craft Beer including Fosters Lager…” He went on, “Yes CAMRA has had disagreements with Brewdog who pride themselves on being confrontational and outspoken (me – wasn’t that CAMRA once upon a time), but the truth is they don’t produce real ale and therefore should not expect a large amount of coverage in a CAMRA publication.” That seems to suggest that Britain’s Beer Revolution is really a one-eyed view of the world. I’m strangely reminded of declining communist regimes and Private Eye’s trade union leader, Comrade Dave Spart.

I’m heading off to New Zealand in a couple of weeks and I admire the simplicity of their Society of Beer Advocates (SOBA) whose “main aim is promoting a wider availability of better quality beer”. Is it time for CAMRA to have their own ‘Clause IV Moment’ and recognise better quality beer rather than just a means of dispense? I suspect many of their ‘rank & file’ members have already crossed to the dark side (or perhaps keg pale).

Intolerant moi, perhaps just a little bitter

A day-long saunter around the villages of Hertfordshire and too early for a pint at the Green Man at Sandridge (tapped from the cask, their Abbot has to be one of the best around) and so it was on to the John Bunyan at Coleman Green for a pint of AK. It’s a reliable pub in rural isolation and whilst I’m no fan of McMullen’s beer, the longstanding landlord and family have always kept a very good pint and offered a friendly welcome. For me and others the pub is more important that the beer.

It’s the pub that counts  Copyright John Bunyan (the pub not the bloke)                                                          

The pub family were grappling with the latest EU regulation on allergens and intolerances in respect of food and drink. ‘How do we word the sign, where do we put it, and we can’t say exactly what’s in some of our food and drinks’. I’m no UKIP libertarian but (don’t they ‘they’ always say that…) given local authorities like nothing better than new legislation, it seems it’s something else for landlords to worry about given that their suppliers won’t give guarantees about the content of their products.

Of course a joint rant with the landlord’s son about ‘nanny state’ led to some good tales that publicans have always specialised in – the customer who told them she couldn’t eat the salad she’d ordered as it had been contaminated by the tomatoes on the plate, and the local Chinese take-away who’s been told by council officials that she now needs to list the contents for every dish on her menu. True or not, they do reflect the problems of small businesses in dealing with regulation and the culture of the British in imposing EU legislation compared to other countries.

While I’m on intolerance, here’s one of mine. Why do some pubs bother with having their own ‘house’ beer usually characterised by a bland bitter. The Green Man (above) has its own Heartwood Bitter and I was recently in the Vaults pub in Rutland’s Uppingham and they too had their own bitter (and a very good Starless Stout from Nene Valley). I guess there’s a financial benefit for the pub but for me house beer usually means a feeble tasting pint when they could have something more interesting with a pedigree rather than the real ale equivalent of yellow snow.

Fyne views and home brews

It’s sometimes good to get away from the influence of the Great Wen and its increasing hinterland. For us folk down south it’s easy to go all London-centric and think nothing is happening to beer and pubs elsewhere.

The minipin of Chiltern Foxtrot ale had run out at home, only one bottle of Burry Porter was left (see later) and it was time to get on the road. After a quick stop to watch the ‘Brewers’ in Burton (sadly it doesn’t have that overpowering smell of yeast extract and beer any longer) we headed to Leek. We had a saunter around Tittesworth Reservoir on the edge of the Staffordshire Peak District and a return for a lunchtime pint in Leek.

We passed the Blue Mugge (an innovative community pub with its ‘discussion in pubs’ meetings) and went into the Earl Grey. Last time I saw the Earl Grey it was a depressingly decrepit Marston’s street corner boozer well beyond its sell-by date. It looked closed even when it was open. Post-closure and a neat development of the site, the little pub has had a new lease of life from cheery folk offering a fine range of hand-pulled and keg beers. In fact just the sort of pub a modern consumer organisation promoting all types of good beer should be supporting – anyone know of one? The Earl Grey even had a friendly chap and dog at the bar ready to chat to incomers. London craft beer pubs have to hire them in you know.

Earl Grey

Essential man with dog

The Earl Grey bitter from Whim was fine and the keg Rednik Stout from Buxton brewery was a mighty beer – described by Mrs WickingMan as tasting of railway sleepers soaked in creosote. A reasonable description and good enough for me. The award-winning Reckless Pale Ale from Redwillow, much enjoyed by others in our group, was just too much Citra for me but it was complex enough to get me looking at the brewery website.

We headed on to Scotland via the wonderful Tebay services – it has to be the best range of local craft ales in a motorway service station as well as excellent pies. We picked up some Allendale beers (Wolf ruby ale was very good) to remind me to get fit for my 310 mile Strathmore Stroll.

The following day gave us a tour round the lochs to the north of the Firth of Clyde. The lunchtime stop at the original Loch Fyne Oysters was near to the Fyne Ales brewery. The remoteness seemed to make it even more of a find.

Fyne ales

A nicely fashioned brewery tap and shop (meat from the estate often available) and a half of Highlander was a good combination. Interesting to note that our designated driver wouldn’t even have a half-pint given the new Scottish legislation and concerns about the previous night’s consumption.

Apologies for the philosophical and literal wandering around the craft beer by-ways of Britain but there is a point to all this meandering. It’s the exuberance of these new brewers – skilled, innovative and willing to have a go. As my friend, Stewart, from the Wharfedale brewery once said ‘craft brewers have to remember that we’re living the dream for many of our drinkers’.

The Red Willow brewer, Toby, describes it thus, “I started brewing as a hobby one day, canʼt remember why now, but it was fun and the initial results were passable. Slowly but surely the hobby started to take up increasingly large amounts of my time and before I knew it I was experimenting and brewing most weekends.” And the tale of Tom Hick from the AllendaIe brewery is that he “was inspired to brew by a love of home brewing…and my mini-brewery at my parent’s home got more and more complicated”.

Which brings me back to my solitary bottle of Burry Porter. My daughter arrived on Christmas Day with a couple of bottles from a home brewing friend. Despite their protestations that he’s brewed freebies for friends’ weddings I thought back to my own home brewing kit days of yesteryear and wondered how to respond to the inevitable smelly muck from their mate, Aled.

Burry Porter

One of Aled’s Finest

I’ll leave it to Aled Price to describe his Burry Porter (malts – Golden Promise, Carapils, Biscuit, Black Patent, Chocolate, Caramalt; hops – Target, Cascade; IBU – 56; ABV – 5.2%), “I was going for the middle ground between the really malty traditional porters (which can sometimes just taste like ash) and the new craft beer type porter/stouts, which while packing a hoppy punch, can lack the balance of a good beer.” Suffice to say my concern was seriously misplaced and the man has considerable talent. As Aled is looking to expand capacity in his new garage there may be a time when his various beers reach the pubs of nearby Manchester. Lucky Mancunians. I’m off to finish the last bottle.

All hail the enthusiastic hobby brewers who’ve transformed the beer landscape of Britain as their talents have developed into full-blown craft breweries.