Ode to Sheffield

The perfect snog

The perfect snog

First of all I have to admit to being biased – three formative years long ago at Sheffield Hallam (and more recently for my son) and it has a hold of my heart. I’m never quite sure what makes any town or city feel safe but Sheffield city centre has always seemed welcoming for a night out. I suspect a city, where burly bus drivers call you love, Richard Hawley calls home and where Hendo’s is a life-blood, has to be good.

Way back when, I remember standing in a queue for a club with snow falling and a local lad in a T-shirt laughed and said, “I see bloody students are back” and looked at us disdainfully in our thick coats and then chatted to us – we were the gowns owned by the town. Similarly, I remember a late night when me and my mates, all in fancy dress, were chased on foot around a city centre car park by a copper. He eventually caught up with us, laughed at our daft outfits, and explained that he wasn’t going to arrest us, he just didn’t want us to drive a car in our state – good policing did exist in 70s Sheffield.

Our latest reunion with South Yorkshire started in deepest darkest Rotherham to watch United being thrashed by the Boro’. I’d not been to watch Rotherham (in Rotherham) since the 70’s when Malcolm Allison’s Crystal Palace were the visitors and Big Mal was in his Fedora hat era.

Back to the beer – I’ve decided that if you want to be in a pub where supporters of both football teams will mingle happily you need good beer and no blokes on the door. (On this basis I fully expect a CAMRA ‘What’s Brewing’ article soon suggesting that real ale can be shown to reduce football hooliganism when compared to the wicked effect of keg consumption – see earlier blog on village pubs). Pubs like the Derby Tup in Chesterfield, Finborough Arms (Chelsea) and The Great Northern (Burton) offer the best in decent beers and decent folk.

Anyway, the Cutlers Arms in Rotherham provided a good couple of local pints before the game and the New York Tavern with its full range of Chantry brews and other ales offered a post-match warm down. Both supplied beers in good nick and fast, friendly service. Perfect for a game at the tidy new home of the Millers – and many thanks to the supervisor who, after the match, generously escorted my mate from the Rotherham end to meet us at the Boro’ end and for good chat from the friendly copper from South Yorkshire’s finest on the walk from the ground. In the search for bad news, it’s not often reported that you regularly hear away fans thanking stewards and police after a game and the return of “have a safe trip home”.

Back to Sheffield…the night focussed on Sheffield city centre’s heritage pubs. First off it was the Thornbridge-owned Bath Hotel, with a wide range of its own beers and others in fine form, followed by The Red Deer. Somewhere along the way was a pint of Abbeydale’s Deception but why do I never see Brimstone in Sheffield?

The Grapes followed offering good ales & Guinness, a jukebox of excellent tunes (Sheffield songsters a speciality) and the interesting JFK memorabilia room. Strange to think that once upon a time an ‘Irish’ pub was about a friendly well run pub with live music rather than the mock ‘oirish’ nonsense found across the globe. Long live The Grapes.

After an excellent curry at Aagrah, we finished off with the cosy welcome that is Fagan’s – tuneful melodies, perfect Tetley’s and a wonderful snog (see gable end for details). A place guaranteed to make you smile & chat.

Sheffield never disappoints. Here’s to the next time love.

The Strathmore Challenge – a walk via the breweries of England

For those of you who have asked about the 300 miles walk in September 2015 for a rough outline please click here or look at the image below. I’ll be blogging en route (e.g Day 1 twisted ankle, caught bus, went home) when I can get wifi. I am walking between the start at The Strathmore Arms at Holwick near Middleton-in-Teesdale and the finish at The Strathmore Arms in St Paul’s Walden near Hitchin – the only pubs of that name in England.

The Stroll

A bit of a stroll

And to all who’ve asked…yes I have read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – it would have been a good story if he’d have visited more pubs and breweries.

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

A week away in Madeira got me thinking of desert island beers – what would I want washed up on the shore in perfect nick. That’s what fizzy lager and dodgy local spirits does to a man, you start hallucinating about favourite beers of the year. Of course, it’s not just the beer – the people, the journey and the pub all add up to the perfect pint.

For me it was a summer stroll across the Hertfordshire countryside to The Strathmore Arms and their ever changing roll-call of beers. Good company on the walk, decent weather and a thirst to be quenched set the tone for an excellent session. When the locals, with a glint in their eyes, told me my choice wasn’t much cop I guessed the American Red from Liverpool Craft might be worth a try. I’ll leave others to pontificate at RateBeer but on this day its caramel taste and refreshing bitterness was fine by me. So far it’s my beer of the year edging out Marlow’s excellent Rebellion IPA at the Cross Keys, Abbeydale’s treacly Brimstone at The Three Stags’ Heads and Harvey’s Best at the late lamented Gunmakers. (Thoughts welcome on your beers of the year.)

As I’ve written before, I’m a beer drinker looking for traditional bitter rather than trying to chase summer blondes. Strange then that my favourite is from a small brewery playing the ‘edgy’ craft beer card. Is this a forewarning of how the beer landscape might look in a few years? Who will be the winners and losers?

For those of us who remember the 1970s and 80s, the pubs of the independent family breweries (IFBs) were often the oases in a desert of tasteless keg – they were our real ale heroes, Young’s in London and Adnams in Suffolk. Could we be heading to a beer future where we only have our memories of those days and their beers? The production efficiency of new craft breweries, the issue of Progressive Beer Duty and a matter of taste may bring the downfall of some who kept the real ale flag a-fluttering.

Those of us from outside of the Shoreditch beer vibe still go weak at the knees when we catch sight of an old-fashioned tower brewery – to many it seems the epitome of an independent family owned brewery. For years it’s been a guarantee of local pubs with a decent pint. The likes of Hook Norton, Harvey’s and Samuel Smith’s have moved with the times but they retain a marketing image founded on traditional values. Surely on that basis, independent family brewers are set up for years of success? Maybe not.

On a tour of Thornbridge’s highly efficient beer factory on an industrial estate outside Bakewell we were told that the next batch of stainless steel would give them more capacity than Adnams on a much smaller footprint. Whilst many traditional brewery buildings are fitted-out with the latest equipment it has to be difficult to achieve similar sterile efficiencies in their often listed buildings. Chances are that a new craft brewery can achieve a much higher production capacity relative to floorspace compared to many traditional brewers.

These infrastructure disadvantages are overlaid with the issues of the capacity limits in the Progressive Beer Duty regulations. According to Adnams, the small craft brewers are at a duty advantage of £55 per barrel compared to the IFBs producing in excess of 60,000 hectolitres. The government’s assistance to small brewers has disadvantaged the brewers that gave real ale a chance of survival.

It’s a difficult world – the family brewers are less efficient due to history, they’re suffering a financial disadvantage and then we come to taste. The growth in the beer market is in part due to those drinkers who want innovation, new tastes and individuality. Whilst many of the IFBs have started their own microbreweries (for example, Thwaites’ Crafty Dan) and one-off brews, they struggle to achieve the ‘edginess’ offered by the market positioning of the craft breweries. The IFBs will live or die by their traditional beers sometimes cherished by an older demographic. And in my view, for some IFBs such as McMullen, Palmers  and Robinsons, the blandness of their regular beers don’t offer enough to get today’s punters through the door. Between them there’s many a decent pub but that’s no longer enough.

So next time you’re knocking back a beer from the new craft kid on the block spare a thought for the heroes of the battle for real ale survival. Old infrastructure, tax disadvantages and a struggle to stand out from the crowded world of craft beer could mean we lose some brewery gems, or at best they go down the  pub-only road travelled by Young’s and Brakspear.