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.

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Too cool for old school?

Despite a deepening aversion to CAMRA (I’ll get to it in a later blog) I remain a traditionalist seeking out bitter and mild on a hand pump and I have a historic ‘keg gives me a headache’ prejudice. As a result I’ve wavered about visiting the Verulam Arms in St Albans – in essence I thought its website description of “introducing a Craft Beer Bar” was just too cool for my old school views. Was I facing Shoreditch in St Albans? On the basis that it might be a Gunmakers for the ‘burbs I’ve given it a go a couple of times recently.

The food, with its wild and foraged theme, is very good but I’ll focus on the pub and the beer. Whilst there are lots of people eating it feels very much like a pub rather than a restaurant and it breezed through the welcome test on both nights I was there – one trip for food the other just for beer. They had a few hand pumps including Adnams’ Old Ale and a Tring Christmas yo ho ho special. However in for a penny in for a pound I decided to avert my gaze for the ‘Old’ and head for the new – keg.

They had a couple of Adnams’ Jack Brand brews, a Camden Pale Ale and Titanic Stout. Strange, I thought,  offering beer in halves, two-thirds and pint glasses. Prejudice to the fore I grumbled in my head about craft beer pretentious nonsense but then gave it some thought. A half is just something to top up the last pint before closing but maybe a two-thirds measure could work if there’s plenty of decent choices.

I’d tried some of the Jack Brand beers in bottle on a recent trip to Suffolk and I’m impressed with Adnams as a business – but how good are these fancy dan craft keg attempts? The Adnams 1659 Smoked Ruby Ale was a beer for the fireside – I’ll leave the description to the brewer. As the man behind the bar said, the Adnams Crystal Rye IPA isn’t quite an IPA. I’d agree – at least not one of those ‘smack you in the mouth’ harsh IPAs that seem to be churned out by yet another new kid on the block. Much more subtle and better for it. (My daughter when given a taste declared it too cold and fizzy – a taught traditionalist I wondered.)

As Adnams has claimed, it’s been making craft beers for centuries and the latest attempts show innovation as good as the best of the new. As for the rest of the kegs, the Titanic Stout was like meeting a trusted old friend from Staffordshire, always reliable, and the Citra heavy Camden Pale was just as it says on the tin and for me that’s where it stays in future.

The Verulam is a fine pub with good beers and a few doors down is the Farriers (see earlier blog) a fine pub with good beers. They’re as different as chalk and cheese and that for me is the greatest talent of English pubs.

Well done Verulam Arms – old school dogs can learn new tricks. It’s a Gunmakers for M25 land and only a short walk from the Abbey. Christmas Eve Evensong and two-thirds of Verulam’s own newly brewed medieval ale might be just the job.

All the gear and ready for a beer

It was pointed out to me recently that my blog was supposed to be about walking as well as beer and it was about time I removed myself from the bar. Loins girded we started off from our friends’ place at Clough Mill in Little Hayfield to go round Kinder Reservoir (and then Lantern Pike on the following day). I still have a touch of the puritan attitude and feel that a beer should be earned and a decent stroll obviously qualifies. (The pint of Landlord at The Lantern Pike on Thursday evening was weakly justified by a long drive northwards. As the pub where the first Corrie scripts were written by Tony Warren it had to be worth a visit.)

It’s impossible to describe Kinder Scout without heading into the word box for ‘brooding presence’. It just suits a day with a touch of mist, drizzle and a breeze to chill you down. Whilst I’m all for a sunny day in the hills (usually in thewickingman shirt and shorts) it felt good to be wrapped in multiple layers following in the footsteps of the mass trespass folk from Manchester way.

We started off through the grounds of Park Hall where we came across the sadly decayed elegance of the hall’s heated outdoor pool. Even in the 1960s it seems to have been in use by the locals – I’m sure it made an interesting alternative to the municipal baths.  Out of the hall grounds and we soon had Kinder looming above us as we joined the Snake Path. The white-painted shooting cabin on Leygatehead Moor always reminds me of a cricket pavilion for what I imagine would be a game involving ‘hit a grouse and it’s 6 and out’.

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Good on you, Benny Rothman

At the bottom of William Clough (named after the son of the Blades manager I wondered) we paused to let the pure damp air fill our nostrils. It was a good moment to think about my 250 miles of the Strathmore Stroll in 2015 as I knew I’d be walking down the said Clough in early September. Note to self – it’s time to plan the route in detail.

We headed round the eastern side of the reservoir and met the Kinder Road and sped up to reach the The Sportsman. It’s at such times that I think most walkers use sports’ visualisation techniques – imagine a full pint (straight or jug) and you’ll be in the pub at double quick time. The Sportsman was like most pubs we visited in our trip to the Peak – solid, reliable and short of customers.

I noticed in Monday’s Morning Advertiser alert that Roger Protz is telling us that, “The country deserves better than just leaving our dwindling pub stock to market forces.” I’m just not sure who is supposed to run ailing pubs at a loss. As alternatives should we frogmarch young folk to grubby back street boozers, arrest people who leave supermarkets with a bag of beer or operate a massive state subsidy. Perhaps not.

Anyway rant over and back to The Sportsman, a Thwaites’ pub – a fine pint of their Original Bitter and a very substantial sandwich & chips, but we were the only customers on a Friday lunchtime. They have bedrooms so it’s not a bad choice for a Kinder walking weekend. (I was amused recently to read in the London Standard that Thwaites’ Wainwrights was named after the Lake District walking books. AW would not have been amused.)

Next morning it was a stride up Lantern Pike through pasture fields with millstone grit walls. Very much a traditional Dark Peak walk and none the worse for that. The Little Mill Inn  at Rowarth was a welcome sight – feeling very much in the middle of nowhere but only about 8 miles from Stockport as the crow flies. As a man for tradition (boring says son) I’m not keen on supposedly amusing names for beers – I prefer the beer to do the talking. However in a wild thirst induced moment I went for the Jennings World’s Biggest Liar – a 4.3% bitter that veered nicely into roasted malt territory, honest. Brewed to celebrate their hosting of the recent competition it’ll be a shame if it disappears. Another pub with good fresh-cooked food and well-kept beer but we were the only customers for a while.

A short walk to Hayfield in the evening and it looks like The Village TV drama has given Hayfield a lift. The Royal Hotel has had a polish but it’s kept its three-sided bar to deliver a pint of Thwaites and also a pint of Kinder Falldown, nothing special – must remember to stick to beers with sensible names. The Royal refurbishment seems to have done the job. It was a packed Saturday night and its function room was in full swing with an 80s fancy dress night. I imagine a summer walk over Kinder, a pint or two outside and the tail end of a cricket match on the adjacent ground would be a fine day.

We wandered over the road to The George for a final pint – a surprisingly decent Adnam’s Old Ale given its long journey from Southwold and the Marstons’ EPA was also doing well. As we headed back to our beds we passed The Packhorse – a sad scribbled notice reporting its last day on Sunday. Much as I love a pint in a Peak District pub I realise they can’t all survive just for my occasional pleasure. Some will thrive, some will struggle and some will be lost forever. It’s illuminating to note that a vacant freehold pub in the Peak now sells for less than the equivalent residential property. Please explain that one CAMRA.

“I don’t do food”

A week in Suffolk had me thinking about what makes a pub different to a restaurant. On the way we drove through Yoxford, a village just off the A12. I remembered some 30 years ago renting a holiday cottage in the village across the road from The Blois Arms, an Adnams pub. In those days, over for a quick pint – the landlord gave us a friendly welcome and asked if we were settled in to the cottage (he knew what was going on in the village).

His only interests were his customers and Adnams’ beer. “This is the only Adnams where John Adnams drinks beer, he’s more of a wine man you know.” How right he was. Our pints were enjoyed whilst he proudly told us he didn’t do food, we could bring a jug for filling and “lift up your little girl on to the bar so she can talk to us as well – here’s a sweetie for later”. In modern parlance it was a wet-led community pub. The pub was closed in 2007.

Blois Arms Yoxford Copyright Adrian Noble

I don’t want this to seem like a diatribe against Adnams – any brewer that produces a fine winter brew like Old Ale gets my vote. It’s a very well run business with a strategically sound diversification of the brand (that’s enough marketing speak) – as my son said, “they’ve really got it sorted”. It’s just that my week in coastal Suffolk (NW3 by the sea) made me realise that, for some areas of the country, pubs focussed on beer are heading for extinction.

By ‘focussed on beer’ I don’t mean there’s no food or that most of the turnover is from beer – it’s more complex than that. When I walk into a pub I want it to feel like it’s a pub, not a restaurant with a counter to place my food order. I want it to be different – not like every other pub. Faced with stripped pine tables and bare floorboards, large menu blackboard, all the tables in the bar set for lunch, it’s clear that if I only want a pint I’m not really needed.

You know the type of ‘pub’ – with no space for mingling I start to think I might as well be at a Carluccio’s or some such. There’s a danger in standing about because you’re likely to get mown down as another ‘trio of locally-grown sausages with cheddar mash and luscious onion gravy, artfully arranged’ passes by your pint.

I’m all in favour of food, particularly after a stroll, and I realise that’s where the margins are for pub operators. What I’m concerned about is that there is a risk of pubs forgetting why they have a unique character. Pubs in Southwold like the Lord Nelson and the old bar at the Harbour Inn still say loud and clear we’re a proper pub and everyone is welcome. Perfect for when you’re in need of rehydration after a windy walk along the beach.

However they feel like a declining breed amongst the identikit ‘gastro-style’ pubs that are beginning to be the only option in some places. What was once an interesting food-led diversion for the pub trade is becoming boring. It’s not fashionable, it’s dull and unimaginative. And fads often become outdated and require yet another expensive re-fit in short order.

If it don’t feel like a pub, I don’t think it is a pub, as the landlord of The Blois Arms might have said.

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.