Beers in Peak Condition

A wedding and a week in the Peak District was always likely to go well when preparations started with picking up three kegs at Burton Bridge. A drive through the open air 4×4 car showroom that was travellers parked up en route to Appleby horse fair led us to the brewery. A cheery welcome at the brewery, loaded up and off to the Peak District before returning for a quick pint at the ever-friendly Devonshire Arms. The day before had been wine delivery duties and a pint at the excellent Smith’s Tavern in Ashbourne – the Marston’s family of beers plus the occasional surprise.

Great to see young folk like my daughter and son-in-law recognising that good beer has to be part of wedding festivities – not sure that many brides take the toast with a tankard of Burton Bridge Bitter but it’s the way forward.

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Finish that beer

Despite valiant efforts amongst the wedding folk, Sunday left us with some Golden Delicious. Sun shining, great views and casks on the limestone wall, it was a moment close to perfection for the massed ranks of wedding followers. Desperate not to waste any Burton Bridge, the last few pints were decanted into any old plastic bottles and fizzed up on ‘dispense’ with canned London Pride. Not quite up to the standard of recent exotic mixes of Boak & Bailey but we couldn’t let go.

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With apologies to Burton Bridge

With no beer left we decided on a walk round Carsington Water – not the most exciting stroll but it did lead us to divert across the fields to pretty Kirk Ireton and the fabled Barley Mow. We sat outside and a chap (he was indeed a proper chap) popped his head out of the door and told us the sun was nearly over the yardarm and be ready to come in a couple of minutes.

A Jacobean house that feels untouched by time – we awaited the venerable Mary to come to the serving hatch. A patient wait made worthwhile as we stared longingly at the array of local beers, gravity served, from the dark through to Hartington IPA and the lightness of Peak Ales’ Summer Sovereign. Seven ales in a small village pub and we wondered on the state of them. No need to worry they were peak perfection and with all at £3 a pint it made it easy to do the sums. Those Derby Drinkers must make some effort to keep the beer turned over. The Barley Mow is the overnight stop on Day 11 of my September beer walk through England – I can’t wait to go back.

The following day we headed up Dovedale (guaranteed no crowds or tubbies beyond 100m from the car park), then Milldale for our lunchtime stop at the Watt’s Russell Arms. Wary of Peak pub opening hours we’d checked the website only to reach the pub door to see a closed sign – if you’re going to have a website get the hours right.

Another mile led us ever thankful to The George at Alstonefield and pints of Marston’s various brews. With a firm ‘no picnics’ sign in the pub window we took our pints across to the green for our own scoff of wedding leftovers. I do wonder whether it’s time for non-gastro country pubs to change tack and say you’re welcome to eat your cobs at our outside tables whilst you drink our beer. Walkers can’t stroll in hope of a sandwich but are ready to part with cash for a beer or two.

As an example, the superb Derby Tup at Chesterfield even sends you next door to pick up a bap and bring it back. We headed back on the beautiful drystone edged lanes above Dovedale – meadows bursting with buttercups and clover, all with a phenomenal pollen count. Britain’s most accessible national park but so easy to find a bit of solitude. We skirted round Bunster Hill ready for a cuppa by the Dove.

Our pub week finished at The Sycamore (yes click-throughers that Robinson’s website is dreadful) at Parwich, a southerly Robinson’s pub and multiple pints of Iron Maiden’s Trooper. The beer was an excellent darkish brew but consternation from the landlady that the heavy metal imagery on the label puts off regular real ale drinkers. Just like the rest of the week we persevered and drank on.

Like Derby and the much-improved Burton scene, the Peak District is becoming a grand place for fine local beers and friendly chat.

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Since it’s you that’s asking I’ll have another gin dear

My grandad ran a couple of Marston’s pubs, the Fir Tree Inn in Arley (formerly a mining village in North Warwickshire) and the New Talbot in god’s own Burton-upon-Trent. whatpub accurately describes the Fir Tree… a large pub on a pointless roundabout. I’ve thought about my childhood memories of the pub whilst reading the BoakandBailey book BrewBritannia on the rebirth of British beer. Their otherwise excellent tale of the rise of Grotney’s Red Barrel and tasteless lager and the decent beer fightback lacks a vital explanation as to why many punters happily turned to keg. Shock horror, it was better quality and more reliable.

My dear old grandad took the bucket of beer slops at the end of every night and poured them back in the barrel topping it up with a bottle of lemonade to give it a bit of fizz. The slops were free and the lemonade was cheap because, sorry Marston’s, he used to go undercover to the local pop factory to avoid paying the brewery’s prices for soft drinks. The result for my dad and many of his generation was that a drop of real ale never touched their lips after the arrival of keg. Dad struggled to understand why I’d ever want to drink something that was subject to tampering by the landlord. I suspect my grandad was not alone in his dodgy practices but he had to make a penny or two.

Grandad’s other business ideas for money making in the pub were ‘white-labelling’ and target marketing initiatives well ahead of their time. It was customary amongst the regulars to ask Sam if “he’d have one with them” – the offer of a free drink in your own pub. His response “thank you I’ll have my usual” and he’d pour, from the gin bottle behind the counter, a measure of the finest tap water.

When I visited the Fir Tree as a child I wasn’t allowed to go the other side of the bar and much to my annoyance I couldn’t have a lollipop from the jar behind the bar – they weren’t for me. What I was allowed to do was to stand on a tin box of Smith’s crisps and engage the old ladies in the snug – pubs in those days were of course omni-channel venues. My script from grandad went along the lines of… smile, say hello Mrs Jones and then ask her if she’d like another gin. Of course the cherubic marketing message triumphed and she responded with “since it’s you that’s asking I will – tell your grandad”. So it was my fault that gin sales rocketed amongst the old ladies of Arley – guilty as charged mi’lord.

Back to the annoying jar of lollipops. Many years later it was explained to me that the sweets were for little Eric. My grandad was never prosecuted for serving after hours but always had lock-ins, except on those nights when the local bobby turned up ‘unexpectedly’. Little Eric was the local copper’s son and he could come to the ‘offie’ window and get a free lollipop whenever he desired. That’s called community policing of the ‘old-school’.

Grandad was educated at the university of life – I think he awarded himself a MBA with merit.

End of an era…beginning of a journey

I am bringing to an end full-time working on 30th September after 27 years with CACI Location Planning. My mum probably has the best take on my working life – so it’s your fault that all High Streets look the same.  That labels me as a ‘real ale socialist’ I suppose. Anyway, every new journey should start from a port loaded with victuals so many thanks to Jeff at the mighty Finborough Arms in West London for hosting my leaving do.

In many ways the Finborough reflects recent changes in beer and pubs but it also harks back to an earlier era. The most important element for me (sorry CAMRA) is the welcome. I’d rather drink a Guinness in a friendly pub with an interesting landlord than a pint of the finest ale where the landlord wishes you dead for daring to cross the threshold. The Finborough scores on many counts – the beers whether keg or hand-pulled taste interesting and it feels good to walk through the door. As the great Richard Boston said don’t forget you’re being invited into a private house when you enter a pub.

On the beer front I’ve come to accept that some people like beers flavoured with the spawn of the devil otherwise known as Citra hops, but as my drinking buddy Clive reflects, each unto their own. For me there is nothing better than a pint of Harvey’s Best but I can agree that if I was Ice Cold in Alex perhaps a cold Citra-fuelled beer would be fine & dandy. I guess that for someone brought up in Burton and of the Draught Bass tendency my tastes were formed at an early age. An IPA, mild or a porter on a cold night is worth a try but I am a man of traditional bitter tastes (sorry craft beer hipsters).

I’m looking forward to my evening at the Finborough and in future posts I’ll give you my thoughts why tasteless lager caught on, why Pedigree is just wrong, and how I sold gin to old ladies whilst standing on a metal box full of crisps with a twist of salt.