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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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.

Paddling in New Zealand craft

Beer is reflective of its country and beer in New Zealand’s no different. Telling it how it is, refreshingly honest but accessible to everyone is how New Zealand and its beer came across to me during a month long trip. There’s much to learn in NZ for UK brewers and pub operators and still much to be proud of about UK pubs and beers. For drinkers it’s a great trip.

Flights totalling nearly 24 hours mean it’s important to maintain discipline to avoid horrendous jet lag so no alcohol for me – until that Pavlovian response (sorry, couldn’t resist the reference to NZ meringue) when the trolley wheels could be heard. I’ll have a beer please, and out popped a can of ABC Stout from Singapore (Heineken’s Asia Pacific Brewery who also own Monteith’s in NZ) – no % alcohol labelling so it must have been re-hydrating. My walking mates and I have developed a theory that anything 3.8% or below is sufficiently close to water as to be re-hydrating.

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Can’t say no

A bit like tinnies on a train, it’s permissible for drinking standards to drop on a plane but a few ABCs, and that NZ staple, Speight’s on the last leg were perfectly acceptable ways of whiling away the hours. Speight’s, and many of the big NZ ‘craft-promoted’ names (Mac’s and Emerson’s), are part of the giant Lion Nathan enterprise based in Oz but Japanese-controlled. It remains a puzzle to me that the beer brand giants across the world (often managed by Brits) now seem capable of nurturing craft and traditional brands but in the UK only seem to neglect them. I expect that we will see some significant craft brewery acquisitions in the UK by the big players over the next few years unless they continue to be lost in their world of big tasteless keg brands?

Back to the beers – off to a mate’s place and an opportunity to nurse a Mac’s Great White wheat beer. Decent beers, an interesting range and readily available in all good stores, Mac’s became a standard until the great campervan disaster. Mac’s bottles have those ring pull tops that always seem such a good idea. Want to create the aroma of a brewery in your camper? Why not drive along a bumpy road and soon your floor will be awash with beer as the tops go flying. Those crown corks are there for a reason.

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Craft at the bleeding edge – must be the saison for it

Off to Hallertau Brewery, north of Auckland for food and craft beers. A few regular beers – pilsner, pale ale, red and plenty of specials (including blacks, porters and bitters) this seemed to be the craft beer theme for the trip.  With the tightening of drink drive legislation in England & Wales seeming inevitable, there are useful lessons for UK craft breweries from Hallertau and its ilk. Reasonably close to a large population centre but remote enough to require car transport, it’s picked up on the wine estate trick of food, drink and sometimes live music. Not fine dining but good NZ classics and paddles of beer made for a decent evening for all including the driver and well-behaved kids. Surely an ideal approach for someone like Thornbridge to increase the brewery tour spend and widen its brand positioning?

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Hallertau’s finest

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Close to the action

Supermarkets regularly offered Mac’s, Epic and Tuatara with Monteith’s and Emerson’s in some regions. Tuatara’s APA and Pilsner were ideal for those warm evenings – plenty of hop flavours but subtly done, worth savouring and good with ‘fush n chups’. Sadly I failed to get round to tasting enough of their range. Epic, whether pale ale or lager, to my taste seemed hops for hops sake. Epic’s description of their Pale Ale, “in fact there are 23 (hops) crammed into this bottle. Many brewers would call that ‘insane’. We call it flavour.”, reminded me of the PR obsessive end of the UK craft beer spectrum.

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A lizard of a beer

On to Wellington and its chilled-out waterfront and the national museum. Typical Kiwi welcome in the museum, “here’s a map, go and see if you can get lost and break a few things. If you lose him he’ll be in Mac’s next door.” Imagine that at the V&A? Mac’s brewery tap was a grand place for a paddle with Mac’s Gold lager and Great White achieving favoured status. Again beer and food was the norm for craft beer customers.

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Halves don’t count

On the east coast of South Island we rolled into Oamaru and parked up the campervan on the edge of the harbour, close to the town’s Victorian Quarter – grainstores and their like, strangely reminiscent of Burton’s brewery buildings. Life feels good when you realise you’re parked only 200 yards from Scott’s craft brewery. Sunday morning farmers’ market and a few beers on offer at Scott’s including guests. Scott’s had the usual NZ craft range but also a proper hand pump for a guest on their brewery tap bar. The Twisted Hop Brewery specialises in English-style cask conditioned real ales.

I’d like to tell you more about their Challenger Bitter but it was snaffled by Mrs TWM before I’d taken more than a sip. A brewery to look out for if you’re after a taste of Blighty. Like many businesses, Twisted Hop had to relocate after the Christchurch earthquake. The city still reels from the commercial aftershocks of the earthquakes – damaged buildings still subject to endless arguments between owners and insurers and to us it seemed difficult to spend the tourist dollar.

The Botanical Gardens near the centre of the city was an obvious place of safety for those escaping collapsing buildings in the CBD and it remains a tranquil haven for many. On the last day of our trip I enjoyed a Three Boys IPA in the café next to the glasshouses. Christchurch still has much to do but even craft brewers can play their part in raising spirits.

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Well done boys

The beer scene in NZ felt less exclusive than the craft and real ale camps in Britain.’ Want to drink decent beer, you’re welcome’ seems to be the general approach. It’s no surprise that the beer consumers’ association is called SOBA – gently irreverent and without pretention is the Kiwi way. The result is a bigger market open to all. Even small towns often had a small pub cum craft brewery as an alternative to the traditional ‘hotel’ bar in the town that I suspect was a home for the old six o’clock swill.

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Ready for a beer mate

As someone who doesn’t like their beer saturated with hops I’d still recommend New Zealand – the choice of beers is exceptional, all topped up by great scenery and the friendliest of people. I probably missed out 90% of the craft beers available in NZ but for what it’s worth Three Boys IPA was my best of the trip but a can or two of Speight’s after 19km on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing wasn’t far behind.

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.

Clive of India Pale Ale

We embarked on a pre-Christmas dads and lads outing to St Albans’ pubs – it was difficult to work out who was leading who astray. Enough to say that any evening that starts with winter ales, has a middle of pub carol singing with St Albans’ Morris folk and ends with a kebab is unlikely to result in much erudition. However, somewhere in the mists of drinking, some of us (i.e. Clive and myself), discussed the problem of IPA. At The Goat pub the dads had gone for Redemption’s Big Chief IPA and a couple of the lads had chosen Well’s Eagle IPA (or whatever they are calling it this week).

Whilst Clive would even ask for a blood transfusion to have added Citra hops I’m more of a roasted malts man but we can agree on a beer needing some taste and complexity. The Well’s IPA tasted of – well it didn’t have a taste to be frank, whereas the Big Chief was full of flavour including some citrus stuff but so much more than a ‘we’ve bunged in a load of Citra hops to make a strong beer that’s like alcoholic bitter lemon’.  Anyway pity was taken on the errant lads and extra pints of Big Chief were purchased to much acclaim.

The essence of my complaint about IPA is that as a description it’s now about as much use as teats on a bull. A Google search has over 680,000 results for “India Pale Ale” reflecting the fact that it has become a meaningless term of no use to the beer drinker e.g. someone explain black pale ale to me. But in a way, worse than meaningless given that it’s become a label used to sell any old (or even new craft) sludge.

In my early drinking career Worthington’s White Shield was a good bottle-conditioned standby in Burton’s pubs and a useful finish to a night when another full pint was unnecessary. It was a classic IPA (I mean to say was) and today it remains a ‘proud member’ of the Molson Coors’ Global Portfolio…in fact they’re so proud of it coming from Burton on Trent (sic) they even illustrate the Worthington’s White Shield web page with that beautiful corner of Burton otherwise known as Dunsop Bridge in Lancashire. Marketing muppets.

Anyway enough of my anti-Coors ranting, I don’t ask for much, so please dear brewers if you label a beer as an IPA make sure it tastes of something, that it’s more complex than an alcoholic bitter lemon and remember its origins as a Pale Ale.

The Burton Snatch – marketing triumph and brand failure

As a Burton-born boy I now view from a ‘down south’ distance the marketing triumph that is Marston’s Pedigree and the corporate failure to manage the Draught Bass brand.

I grew up in a Burton world where roads were criss-crossed by the spider’s web of brewery railways, pubs seemed to be on every street corner and more than a few blokes had taken advantage of drinking beer at work. I thought every town had a smell of spent yeast and Marmite. And the joy of a summer holiday job with free beer in the canteen. It wasn’t just the workers – I remember having to carry a case of beer up to the Bass board meeting for ‘tasting’.

Time moved on and drinking choices in town became clear – Ind Coope’s Burton Ale, Marston’s Pedigree or Bass. Whether it was the choice of pubs or the taste of the beers, it’s lost in nostalgia but I’d hope I’d been able to recognise that Burton beers are not all the same. Pedigree to me is so sulphurous you might be drinking water from a volcanic lake, Burton Ale was too much for a session but Draught Bass was the business.

As I’ve said before it’s just my taste but if I’d had to predict a beer capable of national success as real ale became mainstream it would have been Bass. A great brand in the UK and abroad, perfect for a session and a superb traditional bitter taste. In Burton it even had a tower named after it – until Coors rode into town.

Where is it now? It’s a stand back in amazement moment when you see it on a bar. Too many times recently I’ve stared wistfully at that Bass triangle on the outside of a pub only to face the inevitable Doom Bar inside. It’s easy to say it’s not the same Bass taste anymore but there’s still a hint of what might have been when it’s gently supped. (Congratulations to the Shoulder at Barton for keeping a very good pint.)

From a business perspective Marston’s has done a superb job on placing Pedigree as one of the key contenders for a real ale national treasure. Its sponsorship of England cricket hits the perfect demographic, the advertising pulls gently on nationalistic heartstrings and then there’s the taste (oh well you can’t have it all). They started with product, some regional brand-strength and a growing market and they’ve achieved wonders.

On the other hand InBev had the national (even worldwide) Bass brand – the perfect session product for the only growth market in town and they’ve failed completely and utterly. On the AB InBev website Bass is categorised as a lowly ‘local champion’ and without a hint of irony they note that “the brand has had an incredible pedigree (my italics) for centuries”. The marketing maestros probably don’t even realise it is brewed by Marston’s these days.

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.