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New drinking: how we got real about ale

The Editor of What’s Brewing & BEER magazine Tom Stainer says Northamptonshire is now at the heart of the beer revolution

Last year I tweeted a picture of a flight of three thirds of beer, with the caption “If in any doubt, the craft beer revolution has reached Northampton”.

The photo was taken on a very pleasant sunny evening, sitting outside the then Hygge bar – part of the Derngate and Royal complex in Northampton town centre.

Sadly, Hygge has now departed and been replaced with, in my opinion, a disappointingly bland bar with none of the uniqueness of its predecessor and more importantly, nothing like the wide range of beers the former offered.

I’m confident, however, that Hygge was not a high-water mark for Northamptonshire drinkers’ developing appreciation of quality beer – matched with passion and skill from an expanding band of producers and pub licensees.

I work for the Campaign for Real Ale and it’s interesting to contrast the national beer picture with the local one I experience living in Northampton. There’s a certain snobbery and elitism to be found in the beer bubble I professionally inhabit. Talk to some in the beer world and the feeling is the craft beer movement has not made it out of the metropoleis, while the uneducated swillers in the provinces remain impressed by Stella Artois in a chalice glass and think an international beer range includes Kronenbourg and Fosters.

You don’t have to walk far around Northampton town centre to see this is simply not true. Arguments about “craft” beer aside and whether it’s anything more than an increasingly meaningless marketing term, it’s clear drinkers in the county are demanding more interesting and flavour-filled beer.

Pubs like the celebrated Malt Shovel, the Princess Alexandra, the Olde England and The Wig and Pen have always lived by their wide beer range, but they’ve been joined by many other pubs like the Mailcoach, the Lamplighter and The Bank in actively marketing the pub based on its selection of beer. All are close to Northampton’s newest micropub, the St Giles Alehouse. It’s joining the small but growing group of micropubs – dedicated to nothing but good beer appreciation in a social setting – including the Saxon Tavern in Earls Barton, the Little Ale House in Wellingborough and the Early Doors in Daventry.

Members of CAMRA’s local branch report that through promotion of the LocAle campaign more and more county pubs are dumping national brands in favour of local breweries – recognising a more informed drinking audience don’t want to be wasting their money on big, ubiquitous brands.

Increased demand for good beer beyond pubs can be seen by the fact there is now a market for a craft beer bottle shop, Beer Guerrilla, on Wellingborough Road, which offers local beer as well as an interesting selection of quality brews from further afield. You can call in for a sample and a chat at its tasting bar, or take home cans, bottles or “growlers” (refillable bottles) of draught beer.

This greater awareness of beer in the pubs, shops and bars in the county has been supported by a growing group of brewers.

When the Campaign for Real Ale published its first Good Beer Guide in 1974 it listed just one brewery in Northampton: Phipps. It’s cutting, two-word review of the brewery at that time was “don’t bother”.

It couldn’t be more different now at Phipps, which was relaunched by brothers Quentin and Alaric Neville in 2016. I was invited to one of the initial crowdfunding events at the Albion Brewery site on Bridge Street. Then it was a dusty, empty and lifeless Victorian shell, last used for brewing in 1919. The vision of the Neville brothers and fellow director Roy Crutchley (who has brought his own Hoggley’s beers under the Albion roof) restored real ale brewing to the town and its brewery bar has created a vibrant and atmospheric beacon for good beer a short stroll from the centre.

A slightly longer stroll from the centre brings you to another of the town’s newest breweries, attached to the Pomfret Arms in Cotton End. Here you’ll find an example of how Northampton’s new attitude to good beer and pubs is creating social and welcoming pubs which are at the heart of their communities (the Pomfret hosts regular art events, live music and cycle clubs) a long way removed from the old-fashioned, traditional boozer.

The fact that Phipps and the Pomfret are virtually in the shadow of the looming Carlsberg brewery is fitting, as it’s this massive, international beer producer that has long been the eclipsing representative of beer in Northampton.

As it happens Carlsberg is a driving force behind change as the headline sponsor for the Northamptonshire Food and Drink Awards. It was at the final judging for the drinks category, hosted at the Carlsberg brewery itself, that myself and fellow judges tasted for ourselves the quality and range of beer Northamptonshire now enjoys.

It was almost impossible to slide a beer mat between finalist beers from breweries including Towcester based breweries Silverstone and Towcester Mill, Kettering based Potbelly, Oundle’s Nene Valley, Thrapston based Nobby’s, Brigstock’s eponymously named brewery, and Woodford Halse based Gun Dog. Of particular note was the relative newcomer Maule, inspired by the international craft beer movement and producing stand out beers which couldn’t look and taste any better even if they were brewed beneath a railway arch in the most hipster-infested part of London.

The finalists are only a small part of the explosion in brewing which has gone on in the county since that first dismissive Good Beer Guide report. There are now around 20 in Northamptonshire – from the longer-established such as Northampton’s Frog Island , Digfield in Barnwell and Great Oakley in Tiffield – to the relative newcomers such as the Hart Family brewery in Wellingborough, Weldon Brewery in Rushden, Whistling Kite in Kettering, J Church (based at the Black Prince pub in Northampton), Hunsbury Craft in East Hunsbury and Merriman in Litchborough.

In a nice completing of the circle, leading beer authority and current editor of the Good Beer Guide Roger Protz will be finding out for himself what the county’s breweries now have to offer when he visits the Northampton County Beer Festival in Becket’s Park, 3-4 June.

I suspect he’ll agree with my perspective (leaning against the bar, beer in hand), the beer revolution hasn’t merely reached Northamptonshire, our county has played a part in driving the new wave of interest and understanding of beer, whether that’s through the pubs we enjoy, or the breweries who call the area home. Four decades on, drinkers now have a reason to be very bothered about Northamptonshire.

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