The first stop on our epic travels was to Great Malvern, to hike up the famous hills and soak up the glorious sunshine and enjoy the beautiful countryside. That was the plan, but as the laws of sod dictate, it doesn’t always turn out as you planned. The reality of it was as soon as we arrived it began absolutely lashing it down, to the point where I was thinking an ark might be in order to save the beers two-by-two! We both said that this was just part of the adventure and cracked on throwing up the pop-up tent, all that was missing was that Transformers noise as the coiled up disc sprang into a tent-a-tron. Having both gotten wet arses from hammering in tent pegs, the missus had a top idea, lets crack open a couple of cans and take shelter in the car whilst we decide whether the car was actually the best sleeping option for the night. That can of Modus Hoperandi was possibly one of the finest drinks I’ve ever had, or for that week at least!
The rain started to ease off and our thoughts turned towards food. Despite my much beer-prepping it was actually the wife who worked out that there was a pub, The Duke of York, just within walking distance from the camp site. With soggy boots and backsides, we stomped off in search of shelter and food (and beer). The pub was what I expected to find in a rural area and the stuff they had on tap was limited, but they did have Butty Bach, an English pale ale by Wye Valley Brewery, which was nice enough and inoffensive. After our meal, Jo (that’s my missus/wife mentioned earlier!), fancied a stout in way of a nightcap, before we trudged off back to the soggy campsite, but the only stout they could offer was good ol’ Guinness which, I confess, I haven’t drank in years. It was nothing like I had remembered it! Whether my tastebuds have evolved during the time of drinking ‘craft’ ales, but it had a rich roasted malt flavour that I had no recollection of, which was a pleasant surprise. With the beer glands satisfied it was off to bed with the hope the next day would be a little brighter.
After a crappy night’s sleep in what seemed like never-ending rain of biblical proportions, we were surprised to awake in the same place we had pitched the tent. After a brew, of the tea variety, and a bite to eat we decided to hit the road in search of sunnier climes. Our next stop was Salisbury and of course a visit to the world heritage site of Stonehenge. Despite encountering even worse rain driving there than we endured the previous day, by the time we hit Stonehenge the sun had come out, warming our souls and cheering us up no end. Stonehenge was certainly a sight to behold! I thoroughly recommend a visit if you’re passing. On our way back to the car we stopped by the gift shop, as my eagle eyes had spotted some people drinking beers, so I wanted to investigate. Sure enough there were a couple of ales by Stonehenge Ales - Heel Stone, a standard bitter and Great Bustard, an amber ale brewed with rye.
With the tent set up on dry land and deck chairs deployed, it was time to crack open a bottle give them a tasting. The brewery and it’s beers are very much old school, and to be honest, I would have been hard pushed to differentiate between the two, but hey the druids probably loved it! Time to get my tastebuds wrapped around something a bit more tasty, and the lucky dip into the cooler box revealed a can of Fourpure IPA. I first tried this on keg in Red Willow, along with their stout and I wasn’t really taken with either of them, but I’ve always read positive things about this brewery on Twitter and Untappd so I was willing to give them another shot. Unfortunately, their output just doesn’t do it for me and I can’t my finger on the reason why. I think it maybe they’re just so incredibly average. That said, it was certainly better than those Stonehenge beers!
I was confident on this leg of the road trip where things would get more interesting on the beer front, as we were guaranteed some decent scoops at Craft Beer Co. We stopped off the city centre on the way to campsite just to get the ‘lay of the land’ for the evening. As we randomly made our way through the streets in search of the beach, we stumbled across a nice looking brew pub called North Laine. Unfortunately, we didn't have the time to check it out fully, but they had a great looking menu so we earmarked it for our evening meal and continued on our way. We didn't realise when booking our stay in Brighton that it coincided with Gay Pride, so the place was absolutely heaving with party goers and party goers heaving into bins. When we did find the beach there wasn't enough room to swing a cat, so we headed back to the car and onwards to the camp site, situated in Lewes.
Despite being a Sunday, the bus services to and from Brighton were pretty regular and furthermore they ran right past the North Laine pub that we had discovered earlier in the day! It was a nice looking place with a large bar displaying their wares and behind the bar, taking pride of place, was the shiny brewing equipment, fundamental in creating them. Thankfully we arrived just in time to get a food order in, so with the scorching sun and holiday vibe we ordered a Mediterranean mezze whilst we decided on what to try first. They had a decent range of beers available, but I had my eye on a 5.8% black IPA named Crazy 8 as soon as set foot in there, so it seemed a good place to start. It was fresh, fruity and hop forward, just as a
true BIPA should be. An impressive start for a brewery totally unknown to my taste buds. I was eager to sample another, so we moved on to their IPA, which again was fruity, fresh and very tasty. These guys had seriously impressed me, but sadly, they don’t bottle any of their beers so I'm unlikely to find any outside of Brighton. This is a shame as the ones we sampled stand up well in comparison to the output of other breweries of a similar age. If you get the opportunity to try their beers, do so!
With our whistle well and truly wet, it was time for a dash across town into the welcoming surrounds of Craft Beer Co. with it’s ample array of beers, and what a line up they had! What struck me first was the amount of beers available from the local guys (local to home that is) at Thornbridge. With around six beers on offer, and not just Jaipur and Chiron, they had some of their latest, more off-centered output on tap, with the likes of Peanut Butter Brown Ale, Valravn and Slezak just begging to be sampled. Again it was a black IPA that caught my attention in the form of Valravn. An imperial version of their superb Wild Raven, although at just shy of 9% I thought I’d take it easy and order a third. The barmaid had no idea what I was talking about, to be fair she did seem quite green at the job, but I was doubting the words coming out of my mouth! It turns out that Craft Beer Co. don’t serve thirds! Whaaaa?! When you’re dishing out those big imperial beers, thirds are a must! Ahhh well, I just had to survive with a half...what a shame *ahem*. After that we continued down the Thornbridge route trying both the Peanut Butter ale and Slevak, a pale ale brewed with apricots, which was nothing like I imagined it to be. It was more akin to a fruit tea than a beer, but very nice, as you would expect. However, Thornbridge weren’t the only Northern brewery represented on the taps as the mainstay of Manchester breweries, good old Marble has their offering, Primus, an anniversary collab brew with the chaps at Cask Pub and Kitchen. My Untappd review just said - ‘It’s like I'm sailing on a sea of cheese. Fab stuff’. Nuff said. It was certainly good to see Northern breweries having such a presence as far south as Brighton. To follow on from the fruitiness of Slezak, I went for Beavertown’s Tour De France beer - Convicts of the Road, a saison with grapefruit and elderflower. Again, I was expecting to be slapped around the chops with massive grapefruit sharpness, but surprisingly it was the elderflower that was the star of the show. Before we left we decided to take Craft Beer Co up on their offer of 33% off takeaway beer, to replenish the cooler box that was running dangerously low. We went away happy with a fine selection of beers from the likes of Wild Beer, Weird Beer, Tiny Rebel and Beavertown. I could now sleep easy knowing we wouldn't be left high and dry.
With a slightly tender cranium we packed up our gear and hit the road. To take a break from camping and to enjoy some luxury, we had booked a room at the Salutation B&B in Sandwich, which, if you watch Gogglebox on Channel 4, is owned by the ‘pissed up posh couple’ and is widely regarded as one of the best B&Bs in the UK. Enroute we were going to pass through the city of Canterbury, so it made sense to stop off and have a mooch around. Of course I did my research and knew it was the home of Canterbury Brewers with brew-pub, The Foundry. I always keep an eye out for their beers after trying Itzamna, a superb imperial chocolate vanilla porter, but alas I have not found any out in the wild since, so I was looking forward to paying them a visit.
Hitting Google for places to eat in the evening, I stumbled across a pub just around the corner from the B&B which not only had a tasty menu, but they had taken the time to recommend beer pairings for each dish AND not only that, they also served the R&R Ales I had spotted earlier! It was a no brainer, so we headed out for a quick wander around Sandwich and then on to dinner. Thirsty for a pint of something sessionable I went for a pint of Otter Amber by Otter Brewery, whilst Eagle-Eyed Cherry (Jo) spotted R&R Ale’s Gallant Ale, which was on special at £2.50 a bottle, very reasonable for a 6.8% beer. Do you know those times, when you order something and then wish you’d ordered what your partner was eating/drinking? Well, just that. Gallant Ale was excellent, a sweet toffee-ladened rich ale with hints of burnt fruit, a beer that very much reminded me of the output from Traquair House.
I must admit, I have forgotten what I ordered for my starter and main, but I do remember the beers - La Trappe Tripel and Belgoo Magus, a couple of quite big Belgian beers that did indeed pair well with the dishes. I just wish more restaurants would take the time to recommend beer pairings on their menus as it really does enhance the experience. For dessert I side-stepped the recommendation, as I just had to have a bottle of Gallant Ale and I couldn't stop singing it’s praises! So much so, the very next day I revisited the pub to pick up some bottles to take away, along with a bottle of another one of their beers - Eastrian Blonde, a tart blonde ale with some subtle background sweetness. R&R Ales is a man and wife run nano-brewery (Pierluigi and Amber Rossi) and the two beers I picked up are currently their full line up. It turns out Pierluigi had trained as a brewer years ago and they both decided to quit their jobs in IT to follow their interest in brewing, which bears some resemblance with my current situation. IT is no industry to be in when you want to express a creative flair. If you are lucky enough to find their beers definitely give them a try!
The next day we loaded up the car ready for the leg up to Cambridge, but ‘oh no’ we had a casualty! As I was pushing in a bag one side of the car, something fell out of the other door. It was my Canterbury Brewers gift box! Thankfully only one of the beers smashed and it wasn't the Topaz! Phew!
With Cambridge being famed for it’s university I was confident that we would be able to get a quality tipple. I wasn't wrong. One place that really jumped out of the Google search results was The Pint Shop, which proudly proclaimed it has 10 keg and 6 cask lines. A quick scan across their Twitter account confirmed that this was indeed a place worth checking out, with beers on tap from the likes of superstar brewers such Wild Beer, Beavertown, Buxton and Thornbridge. Furthermore, they also had a cracking food menu, so that was beer and food sorted for the evening then. Our visit to Cambridge was around the same time US brewers Green Flash were touring their ‘meet the brewer’ events around the UK to unveil their Westcoast IPA on these shores, but alas, we had missed their visit to Cambridge by just a couple of days. I just hoped their IPA was still on the taps!
After setting up camp and chilling out in our deck chairs with a bottle of Gallant Ale, we hopped on the bus into Cambridge. This proved to be one of the most excruciating bus journeys of our lives, made worse by the heaters being on! It seemed to be doubling back and going in the opposite direction to Cambridge most of the time and I'm sure it even passed by the camp site a couple of times. It was like a chase scene out of Scooby Doo! After what seemed like an eternity (in fact it was only around 40 minutes) we landed safely in Cambridge. A check of Google maps showed we weren't actually that far from The Pint Shop, so we made our way through the bustling streets in search of cold beer.
On the website the bar looked like quite a small cosy place with it’s small shop front, but inside it stretched quite far back, with a large dining area to the rear and upstairs, plus an ample sized outdoor area. It was busy, but not so much so we couldn't get a table. We were shown into the dining room where I spotted the black board with the drinks line up, Westcoast IPA was still on the taps! It wasn't cheap mind at £5 for a half, but then it was a double IPA at just over 8%. It was lovely, lots of fruity hops and quite smooth, concealing it’s high ABV well. As always, I can’t remember what we ate, only remembering the food was excellent. We decided to get another beer in before we left and Wild Beer’s Evolver IPA had just been chalked up on the board, so it seemed like a good choice having never tried it before, although we did have a bottle in the cooler box, purchased from Craft Beer Co. in Brighton. My brain just couldn't compute, I was tasting Brett! On the board the next beer down the list was St Feuillien Saison, so I was convinced the bar staff had picked the wrong tap. Good job I Googled it first and found out that it contained ‘Hops, Brett, Hops’ and tasted of tropical fruit and farmyard funk! Anyway, as is the case with Wild Beer’s line-up, it was of course super delicious.
With our bellies well and truly filled we thought we would walk some of it off and take in the sights around Cambridge. It’s not often you visit a place where nearly every building is ancient and steeped in history, it was like going back in time. On our travels we spotted another pub called The Eagle, with an A-board proudly proclaiming that it stocked ‘50 craft beers from around the world’. We made a mental note and continued on our stroll, but it didn't take long for our bladders to start protesting and so we doubled back towards the pub in search of relief. We really struggled to find any evidence of the 50 craft beers it had claimed, but I did spot Founder’s All Day IPA in the fridge so we thought it was only polite to make a purchase after using their facilities.
There was only one thing for it, get our asses back to The Pint Shop for a nightcap. I had earmarked a half of Buxton’s Extra Stronge Stout, but when we returned the board had been updated with a new contender - Oakham’s Black Hole Porter. I've never seen anything of Oakham’s output other than pale ales on the taps, so it was it was a bit of a rarity. It was absolutely sublime, probably one of the smoothest porters I've ever drank and if you threw in a load of hops it would have also made an superb BIPA. Another excellent finish to another top night!
This leg of the journey was definitely the one I was most looking forward to. En route to Cromer we passed a bottle shop in King’s Lynn that I thought might have a few beers of interest, a few hundred that is! The bottle shop? Beers of Europe, the massive online beer emporium, which just happens to allow you to peruse the shelves in their warehouse. Upon pulling into the car park we were greeted by a great wall of beer crates from breweries from over the globe, it was sight to behold and possibly one of the biggest man made crate structures in the world and one that may well be visible from space. Getting out of the car I was like a giddy school kid outside a sweet shop, I was just itching to get in there. Whatever sights greeted us when we arrived paled into insignificance when we passed through the golden automatic doors! The rows of shelves just seemed to go on into the horizon, my eyes were popping out on stalks! The choice was overwhelming, a game plan was definitely needed. I decided I would have a quick look around to get the lay of the land and then I’d make purchasing decisions, or else the contents of the trolley could have seriously escalated. If you’ve already had a scan or purchased from their website then their impressive selection should come as no surprise, my only complaint would be the lack of beers from some of our more prominent home grown breweries, but then again, these beers are easily obtained elsewhere so I wasn't too fussed. My main focus was the US section as a lot of what they had to offer is stuff I've never seen on these shores before.
After one circuit around the aisles I had quite a haul, but not wanting to have to make a call to Wonga, I did another circuit reluctantly putting some beers back. In the end I spent around £80 and had a superb selection including a few limited one off beers from Hoppin’ Frog, Brooklyn and Lost Abbey. Price wise, they were slightly more expensive than what I would usually be prepared to pay, but as I’d never see these beers again it was worth forking out extra. Even Jo had been taken in by the majesty of the place and picked up her own haul that included some beers I might not have chosen (a couple of black lagers jumped out at me), so I was pleased with the opportunity to try something different.
With the car popping a wheelie under the weight of the ale in the back, we headed off to Cromer for the last stop of our road trip. One thing I checked with every location we were planning to visit was the opportunity to visit a local brewery and Cromer threw up an interesting prospect in the form of Poppyland Brewery. I had picked up a couple of this brewery's beers from Brewtique just a month before and one of which really caught my imagination, the Smokehouse Porter. Not only did this porter contain ample amounts of smoked malts, but also smoked hops, both of which were smoked by the brewer himself at a local smokehouse. I have drank plenty of smoked beers, but I had never come across a beer that had also used smoked hops before so I was intrigued by the brewery behind it.
Poppyland is a one man brewery set up by ex-museum curator, Martin Warren, looking for an outlet for his creative streak. It’s a small brewery that resides in an old garage that predominantly bottles it’s beer, with the occasional cask purely for beer festivals. Take a quick scan through the brewery’s presence on Untappd and you’ll notice that a lot of the beers aren't your standard fair. Martin is a bit of a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of the brewing world - if an ingredient won’t kill you, it’s has potential to end up in a beer, particularly a sour or saison. When we met him in his brewery he was genuinely made up that folk as far a field as Macclesfield were even aware of Poppyland, let alone enjoyed his work. He out crafts most breweries, without even trying!
Whilst on the road I had been reading ‘Brewing Up a Business’, written by Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head fame, and the more I chatted with Martin, the more the Dogfish Head motto - ‘off-centered ales for off-centered people’, seemed like an ideal description for what was being produced at Poppyland. Martin likes to use ingredients from the surrounding environment and collaborate with local people and producers to brew interesting beers, apparently nothing is too strange to put in a beer. He retold the story behind one beer in particular - Days of Empire, a strong English ale brewed with Chevallier barley, a malt much used in the 1800s, but was subsequently replaced over time with more hardy hybrid malts. It was plucked from a grain bank and grown over two years for research purposes and with Martin being a close friend of the man behind this study, he was gifted a few bags worth of this rare grain from a boot of a car. The chance to brew with a long forgotten malt such as this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but not having enough grist to work with on his main brewery metal, he instead opted to brew it on his old homebrew kit, producing just about 50 330ml bottles. Obviously, with such a limited number of bottles using a super rare malt, they were quite expensive at £20! Martin did tell me people were buying two to three bottles at a time! Savvy beer drinkers know something special when they see it.
His current challenge is to brew a beer using saffron from a local supplier, but he’s found that no matter how many hops he throws in, the saffron totally kills any flavour. So back to the drawing board for a re-think, I'm sure whatever style he settles on it will be delicious.
After a couple of hours of chewing the fat and sampling some beers, I slapped down some readies for a selection of beers (the Wild Damson Saison was absolutely superb!). If you’re ever passing through Cromer, be sure to drop Martin a line, he will gladly show you around the brewery and chat about beer. I came away feeling inspired, and after playing safe with the last few brews, I have decided to make things a bit more interesting with brews for a Black Forest Stout and a Lime Pickle IPA on the cards.
Meeting up with such an enthusiastic brewer was a perfect end to a thoroughly enjoyable road trip. When we set off on our travels I hoped I would at least find some beers of interest, whilst taking in the sights of places we had never visited before, but what we discovered exceeded expectations. We have already started formulating plans for a similar road trip next summer with a loop around the North of England.