Friday, 20 March 2015

Drinking up Derbyshire

Part of the appeal of visiting the Peak District - aside, of course, from the magnificent hills and dales, classic architecture, culture and history - was the chance to visit the brewery and tap house of two of Britain's best loved brewers; Thornbridge in Bakewell and Buxton in, well, Buxton.

There are some moments in life which are pretty impossible to improve upon. Being called up to be offered a new job just at the the moment you arrive for a brewery tour with unlimited beer to drink at the end is certainly difficult to beat.

Such was the case when we turned up at the Thornbridge Riverside brewery, where my fellow tour mates were treated to the sight of me whooping and jumping up and down outside the full length windows, and before a drop had even been consumed. As if I actually needed a reason to drink more beer....

After getting a good view of the tanks where the brewing happens (recently expanded just a week or so before to increase capacity by a massive 40%) we were invited up into the control room where they check the quality of the beer as it ferments. 

Here they also experiment with new flavours and on our visit we saw a host of vibrating test tubes alongside various phials of beer that were being heated, cooled and otherwise adulterated whilst potentially on their way to become a new flavour in the left field series - a line of ales previously featuring parma violet porter and peanut butter stout.

We also got to see got to see the barrel store which is currently holding the second edition of Sour Brown - this batch maturing in French red wine casks with raspberries, rhubarb and cherries - alongside a contingent of beer quietly aging in Four Roses bourbon barrels.

Then it was back to the bar to celebrate with several jars, including bottles of Kipling, a South Pacific pale ale; Sequoia, an American amber ale; Twin Peaks, a Sierra Nevada collaboration and, on keg, Bayern, a very tasty classic Bavarian pils, and Cocoa Wonderland - the Ewing's favourite - a rich, thick and incredibly chocolatey porter.

We also picked up a bottle or two of pretty much everything they had in stock, including their ten year anniversary beer, Japiur X, a imperial incarnation of their most famous beer that's brewed at a stonking 10%. A few of these the following weekend gave me even more reasons to celebrate (and commiserate the following morning).

Making our way from the brewery we set off to counteract the effects of lingering at the bar for too long. This lead us back into Bakewell and to the Red Lion's  oatcakes - the big, spongy pancakes, not the small Scottish biscuits - which are another specialty of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Although they are sadly dying out you can still find them on the menu here, stuffed with either cheese and bacon or cheese and onion. 

Rather like a French buckwheat crepe, and with a lovely nutty, slightly sour flavour, this was a great way to spend less than four quid. Add some of the best chips I have eaten for a while (more like mini roasties) served with a proper jug of fresh beef gravy, complete with chunks of meat bobbing in it and pint of Peak Ales Bakewell Best Bitter, brewed on the nearby Chatsworth Estate, it made a fine end to a fine day.

Of course there were some moments of our stay when we weren't liver bashing, and during those brief passages of sobriety we could enjoy views like this, of the Cathedral of the Peak in Tideswell, which we were lucky enough to glimpse through our bedroom window during our stay at the adjacent George Inn.

The George also provided a magnificent example of the proper full english. Tea, juice and cereal to start followed by plenty of buttered toast and a immaculate selection of bacon, sausages, fried egg, mushrooms and tomato.

Like the fabled perfect roast dinner, getting a decent fry up away from home is nearly an impossible thing, but for each of the four mornings we stayed here our breakfast was freshly cooked to order and spot on each time.

Stomachs lined we set off for the geothermal spa town of Buxton. Scuppered slightly in it's bid to become a 'northern Bath' - due to it's high elevation providing even more inclement weather than the British norm - it's never the less still a charming place, complete with its own opera house, Pavilion gardens and the Devonshire dome, which now houses part of the campus of the University of Derby.

Despite the notable architecture the main charm for us heathens was the Buxton Tap House, the brewery tap of the eponymous brewery who produce their ware on an industrial estate just outside the town. Being as they don't offer official tours of the premises a visit to the Tap House was the closest we were going to get to where the magic happens. But with a regularly changing selection of five dedicated casks and eight keg lines of their own beer, it didn't seem much like a poor second best.

We started gently with two different types of golden ale, both on cask; a half of Moor Top, hopped with chinook, for me and a Buxton Spa, hopped with citra, for the Ewing. Both were finely kept and went down with an effortless ease.

Next I tried a half of their famed Axe Edge, named for the moor south west of Buxton, and here also served - a rare sight - on cask. This, deservedly, often makes the list of top UK IPAs and it's not hard to see why. Hopped with Amarillo, Citra and Nelson Sauvin, the bitter bite of citrus and big topical fruit flavours still manage to belie the 6.8% Abv.

To eat I went with the once trendy, now decidedly retro, (showing my age) pub classic, nachos. Normally I wouldn't bother, applying the 'I could make this at home' rule to it, despite the fact nachos are amazing I haven't made them since I was a student. On this occasion I'm very glad I did, the heap of tortillas arrived smothered by their smoked beef shin chilli, salsa, jalapenos and a blanket of cheddar and mozzarella, with generous Pollock-esque dabs of guacamole and sour cream providing the finish touches.

The Ewing's chowder was just as great, the mussels being home smoked in their own smoker and joined by corn and chunks of bacon, ably supported by doorstops of buttered brown bread. Top notch pub grub all round. (The Chowder was a revelation - TE).

Continuing our progress through the list my next brew was the Wild Boar, on cask, coming in at 5.7%. A decent pale ale that starts initially with the sweet flavour of tangerines and honey before smacking you around the chops with a lovely dry, bitter finish.

The Ewing's Red Raspberry Rye, a beer I'd heard much about, was the most interesting drink of the day. This poured completely opaque with no head and a dark red colour (as opposed to some of the bottles I've seen, which seem to pour a little clearer and pinker in hue?) and tasted phenomenal; dry, tart, a touch of wheat and packed full of fresh raspberry flavour. Perhaps not for everyone, but a beer well worth sampling at least once. (Definitely!- TE)

Last up was my favorite of the day, the Nth cloud, a DIPA the colour of Irn Bru. This was fresh out the brewery and was in fantastic condition, with a slightly sweet, resinous, almost chewy quality and huge amounts of ripe mango and grapefruit.

The Ewing went with the no less magnificent Living End - this being the bourbon barrel version rather than the Islay whisky incarnation - a imperial stout coming in at a majestic 10.1%. Thick with coffee, malt and chocolate with vanilla and oak from the barrel aging. Dangerously smooth and the perfect night cap to send us back (along with a selection of bottle to takeaway) to Tideswell.

It wouldn't be a trip to the Peaks without a chance to sample some of the cakes and pastries that helped put the region on the map. By far the most famous of these is the baked offering from Bakewell, here known as a pudding not a tart and resembling more of a baked custard tart with a raspberry jam layer underneath than the iced mini Mr Kipling pies my Dad used to wolf down. 

I found the original puds were good, if a little oily, although I must have inherited the same unsophisticated taste buds as my Dad as I preferred the tooth-achingly sweet iced version with its frangipan sponge layer.

Better still were the Thar cakes - very gingery, crisp oat biscuits (they are a relative of Yorkshire's parkin) - and Wakes Cakes, crumbly - short biscuits flavoured with rose water and ground coriander - that we bought from the bakers in Tideswell. Beer and biscuits; there's plenty of treats in them thar hills.

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