Last Updated : 09/03/10
Derby – my part in it’s downfall.
How Derby went from scoop-central to "try also" within a few years back in the 1990's. And it was nothing to do with me...
here once was a time, believe it or not, when Derby was the centre of the universe as far as beer scoopers were concerned. Okay, so Stockport had the Stanley Arms, Manchester the Beer House and Marble Arch whilst Brighton’s Evening Star was just beginning to shine, but nowhere possessed the sheer number of pubs as Derby selling as many rare beers as they did and these pubs, predictably, drew in the scoopers like so many moths to a flame.
The same effect can still be seen today in Sheffield, Borough Market and Manchester but rarely in Derby; why is this, you ask? What turned this seemingly impregnable fortress into a pile of smouldering bricks? I was there, dear readers, and I shall tell…
I first visited Derby in a scooping capacity during 1992 as I’d been perusing my Good Beer Guide – which was, believe it or not, a fruitful occupation back then – and noticed that the city seemed to have an unfairly large quantity of pubs serving “guest beers” and, with my scooping gene in it’s ascendancy, I wanted a slice of that; after being stuck down in South Wales with barely a pub worthy of the scooping tag to visit for the past year I was ready for some micro-brewery action!
After ticking Hardy & Hansons Best Mild in the George Hotel by the station (yes, things were different then!) I headed for my first serious call, the Brunswick, where one of the new breed of micro-breweries had recently opened; 1992 was smack in the middle of the “quiet period” of brewery openings between the mid-80’s rush, most of which were either before their time or simply crap and had therefore closed, and before the explosion of fermentatory delights which began seriously in 1993, so this was a rare beast indeed in those early days.
Walking into the Brunswick was akin to entering some bizarre wormhole back to the 1960’s with stone floors and bare brick everywhere although Trevor Harris, the landlord, made sure the prices weren’t anything like the 1960’s! Entranced, I propped my svelte 21 year-old frame (well, I like to think so…) against the bar and worked my way through their entire range of homebrewed beers; First Brew, Second Brew, Owd Abusive, Celebration Mild, Fat Boy Stout then, finally, Recession Ale went down my gullet and, although I knew they weren’t the best beers I’d ever had – Brendan Dobbin had spoiled me in that respect – they were certainly much better than the H&H I’d just struggled through.
Do things get any better than this?
Back in the early 1990’s there were plenty of pubs in Derby worth covering, indeed there were enough for a full day’s pub crawling with the bonus that you’d more than likely get scoops rather than just drinking beer as in most other cities at the time, and this appealed to my scooping gene no end! Over the following year, whenever I visited home from my final year’s studies at University, I made the trip to Derby as often as I could and crawled my way around the Crompton, Kensington Tavern, Merry Widows, Friargate, Boater’s Brasserie, Flowerpot, Flamingo and Firkin, Vaults and, of course, the “Alex”, and began to rack up a growing tally of ticks, something I’d only really experienced previously in brief visits to the Beer House, Stanley Arms, Rose and Crown Bury and Wharf in Old Hill.
I was now meeting other scoopers on my travels and knew that it wasn’t just me, Fletch and Jonesey who pursued this strange obsession; whilst at university I’d thought that beer scooping – and back then it didn’t really have a name as such – was something rail cranks did whilst waiting for trains and never dreamed that it was already a national thing with other scoopers around the country doing exactly the same things I was, most of them blissfully unaware of everyone else’s existence. In fact, it was only when Alex Hall showed me Issue 1 of the Independent Imbiber in the Evening Star in 1994 that I realised beer scooping was a legitimate hobby in it’s own right and not just some add-on to rail cranking, a hobby which by that time I’d given up as the good engines had been withdrawn from service, whereupon trains became a mere means of conveyance once again.
Although I was unaware of it at the time, Sheffield – once a beer desert with only dull regional brewers’ beer to be supped – was coming to life; the Kelham Island brewery had opened in 1990, but now other beasts began to stir with the Wellington being launched as a specialist cask ale bar in 1992 by Neil and Sheila Clarke, with help from Little Ale Cart’s Richard Appleton, to compete with the nearby Fat Cat. Most scoopers, however, were unaware of these developments and continued to use Derby as “base camp”, aided by the city’s enviable position at the centre of the country astride several major rail routes, and the pubs continued to flourish with the Headless Beer Company’s Flowerpot growing in stature all the time.
Discontent in the ranks.
A chance meeting with South Coast scoopers Jimmy Hill and Arthur at the Brunswick’s beer festival in October 1994 genned me up on the Evening Star for my forthcoming job down in Kent and so, apart from a few visits around new year when I managed to pick up the mega-rare Beer Engine Whistlemas from the ever-improving Flowerpot, that was the end of my Derby visits for 1995 apart from the odd brief stopover when passing through by train.
Things were beginning to move fast beer-wise, however, and the UK was now on the cusp of a runaway micro-brewery explosion courtesy of the beer orders which was, in turn, triggering off the emergence of more and more free houses around the country. Whilst Derby still held the crown of the UK’s scoopiest city other places were catching up fast… and Derby didn’t seem to have noticed; a classic case of resting on your laurels, as it were.
On my next proper visit, to the Brunswick beer festival in October 1995, I noticed that the prices in all pubs had shot up drastically. The “Brunny” had always been expensive, but it seemed as if other licensees wanted a part of that pie too and had jacked up their prices to match; the famous incident of the £5-a-pint Bryncelin beer was still another four years away but already the issue of beer pricing was beginning to concern some scoopers, especially when we needed thirty or so during the Brunswick festival!
Still, most scoopers were too desperate to complain and so paid up and supped up… but the first rumblings of discontent were being heard, even with the Flowerpot’s amazing new “wall of beer” dispensing scoops aplenty. There was also a feeling amongst those scoopers whom I met on my travels that the micro-brewing revolution was about to go national with a bang… which, of course, it did just about then with over 60 breweries opening for the following four years on the trot, turning once fallow areas of the country into rich seams of plenty just waiting to be harvested.
The final Derby Scooper’s Xmas party
The previous couple of years had seen an unplanned coming together of scoopers in Derby for what had been termed the “Scooper’s Xmas party” where friends met up, had a good old riot and drank plenty of beer. Derby, being the best city for scoops, had kind of chosen itself as a venue plus, as already explained, it was easy for most people to get to. 1995’s party was to be the final one held in the city although, as around a dozen of us met up on a cold morning in the greasy spoon outside the station waiting for the pubs to open, no-one knew that was to be the case and that events would overtake Derby at a furious pace during the coming few months.
The Brunswick yielded, disappointingly, a mere couple of scoops so the hardy souls moved next door to the Alexandra… to find nothing of interest on the pumps there either, although we did decided to scoop bottles of Burton Bridge Tickle Brain and, as can be seen in the picture, things were getting messy and it was only early afternoon!
After a couple of bonus scoops in the Merry Widows it was the usual yomp across town to what had quickly become the best pub in town, the Flowerpot, where we camped out for a few hours to fill our books with the half-dozen or so scratches on the pumps including – after around half an hour of us badgering the landlord – the holy grail of the time, one of the rarest beers in the UK back then, Poole Ansty Ale at 8.5% from the cellar.
Things get a little hazy after that but I distinctly remember us all trooping back across to the Dolphin as news had come in of a scoop there (Bass Xmas Ale) and Aston’s Santa costume attracting abuse from the normals we encountered en-route! In the Dolphin I vaguely remember some light-hearted scuffling taking place and consequently several of us falling over in the corridor (the next day my foot was killing me for, presumably, this reason) and Aston playing a rather drunken Father Christmas whilst the rest of us rolled around on the floor in a drunken state.
The rest of the evening (and, indeed, getting home) is a total blur and, despite only having scooped a meagre ten beers for the day, we’d all had a good time – apart from Aston who was sulking for some reason – and I assumed the same thing would happen again next year, although there would be one less scooper present as Jason left his bag containing his scooping book plus a rubber chicken in the station bogs and was too embarrassed to go to lost property and ask for them…
The times are a-changin’
The New Year saw rumours circulate about the provenance of the guest beers being sold in the Headless pubs – which by now included the excellent Smithfield – and more moaning about the price of beer in Derby’s pubs. Add to this the Cask & Cutler in Sheffield, by now renamed from the Wellington, quickly becoming the “must-visit” pub for new and interesting breweries at the expense of Derby whose pubs seemed to be getting more introspective in their beer choices (as evidenced by the piss-up’s poor scoops tally at Xmas), resulting in more scoopers not getting off their train when it called at Derby but staying on to Sheffield where, between the Fat Cat and Cask & Cutler, a much larger, far more interesting and – importantly – way cheaper haul of beers could be accumulated in a day, plus it cut out the drudgery of walking around Derby’s city centre in an increasingly vain search for scoops you could trust to be genuine and not dodgy rebadges.
In late 1996 the “top men” of scooping unanimously decided to hold the Xmas piss-up in Sheffield as Brian Moore had promised extra beers “from the cellar” in the Fat Cat and so, ensconced in there with Brian bringing jug after jug of scoops from the cellar to a thirsty, drunk and appreciative pub full of tickers, Sheffield assumed the mantle of the UK’s premium scooping city in a single day without a word being said in what could be termed a “velvet revolution”.
As far as I remember no-one actually declared this momentous event had happened but, from the exuberant faces surrounding me in the Fat Cat, I knew – and everyone else knew – that this was the new face of beer ticking in Britain with Derby relegated to an also-ran, to be visited when passing through if you could be arsed; and many scoopers just couldn’t any more.
With the Cask & Cutler’s amazing 1996 beer festival trouncing the Brunswick’s roundly, Sheffield’s dominance of the scooping market was secured and continues to this day. Derby went through a period of fallowness with pubs closing and beer ranges much reduced from their high watermark, Everards bought the Brunswick from Trevor in 2002 who then set up his own (standalone) brewery a few years later.
During the last five years there have been signs of some green shoots of a scooping recovery with the best McSpoons in the UK, the Babington, leading the charge and the Flowerpot returning to something of it’s former glory whilst installing it’s very own microbrewery, but there doesn’t seem to be any imminent danger of Derby recovering it’s scoop-central crown just yet!
So, in 2010, where do we stand? The scooper’s Xmas Piss-up still happens, albeit more of an organised event these days than the simple meet-up of mates it used to be, and it’s still held in Sheffield although the atmosphere isn’t the same as, for the last ten years or so, rather than just being in the Fat Cat the whole city explodes into scoop-central with mini beer festivals happening all over the place and even those pubs which don’t hold one have extra beers available meaning that – with sufficient beer and/or bottle capacity – you could score over 100 beers in a day should you choose to do so.
It probably sounds like I’m moaning but I’m not, it’s merely that I remember the old days when a dozen mates met up for a festive drink – scoops were kind of incidental to the good time we had – whereas now there are so many beers to scoop, people are far more desperate and most of the “old school” have given up, that the whole day has dissolved into a frenzy of bottling, drinking quickly whilst rushing from pub to pub in pursuit of scoops, and I can’t help but think we’ve lost the whole point of the scooper’s Xmas party – the sociability – in a tide of mini-festivals, desperation and special beers.
So, Sheffield is still top dog scooping-wise, but Derby remains a city with a proud real ale heritage, one which I’m proud to say I remember at the start of the micro revolution and one which I’d recommend to anyone going anywhere near the place… but don’t forget Sheffield is just a train ride away!
Just don’t forget; make sure you take lots of money…
© Gazza 09/03/2010 v1.0