Thursday, 12 March 2020

"Proper Day Out" No. 2 - Burton-on-Trent

Last Friday’s “Proper Day Out” couldn’t have come at a better time. It is no exaggeration to say that that the trip to Burton really cheered me up, coming as it did after weeks of incessant rain, which saw journeys to and from work turned into something of an endurance test.

So the fact that the sun shone virtually all day was, for me, another huge plus on a day where everything went to plan, and everyone had a good time. It started with my rather convoluted “Split-Ticket” train journey, from Tonbridge to Birmingham, via the scenic, Chiltern Line, and ended with a speedy and problem free return journey via Tamworth.

In between, there were some excellent pubs, including a few real classics. There was also some equally good Draught Bass; a beer which quite rightly was widely available in its home town. It’s people that make such outings though, and when everyone clicks, as we all did last Friday, then it makes for a really special day out.

So with Stafford Paul (SP), Pub Curmudgeon (PC), Sheffield Hatter (SH), Pete’s Quizz (PQ), the Wickingman (WM) and his friend Chris as guides for the day, along with Britain Beer Mat (BBM), who joined us for last knockings, I was in the company of some real beer and pub legends, as we made our way around a hand-picked selection of Burton’s finest pubs. The only person missing was GBG-ticker extraordinaire, Retired Martin, who was looking after wife whilst she convalesced from the effects of a bug picked up in Kent of all places!

Despite having been to Burton by train before, it still took me a little while to get my bearings when I exited the station. A friendly local pointed me in the right direction, and as I headed towards the town centre, I soon noticed on my right, the first and last of the pubs on our itinerary. These were the Devonshire Arms and the Roebuck Inn..

I walked passed them both as I wanted first to find the local branch of my building society, which I discovered right in the heart of Burton. Re-tracing my foot steps gave me time to photograph the aforementioned pubs, along with a third hostelry. This was the Coopers Tavern, a real Burton classic and a pub with an interior of national importance, according to CAMRA’s Pub Heritage Index. The midday timing meant I was able to capture all three pubs in their best light.

I arrived at the Devonshire a few minutes after SP, SH and WM had departed for the Derby Inn; a pub reputed to sell the best pint of Bass in Burton, but an establishment that was a fair distance away on foot. Pub Curmudgeon and Pete were still present though, so I joined them after ordering a quick half of Bass, mindful of the fact they were keen to move on.

The Devonshire is an attractive and solid looking two-bar pub, set back from the road. It apparently belonged to Burton Bridge Brewery for a while. It was very pleasant inside, with a wide range of beer, beside the Bass. It would have been nice to have lingered a little longer, but having arrived 20 minutes behind schedule, I was hardly in a position to dictate the pace to the rest of the group.

We set off towards the National Brewery Centre and its Brewery Tap. This had been our planned lunchtime stop although, as mentioned above, some of the group were set on enjoying a liquid lunch instead at the Derby Inn. I covered the Brewery Tap in my previous post, so I won’t repeat myself here, but it’s worth mentioning that this was my second visit to what had once been the Bass Museum; the first having been back in 1998. Then, as now, the Tap offered a range of beers brewed at the adjoining Heritage Brewery which, as its name suggests, was set up to replicate old Bass and other former group company recipes.

The next two pubs – the Bridge Inn and the Elms Inn, were also described in the previous article. Both were excellent, but quite different establishments in their own right. What I didn’t mention was that four of us took a taxi from the Elms, back into the town centre, in order to save ourselves a substantial walk.

The taxi dropped us outside the Dog Inn; an attractive half-timbered, two-storey, 19th Century terrace pub with something of a chequered history. The Dog is owned by Black Country Ales, who bought the pub in 2015. BCA were established in 1992, and were originally a pub company, but ten years later, after buying the Old Bulls Head in Dudley, branched out into brewing, following the discovery of a moth-balled brewery at the rear of the pub.

A substantial amount of work was necessary to restore the old Victorian brewery to its original condition, coupled with a considerable amount of investment. This involved the installation of new, state of the art equipment, to complement the original plant. Brewing recommenced in 2004, and the company went on to build up a small chain  pubs, largely within the confines of the West Midlands and the Black Country.

Today, the Dog Inn is one of 35 pubs belonging to Black Country Ales, and as well as offering the full range of  their beers, serves a revolving range of other cask ales. There were eleven on tap last Friday, rather too many in my view and, had he been with us, far too many for Retired Martin!

Despite the wide range I was pleased to see the legendary Worthington White Shield on tap. Originally a bottle-conditioned beer, White Shield is brewed by the Heritage Brewery (see NBC above), and is rarely available on draught. After seeing the pump there on bar, I just had to try a pint, and was pleased that I did. Certainly that instantly recognisable Burton taste was there, including that hard to define “nuttiness” that is so characteristic of White Shield.

After the delights of the Dog Inn, it was time to move on to the penultimate pub of the day, and this was somewhere I had been looking forward to visiting all day. The Coopers Tavern is a pub that all visitors to Burton should experience; especially anyone setting foot in the town for the first time.

It is an unspoilt, traditional-looking, red-brick, 19th Century, ale house, with five linked rooms. It started life as a store for speciality malts and then as a repository for Bass Imperial Stout. It then became a sampling room and unofficial “brewery tap” before acquiring a license in 1858. It remained as the Bass Brewery tap until sold to Nottingham brewers, Hardys & Hansons in 1991.

Today it belongs to Joule's Brewery, who are the successors of the original John Joule’s Brewery of Stone, Staffordshire. The new company were established in 2010, and are based in the Shropshire town of Market Drayton, and today run 40 pubs, along highly traditional lines. You can read more about the history of the original company, and how the new one came into being, here on the Joules website. Whilst some might not agree, for me it makes fascinating reading, especially as the march in 1974 through Stone town centre, in protest against the closure of Joules Brewery, was one of the first high-profile campaigns organised by the fledgling Campaign  for Real Ale.

The front entrance of the Coopers leads into the main lounge, beyond which a short corridor leads to the intimate Tap Room at the rear. This is where the beer is served from a small counter, next to the cask stillage, using a mixture of gravity and hand-pumps. There are two smaller rooms leading off from the lounge; one of which is a meeting room, whist the other is a small snug bar. The walls are adorned with lots of brewery and beer related memorabilia, but much of it is repro – especially the Joules’ related posters and mirrors.

I noticed two Joule’s beers on sale, and had I not been tempted by the gravity-drawn Bass, I would have given these a try. I perhaps should have opted for the Joules, as I found the Bass rather flat and lacking in condition. I was certainly pleased to have at last visited the Coopers, as with its maze of small rooms, open fireplaces, memorabilia and locally brewed and gravity-served beer, the pub has a real intimacy about it. Next time though, I would like to spend a much longer session there.

Onwards and upwards, and after a brief walk in the direction of the station, we reached the Roebuck Inn, the last pub on our itinerary. This three-storey, corner terrace, pub was once the Ind Coope Brewery tap, being situated opposite the former brewery. The proximity to the brewery meant the Roebuck was chosen for the launch of the classic Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale, back in 1976.

The interior comprises a fairly smart, long narrow single room with the bar counter down one side. It was very much a locals pub, but they seemed a friendly bunch, and one woman we got talking to informed us that she once worked at the Ind Coope brewery across the road.

A varied selection of beers were available, but for some reason I opted for a half of  Hop Back Summer Lightning to round off the day. We were joined by Midlands-based blogger, Britain Beer Mat (BBM), who had arrived more or less straight from work. As with the other bloggers I met for the first time that Friday, it was good to put a face to the name, but unfortunately I couldn’t stay long. My train departed at 18:51, and I wanted to ensure I was at the station in plenty of time.

I had a good journey back, but that’s a story for another day. As far as Friday was concerned it was an excellent and very enjoyable day out. There’s another excursion penned in for the third week in April, this time to Chester, but given the current health concerns, it might be a little premature to book tickets. We shall see!!

For a broadly similar, two-part account of our "Proper Day Out," interspersed with some interesting observations on pub and local history, fellow blogger and Burton pub-stagger participant Pub Curmudgeon, has written about the day here and here.


retiredmartin said...

Glad the sun shine on the righteous, Paul 😉

Great photos.

I do think that flat Bass, served from the barrel, divides opinion. Many prefer the Bass you normally find on handpump with a tight bed. A very different experience of Bass.

Paul Bailey said...

Agreed, Martin.

Some pubs that use gravity dispense, decant the beer into a jug first, and then pour it into the customer's glass, from a moderate height. This gives the desired head.

The concensus was that the Bass at the Derby came out on top last Friday, but not all of made it that far.

Curmudgeon said...

Good write-up and photos :-)

I've just posted my Part 2, and reached the same conclusion that, even by the standards you would expect from gravity beer, that in the Coopers was a bit on the lifeless side. Had the day not been something of a celebration of Bass, I might have gone for one of the Joules beers instead.

For those who didn't get as far as the Derby Inn, the best Bass was in the Devonshire.

Is the photo at the top Marylebone?

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks Mudge. Like you, I would probably have gone for a Joules beer at the Coopers, had the day not been about Bass.

Top photo is Birmingham Moor Street, where I had to change stations and walk along to New Street, to connect with the train to Burton.