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On the real ale trail

Cask beer, microbreweries, real ale tours: small independent producers are tempting travellers all over the globe. From ale by rail in the UK to specialist beer festivals in the Pacific Northwest, there’s never been a better time to sink a pint

On the real ale trail
A craft beer being poured. Image: Getty

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As burgeoning tourism destinations go, the cold and windy platform at Stalybridge station is about as unlikely as it gets. On the slow line between Manchester and Leeds, it should be a place where locals brush through on their commute to and from work, with little to interest anyone else.But inside the platform’s sole refuge from the drizzle, the Stalybridge Buffet Bar, small groups of merry travellers are gathering round for the start of their adventure.

The Stalybridge Buffet Bar is an endearingly cramped piece of Victoriana, dating back to the age of steam. But it’s not railway enthusiasts that are filling it out — it’s beer lovers. The bar has a pleasingly large selection of hand-pulled ales to choose from, and the same applies to other bars either in or near stations along the line.

Over the last decade or so, beer fans have clocked on to this and started buying day passes to enjoy a long-distance pub crawl. The somewhat unofficial Transpennine Real Ale trail has become an oddly popular day out, bringing visitors to unlikely tourist destinations such as Marsden, Slaithwaite, Huddersfield and Dewsbury.

The route has become so popular, it’s becoming a victim of its own success. What was once the realm of middle-aged beer enthusiasts has started pulling in stag parties and rowdy weekend boozers. The operating companies on the line have had to beef up security as a result.

The Transpennine route isn’t the only ‘ale by rail’ option in the country, either. In Devon and Cornwall, a series of branch lines have been loosely branded as Rail Ale Trails, while there are also efforts to promote relatively quiet routes in East Lancashire and the Henley Branch line through Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

There’s also a quiet revolution going on in Britain’s railway station pubs. The Parcel Yard in the newly revamped Kings Cross station in London is the most prominent of these, with the fingers of both hands inadequate to count the taps, and an admirable dedication to showcasing small breweries. But it’s simply following in the footsteps of the Euston Tap, which is cunningly built into the old gatehouse at Euston Station. It’s the third ‘world beer bar’ slotted into a station by the same owners — there’s also the York Tap and Sheffield Tap. The latter has even opened its own in-house microbrewery.

The concept of going for a day out and trying a few beers on the way is hardly a new one, of course. Local branches of the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) have been arranging outings for almost as long as they’ve been campaigning for real ale. Often, these trips are to beer festivals. The largest of these is the Great British Beer Festival, held in London every August, but smaller, regional festivals are mushrooming. The calendar on Aletalk.co.uk shows there’s barely a date in 2015 when an event isn’t being held somewhere in the UK.

Beer festivals wouldn’t be spreading if they weren’t money-spinners, but not all of Britain’s beer tourism is formal and organised. Many of the CAMRA branch outings are simply a few people getting together, going somewhere and enjoying a string of pubs. And the idea isn’t limited to CAMRA either. On a very low level of beer nerdishness, I’ve ended up sneaking off for a few days of beer tasting, too.

I’ve a few friends, living in various parts of the country, who are rather partial to a good craft or cask beer. Every few months, we’ll all book a Thursday off work, then travel to somewhere relatively accessible for a day out. That day out will generally consist of going round pubs for a few hours, putting the world to rights. But we make sure we pick cities that have a pretty strong reputation for brewing and beer pubs. We want to try beers we haven’t tried before.

In the past, we’ve met up in York, Sheffield, Newcastle and Nottingham, while we’re considering Derby and Norwich for future outings. London’s phenomenal craft brewing explosion warrants serious exploration too. Most of these cities make at least some effort to promote the local beer and brewing culture as a specific reason to visit. Derby and Sheffield have companies that run beer tasting tours, for example, while Experience Nottinghamshire has put together a leaflet and online PDF mapping out the best real ale pubs.

(CAMRA) Great British Beer Festival. Image: CAMRA

(CAMRA) Great British Beer Festival. Image: CAMRA

New brews

But while British cities are still tentatively dipping their toes in the water of beer tourism, some overseas destinations have given it a whole-hearted embrace. Paul Mercer, who works for the Hyde’s Brewery in Manchester and plans his European city breaks around destinations with strong reputations for beer, cites Bamberg in Germany as a stellar example.

“The Bamberg tourist office website is ahead of the market,” says Paul, pointing to a number of specialist beer-themed packages offered. “It has really understood the   idea, has the best information and is really clued up.

“The likes of Plzen in the Czech Republic and Brussels in Belgium are also really switched on, while there are the  obvious big beer festivals every year such as Oktoberfest (19 September-4 October) in Munich.”

Paul says the web is a key driver in the rise of both craft beer and beer-themed travel. Would-be microbrewers have better access to information and ways to share ideas with brewers in other cities around the world.

“The internet has made it easier to find great places to go to, even in cities you don’t readily associate with beer,” Paul says. “I was in Milan a few weeks ago and we scouted out a couple of beer bars there that were fantastic. People think it’s just Peroni there, but it has changed.”

Of course, in order to provide the information, someone needs to be making the product. And while the craft beer phenomenon has boomed worldwide in the last five years, it has really taken off in the United States. Paul uses San Diego as an example. “I remember going there in 1991 and there was just one brewpub. Now there are dozens.”

The Pacific Northwest is the real hub of the craft brewing scene, though, and Portland has justifiable claims to being the country’s craft beer capital. The city has, at the last count, 58 breweries and a ridiculously busy beer festival calendar. These include specialist festivals for fruit beers, beers made with hops picked within the last 24 hours, and beers paired with spirits made in local microdistilleries.

It’s a place where grocery stores have eight beer taps, and you can sip microbrews while doing your laundry or getting your hair cut. More locally made craft beer is sold on draft than mainstream, multinational brands. Portland heavily promotes beer as one of its key selling points, and a survey last year showed that 81% of visitors planned to take part in some sort of craft beer experience before arriving.

Ashley Salvitti, a North Carolina native who moved to Portland in 2007, runs one of those experiences. She started running the Brewvana tours in April 2011 after working at a couple of the city’s brewpubs and showing off the city’s microbrewing scene to visiting friends and family.

She says: “That introduced me to how many people are coming to Portland just for the beer, so I put together a business plan and bought a minibus.” The business now has three minibuses, operating a minimum of six bus tours and two walking tours a week, even in the quiet winter months.

“We’ve grown as the industry has grown, but it’s not all about quantity here; everyone’s doing something a little bit special. There are also a lot of small, neighbourhood brewpubs. You often can’t get one of their beers on the other side of the river, let alone the other side of the country. And that’s part of the attraction.”

Ashley says that some people go on multiple tours, and Brewvana deliberately makes sure they visit different breweries each time, allowing for a wider range to be showcased. It’s this desire to try something they can’t find elsewhere, rather than a desire to guzzle as much as possible, that often drives beer tourists. Novelty and variety are the draws, not quantity. Chris ‘Podge’ Pollard, who runs Podge’s Belgian Beer Tours, certainly finds this to be a major factor.

“Belgium has a lot of tiny breweries, and people want to visit them,” he says. “But most of the time you can’t. They will, however, open up for a group of 40-odd people, which is what we bring. So it opens up a possibility that otherwise wouldn’t be there.”

The coach tours, which depart from East Anglia, take the ferry across to Belgium before a few days of leisurely 10am starts. They work rather like the somewhat more established wine tours elsewhere, with tasting sessions at different breweries spaced throughout the day — and sometimes paired with detours to the Flanders World War I battlefields.

The company runs occasional specialist tours, some focusing on lambic beers (spontaneously fermented), others on geuze (a Belgian lambic) or abbey brews (originally made by monks). And Podge says that even the smallest, most old-fashioned breweries are starting to understand that the tours provide a perfect shop window. “Sixty to 65% of Belgian beer is exported,” he says. “The Belgian market is saturated, so they want to get publicity in other countries.

“As a result, breweries have become more open to tourism. They’re a lot more savvy to what’s going on and what people want — and obviously they want to reach people who are interested in what they’re making.”

In many ways, it’s about tapping into a demand that has always been there, and catering to it. It’s not dissimilar to how opening up cellar doors and running tasting tours led to an increase in visitors to wine regions. Or how foodie walking tours around various cities have led to people visiting those cities due to their reputation as a cuisine capital.

But craft beer currently adds an extra cool cachet as well. Portland, in particular, has ridden on the back of it to change its image from forgotten backwater to hipster hub. It may take a little longer for this to happen to Stalybridge station, but it’s certainly not lacking thirsty visitors.

Essentials

More info
The hop-on, hop-off South Pennines Day Ranger tickets cost £22.50.
The Good Beer Guide 2015 by Roger Protz. RRP: £15.99 (CAMRA Books)
Craft Beer World by Mark Dredge. RRP £16.99 (Dog ’n’ Bone)
1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die by Adrian Tierney-Jones. RRP: £20 (Cassell)

 

Useful websites
Aletalk beer festival calendar.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
Stadt Bamberg Tourism.


Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)