As I cross the bridge over the River Derwent to the Darley Abbey Mills, the water washing over the weir, the mallards shining in the sun on the bank, I’m able to forgive the 7am start necessitated to get me here for my day as a brewer.
Darley Abbey is a preposterously picturesque village on the outskirts of Derby. The Good Beer Guide recently named Derby Britain’s “first city for beer” and Lonely Planet proclaimed it a “must see” thanks to the outstanding array of real ales and pubs. One of the Derby brew scene’s more notable success stories is that of the Derventio brewery, run by two-man team Pete Nash and John Baddock. Thankfully the brewery here is far from the industrial plant I had envisaged, set on the basement floor of a largely disused wing of the red brick six-storey cotton mill, built in 1783.
Pete, my guide for the day, doles out the bacon butties, as he begins to describe what’s in store for us. Happily, rather than standing around and watching like a lemon, it sounds as though there’s plenty of work ahead. Pete is one of those preternaturally charming people – the perfect tour guide, he doesn’t bludgeon you with information, but imparts it as part of a bucolic narrative. He deftly switches between explaining the brewing process to a relative noob like me, to talking specifics and suggesting home brew solutions to my fellow tour-goers.
After a pleasantly tiring morning shovelling malts out of the mash tun – the first step in the brewing process, when the sugars, which will later become alcohol, are extracted from the malts – lunch is dished up on the banks of the Derwent. Our handmade sandwiches are accompanied by a selection of Derventio’s bottled brews. The tasting is little short of a revelation. The breadth and intricacy of the ale is something to be marvelled at and perfectly accompanies the simple butties and cake.
In the afternoon, while our brew chugs away in the hopper, Pete fills the time with a tour of the disused mill, a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s a spooky journey through the building’s industrial past. Each floor is littered with the mill’s historical detritus: alongside a petrified pigeon skeleton, we find 19th-century cotton spindles and a Fantastic Four comic from 1964, left to gather dust.
My day as a brewer concludes as we transfer our Gorgon brew to a fermenting vat, at which point it dawns on me for the first time that people will actually drink the beer we’ve been making, something that strikes me as vaguely implausible, and peculiarly affirming. After a quick rest it’s time to put my new-found knowledge to use – with a pub crawl of Derby’s best boozers. Local entrepreneur (and former frontman of lost punk rock gem Anti-Pasti) Martin Roper formalised a tour of Derby’s best boozers in January. We meet in Derby’s QUAD square, before heading to possibly the city’s most famous boozer, Mr Grundy’s, which houses an on-site microbrewery.
Pub tours are always slightly difficult, in that they can peeve the locals if not done tactfully, but thankfully Roper seems to know almost everyone. The tour takes in six pubs, with a half pint of local real ale served up in each. After a tour of Grundy’s brewery, we head to the The New Zealand Arms: the first pub opened by new Derby brewery, the Dancing Duck. I sample its Gold IPA, which is a citrusy delight, while my friend waxes lyrical over her chocolately stout.
The next pub, The Falstaff, is very much a local, dripping with character, in the form of Doctor Who memorabilia, a life-sized mounted knight sculpture, and real-life pub wench, dressed in full period garb. The night gets a little hazy from here on in, but as we stumble out of the Exeter Arms, the last pub on the crawl, our sceptiscim of lofty proclamations made about the virtues of Derby’s real ale scene have been utterly banished. The locals are lovely, the grub simple and effective, and the beer brilliant.
Real ale tour £29pp
Be a brewer for a day £30pp
Tickets from London St Pancras direct to Derby start from £25 return with East Midlands. National Express runs a coach from London Victoria with a return ticket starting from £9.
Eat, Drink, Sleep
For modern British grub, a relaxed atmosphere and superb service, you can’t do better than The Wonky Table on Sadler Gate. Mains from £9.95. wonkytable.co.uk
Derby’s Cathedral Quarter is the most picturesque part of the town centre, and in the middle is Jack Rabbits deli. Brilliant butties start at £2.50. jackrabbitskitchen.co.uk
Rowditch Inn is a great traditional pub. Pints from £2.20. (246 Uttoxeter Road)
The walls of the Exeter Arms are laden with Derby memorabilia and the locals are as welcoming as you’ll find. There’s a great selection of Derby’s microbrewery beers on offer, as well as live bands at the weekend and good solid pub grub. Pints from £2.10 exeterarms.co.uk
The newly built Hampton by Hilton is great for a weekend stay. Lovely rooms, good breakfast, and more than reasonably priced, from £23pppn. hamptoninn.hilton.co.uk
The Rangemoor Park Hotel is a quaint, budget hotel providing ensuite rooms in the heart of Derby from £20pppn. Includes free wifi. rangemoorparkhotel.co.uk