Bacon-butty cocktails, artisan ciders and farting caves: all part of the experience in the UK’s real ale capital: Derby

Metro, 27 July 2012


It’s Saturday night at the 35th Derby Camra City Charter Beer Festival and deep inside the 1970s’ municipal splendour that is Derby Assembly Rooms, people shuffle about sporting a baffling array of headgear. There’s Viking hats, pirate hats, Tommy Cooper fezzes, crowns made from balloons and one sharp-witted woman who lurches across the floor with a traffic cone on her head emblazoned with the slogan ‘P***head’. Meanwhile, all around you is beer. Occupying the perimeter of the room are dozens of stacked barrels and makeshift bars where encyclopaedic volunteers dispense artisan ales and ciders with names like Doris Stokes, Wiscombe SuiCider and Westcroft Jane’s Jungle Juice.

Sure, there are a few beardy real ale geeks, scribbling away in notebooks and looking like they’ve stumbled out of a Carry On film. But there are plenty of women too. And the majority of people are having real unbridled fun, swilling away, air guitaring arrhythmically to the Small Faces tribute band and clutching glasses primed for yet another £1.50 refill.

Derby runs on beer. It promotes itself as the “real ale capital of the UK” and with over 120 real ale pubs and several microbreweries in the city, they’ve got a point. In Derby, locals are not to be found indoors watching repeats of Casualty. Instead, you may chance upon them wetting the whistle in the pubs of the historic Cathedral Quarter, pretending to be brewers for the day or dressing up as aliens at one of Derby’s innovative festivals. Prepare for any “bleak-industrial-Midlands-town” preconceptions to be well and truly smashed.

Its biannual beer festival is a great way of enmeshing yourself in the current trend for beer connoisseur-dom. Over five days every July and February, 10,000 ale-aficionados pile into the Assembly Rooms to pay homage to all things amber nectar. After paying a £6 entrance fee, you rent a half-pint glass and for £1.20-1.50 you fill it from one of the venue’s myriad barrels. There’s an eclectic music bill too, spanning everything from Ukrainian Cossacks to heavy metal covers bands.

Les Baynton, the city’s ‘Beer King’ (and part-time ‘beer poet’), reckons Derby offers much for beer-thirsty visitors: “It’s a small, compact city which means it’s great for pub crawls too.”

One of the best ways of kick-starting a tour-de-beer is by ordering a £6 taster rack at The Brewery Tap pub ( The sampler includes five one-third pints of award-winning ales, along with a bowl of local cheddar cheese to intensify the flavour.

Snug, nook-and-cranny pubs exist everywhere in Derby such as the Falstaff and Derby’s oldest drinking-saloon, the Tudor-fascaded Ye Olde Dolphin Inne (reputedly haunted by a child on the restaurant stairs). It says everything about Derby’s drinking culture that even the local Wetherspoons (usually a refuge for crimson-nosed, fag-chuffing old men with flies swarming around their heads) is housed within a high-ceilinged, marble-walled former bank and boasts a range of artisan ales.

Beer experiences in Derby aren’t just limited to guzzling the stuff. Derventio ( offers a £30 ‘Be a Brewer for the Day’ experience at their microbrewery, based in an ex-cotton mill (and world heritage site) in pretty village Darley Abbey, a 20-minute walk along the river Derwent.

Starting at 8am on Saturdays, you’re plied with bacon sandwiches before being set to work. However, this is no guided tour where you stand around gormlessly watching on. Here, customers are actively urged to muck in, whether it’s mopping floors, cleaning out mash tuns (vats where beer is fermented), taking samples or hurling hops into the tanks. You’d think it was some Machiavellian scheme on behalf of the owners to get some free weekend labour. Instead, it’s an exciting, hands-on way of learning about the brewing process (and yes, samples are included).

Walking away from Derventio with hops-besmirched hands, we arrive at the Cathedral Quarter Hotel ( to attend its ‘Cocktail School’: tuition on how to make champagne mojitos and Italian tomato jam libations. Mixologists here are of a vaguely Heston-esque bent, concocting cocktails such as ‘Bacon Butty Refashioned’ (ingredients: bacon-infused whisky and toast-infused sugar syrup).

The Cathedral Quarter Hotel is Derby’s only boutique lodging and makes a great base. It’s housed in a former magistrates’ chambers and has hosted celebrity guests such as John Lydon (who apparently stayed up drinking in the lobby until 7am after his recent Question Time appearance).

Metro wraps up our Derby trip by visiting the Brunswick Inn ( A Victorian-era boozer that whiffs of yeast, it’s within staggering distance from Derby Station. Sitting in its warren of cosy rooms, we sample nut-brown ales fermented by the in-house brewery, as well as novelties such as Black Sabbath stout (sadly not invented by Ozzy Osbourne), wishing our train home was delayed. Unfortunately it’s not and the on-board lager tastes like pig swill in comparison.

“It was a wise man who invented beer”, once noted beardy Greek philosopher, Plato. But far wiser is the man (or woman) who travels to Derby to sample it…