With the marathon now behind me, and nothing yet in the diary for this year apart from the occasional Saturday parkrun, I took the liberty of arranging a little visit over to Sheffield on Easter Saturday to watch Stevenage play away at Bramhall Lane and to hit a few of the pubs over there. I’d not done a proper beer trip since the (half) ale trail all the way back in February 2013 and although there is still the second half of that particular number to complete, this was very much the next mission on the agenda.
As the adopted home of one of my favourite brewers, Thornbridge, there are several of their establishments dotted around the area, all serving variations on their refreshing, hoppy wares. You can spot one of their clips on a pump a mile off and almost without exception their beers all have something to offer, especially on a warm spring day. Best of all, they’d just launched a collaboration with Sierra Nevada called Twin Peaks which I just had to try. With the launch of the new beer combining with the last chance to see the mighty Boro play away in League One for what is likely to be quite some time, I thought it all seemed a bit too good to be true.
Unfortunately, so it proved when a couple of days before we were due to head over, I noticed Stevenage FC’s Twitter account advertising the need to get tickets in advance for the match on Friday evening. Friday bloody evening. Yep, I’d done it again. Not content with arriving at the airport a day late for a holiday last May and losing the entire thing, I’d now managed to not notice that all the League One matches were on the Good Friday, the day before we were due to visit. Not to be deterred, we vowed to head over on the Saturday anyway. It promised to be a nice day weather-wise, and besides, a 90-minute break for a football match we were odds-on to lose would just get in the way of all of the drinking, wouldn’t it?
Arriving in Sheffield around lunchtime, we headed straight for the first stop of the day, The Sheffield Tap. Now a bad station pub is a terrible thing; dark and dingy with a sticky carpet and serving overpriced, crap lager, poured into a plastic pint pot and with either no head at all or a half a pint of froth sat on top. Broken fruit machines flashing away pathetically in the corner and with a clientèle consisting almost universally of depressed-looking travellers – usually solo – whiling away the time until their inevitably delayed carriage finally turns up to whisk them away from this awful dystopia. Done right though, and a station pub is a thing of absolute transcendent beauty. Ideally, a ridiculously old building with a wide range of new and interesting beers, buzzing with people who are there for the pub itself rather than just using the place as a waiting room. The York Tap and Stalybridge Buffet bar spring to mind, or either of the two at Huddersfield station. And now to that very elite list you can add The Sheffield Tap.
Built in 1904, this magnificent old building has now been lovingly restored after being allowed to fall into disrepair by British Rail in the 1970s. Almost as impressive as the place itself is the sheer number of quality beers they have managed to cram into it, with about 20 pumps and probably ten times that figure in different bottled beers filling the fridges behind them. Ignoring my promise to only drink halves, I dived straight into a pint of Jaipur (5.9%), a Thornbridge staple, and immediately felt comforted and refreshed, sat in this 100 year old building and supping on my fruity, hoppy IPA. If this was as good as it would get I would go home happy.
With a lot to get through we couldn’t stay for long despite the frankly ridiculous choice of beers on offer, and so freshly lubricated we made the short trip over the road to The Rutland Arms. A late addition to the route, which was originally intended to focus solely on those Thornbridge pubs, it was more than worth a visit, with a decent selection of both keg and cask ales and an ace little suntrapped beer terrace out the back. I rather rushed my decision and writing this now a few weeks later I can’t even tell you what I had other than the fact it was a cask IPA, but the fact that they served another of my favourites in Magic Rock’s High Wire was good enough for me. I couldn’t help casting enviable glances at those of my drinking buddies that had made this more considered decision, instead of just rushing for the first IPA they saw as is often my way.
It was a bit of a schlep up to the next stop on the tour, but fresh from a couple of heavy duty beverages this was probably a good thing. After a short trek interspersed with a small amount of misadventure climbing some unexpected chunks of scenery, we were at the first Thornbridge pub of the day: The Stags Head.
Unfortunately, Twin Peaks wasn’t an option on this occasion, although there was an extremely strong backup option with the mighty Wild Raven available (6.6%), something I had never seen before on tap anywhere, ever. A dark IPA and one of my all time favourite beers, it was too good an opportunity to miss so I hastily ordered myself a pint and went to sit in the beer garden.
One day, I will travel to Sheffield solely to spend an afternoon this place. Sat outside in the sun on a quiet Saturday afternoon, it didn’t feel like we were just a mile or two outside the city centre. It was more like a nice country pub in a tiny village somewhere. My head was spinning from the sheer amount of choice of Thornbridge beers on draught, many that I had only ever seen before in bottles in fancy off-licences. Another team favourite was the Bière de Garde (7.5%), which would definitely have been next on my list if we had time for another, but once again it was time to push on in our quest, via a quick pitstop for some pretty decent Southern American style grub at Thornbridge’s diner on Ecclesall Road and – with no sign again of Twin Peaks – a pint or two of something I couldn’t remember what it was if my life depended on it.
With time beginning to slip away the route was hastily revised to remove the 2.5 mile trip up to The Hallamshire House and back into town, which unfortunately meant we only had two more Thornbridge pubs left on the route and thus two more chances to find the elusive beverage. With a combination of mildly-boozed navigator and a minor failure with mobile mapping technology stretching the journeys out even further, we were forced to break up the journey to the next Thornbridge gaff with a visit to The Devonshire Cat, an old Sheffield favourite of ours, for a pint of something I have barely any recollection of other than the fact it tasted like cake. We were beginning to lose our way.
It was time to focus on the job in hand. Eyes on the prize and all that. We’d come all this way to find Twin Peaks and we were determined not to be defeated. We traipsed slowly up to penultimate pub almost in hope rather than expectation. A proper boozer in a building dating back to 1867, The Bath Hotel certainly looked the part. But would we be able to finally find what we were searching for and give this whole tale a happy ending? We burst through the door, spilling into the grade II listed building as if our lives depended on it, and then lo and behold, there it was, the pump shining out to us like a beacon. “Five Twin Peaks please mate” was the excited order, and we gave the barman a brief regale of our quest. “Just in time then” came the reply, “we’ve only just put this on”. It was meant to be.
I’d love to sit here and tell you that the pint was all I could have hoped for, and describe to you in intricate detail all of the flavours and tasting notes and so on but in all honesty I can’t. When I did the Ale Trail last year, I rather sadly took a little notebook with me and noted all the beers I had sampled over the day so that I could remember them all at the end once the haze had lifted. And I’m glad I did, otherwise I may not have a record of the frankly magnificent Redwillow Soulless or the bizarre Durham White Stout. But on this occasion, I was totally unprepared and so now all I have is the faded memory of a wonderfully refreshing pint, sat in a fine old pub with a few chums. But that’s what it’s all about really, isn’t it?
So satisfying it was that we decided to stay for another. The trains were all shagged up for bank holiday weekend anyway and we didn’t need to head onto the last Thornbridge pub now we had found what we were looking for. It was the perfect end to the day, the reward at the end of our long, drawn out misadventure. The pubs that we had missed out on will live to fight another day, and such is the regularity of the new beers coming out of Bakewell that inevitably there will be something new to hunt down next time.
And so once again I look back on a beer voyage with some unfinished business, another chapter to be written one day perhaps. We had succeeded in our quest on this occasion and so we all turned and set sail for home, back over the Peaks to Manchester. But not without one final visit to The Sheffield Tap, of course.