Allegedly you can't trademark a place name as your brand. When I wrote Three Sheets to the Wind, I always wanted to finish my round-the-world journey back in my home town of Barnsley, and compare what I'd seen with good old Barnsley Bitter, once a legendary brew, bought and killed by John Smith's in the 1960s because, if you believe the locals, it was too good to have as competition.
Such is the scale of the cask ale revival that, when I was planning my Three Sheets trip to Barnsley in early 2005, Barnsley bitter was not only back; there were three different beers claiming to be it. One of them was brewed in Blackpool, which made me doubt its authenticity somewhat. Of the other two, one was brewed in Wombwell, a village on the other side of town (or t'tarn) from where I grew up, and one was in the crumbling old Oakwell Brewery, in the shadow of Barnsley FC's famous ground, the site of the original Barnsley Brewery. I chose to write about the Oakwell one, because it seemed to have the most authentic lineage. The owners of the brewery were extremely secretive. The passage in the book was fine, but uninspiring. The beer was good. I've heard nothing about the Oakwell brewery since.
It's now looking like I backed the wrong horse.
The Wombwell-brewed Barnsley Bitter came from the Acorn Brewery. What I didn't know then was that Acorn was very new at the time, and had links with the Blackpool one, which was by then defunct. Since I wrote the book, Acorn has gone from strength to strength, and the first part of my 40th birthday jaunt north was to help them celebrate their own fifth birthday, on 4th July.
Me and Dave, the head brewer at Acorn. A vast majority of brewers in the north are called Dave.
I arrived at the brewery to be greeted by a smell of warm meat and pastry that made my stomach growl. A proper northern buffet had been laid on in the bar, the centrepiece being Percy Turner's pork pies from Jump.
You may think you know what a pork pie tastes like. Not if you haven't been to Barnsley, you don't. Pork pies are to Barnsley what truffles are to the Dordogne. There is no shortage of pork pies in Barnsley, but according to the Acorn lads there had been Soviet-style queues outside Percy Turner's shop that morning, and this was not uncommon. These were real pork pies, the pastry crumbly, the jelly runny, soaking into the soft, salty, peppery, still-warm meat as it fell apart and melted on your tongue...
Oh yes, we were supposed to be talking about the beers.
The buffet had been laid on because there was a bit of a tasting session happening, and it soon became apparent that I was leading it. I didn't mind - I do a lot of tasting session now and am good at winging them, but this one was different: the attendees were, in the main, northern publicans. Publicans tend to be an opinionated bunch. They’re not accustomed to sitting quietly while other people speak. And northern publicans - well, I crossed one once. I shan't be doing it again.
First came Rob from the Gatehouse, Barnsley town centre’s best pub. Rob looks a bit like how Norris out of Coronation Street would look if he was suddenly kidnapped from Weatherfield and dropped in the jungles of 1960s Vietnam, and learned to survive on his instincts and by acquiring the ability to kill with his bare hands. Rob's pub is one of the busiest on Barnsley match days, and yet he makes no secret of the fact that he’s a Sheffield Wednesday fan. His hard gaze can make you void your bowels involuntarily. And that’s when he’s in a good mood.
But behind Rob came a man who clearly saw himself as the King of the Northern Landlords. He’d even brought an entourage.
Tetley Dave runs the Shoulder of Mutton in Castleford. He worked at Tetley’s for decades before taking over the pub, and fought a 'Battle of the Alamo' when the pubco who owned it wanted to shut it down. The Acorn lads had been talking about him coming, and I guessed it was him when his voice boomed from the corridor, insisting that the only beer he’d ever stock permanently was Tetley’s, but that if he was impressed, he may well take a cask of Acorn back with him. He took control of the room as soon as he entered – a tall, man with grey, close-shaved hair and glasses, wearing the trousers and waistcoat of a grey three-piece suit, a white shirt open at the neck. He found a seat that was closest to both me at the front, and Turner’s pork pies down the side. “Nice bit o’ growler, this,” he mumbled between mouthfuls of his third one.
Tetley Dave was accompanied by a man in his late forties with bubble-permed peroxide hair. He drove a RAV-4, the kind of vehicle you normally see covered in the livery of local pop hit radio stations. “He’s a professional entertainer, him,” said Tetley Dave, jerking his thumb at the man who stood grinning inscrutably, leaning against the wall. “He lives wi’ us.” A better writer than me, someone like Jon Ronson (who I was introduced to last weekend and who was, sadly, a bit aloof, perhaps because he took it the wrong way when I described his reading as ‘meandering’), would have been able to get to the story behind this. But I had beers to talk about that I hadn’t yet tasted, and more people were arriving, and the moment passed.
In the brief lulls between orations on the nature of beer, pubs and the universe (well, Yorkshire, and that’s practically the same thing) I managed to run through about five of Acorn’s beers.
Summer Pale was an extremely pale golden ale, white gold, with a floral and sherbet aroma and pear drops washing over the tongue.
Barnsley Gold had a citrus aroma with chewy, gloopy, caramel notes followed by a gentle bitterness.
Then onto Barnsley Bitter itself, a silver medal winner two years ago at GBBF. Combining the drinkability of a true session bitter with a dark richness, a hint of chocolate and red berry fruit, this is the kind of beer that Yorkshire does better than anywhere else.
So Acorn brew good beers. But they’ve been going beyond that. In 2007 they brewed ten different IPAs with different British hops. This year, they’re doing the same thing with American hops: the same basic beer chassis, a 5% IPA, with a different single varietal hop each month. I have to confess I’m a bastard for Cascade hops, I love them, the aromas intoxicate me on their own. So while the Liberty hop IPA was the new one, and Cascade last month’s news, I was guilty of flipping them around. The Liberty IPA was great, full-bodied and rich with the hops not shouting out, but creating a complex brew to savour. But the Cascade... it was a riot, a tropical fruit salad with papaya and citrus fruits. I’d say it had about 90% of the sheer hop hit and bold character of an American IPA, but at 5%, it was distressingly sessionable. The best IPA I’ve tasted since the lads from Stone came over earlier in the year.
This was the point at which I really gained my audience’s attention, and we talked about the legend of IPA, and my journey. One man – who had also arrived with Tetley Dave – took a very keen interest and questioned me on my Indian experience quite closely. I didn’t know who he was then, but Ian Clayton is a well-known broadcaster on ITV and a stalwart of the Yorkshire arts scene. “Oh, I write books as well,” he said at one point during the tasting, when I was talking about my IPA book. I did my best encouraging smile, ignorant twat that I am. Days later, Ian sent me a copy of his latest book. Richard Hawley calls it “beautiful”, Robert Wyatt “a magical roller coaster”, and Record Collector magazine thinks it’s “One of the best books about popular music ever written”. Half way through as I write this, I agree wholeheartedly with all of them. If you only buy one book this year, and you already own both of mine, buy Bringing it all Back Home.
Finally we tasted Old Moor Porter, full of fruit cake and liquorice, laced with vinous notes. I recently did a radio programme for Diageo about stout and oysters and this eternal match was fresh in my mind, so I thought my audience would appreciate the story of how porter was once the drink of the working man, and oysters were the food of poor people, and they just happened to go together in a sublime fashion. Ian nodded thoughtfully, but it was the chance Tetley Dave had been waiting for.
“I had ‘alf a dozen o’ them oysters t’other week.” He paused. “Only two o’ the buggers worked!”
I couldn’t let him get away with that unchallenged. “That’s it!” I said, “That’s who you remind me of. You look just like Jim Bowen!”
Suddenly, Tetley Dave was out of his chair, jabbing his finger at me furiously. “Don’t you mention that name in here! That bloke still owes me five hundred quid!”
As I doubled up with laughter, another no-doubt amazing anecdote slipped by, and escaped.
After that it was time for Rob to leave. He’d enjoyed himself. You could tell this because, although he still looked furious, like he was about to punch someone out, he told us that he’d enjoyed himself.
As he neared the door, Tetley Dave, ever mindful of opportunities for his entourage, called out, “Hey, have you got any entertainment at your pub?”
“We will have if tha’ comes in,” replied Rob, and he was out of the door before Tetley Dave could respond, victory snatched at the close.
The best endorsement for Acorn’s beers is that Tetley Dave took away a cask of one of the IPAs in the back of the RAV4.
That night, the Acorn boys took me out drinking. Allegedly Sheffield has more different cask ales on tap at any given time than anywhere else in the country. We tried as many as we could, and stayed out until we started to fall asleep in our curries. We exceeded the government’s recommended daily intake of units, it’s fair to say. I’m keeping my diary clear for Acorn’s tenth birthday in July 2013.