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Monday, 03 October 2016

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The Perfect Pint

Monday, 03 October 2016

Article Image 03 October 2016

By Glynn Davis

Normally when my home town of Doncaster hits the news it is for rather unpleasant reasons like corrupt town councillors, record breaking unemployment levels, lowest ranked educational standards, or shocking mistakes made by social workers. (Just to clarify, some of these I’ve made up – the town’s not that bad).

Thankfully some good news emerged recently. Doncaster was rated the best for people having the highest chance of receiving a perfect pint of beer. The survey from Cask Marque and Vianet found people in the town are likely to receive four perfect pints out of every five they buy in contrast to the country’s worst performing town/city, Reading, where it is 50/50 whether you receive a perfect or poor pint.

Armed with this interesting fact it seemed a perfect time to return to the town to gauge the quality of its beer but also to see how it has adapted its offer to today’s drinkers and whether the craft beer revolution seen in our major cities is impacting on this secondary town. It has been some years since I’ve spent a Saturday evening in Doncaster town centre and I have no reason to believe what I experienced would be dramatically different in other towns and cities of a similar size and demographic characteristics.

The overriding conclusion was the obvious polarisation that has occurred among its drinking establishments. At the one end are a high proportion of pubs offering a high-octane mix of swift intoxication and ear-splitting music. These would clearly be defined as good-time-bars and the town centre has more than its fair share of them. That there are plenty of such places is not that surprising because when I was younger many of the town’s old school boozers were making the first shifts towards appealing to the younger end of the market by stripping out their original interiors and cranking up the sound systems. There just seems to be a few more of them nowadays.

But what you also now see in the town – at the polar opposite of these music-led bars and pubs – is the beer revolution having its effect and helping bring some interesting additions to Doncaster town centre. The Marketplace Alehouse is only a couple of years old and is probably at the vanguard of beer drinking in the town – but without overdoing it to the point that it is reverential. It started out as a bottle shop with a modest amount of space for drinking inside but it has morphed into being predominantly a bar – with a number of tables and five kegs and five casks as well as an interesting mix of tapas and sharing platters.

This is just the sort of place that is beginning to appear in secondary towns around the country that mix cafe/bar/pub/bottle shop to create a relaxed enjoyable environment. But what about the quality of the beer? Was it perfect or not? On this visit the Hops & Dreams from The Brew Foundation tasted just as it should (one out of one perfect). The town now also has its own brewpub (from Doncaster Brewery), which recently opened in a former retail unit on a secondary pitch that has been fitted out on an extremely limited budget. It is very much like the micro-pubs that are springing up around the country. It has a bit of a Working Men’s Club look and feel about it but this can be forgotten because it has six beers on offer that are produced only a few feet away from the bar. A brewpub is something Doncaster has not had for the best part of 30 years and it says a lot about the appetite for locally produced beers and provenance. As for the quality – the Stirling Coffee Stout was perfect to my taste (two out of two).

Sticking with the calm end of the drinking rainbow two old stalwarts of the Doncaster drinking scene, The Mason’s Arms and The Plough are still delivering on their promise of being traditional pubs but this is where the squeeze is happening in the market. It is clear the former has moved with the times somewhat by enhancing its treasured interior with some feminine touches like fairy lights, mix-and-match furniture and a decent wine list. But in contrast, the latter continues to plough its own furrow and as such there was not a female customer in sight on my visit. Sadly there have to be some questions asked about the sustainability of rigidly sticking to the old ways.

While it doesn’t need to join the ranks of the nightclub-lite bars a makeover like the Mason’s might be a route to securing its future. As for the beer, the Tetley’s in The Mason’s adhered to the Cask Marque survey, and the same could be said for the Barnsley Bitter from Acorn Brewery served at The Plough (four out of four).

The visit to The Three Horseshoes, on the edge of town, proved Cask Marque and Vianet had got it spot on. Maybe going for Wolf Rock Red IPA from Sharp’s was pushing it a little as it did look to be a rather unusual beer among the largely bog standard mix on offer in this very traditional locals pub. So it proved and I sent it back as undrinkable (four out of five).

The fact the barman took it back without hesitation and with an apology probably says more than any survey about how things are progressing for the better in our pubs up and down the country. The last time I was drinking in Doncaster town centre, if I’d merely hinted to the licensee that he was selling imperfect ale I’d have been shown the door, followed by his boot firmly exerting pressure on my backside, and just for good measure the locals would have likely chased me down the road.

Glynn Davis is a regular columnist for Propel and a leading commentator on retail trends.