It starts with an invite to do a reading or give a tutored beer tasting. Life on public transport and in variable hotels is rewarded by great evenings with excellent hosts who, within hours, feel like old friends.
Over the past two or three years this has happened in Derbyshire, Nottingham, Sheffield, South Wales and Cumbria. And if that sounds like a random selection, that’s because it is.
The latest place to join the list is Lewes, East Sussex. I already knew and loved the town and its flagship beer, Harveys Sussex Best, and Harveys’ brewery shop, which feels like a throwback to the 1950s in a very positive way.
I was also a fan of Dark Star Brewing Co, a few miles west of Lewes. Last year, I visited Dark Star at the same time as Miles Jenner, head brewer at Harveys.
It was a stupidly hot day, and Jenner is one of those men, somewhere around his mid-50s, who, on days like this, somehow manages to look immaculate and creaseless in a pale linen suit and candy-striped shirt.
His counterpart at Dark Star, Mark Tranter — or ‘Mark Star’ to his many friends — provided something of a contrast with his punk barnet, Sid Vicious frame, crumpled T-shirt and ripped jeans. It would be difficult to imagine two more mismatched people, but to see them discuss brewing techniques and recipes with equally matched passion and engagement remains one of my favourite
And then I was introduced to the Snowdrop Inn. Last year the Snowdrop, in Lewes, invited me to do a ‘beer and food dinner’ as part of the Octoberfeast food and drink festival in the town. I hadn’t really wanted to go. But within seconds of arriving, I found myself bitterly regretting that I wasn’t staying overnight.
The Snowdrop is an increasingly familiar story: run-down pub that nobody likes and nobody drinks in gets taken over by people who re-focus on great food and great beer.
But Tony Leonard and Dom McCartan have gone further, creating a magical, almost other-worldly oasis of calm conviviality.
Last month the Snowdrop invited ‘Mark Star’ to curate a weekend-long ‘Great Beer Exposition’ for this year’s Octoberfeast.
I was delighted when they also asked me back to do an event as part of the festival, and this time I stayed for a couple of days.
I’ve often written that running your own beer festival is a great way to boost the business, but I’ve never had a perfect example in mind. Now I do. ‘Mark Star’ simply asked brewers and distributors for his favourite beers, and somehow got them all.
A great range of classic cask ales was complemented by the very best new quality keg beers from the UK, Europe and the USA — some of them impossible to find normally — as well as a great bottled range.
These were all set up in a marquee next to the pub, and detailed in a stunningly beautiful guide designed by an artist friend of ‘Mark Star’.
As well as my ‘beer and book-matching’ event, Melissa Cole held a ‘beer and food dinner’, and Melissa, Mark and I judged a fiercely-contested Scotch egg contest.
We sampled 19 different entries in ‘traditional’, ‘experimental’ and ‘veggie’ varieties, and while I commend the enthusiasm of the locals who entered, it’s going to be a while before I approach another ‘experimental’ Scotch egg.
Simple ideas, combined with attention to detail in every aspect of their execution, made this one of the most enjoyable weekends I can remember. Lewes is lucky that Dom and Tony have a gift for running a great pub. And Dom and Tony are lucky to have such talented brewers nearby.
But I hope it’s not too simplistic to say that these days, no pub is too far away from a gifted brewer, a talented artist, and a customer base that wants the chance to show their ground-breaking cooking skills to the world.
If we’re invited back, Melissa and I will be lobbying for pork pies.