Raise a pint glass to ‘beer capital’

Derby Travel Feature'Old Bell Hotel
Derby Travel Feature'Old Bell Hotel
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There’s a bitter battle between Sheffield and Derby – or , should that be more of a ‘mild’ rivalry...

Both cities claim to be the country’s real ale capital.

Derby Travel Feature'Ye Olde Dolphin Inne

Derby Travel Feature'Ye Olde Dolphin Inne

I was invited to grab the ram by the horns, so to speak, and put the competition to the test.

They take their ale so seriously in Derby – controversially ‘the best place to drink real ale in the world’ according to Lonely Planet - that the city is the first in the UK to have a beer king, who even has his own robes and crown.

His most important role is opening the city’s bi-annual CAMRA beer festival.

Beer King Les Baynton said: “The differences are that Sheffield has 200 different ales across its pubs, compared with 170 in Derby. But in Sheffield, the pubs are spread out, so you have to take a bus or tram between locations.

“In Derby, there are 13 microbreweries and 20 free houses in the centre which are easy to walk between.”

Former teacher Les said his role was inspired by a beer king in Derby’s German twin city, Osnabruk.

The beer festival is a good time to visit – but the pubs are a treat any time.

Derby’s most historic is the Ye Olde Dolphin Inne, built in 1530 and said to be haunted. Famous visitors in the past have included legendary highwayman Dick Turpin. Part of the cellar was a doctor’s mortuary and still contains an empty coffin.

A range of ales is available and the pub specialises in steaks, served sizzling on platters.

A chance to discover some hidden gems of pubs lies with the Derby Real Ale Tours, run by husband and wife Elaine and Pip Southall, who dress up in historic costumes.

Our tour took in pubs on the outskirts as well as central venues. There was Mr Grundy’s Tavern, which has its own brewery, while others had splendid beer gardens and The Falstaff, with an ornate brick frontage, contained memorabilia including miniature Daleks.

And you might be in for a surprise with who else is on the tour. I joined a women’s darts team on a hen night, dressed in 1980s-style fluorescent costumes and tutus - a barrel of laughs.

The tour ends at the Exeter Arms, a couple of hundred years old, run by punk rocker Martin Roper and his partner Denise Sage.

It is currently Derby CAMRA’s pub of the year and features beers from the couple’s own Dancing Duck brewery.

The city centre scene is being boosted with the reopening of the historic Old Bell Hotel, dating back to 1650 and which is undergoing a £1 million revamp.

Other popular venues on the ale scene include the Flower Pot, which hosts live bands, the Silk Mill, the Royal Standard and numerous pubs around the rail station.

I stayed at the Cathedral Quarter Hotel, a Victorian former police station, which opened in 2008 at a cost of £5 million.

Rooms are comfortable and, surprisingly, quite modern for a building which has kept many original features including large stained glass windows and a splendid marble entrance hall.

Derby beer facts:

■ Places on the beer tour cost £29 per person, which covers half pints at six pubs plus snacks. Visit Real Ale Derby for information about the tour and bookings.

■ Cathedral Quarter Hotel, St Mary’s Gate, is Derby’s only boutique hotel and has a range of offers including a night’s bed and breakfast plus a steak dinner costing £49 for a junior double room, available until September. Upgrades are available. Call 01332 546080.

■ The Exeter Arms’ Sunday lunch is a must, featuring giant Yorkshire puddings which resemble top hats, and is £8.95 - or £15.50 for three courses.

■ Log onto ww.visitderby.co.uk for a wealth of further tourist information.