For most of us that queasy period when we travel from awkward teenager to young adult is fraught with insecurity and fear. Our first metaphorical fumblings with the bra strap of adult life are ungainly, uncouth and uncultured.
But the memory plays strange tricks on us as we grow older. Light-headed from the hoppy aroma of nostalgia we recall our formative years as some golden idyllic time. Perhaps on balance it was. And certainly if nothing else the journey from the moment we entered the public house nervous and sweaty to ask for ‘a pint of your best bitter, landlord,’ to the days where we would confidently prop up the bar and ask George for ‘a pint of the usual’ evoke warmth, happiness and excitement.
Rural Leicestershire in the late 70s was a million miles away from the gritty city life represented in the BBC television series Life On Mars, and it was – is – something of a rural playground. Unspectacular in the way that the Dales or the Peaks are, the south of the county is unspoilt too – endless fields of the verdant dairy grass enriched from the silt minerals of the Welland River; picturesque period cottage villages; prim and proper cricket greens; wonderful, hoppy beer.
We’d head out to the east of the county, in an area marked by Market Harborough in the south to Leicester in the north. Our furthest points east were Oakham and Rutland Water as we set out in pursuit of Ruddles County, and whiled away the hours teasing Rutland folk about the fact they were from Leicestershire. There was no west for us – that was all motorway and places such as Coventry. No thanks.
So always north and east.
Occasionally we’d stumble across Greene King Abbot Ale – or was it Abbot Ale Greene King? We knew the beer – a Holy Grail for us back then – but not the brewery, so small and parochial was it in those days.
There was no life north of Leicester.
Just the enemy – the territory occupied by our football rivals, Forest and County. When we ventured there it was annually and we went not as rural ale drinkers but urban warriors, in packs, and almost certainly drinking lager or cider. Now that was the gritty city life of Life On Mars.
For the most part, though, we were easily pleased: small pretty villages with market squares and period pubs; quality real ale from Everards, Ruddles or Marston’s, hearty pub food – common even back then in the inns of the county.
Winters seemed long and severe, and we’d drive out in the ice, inching our way to a brightly-lit pub with an open fire; in summer we’d get intoxicated on the aromas of the crops growing in the fields and waste entire afternoons solving the world’s problems in pub gardens.
The East Midlands has always been great beer territory. If you count Burton in the region – and we always did because it’s on the Trent and that’s an East Midlands river – then the area must at least be on the nomination paper for the award of Britain’s best beer region.
And of course the fun part of growing up is that your boundaries get smaller and your prejudices give way to your curiosity. While training as a journalist in Sheffield (South Yorkshire but borderline nonetheless) I was able to explore the beer outlets of North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire. And more recently the region has played its part in the micro-revolution and can offer the drinker some fine choices.
The East Midlands should be celebrated as a beer region. So this time it’s personal. Here is my selection of the region’s best breweries.