'TAKE US TO A BEER HEAVEN' THEY SAID...OK THEN, WE'LL NIP DOWN TO LUDLOW ...
Updated: Mar 2
Special photo file report from south Shropshire
OUR whole reason for being is to hunt down cracking independent brewers and smashing cask ales pubs on our regular beer adventures aross Northern England, North Wales and bits of the Midlands. We believe we do this pretty consistently well, from visits to breweries and pubs in bustling cities to the more remote country inns and hidden rural brewers. Sometimes we visit somewhere that is as near a beer nirvana as it gets - Ludlow is such. Already with a long held reputation as a foodie destination, this amazingly historic market town - complete with medieval castle and some 400 listed buildings - is a real treat for beer and pub lovers too, even with its very own eponymous brewery.
Ludlow Brewing Company was founded as a 10 barrel-brew-length plant by Gary and Alison Walters in 2006 with 'a dream to rekindle the brewing history of Ludlow'- the Ludlow & Craven Arms Brewery closed in 1933 - and brew first class cask ale in an old maltings building in Corve Street (there was once some 30 maltings in the street). Business went well and they moved to the present Railway Shed premises in 2011, with significant expansion. Today the brewery can produce 1.5m pints a year with some 30 full and part time staff as it continues its growth, surviving the long shadow of the pandemic to plan further expansion which will increase their keg output and enable the production of their first crafted lager. There's also an micro plant called the Derailed Brew Co for experimental brews.
Only a few steps from the town's train station and housed in a former Victorian railway shed, the brewery boasts an impressive ground floor tap room. We kick start the day here, with a splendid pint of the flagship smooth drinking, full bodied and creamy Ludlow Gold (4%) - despite it being a beer festival weekend - before enjoying a tour of the 20-barrel-plant, which looms majestically above the taproom, with learned guide Ray. Ex-Blackburn lad Ray gave up a life of law in London to move to Ludlow and find his true calling at the brewery. Lucky Ray. With the happy, hoppy buzz pervading from the busy tap below, he gives a thorough presentation of the brewery to take us logically through the cask ale brewing process starting with the quality malts, the hop varieties, the liquor (water) and the magic of the yeast. We see the beer fermenting before ending with a tasting of the range which includes a highly quaffable Best Bitter (3.7%), the citrussy and crisp Blonde (4%), Black Knight (4.5%) a 'hybrid' stout/porter, Red Dawn (4.5%) a red ale brewed with German barley, and finally Stairway (5%) a lovely full bodied pale ale with Eastern European hops for grassy, citrus notes and a dry finish. Local hops are sourced from Brook House Farm, near Bromyard just over the Herefordshire border, Ray tells us, and Maris Otter malt predominates.
An excellent walk through the art of brewing, especially for novices but also of interest to the beer veterans present. It takes Ray about an hour and half to complete, very good value for a just tenner a piece. Ludlow is heavily committed to sustainability and keeping down the beer miles, so deliveries stretch around just a 50-mile radius.
At the end of the tour the taproom was livening up very nicely for the afternoon. We could easily have stayed a good while longer, but, following a delightfully tasty pint of Blonde, the town pubs beckoned and we climbed the steepish hill of Corve Street to search out the Blood Bay in the High Street for, Tardis like, a step back in time.
Closed for a while and put on the market post Covid by then owner Jon Saxon (more of him later), this beguiling micro pub is now under new ownership and bouncing along nicely it appears. Beer is dispensed from the three handsomely traditional hand pumps, unblemished by modern whacky clips and comes from the long established Cotswolds' Uley Brewery - there's fine pints of bitter or a pale ale on offer. Reincarnated in 1985, Uley has a history dating back to 1833. The beer is brewed with pure spring water and British malt and hops, including Fuggles and Goldings to deliver traditional smooth drinking ale. It suits the Blood Bay perfectly, it would seem quite unnatural to drink cloudy East Coast IPA in this little corner of the 19th century. With a distinctive swinging pub sign painted by local artist Jonathan Adams, the pub is named for the 1932 Grand National winner Forba, owned by the mayor of Ludlow back then. Although a former newsagents, the Blood Bay was recreated by Jon Saxon with a Victorian curved mahogany front bar, a 'snug' and a back bar. With lots of reclaimed wood panelling, dark furniture and a beer hatch to boot, it gives off quite an authentic feel of a much more simple drinking era. The young, female, bar person offers an excellent welcome to both locals and beer tourists alike.
We take a short walk around the corner to enter the portals of the Old Street Tavern, quite a newish place that has seen many previous retail incarnations. Although still in the micro fraternity it has a more modern look with range of quality lagers on the substantial bar added to the excellent cask ale offer- the very fine Thornbridge Jaipur IPA and Wye Valley HPA that day. On a Saturday afternoon the multi room pub was providing another cheerful beer haven escape from a grey February day. With ale so good and such a bouyant friendly atmosphere, we tarried a while here.
Then it was time to head back down Corve Street to see if the lamp was lit outside the curiously and uniquely named The Dog Hangs Well; a 'parlour pub' this is also the home of owner Jon Saxon and his magazine publishing business. The lamp discreetly signals that this place is more than an anonymous looking Georgian townhouse; it tells that the heavy, dark, front door is unlocked for entry, but only after 5pm Thursday to Saturday. You could easily miss this delightful treat if you don't know the routine.
The moniker is derived from the popular Midlands pub name 'The Gate Hangs Well' and draws on the lively poaching history of the area, when the rich game pickings of the nearby Mortimer Forest estate...a regular deer hunting ground for the royals... was oft plundered by hungry locals hunting with dogs. If caught by the bailiffs, the poor beasts faced the rather macabre fate of being hung up on estate trees as a warning to other would be intruders. Well, it is a unique name chosen to reflect local heritage; history cannot be rewritten.
On stepping through the heavy front door, take the short corridor to discover the very lively taproom with open fire and copious taxidermy on the walls and two unbadged handpulls tucked away to the side of the bar. Jon used to brew his own beer from Victorian recipes when he had the Blood Bay, but today we discover the rather splendidly named Shagweaver (4.5%) a pale and hoppy brew with three New Zealand hops to deliver grapefruit citrus notes, but well balanced and moriesh. From the North Cotswold Brewery, founded in 1999, it is quite innocently named in tribute to the erstwhile woollen industry weavers of Stourton on Stour - shag being a rough woollen fabric. And so we live and learn to gain new knowledge through the auspices of a day's beer tourism. The front parlour room is complete with comfortable armchairs, settees and potted plants.
Of course, as the Blood Bay, there is no music, gaming machines, TV or piped music and - Sam Smith's like - the use of mobile phones is a strict no-no in favour of engendering an atmosphere of easy sociability and conversation. It works, this really is a true gem.
It is then with some good deal of reluctance that we extricate ourselves from the Dog, to depart this beer nirvana with just a 45-minute or so return journey to Whitchurch. Ludlow, we will be back.