The Amber Valley Beer & Cider Festival will draw in drinkers from across the region this weekend, but a bustling micropub scene is already quenching their thirst all year round.
The last few years have seen a revolution in the pub trade, with a shift in tastes and market trends making it easier than ever for small enterprises to establish a foothold.
Chris Rogers, chairman of the Amber Valley Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) branch, said: “Things are looking very healthy at the moment. Compared with the rest of the country we haven’t seen too many pub closures, instead we’re seeing a lot of places opening.
“The community campaign to take over the Spotted Cow in Holbrook was a great success, but we’ve got some very interesting new places in Heanor, Alfreton and Ripley.”
The change is partly driven by the economic climate, with vacant premises available at low cost, low interest rates for start-up finance, and more people seeking second incomes or work which fits around their lifestyle.
Chris said: “Micropubs aren’t tied to any supplier, which can help lower their rents and gives them complete freedom in where they buy their beer.
“At the same time, we’ve had a lot of new small breweries coming on stream, and what was once a niche market has expanded and allowed small businesses to flourish.”
He added: “Most of the success stories in the industry now are new breweries or pubs.
“There was a very bad patch around 15 years ago, but things have turned the corner now in a big way. I could find an exceptional beer in a different pub every night of the week, all within 10 miles of home.”
Among the local entrepreneurs riding the wave are mother and son team Bernadette and James Lawley, who opened the Redemption Ale House on Ray Street in Heanor last summer.
Occupying a space formerly used as a butchers, a motorcycle shop and a temporary library, it carries an element of surprise which has pulled in drinkers from far and wide.
Bernadette, who used to work as a local authority housing officer, said: “We’ve had an absolutely fantastic response in our first year. The people of Heanor have been very supportive and lovely customers. We get a lot of visitors too, but the locals are the backbone of our business, and many have become our friends too.
“When we opened up, we’d never run a pub, didn’t know anybody in Heanor, or how much interest there might be in what we wanted to do. It was a massive gamble, but it’s paid off.”
She added: “People say that between us and the Angry Bee on Godfrey Street, which opened soon last year too, we are changing the drinking culture of the town.
“We’re providing a different experience, and it’s been nice to hear that some people have been coming in for a drink and a chat who haven’t been seen out and about for years.”
Stories like the Redemption suggest that micropubs might be appealing to a different crowd to traditional establishments, but it seems that with the growing range of choice is actually providing something for everyone.
Chris said: “The audience for real change is changing. It was known as an old man’s drink, but that’s completely transformed in the last decade.
“My generation still enjoys a good pint, but the scene is attracting a lot more young people and women. It’s a change for the better in my view.”
He added: “It’s hard to know why these things happen. It’s not advertising particularly, it’s more of a groundswell.
“Social media has a lot to do with it. Once these things take hold, there’s no stopping them.”
For all the buzz of new technology, the appeal of micropubs also stems from a more traditional ethos.
They tend not to serve food or lager, shun quiz and gambling machines, and rarely play loud music.
Instead, they simply allow their beer and customers’ conversations to create the right atmosphere.
Chris said: “Micropubs are not just about the size. They concentrate on the quality end of the real ale market, and it seems to work.”
Paul Carroll, 50, has been in the pub trade for 25 years and for the last four has run Arkwright’s Real Ale Bar on Campbell Street in Belper.
He said: “I was here to run the Strutt Club and we needed to find a way of generating some money. We had an unused function room and I suggested that we turn it into a small bar, and luckily it’s taken off. The growth in real ales has been enormous. Everyone’s jumping on, setting up these little bars.
“We don’t get so many young people here, but it’s a very comfortable atmosphere. Getting the beer right is the most important thing though, that’s what we’re here for.”
Bernadette is of the same opinion: “People don’t always want the sports on television, or discos or the same old keg beers.
“They often just want somewhere to enjoy a pint and spend time talking to people, plus they like the experience of trying new beers and supporting small brewers.”
She added: “I go to micropubs as a customer when I get chance. I prefer to go there, and get the personal touch of the owners.
“They are often the ones behind the bar, and they really care about what they’re doing.”
Among all the differences between micropubs and the labels on the pumps, that attitude of care is common throughout the sector, and the owners are very supportive of one another.
Without the support of big breweries and pub chains, owners are required to take on every aspect of the business from accounting to cleaning, and from sourcing beers to serving them.
Paul said: “I’m very lucky. I love what I do and class it as a hobby, or a passion even.
“It’s much easier to run a place like this than a big pub, but there’s still a lot of long hours.”
Bernadette adds: “You can make a living with it, but it will never make you rich. If I calculated my hourly rate, it wouldn’t be worth it.
“This first year has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically mentally, and emotionally, but it has been such a positive experience.”
The other thing micropubs have in common is a bottomless enthusiasm for exciting beer.
Bernadette said: “Every week I just want to give customers something new.
“The most enjoyable part of the job is sourcing beers that make people happy, and serving them in the perfect conditions. We spent a lot of money on our cold room, so we know the beer is perfect.”
She adds: “As a freehouse, we can buy from anywhere and I spend a lot of time on the internet, talking to suppliers and visiting festivals to find the very best locally and nationally.”
Recent years have seen a boom in the brewing sector, driven by drinkers with ever-more adventurous tastes and the online sharing of trade secrets from around the world.
Chris said: “A lot of new breweries are more interesting. They have new flavours, strongly hopped beers. We’ve seen an explosion of new varieties on the scene.
“The boring old bitters have gone, and we’re into exciting new territory driven by American and New Zealand hops plus twists like fruit and chocolate.”
Paul said: “Other pubs will always serve the same choice, but I like the way a customer will come in and never know what they’re going to get.
“We have six beers on at any time, and if you come in one day and really enjoy something, chances are that tomorrow we’ll have something else.”
“It’s very competitive now. I can think of probably 50 small breweries in Derbyshire, all trying to sell to places like us.
“I’ll source beers from every corner of the country, but Derbyshire is still known as the brewing capital of the world.”