Katie Taylor looks at how strong local pubs and breweries are playing a role in one town’s inspirational renaissance
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As unlikely beer paradises go, Preston’s probably not on your radar. In fact, it’s probably never even accidentally brushed your radar with its waterproof jacket as it ran for the bus. Actually, that’s unfair, it might have been a regular jacket. It doesn’t always rain in Preston. A former Victorian textiles giant left to the fates of so many Northern towns, the city sits patiently on direct rail routes to nearly every UK city you can think of; it’s two hours from London, two hours from Edinburgh. Deprivation has cast its shadow for some time, but after over a decade of diligent local action and positive steps towards self-sufficiency it feels like recently, Preston’s time might finally be arriving.
Aside from a brief spell during the 1700s, Preston has never really been a citybreak destination. Its massive university complex brings a constant influx of young blood into the borough lines, but for years it has largely been a small city of locals. That could easily change, however. Here are Preston’s positives: You can walk the breadth of it in an afternoon, should that be your plan for the day. It’s got beautiful Victorian parks and a thriving local music scene, and pubs most towns would give a town hall for. The River Ribble butts against its south side, wide and smooth, on its final stretch towards the coast at Lytham, and around the city’s circumference you can follow the Guild Wheel path through the nearby countryside on foot or bike. The city itself is packed with classic Edwardian architecture, and recently its hidden cobbled side-streets have been cleaned up and independent businesses have moved in. Yes, Preston is attracting hipsters.
The hipsters of Preston are made of different stuff though. For a start, they’re not interlopers searching for cheap loft spaces – instead they’re local, young and they’ve never left. For a northern city, that in itself is a strange phenomenon. They care about the city they grew up in too. Speaking to a new generation of pub owners and brewers residing in Preston and its outskirts, they really do feel the city has a lot to offer them. So why would they ever emigrate to Manchester?
Chain House Brewing’s Ryan Hayes was seeing the potential in Preston’s cobbles and community spirit back when he was a BMXing teenager.
“We used to ride all over town when I was younger,” he said, “and I used to see these little streets that reminded me of the Northern Quarter in Manchester and think ‘Yeah, a bar would be perfect here.’ I always wanted to start a bar in Preston, and when they started cropping up, that’s when I decided I wanted to make beer for bars in Preston instead, so they could sell beer that was made in Preston.”
Chain House Brewing has gained momentum much faster than he anticipated, given he only began brewing commercially for a local beer festival at a sports and social club just a year ago. Ryan’s hazy American IPA “Shorts In October” was highly acclaimed at Salford Beer Festival, an immense achievement for a new brewer.
“Ben at Rivington Brew Co told the organisers at Salford Beer Festival that they should have one of my beers on… to have been alongside the likes of Cloudwater, Marble and Magic Rock was brilliant for my beer.”
Rivington Brew Co are another local success story. Based on a dairy farm just outside Preston, their brand of boundary-pushing beers are starting to become more and more familiar throughout the UK and beyond. That support from Rivington, a relative newcomer in the grand scheme of things, could push local breweries into the spotlight showing how exciting the area’s emerging beer scene really is. Add to that the likes of Farm House Ales, based on yet another dairy farm nearby (farm diversification isn’t just popular here, it’s necessary) whose traditional and more contemporary beers are spreading across Lancashire and the neighbouring counties and you’ve got three leading breweries within a 15 mile radius. Preston’s sounding pretty good now, isn’t it?
Step off the train at Preston station and you’ll soon come to the main shopping street, Fishergate, filled with the usual high street brands. Turn off Fishergate and onto Lune Street on your left and you’ll find the Plug and Taps, one of Preston’s new wave of independent craft beer bars. Adam Godwin, one of the bar’s owners, set up the bar in late 2017, and his experience of this slowly changing city is what encouraged him to open here.
“Although craft beer had already made it to Preston via great pubs like the Guild Ale House and the Moorbrook, that’s all there really was. There’s always been a bit of a gap in Preston between the bigger pubs, but a few years ago you started seeing nice coffee shops and little indie places to eat popping up here and there, and it seemed like it was getting better. I knew about other bars planning to open and I felt like mine would be a good fit in Preston alongside them – that we’d end up sort-of complimenting each other, rather than competing.”
The “other bars” Adam had heard rumours about in 2017 are all now open. Tiny micropub The Orchard sits in Preston’s newly redeveloped market hall, offering up some of the freshest craft beer and real ale available anywhere on 10 tap lines and two cask pumps. Opened by Gary Quinn, owner of Preston’s exemplary craft beer palace The Guild Ale House – the first pub in Preston to have proper German Pilsner and wheat beers on tap – it’s bravely contemporary, but doesn’t seem out of place. Speaking of brave, Plau, a grand three-storey beer and gin venture took years to restore, brick by brick, by a landlord with a vision. This grand design is the newest pub belonging to one of the city’s most prolific landlords Jeremy Rowlands, who also owns, among others, traditional food pub the Plungington Hotel and The Continental. Ask anyone who knows Preston’s pubs about the Continental. It was probably the city’s first real taste of craft beer.
With a growing list of must-visit pubs and bars on its streets, Preston’s starting to square up to the nightlife in cities all around it. Lancaster, it’s nearest northern neighbour, might have a massive student population and almost 150,000 residents, but uptake for the craft beer revolution is slow. It’s there, and thanks to new microbreweries like Accidental Beer it’s growing, but it’s not as readily accepted or frankly, as busy as Preston. So why is that?
“I think there’s a feeling that people in Preston want to support local businesses,” said Ryan from Chain House, as we chatted in the Plug and Taps on a busy Tuesday evening. “The council really seem to push this feeling of local support.” I asked him how they managed to do it. “It’s not in your face – there’s no posters or anything. We just all feel like Preston is supporting itself and getting better because of it.”
"Preston is a city full of assets and people are feeling more local pride. Following a failed regeneration project we’ve been trying to build from the inside up"
To get a better idea of how this self-fulfilling prophecy might be occurring, I spoke to Councillor Matthew Brown, a well-known local political figure whose decidedly left economic ideas intrigue many, and whose “Preston Model” has been lauded by similar post-industrial towns as a means to bring themselves out of dissolution and deprivation.
“The whole city is trying to regenerate itself from the grass roots up,” he said. “Preston is a city full of assets and people are feeling more local pride. Following a failed regeneration project we’ve been trying to build from the inside up... We’ve realised we need to be more resilient. We aren’t going to get a lot of money from the government, and solely attracting national companies failed, so we regenerated the market and other Preston landmarks like the Guild Hall, and now we feel like we’re moving forward together.”
“It’s about doing things your own way. A lot of towns try to attract large corporations, but this doesn’t necessarily bring and retain wealth. What we are trying to do in Preston is protect ourselves as much as possible from economic shocks. Choosing to use local contractors in, for example, the construction of local buildings, means more money is available to local people, which means it can be spent more readily in local businesses.”
Seeing new independent pubs spring up seems in Preston’s case to be proof that the economic climate is much less hostile as it once was. Local beer blogger Simon Gooch runs A Beer In Preston, a Twitter account dedicated to cheerfully and enthusiastically promoting Preston’s beer and pub culture, and he sees a city and a scene that’s thriving after an initial setback.
“It probably came in two phases for me,” he explained. “Initially around 2012, Preston had about four or five places to get a good pint of cask and bottles of ‘craft’ began sneaking into pub’s fridges. Unfortunately as the scene grew in 2012 it quickly unravelled during 2013 due to a combination of closures, landlords retiring and pubcos demanding their pubs sell only their beer and pulling ‘free of tie’ arrangements. Then The Moorbrook opened in May 2014. It was exactly what the local beer scene needed and set the ball rolling for what we have today.
Simon spends every moment of his spare time championing beer in Preston. It’s a dedicated crusade, but he’s committed to his cause. “I hope I’m bringing in visitors who previously would have once gone to the likes of Manchester, Liverpool, Leyland, Lancaster, Chorley and Wigan,” he says.
And that’s the thing. Preston really can give those nearby towns and cities a run for their money. No really, it can. And you can believe me, this writer’s not biased. I’m from Lancaster.
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