We all know there’s a crisis in the beer trade, with more than 2600 pubs likely to close next year. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom: though pub beer sales fell by more than 8% last year, independent brewers’ volumes were up 10% in 2008 &mdash with a 15% rise predicted for this year (figures from the Morning Advertiser). And pubs that tick all the boxes when it comes to beer quality and variety, atmosphere and service, are managing to buck the trend.
Which brings me to The Shovel at Carnforth, an ancient coaching inn with its appeal firmly in the here and now when it comes to the discerning drinker’s requirements. Other local pubs may have supported the recent National Cask Ales Week, but this was the only one to contact me with details of its beer festival and barbecue, even sending out tasting notes on the ales that had been selected.
Visiting the Shovel is a moving experience that warms the heart. For a start it looks and feels like a pub should. It has that sense of comfort and intimacy that only comes from a dedicated staff who know what they’re doing and a clientele who regard the place as their own and joyfully make themselves at home in it. &mdash And it has proper furniture and furnishings, not stuff that looks as though it’s from a catalogue used by every pub chain in the country.
Oh, and it happens to sell exceedingly good beer. &mdash There are normally three real ales on &mdash the regular Cumberland plus two guests. For Cask Ale Week there was a selection that had something for everyone. At the top end was the magnificent Hop Back Summer Lightning and Joseph Holt’s Fifth Sense, both weighing in at 5% abv, with Jennings’ Cumberland Ale (4%) and Thwaites’ Summat Special (4%) occupying the tasty middle ground, and Greene King IPA an inoffensive 3.6%.
There were some rarer brews too. Bluebird XB bitter (4.2) from Coniston was a refreshing change, and Caledonian’s Raspberry Fool (4.1) provoked a lot of interest and approval. Beer of the night for me, though, was Dizzy Blonde (3.8), a hoppy, straw-coloured offering from Robinson’s that achieved a marvellous fullness and complexity from being served straight from the cask.
Licensees Gary and Louise Wood have been at the Shovel for two years, and the Cask Ale Week festival is the realisation of a dream. “We’ve always wanted to put on a festival, and now we’ve done it,” said Louise, who Gary acknowledges is the “beer hunter and taster” in the team. The couple have long recognised that there is a demand for quality beer in Carnforth, and they’ve made the Shovel the local venue for real ale.
When asked for their winning formula, Gary replied at once: “Good beer, a loyal clientele, and a homely atmosphere &mdash just being us.”
And “just being us” certainly worked for CAMRA members who visited the pub on the Saturday of Cask Ale Week. It’s an unpretentious, welcoming place, one of the friendliest you’re likely to encounter. And if there was a prize for the barmaid with the mostest it would go to Kayleigh for her stunning efficiency and sense of humour.
An evening in this place compels reflection on values, particularly those we are in danger of losing. Many pubs &mdash the anonymous ones &mdash can offer blandness at best: bland beer, bland service, piped music instead of conversation. The Shovel, a gem of a place, affirms
the best values of English pub culture: good beer, an informed and friendly staff, and a real sense of community.
Note: Cask Ale Week is the first time brewers and pub groups have come together to create a single national event in honour of cask conditioned beer. Later this year Lunesdale CAMRA will be organising activities to mark Local Pubs Week.