It was 2005 when Thornbridge Brewery, in Derbyshire, started producing one of the UK’s first craft ales. There are now 70 micro-breweries in the county and there’s been a huge rise in the number of outlets – bottle shops, tap rooms and micro-pubs – on a mission to bring these bespoke beers to the public.
Taste Derbyshire’s Amanda Volley visited award-winning micro-pub and bottle shop Maison Du Biere in Ashbourne to find out why there is such a thirst for artisan ales.
It has been the best part of two years since Matt Warren and his partner Jo Glover opened Maison Du Biere but the couple still savour the slack-jawed reaction of customers confronted by the 400-odd varieties of beers, ales and ciders.
“We don’t give too much away as, from the front, the shop gives the illusion of being a little beer shop so the first thing they say is ‘wow’ followed by ‘oh my word’,” explains Jo (51), originally from Barnsley. “Then they notice we also have a bar area and ten cask beers on tap and they get a bit flummoxed by it all.”
Her partner Matt (59), laughs; “I wish we had a pound for everyone who says they’ve walked into Willy Wonka’s factory.” “It’s either that or a sweet shop for adults.”
The Ashbourne-based bottle shop and bar may contain a mind-boggling amount of beers (and gins) but the couple are confident they can match everyone, from serious ale buffs to timorous first-timers, with their perfect tipple.
“We spend a lot of time talking to people about the beers and how and where they’re made,” says Matt who hails from Bristol. “Some people need a lot of help, others know more about beer than we do. It’s a relaxed place where everyone’s welcome and I think people love us for it.”
There is a lot of love flowing in the direction of this cracking shop-cum-bar. In the first year, they were named ‘Pub of the Season’ 2018 by the Ashbourne & District sub branch of CAMRA with the couple praised for their ‘friendliness and enthusiasm’.
In January, Maison Du Biere was runner-up in CAMRA’s Ashbourne’s Pub of the Year 2020, pipped only by the Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton; one of the area’s oldest pubs.
“We’ve had an amazing reception. The minute we opened our doors in July 2018, it was just ‘kaboom’. The shop was packed and we smashed our weekly sales target on the first night,” says Matt. “People like the fact that we’re an independent retailer and that we stock beer from around 40 local breweries. Our customers enjoy taking a bit of the Peak District home.”
Incredibly, considering all the praise flowing their way from industry experts, the couple had no experience of the speciality beer market before throwing themselves into Maison Du Biere. Matt and Jo both worked in sales for a national bookseller.
“I knew a little about the hospitality industry as I’d had part-time jobs in pubs since my son Luke (now 26) was born,” explains Jo. “My brother, Nigel Mount, opened the original Maison Du Biere in Barnsley and he invited us to spend a day there. We loved it and, with his blessing, we decided to open our own branch.”
Matt admits he also owes Nigel a debt of gratitude; “He took me along to a bar specialising in Belgian beer. I bought a round of four beers which came to £35 even though they were all just one third of a pint and mainly froth,” he laughs. “When the beer touched my lips – I got it. That beer blew everything else out of the water. It was beautiful and delicate. I’m now an evangelist on a mission to convert others to great beer.”
Deciding they wanted sell beer was one thing, finding the location was another. The couple were living in Cheshire (they’ve since relocated to Clifton, near Ashbourne) but decided the area was too well-served with independent beer shops.
“We knew Ashbourne pretty well from coming to walk here but we decided to drive down and have a proper look,” says Matt “I think we knew instantly it was the right spot as it had a lovely vibe. When this shop came up, Jo went on her own to have a look. She walked in and rang me to say ‘This is it.’ It had been an antique shop housed in a gorgeous 18th century mansion built for Lord Beresford. We didn’t have to do anything other than putting in fridges, shelving and second-hand finds like old trunks and church pews – our approach to furnishings has always been ‘no expense spent’.”
Matt says local support has been overwhelming; “I like to think we’re helping to put Ashbourne on the map because it’s a beautiful town with amazing people,”
“We lived in Cheshire for 16 years and could probably count the number of close friends on one hand. Now I could name at least 20 who I could call on for favours – day or night – and they’re more like family than friends. The same goes for our suppliers. The craft industry as a whole is very tight-knit. A lot of the beer producers are now our besties or ‘crafties’.”
With this, Matt bounds over to the shelves to ‘introduce’ some of the beers.
“On the one shelf we have world beers with most coming from the great beer producing nations like Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. They are brewed to traditional recipes which haven’t changed in hundreds of years,” he says. “On the adjoining wall, we have craft beers. Typically made by young brewers who are trying to stamp their identity on a beer. This is where you’ll find people really innovating with flavour. For instance, there’s one tasting of marshmallow while another features chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla and chilli. One of our latest additions tastes of caramel brownie and peanut butter, it really is dessert in a can.”
But Matt stresses craft beer is more serious than the colourful cans, novelty flavours and comic names (Fanny’s Passion anyone?) suggests.
“These brewers are fanatical about what they do and they put in a lot of time, energy and expensive ingredients into every beer – like hops imported from America, Europe and New Zealand – so the taste is phenomenal,” Matt explains. “For instance, we stock beer by Garage Beer Co. of Barcelona which is the beer equivalent of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine. We only put something on the shelves if we like it – we get asked for a lot of recommendations and would hate people to be disappointed.”
There’s little chance of that as Matt and Jo are always striving to ring the changes. Every week, they have new beers on the shelves – and they rotate the beers available on tap – which means a lot of elbow grease for Matt as he writes all the chalk boards by hand.
“There has never been a better time to drink beer,” Matt says. “We are still learning and we’ve got a long way to go before we’d call ourselves beer geeks. One chap was telling me he’s tried 6,500 beers and never had the same one twice. These people can tell you everything about the beer and the people who brewed it.”
With all this fine beer on the shelves, it is tempting to wonder if the couple take their ‘work’ home.
“No, we’re hardly ever at home and we don’t drink a lot. I can’t recall the last time either of us had too much to drink,” Matt laughs. “I’m told that, because the beers are made from natural ingredients and free of chemicals, you don’t get hangovers. You might wake up with a sore head but a nice cup of tea will sort you out. If we do have a drink we go for quality not quantity – life’s too short to drink rubbish beer.”
Maison Du Biere, 28b Church Street, Ashbourne DE6 1AE