The Falstaff Freehouse and Brewery - a Derby micro-brewery
PUBLISHED: 10:40 23 April 2014 | UPDATED: 20:06 23 October 2015
Nik Cook visits the Falstaff Freehouse and Brewery in Derby
The locations of the micro-breweries I’ve visited in Derbyshire have been incredibly diverse. They’ve ranged from fairly bleak and soulless industrial estates to rural idylls, including an old farm building on the Chatsworth Estate. The Falstaff Freehouse and Brewery is tucked away in the heart of residential Derby, amid a maze of terraces and one way systems and appears to be a traditional back street ‘boozer’. However, from the double-sided pub sign, that shows both the front side and the backside of the rotund Shakespearean knight who lends his name to the pub, it’s obvious there’s more to this pub than first meets the eye.
Arriving just after midday, Jim Hallows and Steph Briggs are in the process of opening up. Walking into the pub, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer volume of fascinating items and interesting furniture. An entire wall is plastered with the pump clips of their own past brews and the lounge is dedicated to their collection of memorabilia from the Offilers Brewery that used to be located a few hundred yards from the pub. As the regulars start to drift in to a warm and familiar welcome, Jim tells me how they came to be running the pub.
‘We were both nurses specialising in learning difficulties at Aston Hall but then that closed down. I ran a computer shop for a bit but didn’t enjoy it and we were mates of the previous landlord here. Steph had always worked in pubs so, in spring 2003, we took on the lease.’
The renovation of the pub, which dates to 1886, has been an on-going project. Steph recently stripped 18 coats of paint and varnish off the front bar and replaced the old melamine bar-top with a beautiful wooden one reclaimed from Derby’s old Roebuck pub. The stone floor in the front bar is newly laid and Steph and Jim have injected a wonderful freshness into the pub while still retaining its unique character.
Before I get too settled at the bar, Jim walks me round the corner to the brewery. A neat and compact five barrel set-up, he explains that it wasn’t like that when they first took over.
‘It was completely derelict and hadn’t produced a pint since 2001. Where the cool room is now, there was a scrapped VW Polo. We had to clear it out totally before we could even think about brewing. I had no brewing experience and took on brewer Dave Corby to help me out and show me the ropes. Our first brew, aptly named Phoenix for a resurrected brewery, was produced on the 2nd December 2003. I took to brewing really quickly and after about a year took over full time. Along with our three core beers – they are always on and there’d be a riot if I took one off – I also produce a monthly special. It’s not rocket science but brewing can be a bit of a dark art. Often a recipe might be meticulously planned and look good on paper but just doesn’t work. At other times I might be pressed to produce a special brew really quickly and it’s wonderful.’
Back to the bar and I’m keen to talk to Steph about the spooky reputation of the Falstaff and its resident ghosts.
‘We’ve had a number of paranormal investigators and mediums visit who’ve found we’ve got five active ghosts. There’s a small boy called Billy who lives in the cellar, a little black dog, a very uncommunicative ex-licensee and an Irish prize-winning bare knuckle boxer called Rory. They’re all harmless and mostly just move and hide things. The final ghost is a wonderfully sexist Sergeant Major who believes the only women in pubs should be staff and prostitutes. He lurks in the corridor to the toilets and many women report a sense of being followed. One regular refuses to go to their on her own! Normally you’ll just get a sense of someone out of the corner of your eye and you’ll often go to serve someone you think you’ve seen at the bar behind you but there’s no-one there. Once though, I went to check the toilets and Rory, the bare knuckle boxer, was standing right in front of me! I swore loudly and he just vanished!’
There’s a display about the ghostly goings-on at the Falstaff, including some very strange photographs with inexplicable orbs of light, and occasionally Jim and Steph organise special ghost nights. In need of a drink after Steph’s spooky tales, I sample Jim’s current special, Mania. This year’s specials’ theme is Greek mythology, with Aphrodite having preceded it. It’s a wonderfully drinkable beer that, although very hoppy, maintains subtlety, isn’t overly strong and you could easily while away an afternoon supping it. While I enjoy my half, Jim brings me up to date with the pub and brewery.
‘We’ve picked up a few awards including Beer of the Festival at Derby and Oxford in 2005, Derby CAMRA Pub of the Year in 2010 and recently a Derby CAMRA Mild award. We’ve no real plans for expansion or a second pub, we just want to keep on with what we’re doing and to keep doing it well.’
With my nerves pleasantly settled, I continue my tour of the pub and it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s like walking around a museum of assorted fascinating knick-knacks and oddities. Even the corridor where the Sergeant Major lurks is festooned with vintage enamel advertisements and the toilets that he guards have been completely refurbished to a level way above what you might expect to find in a back street pub. Despite it being January, we head out into the beer garden and the surprises continue with a life-sized mounted knight constructed out of scrap metal.
If you want to try Jim’s beers, he supplies Wetherspoons pubs as far away as Birmingham, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to sample them at the Falstaff. It’s a ‘proper’ pub with excellent beer, and whether it’s an apparition of a bare knuckle boxer or a display of brewing memorabilia, you’ll never be quite sure what you’re going to find around the next corner.
To contact the Falstaff call Jim on 07947 242710, visit www.falstaffbrewery.co.uk or find them on Facebook