Belleville Rendezvous plays on the screen infront of me as I lounge on a weekend afternoon, chomping my way through a bowl of Kettle Chips and washing down the moment with a bottle of pre-buyout Wychwood Hobgoblin. Granted, it isn’t an exciting moment, it isn’t even an exciting beer, but it is an important one. This is one of the first moments of realisation; beer is becoming my go-to drink; I’m becoming a fan.
It’s a little over a decade ago, twelve years in fact, and local supermarket aisles are the source of my beer discovery. The malt forward profiles of Hobgoblin and Theakstons Old Peculiar become early favourites, holding my attention over their hoppier cousins. When Brewdog Punk IPA appears on the shelves the small bottles stand out among the crowd, I like the modern branding but the flavour profile is more hop-heavy than my palate is used to and so those little brash bottles often remain on the shelf. Besides, I can get 500ml bottles of beers I actually like for the same price, or less. I occasionally go back to them though because I really want to like that beer. Little do I know just how iconic those Brewdog bottles will become.
I can’t get on with the popular core offerings from local legends Dark Star, either. Hophead and APA are no-goes, and Revelation a definite Steer-clear (twelve years on and looking back now I realise that I missed out on so many moments to drink those wonderful, iconic brews). Espresso is an early love though and one of the first to show me that there could be more to beer than just ‘the usual’. I don’t see it around much in Horsham though, it seems my town is drowning in Badger Ales and if the pub isn’t Hall & Woodhouse owned then I soon come to discover that the options available are easily summed up as ‘The Usual Suspects’.
I fall into various rituals for a while. At one point Monday nights are for repeat pints of Fullers London Pride in a tiny pub within a tiny alleyway; Piries Bar. A distinctive waft of bleach being the first thing to greet as the door swings in. The walls are yellow with years-old nicotine stains, the furniture is forever wobbly, batting away bar flies becomes a sport and the only way to get a phone signal is to hang out of the window on the mezzanine floor. I love it. It’s a warm pub, full of charm and character and the perfect place to hideaway with a pint of Pride, a game of Rummy and to put the world to rights.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are all about Hall & Woodhouse owned The Green Dragon. Quiz night at the top end of the week and Karaoke as the weekend comes into view. Pints of twiggy Badger ale are the lubricants to nights of confidence and joy. These are followed by copious amounts of double JD and Coke, the occasional shot of Sambuca and a walk home that becomes a ritual in itself with a chorus of Hey Hey We’re The Monkeys, Vogue, Get Your Knees Up, and Bohemian Rhapsody called out into the midnight air. My poor neighbours. My cohorts and I are young and indestructible and The Green Dragon is the pub to go to. The party pub. The pub where friendships are made and relationships are broken. Everyone knows everyone and it feels like a blurred community where time stands still for a night. The management changes a few times, the vibes change too, and eventually we know it’s at death’s door when the limited food menu is replaced with that of the local Dominoes pizza. Hall & Woodhouse close the doors, give it a makeover, changes its name and The Olive Branch gastro pub is born. The pub is now all grown up, mature, settled down and attractive to a new crowd. The heady days of before are over, but it comes at the right time, I’m growing up too, settling down, and my hangovers are telling me that I can’t party forever.
The transformation of The Green Dragon hasn’t been the only change to the drinking scene of my hometown. In the past ten years Horsham itself has gone through a makeover too; grown up, matured, settled into an identity of being the place to go for the local foodies. Where good food goes, good beer follows and where once was a limited choice in a relatively barren landscape there’s now gold to be found. This isn’t something that’s happened overnight of course, it’s been a gradual process with local brewers helping the local scene pick up momentum. A rolling stone gathers no moss and it’s now rare that I walk into a local pub and lament the selection on offer. New breweries keep springing up, existing brewers keep pushing the creative process and more people are being turned onto good beer.
Piries Bar is still small in size but big in vibes, the charm and warm welcome still key features alongside the fresh lick of paint and now less wobbly furniture. The beer options have changed too, gone is the familiar clip of Fullers London Pride, now cask handles promote local beers (Dark Star, Hammerpot, Longman and Highweald brewery often feature), a keg line serves a modern IPA and the fridge is stocked with gleaming Beavertown cans. Craft Gin fans will also feel right at home here with a dazzling array of artisan’s takes on the botanical spirit. It’s not a pub in an obvious spot but tucked away just off of a popular shopping area it provides a perfect hideaway for a quiet daytime refresher when the shopping crowds become too much. Gathered smokers seemingly stuck in the tiny alleyway provide the giveaway to the popular destination when the shoppers go home and the night comes alive.
That narrow alleyway leads pedestrians through to a small market square, one that’s currently home to an emptied Waitrose unit. Since the supermarket moved to a new site within the town the small square isn’t as bustling as it once was and plans for its redevelopment are doing the rounds. The delightful Dead Parrot cocktail bar, one of the newest additions to the towns food ‘n drink scene, is still standing though and is a draw for fans of a quality beverage or two. It’s table service here and the staff know their drinks but it’s quirky too and I’ve often thought that it’s like stepping into a scene from Alice in Wonderland laced with a Great Gatsby, 1920’s vibe. Cocktails are the draw here, but fans of artisan beers are catered for with an ever changing lineup of new brews from the fridge. Before M&S got in on the act, I’m sure these guys were the first in town to stock the likes of Siren and Fourpure. I’ve often stepped out of The Dead Parrot with some tuneful 20’s swing on loop in my head, no bad thing, but if that’s not the vibe I’m after then there’s a pub nearby that I’ve come to feel at home in.
Stepping out of the cocktail bar and heading toward the opposite side of the square, a meander to the right and onward along Stan’s Way I can drop down past Michelin Starred restaurant Tristan, not without a few key beers in the fridge there either, and end up on East Street, with Wabi to my left and Beer Essentials bang opposite. The former is a contemporary Japanese restaurant and cocktail bar, the Mushroom Hoba Yaki just one of the many items on the beautiful menu that I’d happily sell my soul for, and when it comes to beer these guys have got Kagua sitting in the fridge. It’s a rare-ish beer that isn’t seen much around these parts and designed to pair with Japanese foods but damn near perfect as a drink to sip in its own right if you just wanna pull up a bar stool.
I’ve grown up in this town, never left, and thirty odd years in the same place means you see some changes, and in the case of my hometown, the changes have been for the better. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement, of course there is, there always is, but it’s a hell of a lot more accommodating than it was. Or maybe I’ve just been maturing with it, my priorities changing as I go. Thing is, this charming market town with it’s history and character is going through a few new face-lifts, who knows what it’ll end up looking like or whether it’s charm factor can survive the works. It may just wake up with a few bad scars and years of regret. I hope not. Whilst there’s still a contingent in the town that want to see more fast fashion outlets (let’s say, the Primark crowd), there’s already a healthy balance, I think, between the markets, the high-street clothing stores, the eateries, franchises and the small independents. There’s a lot going on here, something for everyone, and if all you wanna do is window shop, well go ahead, there’s plenty of ‘nice’ to look at.
Sitting two doors down from Wabi is Beer Essentials, where a peek through the window is never enough, as the gleaming cans and bottles wink from within. Push the door in and the old door bell inside trills to sound your arrival at the best beer selection in town, as the aromas of the wooden fixtures mingle with the combined scents of the day’s cask beers lined up to the right you can’t help but fall for the small space and you know from the off, you won’t be leaving empty handed. A chalkboard menu delivers the info required for making the decision to walk away with a cask takeout, alternatively the bottles and cans lined up to the left will leave you wishing you had more hands to carry out the selection on offer. It’s a must- visit when hitting the Sussex town, have a chat with the knowledgeable and friendly proprietor, Gareth, whilst making your decision, sample some of the cask options and takeaway a bit of the Sussex beer scene; beers and info. Over the years this little shop has always provided something new to sample, beer fest tickets to purchase and a friendly welcome, making it a key player in mine and others’ exploration of both the local and the UK beer scene.
Horsham has seen a few pub closures over the years, but generally it has been the pubs with a questionable reputation. Where the aforementioned Wabi now stands used to be the Horse & Groom pub, or rather the Doom & Gloom as it was known by locals. For the most part the pubs that remain have seen investment and improvements made over time, not just to the decor but to the drinks offerings too, where once I got excited that I could pop to ‘spoons for a can or three of Sixpoint, now I’m spoilt for choice and one new pub opening has tempted more than most. The Anchor Tap, also sitting on East Street, has bucked national trend and seen the town gain a new pub, or rather restore a former pub, having once stood as the taproom for the Anchor Hotel which sits around the corner with a Green King badge emblazoned upon its signage. It can be said that The Dark Star run establishment has, in just over a year, made the biggest impact of late to the Horsham drinks scene, by introducing the biggest choice of beers to the town’s enthusiasts. This is a beer drinkers pub, simultaneously modern & classic, with many a conversation about a beer and over a beer. It’s a small space and can be tricky to find room in of an evening, but the squeeze is worth it. There’s nowhere else in town you’ll be able to sample the latest Cloudwater DIPA for example, and it has proven the perfect hangout on a quiet afternoon with a good book and a pint whilst I try to catch up on the APAs and Revelations that my youthful, naive palate shied away from twelve years back.
The Malt Shovel sits just on the edge of the West side of the shopping centre, its easy to cross the road that cuts between the two and leave behind the retail hubub for a break. Some go for the chat at the bar over a pint with other regulars, others go for a summers evening drink on the terrace to the side, many head there for the regular live music events, for me the pull is the homemade mixed bean chilli & side order of chips, but I think most will agree that the main draw is the perfectly kept selection of cask. This is a real ale pub and the beers are always on top form, with a lineup of Sussex and Surrey brews alongside the regularly seen Timothy Taylors Landlord. The fridge also stocks a mix of cans and bottles from local brewers as well as imports with recent favourites from Firebird and Flying Dog. The decor is simple and classic pub; flagstone flooring, massive fireplace, beer and brewery memorabilia, but with a rock sensibility edge; a skeleton overlooks the bar, whilst a bit of musicians memorabilia creeps in to the decor around the ‘stage’ area. It’s not a large pub, but the atmosphere is huge when at capacity and the staff are always welcoming. That chilli though, that’s where it’s at for me, on a late Saturday afternoon, settled into a space that used to be the snug side of the building, or even sat outside on a nice day, and washing the grub down with some cask ales, it’s one of the better ways to see in the early evening.
I used to think Horsham was a bit dull but over the years it has shown that community is still at the heart of what is becoming an increasingly large market town, and it’s the markets that have provided the focus, after all there’s nothing better than food & drink to bring folk together. The weekly farmers market has become a showcase of Sussex street food and local artisans, with a variety of stall holders setting up every Thursday and Saturday, the aromas that flood the Carfax market square draw an increasing number of locals into the town centre every week, whilst the accompanying local musicians help provide the feel-good atmosphere. The community gets together again over the Easter bank holiday for the annual Italian festival, Piazza Italia, which incorporates food & drink with parades of super-cars and music. Other smaller events and festivals fill the towns calendar with a culmination at the end of the summer; The Big Nibble, a district wide, month long event, a celebration of all of the local makers and producers, all the foodies and many local brewers too. This historic market town has taken its heritage and made it a community focus, the markets continue to provide inspiration and celebration and have helped the town become a foodie destination for the county. There’s still a long way to go, the annual events programs could do with a switch-up to keep them from becoming stale, but the foundation is very much there.
In twelve years I’ve seen my town change and my tastes change, and all for the better. It’s all about quality now, and the choice on offer has seen repeat pints of the same brews become a rarity as I now have the chance to explore more styles than ever before and from more establishments. I hope that I can say in another twelve years time that even more progress has been made, that even more choice is available, and why shouldn’t I be hopeful? The seed has been sown, people are turned on to good quality produce and craft & artisan are at an all time high, but the peak is yet to come for my hometown and I’m excited to see what happens next.