Stow supporter Graham Larkbey; the league’s authority on all things malty

First, a confession. The title of the “Beer Hunter” column in the ‘Stow matchday programme is borrowed from someone far more deserving of the title – the late great Michael Jackson (no, not that one, and not the military one either) who for many years wrote and broadcast learnedly and entertainingly under that monicker about beers from all over the world.

Still, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so it seemed a good title to borrow for a column guiding Forest/Stow fans towards the best pubs on forthcoming Away trips.

When the column started, we were still in the Ryman Isthmian League, which offered a wider and arguably more interesting range of Away destinations than the more modest geographical spread of the Essex Senior League.

Thus it was that we discovered the historic delights of Maldon, an unspoilt riverside town with a number of fine pubs – notably the Blue Boar, dating back to the 14th century with Farmers Ales (now Maldon Brewery) brewed behind the pub.

Just as well the town didn’t then boast the several micropubs it has now, or we might never have got to the game. Another similar trip was the long hike out east to Lowestoft where we discovered the wonderfully characterful Triangle Tavern, the home of Green Jack Brewery, whose products we sampled comprehensively both before and after the game. Made up for the expected thumping from a team destined for promotion – and the club bar had Green Jack Trawlerboys on handpump too.

Which leads us to the vexed question of the availability (or not) of decent beer in football club bars.

All too often, all you are confronted with is an uninspiring selection of national fizz products – in one or two cases, not even that.

OK, not every club can aspire to the rarefied heights of the Leyton Orient Supporters Club Bar – simply the best bar in football, full stop – but there is a huge range of good bottled beers around these days, and stewards could at least ensure there are a few of those behind the bar at all times – as indeed is the case at our own Wadham Lodge.

The growing range of “craft keg” beers is another option – and if clubs tried putting on a small cask of real ale from their local brewery on match days, they might well be surprised at the take-up.

So, how is the column put together? Well, it’s a mixture of personal knowledge and painstaking research by the Beer Hunter and his lady assistant, tips from others, and that invaluable online source, CAMRA’s Whatpub website (whatpub.com).

This gives details of every pub in the country, compiled and kept updated by local CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) branches nationwide. Unlike some other pub guides (CAMRA’s strictly-impartial Good Beer Guide isn’t among them), pubs don’t pay to be included, and the descriptions are written by local beer enthusiasts who know the pubs themselves.

Basically, if you’re going anywhere in the country – rural or urban – and want to know where to find a good pub with good beer, check out whatpub.com beforehand and you won’t go far wrong.

So what are the Best Beer Destinations this season in the ESL? As we said earlier, the range isn’t so far-flung as the Ryman was, and the fixture list includes a large dollop of uninspiring beer-desert territory in some of the less appealing parts of East London, but there are still delights to be found.

We’ve already been to Hullbridge, where the cheerfully anarchic Smugglers Den features Rolling Stones mouth-logo urinals and where the Beer Hunter once walked into the bar to find himself surrounded by a full-on toddlers’ party complete with fancy-dress entertainer.

Felixstowe didn’t look too promising pubwise, but the Grosvenor turned out to serve the best pint of Doom Bar we’d tasted for a long time – proof that this all-too-often-average beer can be a winner if kept and served properly.

Stansted has a good number of pubs between the station and the ground, and the fine old town of Saffron Walden is well worth exploring (so the League send us up there on a midweek evening – thanks guys….).

Sawbridgeworth has its own brewery, situated behind the lively Gate pub, which features its products alongside guest ales, and this season’s final away trip, to Southend Manor, offers the chance to revisit Chester’s Bar (formerly the splendidly-named Thames Estuary Automobile Club) and sup a pint while watching the ever-changing skyscape over the estuary.

All of these and more will feature in Beer Hunter columns throughout the season, so keep your eyes on that for full details – and of course hints, suggestions and feedback are always welcome. Cheers!!