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Monday, 24 November 2014

New Kid on the Block


The Taps at the Pantiles Tap

Just when we all thought the drinking scene in Tunbridge Wells couldn’t get any better, up pops another outlet offering all sorts of beer-related goodies.,

The outlet in question is the Pantiles Tap which, as its name suggests, is situated in the historic and popular Pantiles area of the town. The “Tap” held a low-key opening last Thursday evening (20th) as proprietor and owner Geoff Wentworth, who I understand used to run a bar in Bexhill, claims to “Have always hated bang flash openings which never work.”

Sited in the former beer cellars of Tunbridge Wells oldest hotel 'The Gloster Tavern', the Grade 2* listed cellars were crying out to be turned into a pub so that's what Geoff and his partner Jo are doing. With 6 cask lines, 6 keg lines and 2 ciders, the pub is going all out to woo local drinkers and beer enthusiasts.

Grade 2 listed buildings come with their own unique list of planning restraints; the main one of which being that should the business close, or decide to move premises, the space it occupies must be restored to its original state. This all seems a bit OTT for some dusty old cellars which had lain un-used for many years. Despite some on-line research, I have been unable to discover anything about the Gloster Hotel; particularly when  it closed and why, but as the buildings above the cellars appear much more modern, I would imagine this subterranean section is all that remains of the original hotel.

I called in on Saturday with some of my West Kent CAMRA colleagues, after the branch AGM. I only had time for a couple of swift beers as I had a ticket to see the multi-talented and incomparable Joan Armatrading at the town’s Assembly Hall later that evening. Joan performed a stunning, solo “Acoustic Set”, which was one of the best concerts I have been to for a long, long time, and it was a privilege to have been there to witness her faultless performance. The following assessment of Tunbridge Wells’ newest watering hole is therefore limited to the hour and a half I spent there on Saturday evening.

Local CAMRA members enjoying their first visit
The Pantiles Tap is partly underground, and with its stripped-back, bare-brick walls, tiled floors and old original fireplaces, reminded a couple of us of an East European bar. I said Prague, even though there are no vaulted ceilings at the “Tap”. A friend said Lithuania, but whatever country one is comparing the place to, there’s no denying the pub has a feel to it which is unique to the area.

As mentioned, the Pantiles Tap has six cask lines and six keg ones, plus two ciders. Geoff was quite happy to show us his cellar, which is behind the bar, at the same level. The cask taps are “gas-assisted”, which presumably is some form of “top-pressure” system. However, the beer didn’t taste gassy, and certainly not how I remember “top-pressure” beer tasting. The majority of the kegs were "Key-Keg", with one or two of the more traditional variety. It is certainly an interesting set-up, with even a specially adapted cellar door, which takes the cellar temperature down to 13˚C and releases the heat into the bar. (Geoff had to fit this ingenious device, as planning regulations did not permit the more usual heat exchangers to be fitted to the outside of the building!).

 During my short visit the two beers I had were Hardknott Colonial Mayhem and Burning Sky Devils Rest. The latter comes in at 7.0%, so I just had a swift half. According to the brewery website, the Hardknott beer is 8.1%, but I’m pretty certain the pint I had was around the 4% mark. I assume that the bottled and draught versions are brewed to different strengths, but would be grateful if someone could enlighten me further.
 
So here, in a nutshell, are my first, highly favourable impressions of the Pantiles Tap. I know I will be making a return visit in the not too distant future, but in the meantime would like to wish Geoff and Jo every success with their new venture. Apologies for the poor quality photos; they were taken using my phone and the flash tends to bleach out one side of the picture.

The Pantiles Tap doesn’t have a website (yet), so for those who twat, here’s a link to the pub’s Twatter feed.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Let's Be Having Your Glasses!



Amongst a number of interesting points which came up at last week’s “Meet the Brewer” evening at the Vauxhall Inn, Tonbridge was the subject of branded glasses. The pub’s duty manager happened to ask Tonbridge Brewery’s Paul Bournazian if he could supply some branded glasses. Paul replied that he could, but asked what had happened to the ones the brewery has supplied earlier in the year. “All gone”, was the manager’s reply, at which point, in my naivety, I asked if this was due to breakage? “No, they were all pinched”, was our host’s response, "and they vanished fairly quickly!"

I hadn’t realised this was a growing problem for many pubs; something exasperated by the rise of glasses branded specifically for different brewer’s beers. According to the Vauxhall’s manager, the problem initially started with lager glasses, such as Stella, which were amongst the first beer glasses to be branded and promoted in this way. Now most ale brewers also produce glasses, emblazoned with their logo, as a means of promoting their beers.

I thought back to my student days when, whilst it wasn’t uncommon for the odd glass or two to find its way back to our lodgings after a night in the pub, the theft of glasses was on the whole, pretty minimal. After all, most drinking back then was done in pubs, and the only time students would drink in their accommodation would be if they were hosting a party.

Now the problem appears much more widespread, with attractively styled, branded glasses disappearing from pubs, on a regular basis. Glass theft is much more of a problem in summer, when people are drinking outside, and it is easier to sneak the glass into a bag, and then drive off with it. Presumably, branded glasses appeal sufficiently to certain drinkers so as to make them want to pinch them.

Some drinks manufacturers are resorting to desperate measures, as this national newspaper article shows, but fitting tags which douse customers in ink, if they take them beyond the confines of the pub or bar, does seem pretty extreme and could, potentially, leave bar owners open to claims for damages.

The use of branded glasses is obviously much more widespread on the continent, with Belgium being the ultimate example where for every beer there is the right glass to drink it from. (Note: it must be a nightmare running a bar in Belgium!). However, the spread of the branded glass across to this side of the Channel is one which should be welcomed, as nothing sets a beer off properly than serving it in the correct glass. If that glass is further enhanced with the name of the brewer whose beer the customer is drinking, then so much the better!

At a time when we are trying to educate people about the finer points of beer appreciation, rather than just necking the stuff straight out of the bottle, the correct glassware can make all the difference. It would therefore be a real backward step if pubs were to move back to plain glasses, just because a few light fingered individuals want to half-inch the branded ones!

It would be interesting to hear from brewers and licensees about how extensive they feel theft of glassware, from pubs and bars, really is.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Meet the Brewer



As it is only five minutes walk from where I live, I popped along to the Vauxhall Inn last night in order to attend a “Meet the Brewer” evening. The event was organised by local boys, Tonbridge Brewery in order to promote their beers and to help people learn a bit more about all the things which go into the brewing of a good pint.

Tonbridge Brewery was established in March 2010 by Paul Bournazian in an outbuilding adjacent to his home in Capel, just outside Tonbridge. Starting with a 4 BBl plant, the company rapidly expanded and by April 2013 had outgrown its original home. This precipitated a move to new premises in nearby East Peckham, where a 12 BBL plant was installed.

The company’s aim is to produce distinctive, high quality ales at competitive prices and provide a great service to its customers. The beers are predominantly brewed with Kent grown hops and a strain of live yeast that originated from the former Barclay Perkins Brewery in Southwark. Tonbridge Brewery believe that this yeast adds individual character and great condition to its beers, which have established an excellent reputation with Kentish drinker; with over 200 pubs and clubs now supplied.
  
When I arrived at the Vauxhall, Paul and his new brewer Dave had their presentation set up on a couple of tables. All that was needed now were some interested customers. I said hello to Paul, who I have known since he first started out, and was introduced to new boy, Dave. Dave has joined from Old Dairy Brewery, where he was one of a team of brewers who helped create the Old Dairy taste and range. He is now getting stuck into Tonbridge’s range of seven cask beers, and will be working closely with Paul to come up with some new and innovative brews.

Laid out in dishes on the tables were examples of different malts and hops, for people to sample or, in the case of the hops, sniff. The only trouble was apart from me, there wasn't anyone else there to try the ingredients! There were obviously people in the pub, but most of them were either lager drinkers, diners or a combination of the two. Undeterred Paul and Dave decided to wait a while, hoping that a few more people would show up.

I later found out that there was a new pub opening in Tunbridge Wells that night and that most of my fellow CAMRA members were over there. I’ll find out this weekend whether or not the pub was offering free drink! That wasn’t the only factor though not working in Paul’s favour, as whilst the pub had advertised the event, they had neglected to display the start time.

Not a very auspicious start, but I nevertheless spent an interesting evening chatting to Paul and Dave, about brewing, different beers, other brewers plus local pubs and their landlords. There were two Tonbridge beers on sale at the bar; the ever popular 3.8% Copper Nob, plus seasonal dark beer, the 4.2% Ebony Moon. The latter is a rich, dark porter hopped with locally-grown Bramling Cross hops. These impart a blackcurrant taste which perfectly complements the roasted malts used in the beer. I stuck on this excellent dark beer all evening; such was its flavour and quality.

Eventually, just as Paul and Dave were thinking of calling it a night, a couple of drinkers who I’d noticed earlier, sharing a bottle of wine, wandered over to see what the table display was all about. Paul talked them through the different hops (five varieties in total), inviting them to “rub and sniff”. The hops ranged from traditional Fuggles and Goldings, through to aromatic newcomer, Citra. In between were newer varieties such as Challenger and First Gold. One fact which surprised me is that Paul sources his Fuggles from the Alsace region of France, as they are virtually impossible to obtain in this country, due to problems with disease.

He then moved on to malts which form both the body and the colour of the beer, with pale, crystal and chocolate malts for us to try, along with roasted barley. I think the two late-comers left suitably impressed and with their beer knowledge enhanced, but it was just a pity there weren’t a few more punters there to share Paul and Dave’s enthusiasm and passion for brewing.

The Vauxhall Inn, which was the venue for the evening, is an enlarged former coaching inn, right on the edge of Tonbridge, on the old LondonHastings road. Today it forms part of the Chef & Brewer chain, although when I first moved to Tonbridge it was a much smaller, and more basic Whitbread pub. I learned from Paul that the pub is allowed to stock quite a range of different ales, including Tonbridge beers, which are sourced through the SIBA scheme. It was pleasant and relaxing there last night, sitting in front of the log-burner in the surroundings of the heavily-beamed, centuries old bar, and at just under £3.60 a pint, it wasn’t too badly priced for the areas either. I shall be making a return visit; especially if there’s more Ebony Moon on tap!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Beer52.com Re-visited



Well those good people at Beer52.com have kindly sent me another case of beers to review. Their most recent selection has seen the company cast its net further a field to encompass countries such as Spain, Sweden and even Iceland, as well as places nearer to home, such as France and Germany.  It’s a real mixed case, with some really interesting beers, so without further ado, here are my thoughts on the eight beers.


Oppigårds Bryggeri – Golden Ale 5.2% - an excellent golden ale from Sweden. Pours nice and clear in the glass, with a loose foamy head. Some aroma from the Cascade hops which are added late in the boil, but these are more prevalent in the taste. Overall an excellent, refreshing beer, with a nice dry bitterness offset by the sweet juicy malt. This beer really hits the spot as far as I am concerned, but as I’m thinking of going there next year, I wonder how much a bottle costs in Sweden?

Meduz Blonde 5.0% - a pale, bottle-conditioned beer from the town of Uzès in the south of France. Top-fermented and un-pasteurised, the brewery claim Meduz beers are specially developed by their Brewmaster in the spirit of Belgian beers and those of Northern France.

Pleasant enough, with some notes of citrus and fresh fruit to add interest to the typically northern French style of this beer.

RedWillow Brewery Wreckless Pale Ale 4.8% -   nicely presented, light-amber coloured, pale ale, from Macclesfield-based RedWillow.  Well-balanced with citrus and other fruit aromas from the Amarillo and Citra hops used in the brew, and these find their way into the taste of the beer in the glass.
An excellent beer; bitter but without being over-powering and with just the right balance between the malt and hops.

Belhaven Brewery Scottish Oat Stout 7.0% - deep, dark and intense, according to the label, and the brewery is right. With intense roasted coffee and dark chocolate notes, this complex beer is ideal for enjoying on a cold autumn evening. The mash includes roasted barley, oats, plus three types of malt, to produce a multi-layered, silky-smooth beer, which is very enjoyable.
 
A turn-up for the books here. Belhaven are brewing giant, Greene King’s Scottish subsidiary, better known for their range of easy drinking, Scottish-style pale ales, than this complex and intense beer; but full marks for coming up with this one. Definitely a beer worthy of wider distribution.

Freigeist Bierkultur Abraxxxas 6.0% a surprisingly good modern interpretation of an old German beer style, known as “Lichtenhainer Weiße”, a smoked sour, wheat beer.

Cloudy, as one would expect from a wheat beer, with hints of smokiness lurking behind the tartness. Surprisingly refreshing, with nothing to suggest this is a six percent beer. Brewed by an off-shoot of Cologne’s experimental brewery, Braustelle, whose mission is to “break the chains of industrial brewing by reviving and updating Germany’s unique and historical beer styles.” They’ve certainly succeeded with this one!

Einstök Icelandic Toasted Porter 6.0% - a first for me, a beer from Iceland! The  Einstök Brewery is situated just 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle and uses  what the brewery describe as some of the purest water on earth to brew this beer.

A real winner, as far as I am concerned; jet black in colour, rich, thick and velvety smooth. Roast notes combine with toffee and rich dark chocolate, to make this excellent bottle-conditioned porter dangerously drinkable.

Barcelona Beer Company Cerdos Voladores 6.0% - described as the company’s rowdiest and most likeable craft beer, this amber coloured pale ale, certainly packs in the hops. Bitter, but with plenty of juicy malt to balance, a beer to enjoy with food, or in the company of friends.

It certainly does what it says on the tin; or should that be bottle! I'm off to Barcelona at the end of the month, so I'll be keeping an eye out for this brewery and its beers.

Ascendancy
Panda Frog Project Ascendancy 7.4% - brewed by the “experimental arm” of Mordue Brewery, and billed as a Belgian Double IPA – Weizen Hybrid, this beer is probably a touch too experimental for my liking!

Pours with virtually no head, and with surprisingly little condition either. This is all the more puzzling, seeing as it is a bottle-conditioned beer Hops are certainly to the fore; both in the aroma and the taste, and there is an underlying tone of fruity sourness. My thoughts are that someone is trying to be just that little bit too clever, and it hasn’t worked; certainly not for me.

It was good to try the beer, and it’s certainly not bad enough to pour away or anything, but one is definitely enough! 

 
With over 16,000 members, Beer52.com is now the world's largest and fastest-growing craft beer community, offering members, each month, a range of different, carefully-selected, small-batch beers from around the world. If you fancy giving the company a try, click on the link here to their website, then enter code BAILEY10. This will get you £10 off your first box, making it £14 instead of £24 for the 8 beers. You will also receive free delivery, plus a copy of the company's new craft beer magazine, 'Ferment'. This 24-page magazine is packed with interesting and informative articles about  craft-beer, as well as containing background information about the beers in your case.

Disclosure: This is the third case of beers I have received from Beer52.com. Like previous reviews I've conducted, this latest one is completely impartial and reflects my true and measured opinions on each of the eight beers sampled.


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Shep's Heritage Beers at Lidl



Discount supermarket, Lidl, have once again come up trumps in the bargain beer stakes. This time it’s two beers from the Shepherd Neame Heritage Range; namely India Pale Ale 6.1% and Double Stout 5.2%. The beers are on sale at just £1.49 each; a saving of 50-60p compared to other supermarkets which stock them.

Not my favourite brewery, of course, but the higher gravities of these two beers, compared to the normal stuff churned out by Sheps, means there’s a lot less chance of the brewery’s rather voracious, house yeast ruining them. (Most Shepherd Neame beers suffer from being too attenuated – fermented right out, leaving virtually no residual sugars, and therefore no body in the finished beer. The result; a thin, very dry and harsh-tasting beer).

I picked up an eight-bottle case of the stout this morning, and am tempted to do the same with a case of the India Pale Ale, before stocks run out. I do sometimes wonder about Sheps and their relationship with Lidl, as the latter often have “one-off” special brews from Sheps on sale by the pallet load. In the main these are beers in the 3.8% bracket, and despite retailing at just 99p a bottle, are not normally worth buying, for reasons stated above.

The two “heritage beers” though are in a different league; reputedly being based on old 19th Century recipes that were recently discovered in the brewery archives. I’m not quite sure how they ended up being discounted in Lidl though, unless the beers have not been selling as well as Shep’s hoped, and they needed to sell them off cheap in order to shift them.

The latter scenario is unlikely though, as the stout at least has plenty of shelf life, with an expiry showing of October 2015. Whatever the reason, if you fancy picking up these beers at a reduced price, then get down to your nearest Lidl.

The illustrations above are pump-clips for the draught versions of these two beers, which are brewed to a lower gravity than their bottled counterparts.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Single-Hop Beers



In a recent post I praised the virtues of “Green-hopped” beer, describing this relatively new phenomenon as one of the most exciting developments of recent years in brewing. Unfortunately green-hopping has been paralleled by a less welcome development, and one which to me seems more of a gimmick than anything else.


I am talking about “single-varietal” hop beers, i.e. beers that are bittered with just one variety of hops, rather than the more usual practice of balancing the flavours by using several. I was reminded of this yesterday, whilst browsing the bottled beers on sale in M&S. To my amazement there were five different single variety hop beers on the shelves; each beer being brewed using a different hop variety and by a different brewer.

The hops used are Sovereign, Citra, Brewers Gold (Hallertau), Cascade and Mosaic. The last named hop is a relative newcomer on the scene, following on from Citra and Cascade, which are citrus-flavoured varieties from North America. The brewers concerned are Elgoods, Oakham, Crouch Vale, Castle Rock and Adnams.

Part of the M&S range of single-hop beers
I remember M & S running a promotion on the first four of these beers some 18 months or so ago. My wife bought me a few to try, and with the exception of the Citra beer, I was singularly unimpressed. I would describe them as “one-dimensional”, which is hardly surprising. The established brewing practice has been, for many decades, to brew using a combination of hops; adding some for bitterness and some for aroma. There will also be several additions throughout the boil, with bittering hops added to the copper at the beginning, and aroma hops towards the end.

Single varietal hop beers fly in the face of decades of brewing wisdom, so bearing in mind that the varieties used will either be strong on bitterness or strong on aroma, is it any wonder the resultant beers lack complexity and appear very “one-dimensional”.

I am surprised that these five beers still form part of the M&S range. One of our larger local brewers, Westerham, had a rolling programme a few years ago of brewing a different single varietal hop beer every month. I have to say I was not overly impressed with the ones I tried, and the fact they have all been quietly dropped from the range suggests the drinking public thought the same way about them.

We only have to look to the wine industry in order to see similar parallels. A decade or so ago Chardonnay was all the range, with the chattering classes raving over wines produced from this particular grape variety. Several years later, attention shifted to Pinot Grigio. As I’m no longer involved in the of-licence trade, and I probably drink as much wine in a year than your average Frenchman drinks in a week, I have no idea as to which grape variety is the current “flavour of the month”.

What I do know is that whilst very good wines can be produced from a single grape variety (white Burgundies spring to mind here), such wines are usually at the top end of the market, where a whole host of other factors, such as climate, soil etc (the famous “terroir”), come into play. When bog standard plonk is produced from just one grape variety, the results are often less impressive, although much less so than with single varietal hop beers.

The question to ask then is “What future, if any, for single varietal hop beers?” Are they just a fad, or are they an important tool when it comes to educating the beer drinking public about the different varieties of hops that are now available, and the effects they have on both aroma and flavour?


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Getting the Juices Flowing



“A Moveable Feast” is the title of a series of observations and impressions written by Ernest Hemingway. Published in 1960, the writings look back at Hemingway’s time in Paris, during the years 1921-1926, when he was a young and virtually unknown writer, living in a cold and draughty top-floor garret with his wife and young son.

Hemingway of course, was not the only literary figure living in Paris at this time; he shared the city with such luminaries as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis and Gertrude Stein. “A Moveable Feast” is a fascinating glimpse into a long vanished world; a world of boozy and leisurely lunches and long café nights, of hanging around in bookstores to escape the cold and windswept streets outside and of writing long into the night. “Une Génération Perdue”"a lost generation", was how this group of writers and artists were often referred to, and it is perhaps no surprise to learn that drink, and often rather a lot of drink, played a significant part in the lives of Hemingway and many of his contemporaries.

It might seem shocking to admit, but like the "lost generation", I find my creative juices are at their most abundant after I have had a drink or two. No more than a couple of glasses of beer, otherwise I start losing focus on what I am trying to say, but I sometimes wonder as to why this might be? Is it because, in moderation, alcohol loosens up people’s inhibitions, or are there other reason? Perhaps the drink just helps people relax more, so their minds are not cluttered up with everyday thoughts. Does it allow them to focus on what they really want to say, rather than having to worry about that un-finished work project, the bills that need  paying or that squeaky garden gate that needs oiling?
 
I’m certain I am not alone in thinking this; neither am I alone in experiencing an upsurge in creativity after a beer or two. Do other Bloggers feel the same, I wonder?

“A Moveable Feast” is  probably my favourite book from one of my favourite writers. It provides a fascinating glimpse into a world that was a mixture of simple pleasures and decadent delights. A world free from political correctness, health and safety and the Nanny State. A world where people were left to get on and live their lives as they saw fit. In short, not just the world of “the lost generation”, but a lost world altogether.