Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Three rural pubs on foot

The Sunday before last was the perfect day for a walk out in the early spring Kent countryside. A group of us had been planning a hike for some time, and after agreeing a mutually acceptable date, we decided to attempt a quite ambitious itinerary with a walk which would take in three quite isolated country pubs, situated on high ground to the south and west of Penshurst.

After several weeks of dry weather, the going underfoot was guaranteed to be firm; ideal for walking in fact but, as is often the case at this time of year, there was a cold wind blowing. Undeterred three of us set off from Tonbridge, by train, travelling just the one stop to Leigh station, where we met up with the fourth member of our party who lives in the village.

Penshurst Place - rear view
Once out of the station, we walked along a thankfully short section of a rather narrow road, before, before turning off towards the back of the Penshurst Place estate. After a steady climb, we were rewarded by views across the Medway Valley, with the 14th Century pile that is Penshurst Place below us. This was the first time I have walked round the back of the house, as normally I would follow the cycle path which runs the other side of the big house, so I stopped a couple of times to take some photos.

Old mill-pond
After exiting via the churchyard, we found ourselves in Penshurst village virtually opposite the imposing Leicester Arms pub. We continued through this picturesque village, before taking a lane leading off to the right. This was the beginning of our climb out of the Medway Valley, and I have to say it was a pleasing walk through some very fine looking countryside. We made a slight detour to take a look at an old watermill, sited next to a stream which had been dammed, allowing the water to flow down a narrow channel in order to power a long vanished water-wheel. The former mill and the surrounding oast houses have all now been turned into some very desirable residences for those who can afford such places. In fact posh-looking rustic properties proved to be regular features throughout the duration of our walk.

Interior - Bottle House
Eventually we reached Smart’s Hill; an isolated and quite spread-out hamlet where we found ourselves at the Bottle House, which is the higher of the settlement’s two pubs. The Bottle House looks like it was once a row of cottages and this is indeed the case. The cottages date back to the late 16th Century, but were knocked through to form the present pub, quite a few years ago. Nowadays the Bottle House is very much a food-oriented establishment, but much to our delight it still caters for walkers.

Bottle House - Smart's Hill
We were met at the pub, by our friends Jon and Claire, who had driven over from Hadlow to meet up with us and to enjoy a meal there. Fortunately they had managed to grab a table, as not long after our arrival, the pub really began filling up, both with families out for a spot of Sunday lunch, and with groups of walkers like us. The latter had to make do with sitting outside, but we were nice and cosy and out of the wind, indoors.

Spotted Dog - Smart's Hill
The Bottle House had two cask beers on; Larkin’s Traditional and Westerham Spirit of Kent. Unfortunately the latter beer was not up to scratch so the two of us who had ordered it swapped it for Larkin’s Trad. We decided to just have the one beer there, before walking down the hill to the Spotted Dog; Smart’s Hill’s other pub. It was here that Claire departed; leaving husband Jon to don his walking boots and accompany us on the rest of the walk.

The Spotted Dog is a lovely old pub which I have written about several times before. It clings to the side of the hill over-looking the previous visit back in January, was crowded out with diners enjoying their Sunday lunch.
Medway Valley, in one of the most picturesque setting imaginable. It has been a pub for many years and has had its share of ups and downs. It is definitely on the up at present, and like on my

We knew we would have to sit outside, and for that reason decided we would only stay for the one pint, but the sight and, as it subsequently proved, the quality of the Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale, was sufficient to persuade us other wise. It is unusual to see this excellent dark ale on sale so late in the season, and as it is a favourite beer of many of us, we needed little persuading to stay for a second pint.

The terrace at the front of the pub where we deposited ourselves was fortunately sheltered form the wind, and as if to add to our sense of well-being the sun even broke through on a couple of occasions. We all thoroughly enjoyed the Old Ale, and although one member of our party wanted to stay for a third, we persuaded him otherwise, as the rest of us were keen to visit the Rock; the third pub on our itinerary, and one which has recently changed hands.

We re-traced our steps back up towards the Bottle House, turning into the lane which runs in front of the pub. We then skirted a very expensive looking property, complete with a swimming pool in the garden. At this stage we were right on top of a ridge, at probably one of the highest points of our journey. It therefore seemed a shame as the path began to descend, taking us across the road we had walked up earlier and down into a valley, flanked on one side by woodland.

Spring flowers
From then on it was a question of up hill and down dale, as we headed roughly northwards towards the hamlet of Chiddingstone Hoath and the Rock Inn. I must say that this leg of the journey took quite a lot longer than I had originally anticipated, but the attractive countryside, and the equally attractive properties we passed en route, made this extra walking all the more worthwhile.

It’s at least a couple of years since I last set foot inside the Rock; a real basic country pub, which started life as a drovers’ inn. My companions and I were aware that it had changed owners at the beginning of January, but as we knew that the new incumbents had previously run the highly successful Huntsman at Eridge, we knew the Rock would be in capable hands.

Rock - Chiddingstone Hoath
We didn’t really get the chance to find out, as when we found the pub absolutely rammed when we arrived. We soon discovered that a local resident had died recently, and the pub was holding a wake in his honour. We managed to squeeze our way through to the bar, avoiding stepping over the large number of dogs hanging around their owners feet.

To our delight, there were three Larkin’s beers available; Traditional, Pale and, rather surprisingly in view of the season, the brewery’s Green Hop Ale. Unfortunately the latter ran out shortly before I was served, although I am pleased to report that the Pale was excellent. Pale is a relatively new comer to the Larkin’s portfolio, and at 4.0% it is both stronger than the more common Traditional, and also more strongly hopped.

Welcome sign at the Rock
Given the crowded nature of the pub, we decided to take our drinks outside, despite the combined effect of the drop in temperature and the increase in the wind. It was here that we noticed the first of several alterations that the new owners had made, as some rustic, bench-style seating has been installed at the front of the pub, adjacent to the entrance. We also had a look around the back of the pub, where the formerly little-used garden is in the process of being transformed into an attractive and sheltered outdoor drinking area. A new patio has already been laid, and the centre area has been levelled off ready for new turf to be laid. I understand that improvements are being made to the kitchen as well.

We got chatting to a few of the locals, including Guy who works for Larkin’s, handling both their sales and office work. The consensus seems to be that the new owners have been a hit with the Rock’s regulars, and that apart from the aforementioned improvements, there a re no plans to alter the essential character of the pub in any way.

This is good news, as the Rock’s bare brick floor, its large wood-burning stove and the unusual “Ringing the Bull” game, are part and parcel of what gives this pub its unique character. The locals, of course, along with their dogs, also contribute much as well, and they are a real mix of proper country folk along with perhaps some of the more moneyed folk who live locally, but enjoy  letting their hair down.

Much as though we would have liked to stay for another pint (the Pale was exceptionally good), the trains back to Tonbridge only run hourly. The fact that it would take at least 40 minutes to walk back to the nearest station, at Chiddingstone Causeway, meant that some careful planning was required and decisions to be made.

We took the sensible option which was to drink up and head for the station, as to have waited for the next train would mean walking back in the dark; not a good idea when the final section of the journey would be across country. Fortunately the route was nearly all down hill and fortunate too that I work at Chiddingstone Causeway and know the surrounding countryside quite well, due to my regular lunchtime walks. Even so we only had five minutes to spare before the train arrived.

Back in Tonbridge I still had an uphill walk of just under a mile, from the station to my house. I had been tracking our walk by means of an App on my phone, and this combined with the walk down to the station and back, added up to a 10 mile hike. I was certainly glad to take my boots off when I arrived home, and was also glad of the rather tasty paella my wife had cooked for our tea.

So quite an ambitious walk through some exceptional countryside, and three excellent rural pubs visited. The two pubs at Smart’s Hill are obvious food destination pubs, so it was hardly surprising to find them both busy. Sunday lunchtime might not have been the ideal time for four casual drinkers to visit, but the day fitted in well with what other commitments we all might have had. The Rock is a law unto itself, as whilst it does serve food it really is a place to enjoy some excellent, locally-brewed beers in the company of some characterful locals. Ideally I would like to do the walk again, but during the middle of the week, when things are likely to be quieter, and there would be a better chance of experiencing the true character of these three rural gems.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Five days in Cologne

To all those who think that a week away helping to staff your company’s stand at a trade fair, is a bit of a jolly, please think again. I’m not after sympathy, because I thoroughly enjoyed the last five days in Cologne, but it was hard work and, for those of us not used to standing for long periods, gruelling on the feet.

The International Dental Show (IDS), is the largest event in the world which is dedicated to dentistry. It takes place every two years, and the last show (2015), attracted over 138,000 visitors. I would imagine there were even more people attending this year’s show, but the official figures are yet to be released.

The show takes place at Köln Messe; a large complex of inter-linked exhibition halls, on the eastern bank of the River Rhine. My four colleagues and I stayed at a family-run hotel which is just five minutes walk from Cologne’s main station. Our company has used this particular hotel for the past four shows, so the owners know us pretty well, and we have a good relationship with them.

We chose the hotel originally, for its convenient location, and the fact that a brisk 30 minute walk, past the station and across the Rhine via the footway which runs parallel to the railway over the river (Hohenzollernbrücke), sees us at Köln Messe, and at our stand in the largest of the six halls used for the exhibition. Of course, it is the same route march back, and after a nine hour day spent on one’s feet, that is the last thing most people  want.

There is actually an alternative, because the IDS Exhibitors Pass  allows free travel on the Cologne Public Transport Network to the exhibition, but I was the only member of our party to take advantage of this. I normally enjoy a walk, and virtually every lunchtime you will find me out taking the air, whilst strolling through the lovely Kent countryside, but last week in Cologne  I made the fatal flaw of  wearing a new, smart pair of shoes that I’d bought especially for the show, but which hadn’t been broken in.

Ouch! I soon had two painful blisters; one on each heel, just below my Achilles’. Serves me right in a way, but hey-ho that’s enough about me. The point I am trying to make was there was very little free time in which to explore and enjoy all that Cologne has to offer. Apart from Monday, when we arrived in the city, the rest of the evenings were spent either entertaining customers, being entertained at a big party hosted by our parent company, or doing our bit for the UK by attending an event hosted by the Department of Overseas Trade.

There was plenty of Kölsch available at these events, but my previously stated desire to visit Päffgen;  in my opinion, Cologne’s best Kölsch outlet, didn’t even make it off the starting grid. The only traditional pub-cum-brew-house outlet we visited was Früh am Dom; a deceptively large brew-house within sight of Cologne’s vast and impressive cathedral, or Dom. Our original choice of Gaffel am Dom; another similar outlet, closer to the station, was packed out. As one of my colleagues pointed out, there was a football “friendly” between Germany and England that night, but with the somewhat predictable score, I am not sure that was the reason for Gaffel’s popularity.

Instead it was the sheer volumes of people from the Dental Show who were in town that evening in search of some Teutonic hospitality, which was the real reason why we were unable to get a table. We were beginning to think the same thing about  Früh, as we descended further and further into the bowels of this well-know brew-house, when all of a sudden we spied a able large enough for the five of us, and made a grab for it.

I have my Polish colleague to thank for her decision to go for the full-on German experience that night, after the boss allowed her to choose the type of food we should go for. On the previous two evenings we had visited an Argentinean steakhouse and an Italian restaurant, and whilst they were both very good, it seemed a shame to be in Cologne without sampling a little of the local culture and cuisine.

I had been to Früh am Dom on a previous visit to the city, but only for a few quick glasses of Kölsch, so it was good to be sitting at a table, at the far end of the bottom-most beer cellar, enjoying a few glasses of the excellent beer which is still brewed on the premises. Now I’m sure most people know Kölsch is served in small, plain cylindrical glasses, which typically hold just 20 cl of beer; although some outlets will use 30 cl versions. There is a reason for this, as my colleague discovered when she told the waiter she would make her third glass last.

The waiter told her, quite firmly, that Kölsch is a beer designed to be drunk fresh. Leaving a newly poured glass standing for any length of time allows the beer’s condition to dissipate is not conducive to enjoying it at its best; hence the small  glasses. I’m not sure my colleague appreciated this, as she later switched to wine, but the rest of us did. To ensure customers have a fresh glass of beer for as long as they wish to continue drinking, the waiters, who appear to always be male, carry round a circular tray known as a Kranz, which has inserts designed to accommodate up to a dozen glasses, or Stangen.

Kölsch waiters are known as Köbes (a word derived from “Jakobus”), and wear distinctive blue aprons. They have a reputation for being a bit gruff, but our waiter was the total opposite and couldn’t have been more helpful, or more friendly. Food-wise several of us opted for a Mälzerschnitzel; basically a pork escalope coated in breadcrumbs. According to my Polish colleague, Schnitzels are popular in Poland as well, which may partially explain her choice of restaurant. There was an accompanying dish of  Savoy cabbage in cream, mixed with boiled potatoes, which went really well with the meat.

We had around five glasses each of Kölsch, which  equates to a litre. At €1.80 a glass it works out quite expensive, and makes the €7.80 we paid for a litre of beer in the Hofbräuhaus, on our recent trip to Munich, look quite reasonable.

So that was it really so far as a night in an authentic Cologne pub was concerned. I did get to sink a few glasses of Gaffel Kölsch in our hotel and the two other restaurants we ate at, along with Sion Kölsch which seemed to be the default brand at Köln Messe. As I said in my previous post, I will be returning for a fleeting visit to the city in May, as part of a group trip to Düsseldorf. We have a tour booked of the Sünner Brewery, who are independently owned.

So despite appearances to the contrary, our trip was definitely not a jolly, but was nevertheless an enjoyable experience. In summary, I can highly recommend a visit to Cologne; as long as you pick a time when there are no large exhibitions taking place.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Cologne for IDS 2017

I don’t get many opportunities to get out of the office in the course of my job as Laboratory Manager for a company which manufactures dental products, and when I do it’s usually to attend a course or  visit one of our critical suppliers. I was therefore quite pleased the week before last when the boss called me into his office and asked if I would like to go to Cologne, to help man our exhibition stand at the world’s largest dental show.

IDS, or the International Dental Show, takes place every two years, and occupies a number of exhibition halls in Cologne’s massive showground, on the east bank of the River Rhine. My company has exhibited there over the course of the past two decades, and I attended three shows, back in my early days with the company. The policy over the years has been to rotate staff, so that all managers and supervisors get to experience this massive trade show, and to learn what’s new in the world of dentistry.

Obviously there is a core number of essential staff from sales and research & development who attend every show, but a couple of weeks ago, our R&D manager handed in his notice; having found himself a more lucrative role closer to home. Looking for an experienced member of staff to step into the breach, the boss turned to me, and asked if I could cover the whole week.

I of course said yes, and whilst it can get a little tedious being on the stand from 9am to 6pm, there is plenty of opportunity for socialising in the evenings. Our parent company, who are based in Japan, will be sending a contingent over, and we will also be meeting with colleagues from the group’s European sales division, who are based just outside nearby Düsseldorf.

There will also be ample opportunity to enjoy a few “Stanges”; the 20cl glasses which local beer-style, Kölsch is normally served in. Strangely enough I wrote about an English take on Kölsch in my last post, about Truman’s RAW; the company’s new “tank beer”.

Now I’m a little rusty on my Kölsches, particularly as a number of the better known brands are all produced by a group called the Kölner Verbund Bauereien. This group is in turn owned by the Oetker Group; an organisation which started out making baking products, but has now branched into branded food products (pizza anyone?), and also brewing under the auspices of the Radeberger Brewing Group.

If time allows I would like to re-visit Päffgen, who are Cologne’s smallest Kölsch brewery, supplying their beer to just two outlets; one of which is the pub in front of the brewery. I last visited Päffgen in 2009, and before that in 1975 when I stopped over in the city during my Interrail trip, which I wrote about recently.

Päffgen is a very traditional brewery, and the beer is still supplied in and served out of wooden casks. It is also hoppier than many of the more mainstream Kölsches. The pub is also pretty basic, and doesn’t seem to have changed much over the past three decades.

It would be good to re-visit Päffgen, but as I said above, only if time allows, and looking at our itinerary, we have a pretty packed schedule of meetings both during the show, and in a couple of the evenings. However, I won’t be too disappointed if I don’t make it to this historic brew-pub, as I will be back in Cologne, albeit briefly, in May, when my son and I will be joining a group of CAMRA members from Maidstone, on a four day excursion to Düsseldorf. Our stay in the Rhineland area includes a day in Cologne, and I’m pretty certain the group will want to visit Päffgen.

Unlike previous visits to IDS, when people either drove, or flew to Cologne, this year we will be travelling by train; taking advantage of the fast cross-border trains which link Brussels to Cologne. With fast Eurostar connections from Ebbsfleet to the Belgian capital, this should be a more relaxing way to travel.

I will let you know whether or not this is the case when I get back, and will also report on any bars or beers of interest I come across.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Truman's in the RAW

Last week I was invited to a function held at a West London pub. The event was a beer and food pairing designed to introduce people to RAW; a  new “tank lager" from Truman’s Brewery. The function  took place at the Eagle, in Ladbroke Grove; a pub which has only been open a few weeks in its present guise. It was chosen as a suitable place to launch the new Truman’s beer, as it was originally a Truman’s pub. This was back in the day when the Black Eagle Brewery of Truman, Hanbury & Buxton, in London’s East-End, was one of the largest in the world.

The original Truman brewery, at Brick Lane in Spitalfields was founded in 1666. It grew steadily and during the 18th Century, under the management of Benjamin Truman, it underwent a period of rapid expansion, driven by an almost insatiable demand for porter, to become one of the largest brewers in London. This growth continued into and throughout the 19th Century with the expansion of the brewery and the enlargement of the company’s pub estate. In 1873, Truman’s purchased the Philips Brewery in Burton-on-Trent and became, for a while, the largest brewery in the world.

Truman's "tank system" - at the Eagle
Things changed during the 20th Century, not just for Truman’s but for many other similar-sized breweries. The deprivations of two world wars, followed  by the rise of lager, competition from cheaper foreign imports and the unprecedented  consolidation of some of the biggest names in British brewing through mergers and acquisitions.

Truman’s managed to avoid these destructive forces for quite some time, so much so that by the end of the 1960’s they were the last major independent brewery left in London. Unfortunately this happy situation did not continue into the next decade, because in 1971 Truman's became the centre of a bidding war between hotels group Grand Metropolitan and Watney Mann. Grand Metropolitan eventually emerged as winners and then immediately turned their attention to Watney Mann. After taking over the latter, Grand Metropolitan merged the company with Truman's, and from then on the company’s fortunes declined rapidly. Despite a series of management restructures and a major re-branding, Truman’s continued to go downhill, and in 1989 the inevitable closure of the brewery was announced.

And there the Truman’s story would have finished, were it not for the efforts of two local beer enthusiasts, James Morgan and Michael-George Hemus who, in 2010, purchased the Truman’s name from Scottish and Newcastle, thereby re-established this much loved London brewery. The two partners based the brewery’s revival on the principals that had made the original Truman’s great; starting with making great beer and having a profound respect for pubs and pub culture.

After trialling various test brews, under contract at both Everards and Nethergate breweries, a new brewery in Hackney Wick was completed in August 2013. The brewery officially opened a month later and Truman's beer once more rolled out of the East End to be gratefully received by a number of discerning London pubs.

Eagle- upstairs dining room
The Eagle is one such pub, and its owners, Hippo Inns, were pleased to invite a group of beer and food writers along a beer and food pairing evening, designed to highlight both the pub and its food, plus some of the beers from the new Truman’s brewery. As mentioned earlier, the Eagle’s management and senior figures from the brewery, were also keen to show of their “tank lager” installation, designed to serve their “brewery-fresh” RAW lager and the gleaming copper equipment associated with this, was quite apparent in the bar.

The system used is similar to those used by Czech brewers Pilsner Urquell and Budvar, where the beer is contained in a large “bag” within the tank, and dispensed by either gas or air-pressure applied from the outside. This means the beer never comes into contact with either, and therefore remains as fresh as it was when it left the brewery.

A pint of RAW
Upon arrival at the pub, I didn’t go straight in on the RAW, as there were a couple of other Truman beers I wanted to sample. These included Gypsy Queen, an unusual, seasonal pale ale, containing 10% oat meal in the grist, plus Zephyr; a double-hopped pale ale. Both these beers were cask, and it’s encouraging to report that cask accounts for 60-70% of Truman’s output. This sampling took place in the busy ground floor bar; but it wasn’t long before we were all ushered upstairs for a couple of short presentations and the main part of the evening,

Once seated we were give our first taste of RAW, and it is here that the surprise comes, because the 4.5% ABV RAW is a Kölsch -style beer, rather than a true bottom-fermented lager. Now I’m sure many people know that Kölsch is a beer which developed in the city of Cologne. It is a top-fermented beer with a similar bright, straw-yellow hue to other beers brewed from lightly kilned malts, such as Pilsner. Somewhat unusually, Kölsch is warm fermented at around 13 to 21 °C before being cold conditioned at traditional lagering temperatures. Kölsch is also a  product with protected geographical indication, as defined by the Kölsch Konvention; an association of Cologne breweries formed to promote this distinct style of beer.

Kölsch apparently, requires less lagering time than a true, bottom-fermented beer such as a pilsner would. This is good news for breweries such as Truman’s, which have a limited fermentation capacity and maturation facilities. My fellow writers and I certainly enjoyed the beer, which had a malty and slightly sweet taste.

A rather large pork knuckle
We were given a number of “sharing” starters to try, including pork terrine, cheese soufflé and salmon tartare, all of which matched well with the food. Our pre-ordered main courses then arrived. The Eagle describes its menu as “The best of British with a Bavarian twist”, so for this reason I opted for the crispy knuckle of roast pork with fried potato dumplings.

Without wishing to sound churlish, it was actually a roasted ham hock, as later confirmed by the pub’s chef, who gave us a brief talk about the Eagle’s food offering, and the philosophy behind it. There was rather a lot of meat on my knuckle, irrespective of whether it was pork or ham, but fortunately one of my fellow diners helped me out with it. There was also a selection of “sharing” desserts to follow, including mulled pear and apple crumble, with custard plus bitter chocolate fondant with cherry vanilla.

Halfway through the meal, we were given a short presentation from Frazer Timmerman, who is Truman’s Business Development Manager. I have already covered some of the point he told us, but amongst others of interest, is the size of the brew-kit (40 barrels), and the fact that Truman’s only sell their beer within the area bounded by the M25. They are currently looking to treble their fermentation capacity, in order to cope with increased demand for their beers. RAW is currently only being sold in a few “flagship” outlets, of which the Eagle is one. This may be down to the high “up-front” costs of the tank system.

It was an interesting evening, and it was good to meet up with representatives from Truman’s, as well as members of the pub’s team. Special thanks go to event organiser, Kristel Valaydon of KV Communications; and yes Kristel I know I said I would include some of my personal recollections about the original Truman’s beers, but there just wasn’t sufficient space to include it here. I will however, be writing a separate article about Truman’s in my “Old Established Family Brewers of Britain” series, so watch this space.

Finally, as if I didn’t have enough Kölsch -style beer at the presentation, I’m off on business to Cologne on business, this coming Monday, where no doubt, I’ll be able to enjoy a few glasses of the genuine article.

ps, Special thanks to Kristel at KV Communications for the photos.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

All change at the Royal Oak

It’s all change at the helm of the Royal Oak, in Prospect Road, Tunbridge Wells. As I write, current leaseholder and licensee Yvonne Blanche, is off to pastures new and stepping into her shoes is a company called Oak Craft Beer Co. The latter is a joint venture between Adrian Collacott, formerly of the Saint John's Yard pub, and Craig Beeson, chairman of West Kent CAMRA.

Yvonne has run the Royal Oak, which is one of the oldest surviving pubs in Tunbridge Wells, for the past nine years. During this time she has helped turn this 18th century former coaching inn into a real community pub, stocking a varied and constantly changing range of cask ales, as well as holding regular live music evenings, beer festivals and film afternoons. She is also credited with ensuring the pub’s continual survival, because back in September 2013, Yvonne and a band of loyal regulars banded together to secure ACV (Asset of Community Value), status for the Royal Oak.

This new status gave the Royal Oak a number of important safeguards, including allowing the group, Friends of the Royal Oak, and the local Community six months to bid for it should it go on the market. As an aside, this was the first time a piece of legislation under the new Localism Act 2011 - introduced by local MP Greg Clark - had been used in Tunbridge Wells to protect a community building, such as a pub, village hall or school.

The pub’s new owners have exciting plans for their customers and aim to build on the foundations laid down by Yvonne. They released a short statement saying, “they would be focusing on the local community with live music, festivals and themed events. The range of products will also be extended to include a diverse mix of different beers and spirits working, wherever possible, with local suppliers".

West Kent CAMRA Christmas 2014
A spokesman for West Kent CAMRA, told the local press that, “Yvonne had decided it was time to take a well earned sabbatical and try to spoil her feline compatriots a little bit more." He added, "To avoid any possible conflict of interest, Craig will be stepping down from his West Kent CAMRA Branch role either in November this year, or earlier if a replacement member can be appointed to the position. He will continue as an active CAMRA member and in his role as the Spa Valley Railway Beer festival organiser."

This is a time of change, not just for the Royal Oak and its customers, but for West Kent CAMRA as well and, like many branch members, whilst I am obviously pleased at the news, I am saddened at the prospect of losing our new branch chairman. Craig only stepped into the role at last November’s AGM, when there was a real threat to the survival of the branch.

I wrote a post about the dangers posed by a lack of active members and the advancing age of those of us who do still play a role within the branch. With two sons in their early twenties, both of whom have a keen interest in all things beer, Craig seemed the ideal person to be taking the branch forward, and he was actively pursuing a number of different avenues to try and get people more involved.

Photo - courtesy of WhatPub
The branch still has until November’s AGM to find a replacement chairman, but there are no obvious candidates at the moment. I fully understand Craig’s motives for wanting to stand down in order to concentrate fully on his new venture. I also appreciate his desire not to continue as chairman, in order to avoid a potential conflict of interest. I of course, wish him and his business partner Adrian, every success with their Oak Craft Beer Company. Finally, I would like to wish Yvonne every happiness in whatever she decides to do, now she no longer has the problems of running a pub, keeping her awake at night.

The Royal Oak is a traditional pub which dates back to 1735. It is situated on the busy crossroads of Prospect Road, Pembury Road, Bayhall Road and Calverley Road, and as well as offering a friendly welcome, the pub is home to a number of clubs and societies. It is well worth making the 10-15 minutes walk from the town centre, in order to experience it yourself.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Pub of the Year 2017

In one of the closest competitions seen in recent years the 'West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year' has been awarded to Fuggles Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells. Fuggles came top in 3 out of the 5 categories by which contenders are rated, having been highly placed previously, including coming in as runner up last year.

Since opening in November 2013, Fuggles Beer Café has, under the watchful eye of its proprietor and founder Alex Greig, helped transform the local "Beer Scene", particularly in Tunbridge Wells, by serving a wide range of quality cask ales and craft beers. This combined with high standards of customer service and impeccable staff knowledge in relation to the beers, ciders and artisan spirits on offer, makes Fuggles a worthy winner of this award.

The runner up was the Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald; the pub which has won the award for the last three years running. However, licensees Matt & Emma shouldn't be too disappointed at coming second; having set new standards right from the start. If anything, their Runner Up Award in an extremely close competition, only serves to reinforce their ability to maintain them.

For the benefit of local readers, but also for those from other parts of the country who might know the area, the full results for the competition are as follows:

Top Six Pubs - West Kent CAMRA Awards

1. Fuggles, Tunbridge Wells
2. Windmill, Sevenoaks Weald
3. Halfway House, Brenchley
4. Dovecote, Capel
5. Queens Arms, Cowden Pound
6. Crown, Groombridge

Most Improved pub: Toad Rock, Rusthall

Cider Pub of the year: The Pantiles Tap

Club of the year: Constitutional Club, Tunbridge Wells.

Before going any further it's worth mentioning that organising inspections for this type of contest has always proved difficult for the branch; even though West Kent CAMRA has been running a Pub of the Year competition for as long as anyone can remember.

Four years ago I wrote at length about these difficulties, and described how, over the years, various different approaches had been tried; each with their own inherent drawbacks. So after holding postal ballots (remember the good old fashioned Royal Mail?) and mini-bus trips, in recent years the branch has adopted a different approach by asking members to visit all six pubs on the short list, in their own time and under their own steam, and scoring them appropriately.

This too has not been straight forward, and this year the number of participants who managed to get round all six pubs, within the allotted time, did not reach double figures. The branch committee are acutely aware of this and suspect the poor show was due to the many and varying constraints on members’ time. Over the coming year, the branch will be examining suggestions for a more encompassing approach, but I don't think there's an easy answer to this.

None of this of course, should detract from Fuggles well-deserved success, and those of us living in Tonbridge are eagerly anticipating the opening of a branch of Fuggles in the town. Work has already started on converting the old Bonners Carpet shop, at the north end of the High Street, into Fuggles – Tonbridge, with an anticipated opening in early June.

Who knows, perhaps in a few years’ time Tonbridge Fuggles will steal a march on its Tunbridge Wells sibling, and claim the crown for itself?

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Westerham "Tap Takeover" at Old Fire Station

I have written before about Tonbridge’s Old Fire Station, a facility which offers refreshments, beer, and cider along with space for holding communal events. The latter normally take the form of pop-up restaurants where some of the country's finest chefs present their food offerings in the informal surroundings of this atmospheric old building.

The other type of events the Old Fire Station is known for are “Tap Takeovers”, where a local brewery will take over the facilities for a long weekend (typically Thursday – Saturday), in order to showcase its beers. Several breweries have done this during the past 16 months that the OFS has been open to the public, and this weekend it was the turn of Westerham Brewery.

The present Westerham Brewery was established in 2004 by former city-trader, Robert Wicks, thereby bringing brewing back to the historic town of Westerham and reviving memories of the Black Eagle Brewery, which closed in 1965. The sign of Westerham Ales was once a common sight outside many pubs in West Kent, and indeed further afield.  Unfortunately a series of mergers and takeovers led to the closure, and subsequent demolition of the Black Eagle Brewery, which stood on the western side of Westerham, and that would have been the end of the story were it not for the actions of the company’s head brewer.

Following the takeover of the Black Eagle,  first by London-based Taylor Walker in 1948 and then the subsequent takeover of Taylor Walker by Ind Coope in 1959, the head brewer deposited freeze dried samples of the brewery’s yeasts with the National Collection of Yeast Cultures, fearing that they might be lost forever. 50 years later, the current Westerham Brewery acquired the sole rights to these yeast strains from Carlsberg UK, the successors of Ind Coope, and revived these yeast cultures.  

Twelve years on from its formation, Westerham Brewery produces a wide range of respected beers, including a core range of seven cask brands and an equal number of seasonal varieties. A small number of “craft” beers are also produced, which include a couple of lagers. Many of the company’s beers are also available in bottled form. In addition, Westerham have two tied pubs.

Since their inception in 2004, the company has brewed its beers at Grange Farm near Crockham Hill, but in a few weeks time will be moving into a new, purpose-built facility on the edge of Westerham, thereby returning brewing to the town, after a gap of over 50 years.

I am obviously familiar with Westerham Brewery beers, having drunk them in pubs throughout west Kent. I have also visited the brewery, but it was good to see them being showcased at Tonbridge Old Fire Station. There were six cask and three “craft” beers on sale, when I popped in early on Saturday afternoon. The place wasn’t packed, but there were a steady stream of customers- mainly family groups with young children. The staff behind the bar told me the previous two evenings had been busy, and they were expecting a good crowd for the final session, where there would be a selection of meats available, barbecued outside in the yard.

I sampled a couple of the beers; Family Stout - a 4.5% ABV cask beer, based on an original Westerham Brewery recipe from the 1930's, and Bohemian Rhapsody - a 5.0% "craft keg" Pilsner, flavoured with Saaz hops from the Zatec region of the Czech Republic. So one modern beer and one from 70 years ago, and both good in their own right.

As I have written before, the Old Fire Station has proved a hit with local townsfolk, adding variety by presenting quality food and drink to Tonbridge.  In May, the venue will play host to a cider festival, which will form part of the Tonbridge Food & Drink Festival. Watch this space for further details.