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Friday, 27 February 2015

Incommunicado



After last weekend’s beery excesses, this weekend looks set to be a pretty quiet one; perhaps even totally abstemious!

I’m off back up to Norfolk, to visit my parents. My mother is still languishing in hospital, although the medics are now looking at arranging some respite care for her, in a more suitable and quieter environment. Dad, with the help of the carers who visit thrice daily, seems to be coping alright.

The main news though is the eldest of my two sisters has flown over from her home in the United States, to spend a few weeks keeping an eye on mum and dad. She will be swapping the sub-zero temperatures, and deep snow, of an Ohio winter, for the more clement, but ever changing early spring of  Norfolk.

I will, of course, do my utmost to drag her down the local pub for a few bevies, as we’ve lots of news and happenings to catch up on. Failing that, I’ll get a few bottles in, and sup them in the peaceful surroundings of my parents’ bungalow.

One final point; there’s no Wi-Fi or other Broadband connection where I’m staying, so I’ll be a little out of touch with what else is going on. Probably not a bad thing??


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Saturday 21st February Part Two: Three Rural Gems



As mentioned in the previous post, last Saturday a party of 24 volunteers who had helped a last October’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, set off by mini-coach to present our longest established local brewery with a well-deserved certificate, after their Green Hop Ale was voted Beer of the Festival.

Waiting for opening time, outside the Queen's Arms
We visited three pubs over the course of the day; ithe Queen’s Arms, where the presentation took place, the Fountain at Cowden, where we had an excellent lunch and finally the classic and unspoilt Rock Inn at Chiddingstone Hoath. What follows is a description of the pubs, in an attempt to wet peoples’ appetites and tempt them into visiting these rural gems.

Described as a rare, rural time-warp pub, the Queen’s Arms at Cowden Pound was built in 1841, and is named after the Queen’s Royal West Kent Regiment. The pub has one of the last remaining totally unspoilt rural public bars dating from the Victorian era and which, apart from the paintwork, has been almost untouched since the end of the nineteenth century. The pub had been in the hands of the same family from 1913 to 2014, with the former landlady, Elsie Maynard taking over in 1973.

Much of the pub’s character was down to Elsie, who was born in the pub and until quite recently, when advancing years and declining health had forced her into a nursing home, had lived there all her life. Her mother had been the licensee before her, when the pub was universally known as “Annie’s”, and I understand that in some quarters it is still referred to as such.

Traditional Public Bar at the Queens Arms
Like many local CAMRA members, and indeed local drinkers, I have my own fond memories of the Queen’s Arms which stretch back many years, so what follows are my own observations of the pub. If you require a more detailed description, then this can be found on CAMRA’s National Inventory Site, along with some excellent photographs.

The Queen’s Arms has two bars; a traditional, no-nonsense public bar, and a larger saloon. The latter was rarely used, as all the activity took place in the public bar, which is on the right as one enters. It was a real old-fashioned public bar, of the sort which only we older drinkers can remember; lino on the floor, a plain wooden bar, an open fire in winter, and just the one draught beer. The latter had changed over the years. When I first knew the pub, it was tied to Whitbread and the beer was the long discontinued and much-missed Fremlins Bitter. After the Fremlins Brewery closed, Flowers Bitter was the replacement, but eventually Elsie ended up selling Adnams Bitter, although there may well have been a period when Brakspears Ordinary was the house beer.

Wot, no lager?
Like I mentioned earlier, there was just the one draught beer dispensed from a bank of three original, ebony-handled beer engines on the counter. Elsie didn’t hold with lager and didn’t sell it. According to legend she associated the beer with the Germans and two World Wars, but the real reason was its higher price compared to cask-ale. Nevertheless, she displayed a sign outside proclaiming “Lager Not Sold Here”; a policy supported at the time by many CAMRA members. Elsie didn’t sell alco-pops either and stocked a very limited range of soft drinks. Bags of crisps were kept in old-fashioned tins behind the bar, but she did provide food of sorts in the form of incredible value-for-money ploughman’s. These consisted of a substantial hunk of cheese, served with door-step thick slices of bread and optional, homemade pickles.

As Elsie’s health declined, the pub was looked after and run by a group of dedicated regulars, who were determined to keep though place as it was for as long as possible. By this stage, opening hours were restricted to weekday evenings, plus Sunday lunchtimes. Elsie would sometimes appear sitting on a stool behind the bar, taking everything in. She was quick-witted with a delightful sense of humour, and was one of the few people I know who spoke with a genuine Kentish accent, rather than the "Estuary English" which has almost totally subsumed the local dialect.

The fact that the Queen’s Arms continued to trade following the time when Elsie first started to find it difficult to manage on her own, right up until when she had to go into a nursing home is due, in no small part, to the dedication of local resident and pub regular, Mary McGlew.  Mary and her team of volunteers were instrumental in keeping the pub going during this period, and without their dedication there is no doubt the Queen’s Arms would have shut a long time ago.

It is interesting to note that Elsie used to baby-sit Mary, when the latter was a small child. Things then turned full circle, with Mary returning the favour and looking after Elsie, in later years, as she became increasingly frail.  Sadly, Mary herself died suddenly, a few weeks ago, following a short illness.  With thanks to Guy Beckett from Larkin’s, for filling me in on this recent part of the pub’s history. For further information, please follow this link to an article published in the local newspaper in 2013, to celebrate the centenary of the Maynard family's stewardship of the pub.

Today the Queen’s Arms is owned by a local businessman who has day jobs so, like the Old House at Ightham Common it is essentially a “hobby pub” Hence it is only open evenings and weekends. Larkin’s beers (Traditional, plus seasonal) have replaced the Adnams, but apart from a spruce-up and some much needed structural work, the pub remains pretty much the same as it’s always been. However, unlike the Old House, new owner Jonathan has plans to make the pub viable without ruining its essential character. I won’t go into these, especially as they were described to me by a third party, but from what I’ve heard they should provide a regular injection of cash which will, in effect, subsidise the running of this classic, unspoilt, time-warp pub.

Fountain at Cowden
As there are no facilities, at present, to prepare food on anything but a very limited scale at the Queen’s Arms, we moved on to the Fountain, in nearby Cowden village. Here our tour organiser and social secretary had arranged for the pub to extend its kitchen opening hours to accommodate us for a pre-booked lunch.

The Fountain is now the only pub in Cowden; a small, unassuming but rather picturesque High-Wealden village. The village’s other pub, the much larger Crown, closed around 10 years ago, and is now a private house. The Fountain is an attractive red-brick building, sited on a bend in the road, and is entered by means of a number of stone steps. Parts of the pub are said to date from the 18th Century, and possibly even earlier. This thriving village community pub is owned by Harvey’s of Lewes, and is one of just a handful of their pubs in West Kent.

A large conservatory has recently been added at the rear of the pub, and this in turn leads to a suntrap garden. The pub’s management had set out sufficient tables in the conservatory in expectation of our visit, so after ordering our beers, we were ushered into this room and shortly after our food began arriving.

A real, proper pie - lunch at the Fountain
I have written about the Fountain before, and have eaten at this excellent Harvey’s pub on a number of occasions. I therefore knew my steak pie (and a proper pie at that), complete with new potatoes and vegetables was going to be just right, and it certainly was. The steak filling was cooked to perfection and just melted in my mouth; as did the excellent pastry casing. To accompany my meal there was some superb Harvey’s Old; the first, and quite possibly the last, I have sampled this season. Also on sale were Harvey’s Sussex Best and IPA.

Shortly after 4.30pm we once again boarded our coach and departed from the Fountain, heading towards our final stop of the day, the Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath. The Rock is an old favourite, and is another example of an unspoilt pub. Situated on high ground to the west of Penshurst, the pub takes it name from one of the striking rocky outcrops nearby. It is believed to date back to 1520 and was at one time an old drover’s inn. Today it remains as a fine example of a 16th century pub, boasting a wealth of original features and a large inglenook fire place.

The entrance and the main bar have a floor of well-worn brick. The bar counter is straight ahead; whilst to the left of the counter is the large fireplace, containing an equally large wood-burning stove. This was certainly chucking out plenty of heat when we arrived at around 5pm. There is also a smaller, and a cosier saloon bar leading off to the right.

Rock, Chiddingstone Hoath
The pub was reasonably full with a mixed bunch of locals and other characters, but we all managed to find our way in, and some even managed to find a seat. A group of us made a bee-line for the fire, whilst others had a go at the Rock’s other attraction, the 100 year old “Ringing the Bull” game. The choice beer-wise was Larkin’s Traditional and Pale, plus Peregrine Porter from Cotleigh Brewery in the West Country. Phil, the landlord, hails from the South-West, so the pub often features Cotleigh beers. I tried the Larkins Pale and the Cotleigh Porter, and can report that both were in fine form.

We left the Rock around 6pm, and boarded our coach for the journey home. The driver dropped the bulk of the party in Tunbridge Wells, and the rest of us, including me, in Tonbridge. A few hardy souls continued on to Wetherspoons, but I had drunk sufficient beer over the course of the day to call time on any more, so made my way home.

The trip reminded me, once again, of how lucky we are to live in such an attractive and picturesque part of the country, and of how blessed we are to still have such fantastic pubs. Do take the opportunity to visit them if you are ever in the area.


Sunday, 22 February 2015

Saturday 21st February Part One: Larkin's Presentation.



The following article is the first of two interrelated posts, both connected with last Saturday’s presentation of a CAMRA certificate for “Beer of the Festival”, to local brewers Larkin’s. The award was for the brewery’s Green Hop Ale, which emerged as the clear and worthy winner, as voted for by punters at last October’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival.

The presentation took place this weekend (21st February), at the unspoilt and National Inventory-listed Queen’s Arms at Cowden Pound. (More about this gem of a pub in the second article). All the volunteers who helped at the festival were invited to the presentation, with a specially chartered mini-coach laid on to transport those volunteers who accepted the invitation to Cowden Pound. The Queen’s Arms was chosen as it is a regular outlet for Larkin’s beers and, given its history and unchanging nature, was considered a fitting place to hold such an event.

The presentation marked a very special day for both Larkin’s and the Queen’s Arms. The latter does not normally open on Saturday lunchtime, but new owner, Jonathan had agreed to do so especially for us. Some of the younger members of the Larkin’s team had been in earlier to get the place ready for us, and had lit the fires in both bars. Most importantly they had racked up several casks of Larkin’s beers to sell alongside the Traditional Ale, which is the pub’s normal tipple.

Waiting for the pub to open
Two dozen of us travelled by mini-coach, and we were joined later by several other members plus, of course, representatives from the brewery along with a compliment of the Queen’s Arms’ regulars. We arrived slightly early, and waited outside in eager anticipation for the pub to open. We were not disappointed by what greeted us, for alongside the award winning Larkin’s Green Hop Ale, were Traditional Ale and Porter, plus the brewery’s new 4.2% Pale.

All the beers were in fine form, and for most of us this was the first opportunity to try the new Pale. It is considerably paler than the other beers in the range, with the exception of the seasonal Platinum Blonde of course, but is well hopped with that distinctive Larkin’s taste. It certainly got the thumbs up from all who tired it, as did the Green Hop Ale. The latter was the last cask of this beer, which was originally brewed back in September last year, at the start of the hop harvest. The brewery had kept a cask back especially for this event, and it was interesting to experience how the beer had mellowed over the last five months. Like most “green hop” beers there was still that layer of hop oils as a reminder of the hop gardens, coating one’s tongue. Excellent stuff!
Award-winning brewers - Chris & Harry 
 The pub was pretty full, and we ended up occupying both bars. Along with the excellent selection of Larkin’s beers, the pub had laid on sausage rolls plus cheese and crackers. The presentation of the certificate took place outside. As the beer buyer for last year’s festival, yours truly ended up presenting the certificate to Harry Dockerty and his young helper Chris. My short and off-the-cuff speech praised Larkin’s for their longevity; the brewery will be celebrating its 30th anniversary later this year. I also mentioned their commitment to brew full-bodied and well-hopped ales in the true Kentish style; a stance which continues to be non-compromising in keeping the tradition of Kentish brewing well and truly alive.

Larkin’s founder and, until very recently, head brewer Bob Dockerty missed the actual presentation due to a spot of car trouble, but turned up a bit later to enjoy the beer and a chat with the assembled guests. It was good to see Bob up and about, enjoying a few of his brewery’s beers, particularly as he underwent major surgery earlier last year.
The award winners with their certificates
 A second presentation also took place that day; this time for the “Cider of the Festival”. This award was won by Oakwood Farm Cider & Perry, of Robertsbridge, East Sussex, and cider-maker Matthew Wilson travelled up specially, along with his family, to be presented with his certificate. Keith Ennis, who was the cider buyer for the festival, did the honours in handing over the certificate.

Our coach party departed around 2.15pm. The pub was getting ready to close, and we were in need of some solid sustenance. This was provided at the Fountain; an excellent Harvey’s pub in nearby Cowden village. Don, our tour organiser, had arranged for the pub to extend its kitchen opening hours in order to accommodate us for a pre-booked lunch, so with our bellies full of beer we departed in search of something to soak it up!

To be continued………………………..

Thursday, 19 February 2015

CAMRA's Legacy?



As a follow on from my recent post about the dwindling active membership within CAMRA, I was going on to write about why over the last five or six years I have become increasingly disillusioned with the campaign. However, not only do I think this would not make good reading, I also feel it would appear very negative, and serve no useful purpose, save that of CAMRA bashing.
 
Now that is something I do not want to do, even though I have recently been accused of doing this. For the record my relationship with the organisation has on the whole been very positive, and the group has contributed towards many good things which have happened to me over the years. For example, membership of CAMRA has helped foster a life-long interest in beer and pubs; both at home and abroad. I have made many good friends through the campaign, and it even played a part in securing my current job. 

However, there is no hiding from the fact that over the past few years I have become increasingly disillusioned with CAMRA and that, combined with personal reasons, prompted my resignation from the committee of my local branch, and the cessation of an active role within the branch. After 30 years, virtually unbroken service, I felt more than entitled to do this, and I have to say that it’s nice just to turn up now on a purely social basis and enjoy a few pints, without having to concern myself with pub inspections, survey forms or other forms of un-necessary  paperwork. For my part, I shan’t mind too much if CAMRA continues to morph into a middle-aged drinking club. This may not be what the National Executive and Head Office have in mind, but apart from the odd brewery tour, or occasional beer festival, that’s what I mainly go along for these days.

Despite my misgivings with the current state of the campaign, there is little doubt that, in many respects, what CAMRA set out to do has largely been achieved. I actually think it has achieved far more in its 40+ years of campaigning than its early members could ever have dreamt of; and by this I mean the explosion of new breweries and the massive upsurge of interest in beer which has spread around the world.

Most importantly though, CAMRA saved cask-conditioned ale (“real ale”), as a style and undoubtedly helped save many of the remaining independent family brewers who were brewing it. Over the course, of the last 40 years there has been quite a lot of fall-out in relation to these survivors; some have fallen by the way-side as victims to corporate greed, poor business decisions (getting out of brewing being the obvious one, and a strategy which has been shown to fail time after time), but others have prospered (think Adnams, Fuller’s, St Austell to name but three). Some have remained more or less where they were, carrying on in the same old time-honoured way (Harvey’s?). A couple have even risen to become national brewers in their own rights, (Greene King, plus Marstons/Wolverhampton & Dudley).

Of equal, if not far greater importance has been the establishment of literally hundreds of new, vibrant, independent and innovative breweries up and down the country. Many of these “new wave” brewers were responsible for re-introducing long lost beer styles, such as porters, Imperial Stouts and Stock Ales, whilst others looked further a field to other brewing nations, such as Belgium and Germany for their inspiration.
There are now 1,285 breweries operating in Britain; one for every 50,000 people and the largest number since the 1930s. In fact the UK now boasts more breweries per head of the population than any other country in the world. What is even more encouraging is that a growing number of these pioneering breweries have now passed to a new generation, ensuring both continuity plus an injection of new blood and fresh ideas. 

Looking further a field, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that drinkers in countries such as the United States and Australia, as well as many other parts of the world, owe CAMRA a huge debt of gratitude for showing them the way forward, and inspiring them to start up new breweries and re-create long-lost beer styles. Obviously, many others played a part in this process, not least of which was the huge contribution of the late and great, pioneering beer-writer Michael Jackson.

Jackson, of course was responsible for defining the majority of the beer styles found in the world today, although since his ground-breaking work, others have added to the original list, and brewers all over the world, but particularly in America, have added styles of their own. (Black IPA, being the obvious example, but an oxymoron if ever there was one!)

Interest in beer today is unparalleled in its long history and the choice of brews and variety of styles has never been greater. No longer is beer seen as the drink of the “lower orders” or the “working man”. Beer can now hold its head high and compete with wine at every level. On price alone, beer wins hands down, as where else can you obtain such a quality and passion-infused drink as beer? The serious beer connoisseur can stock a serious-sized cellar with a selection of the world’s finest beers for a fraction of the cost of doing the same with wine. If you doubt any of this then I suggest you read Evan Rail’s excellent little e-book, “Why Beer Matters”. Beer is often a far better match with food than most wines. Again if you question this then treat yourself to a copy of the ultimate beer and food matching publication, Garrett Oliver’s “The Brewmaster’s Table”.   

CAMRA's four founders, Co. Kerry, Ireland, 1971
For a  moment then, just stop and consider what today’s world of brewing  would be like if those four young friends from the North-West of England hadn’t taken that fateful holiday in Ireland back in 1971. They soon discovered that the choice of beer in the country was so limited that it prompted them into making comparisons with what was going on back home. They realised that the brewing industry in the UK was also moving towards a monopoly situation, so they decided to try and do something about it. Their decision, as they sat in Kruger's Bar in Dunquin, County Kerry, in the far west of Ireland, to form the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale was to have far-reaching implications, which none of them could have foreseen.

As you sit there supping your barrel-aged, Saisson, Imperial Stout, American-style IPA, or just a good old fashioned Pint of Bitter or Maß of Helles,  raise your glass and drink a toast in thanks to the Campaign for Real Ale for not only increasing awareness of the worlds’ classic beer styles, but for encouraging and nurturing an environment which has led to the explosion of interest in the world’s greatest long drink , and the proliferation of the vast choice of different beers which is available to today’s discerning drinker.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man.*



Here’s a more light-hearted post than some of my more recent ones have been.

I was looking through my beer stocks the other day, and amongst the goodies left over from Christmas are a sizeable number of Fuller’s London Porter bottles. I remember taking full advantage of the pre-Christmas offers in both Sainsbury’s and Waitrose where the beer was retailing at three bottles for £5.

I obviously bought more than I thought, but given the cold outside temperatures at present, this is no bad thing. The beer is drinking exceptionally well at the moment, so much so that whilst in our local Sainsbury’s last night, I noticed the offer is being repeated.

I couldn’t resist grabbing another three bottles, even though I had popped into the store for some completely un-related and non-beery items.  Got to grab these bargains while you can, and all that!

 *A pint of plain is your only man" - from the poem "The Workman's Friend", by Flann O'Brien.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Black IPA - Innovative Beer Style or Oxymoron?


M&S Special

I have always been uneasy with both the term and style of Black IPA; a misnomer if ever there was one, and an oxymoron to boot! How can a beer which, according to its name, should be pale at the same time also be black?

Well obviously it can’t, and I think those brewers across the pond, who first came up with this idea back in 2011, have done the world of beer a grave disservice. Black IPA can rightly be described as a gimmick and a definite example of “style over substance”. But hey, wait a minute; no such style exists so let’s invent one.

Now you can just imagine the scene, it’s late at night and a few “over-refreshed” American craft-brewers are sitting in a bar, and quite naturally are discussing beer. Nothing wrong so far, but as the night draws on and the beer continues to flow, our brewers move on to comparing how many different styles of beers they’ve tried, and how this compares with their own portfolios.

One of them mentions the Great American Beer Festival and the 90 odd different styles which are used to categorise, and then judge, beers exhibited at the festival. One brewer then brings the GABF site up on his phone/tablet and they run through the various styles, and sub-styles of beer. Virtually every type of beer imaginable is covered, but wait, one brewer has an idea and after several moments of beer-fuelled discussion they decide to come up with a completely new style.
 
“Be good for business”, says one member of the company. “One in the eye for those stuck-up sticky-beaks running the show”, says another. And so you can see how, without too much imagination, the concept of Black IPA was born. So one brewery’s off-beat idea, conceived in a moment of over-indulgence, is soon copied by other breweries and before long the whole thing snowballs.

It doesn’t take long for the concept to cross the Atlantic, and before you know it, breweries in the UK are falling over themselves to rush out their own Black IPA, and trendy beer-writers are trying to outdo each other by singing its praises. Not one of them has bothered to pause for thought and think, this really is nonsense”. However, it is much more than nonsense, and a classic example of the story of  “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

I’ve tasted a few Black IPA’s and quite frankly they all disappoint. At best they taste like an overly-hopped porter, whilst at worst they resemble nothing more than a stout; and a poor one at that! Here are some notes I made after sampling a couple of different bottles of Black IPA, which I was given for Christmas.

Meantime Greenwich Black IPA 5.7% - This is a beer brewed exclusively for Marks & Spencer. Described on the label as “A rich caramel Black IPA inspired by American craft-beers”, it does what it says on the tin. Not unpleasant at all, but still rather confusing. A good beer, as might be expected from Meantime, and packed full of flavour, but I would have preferred to see it labelled as a porter or a stout.

Collaboration brew from Oddbins
AleChemy Brewing Co & Oddbins No. 3 Black IPA 5.0% - another Black IPA, this time a collaboration brew between AleChemy of Livingston of West Lothian & Oddbins (the off-licence people).

Unpleasantly bitter and harsh-tasting to my palate; probably from the over-use of roasted barley. Jet black in colour, with a thin, pale-yellow head. Not much more I can say about this beer, apart from an unusual and slightly sinister-looking label. Oh, I nearly forgot to add, I won’t be buying it again!

These experiences, combined with those from tasting cask Black IPA in pubs, have been enough to put me off this totally contrived style for life. I doubt whether I am alone in this.

Footnote: take a look at the Great American Beer Festival site here, and the list of beer styles recognised by the organisation. You will find no mention of Black IPA.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Should Have Gone to Specsavers!



This is the second time now that I’ve made the same silly mistake! Earlier this evening I selected a bottle of what I presumed to be Fuller’s London Porter from the rather dark cupboard under the stairs. This is a good place to keep beer, as it remains at a fairly constant temperature, and is of course nice and dark.

I placed the aforementioned bottle out on the back door step, to allow the contents to cool for a time. Then a short while ago, I brought the nicely chilled bottle in doors, cracked the bottle open and began pouring it into my glass. I raised the glass to my lips, only to realise I had not picked a bottle of Porter at all; instead I had selected a bottle of Golden Pride, 8.5% ABV; definitely not the type of beer I want to be drinking when there’s work in the morning!



The trouble is the labels look very similar, and the colour of the strap label around the neck is almost identical. My own silly fault, of course, as I should have been paying more attention, and like I alluded to above, this is not the first time that I’ve made this mistake. The first time was during the Christmas break, when having a bottle of strong ale to get through wasn’t exactly an arduous or unpleasant task. Even so, I consumed the bottle over two days; re-sealing the crown cork as best I could, and keeping the bottle in the fridge.

I’ve attempted to do the same this time, but I could do with one of those hand-held crimpers which home-brew shops used to sell, in order to do the job properly. Unfortunately I’ve now got nothing suitably chilled to take the place of the Golden Pride, so I think a cup of coffee followed by an early night will have to suffice.
 

Footnote: the bottle of Golden Pride is back-lit in the photo, giving it a much lighter appearance than when viewed under normal light. Side by side, the Porter and the Golden Pride really do look very similar!