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Saturday, 13 December 2014

No More "Disgusted - Tunbridge Wells". Pt.One

In my last post I put the blame for my, at times, hermit-like existence on the paucity of decent pubs in my home town of Tonbridge. As I described, there is little, pub-wise, to tempt me out in the evening, so most nights I am at home, stuck in front of the computer with just the odd bottle of beer (decent beer though!), to keep me company. I did say that if I lived in Tunbridge Wells, things would undoubtedly be different, and it is this noticeable difference that I want to explore in this article. With just over four miles separating the two towns, they might just as well be on separate worlds!

Summer evening crowds in Tunbridge Wells
Unlike its near neighbour and the town which it was named after, Tunbridge Wells has an abundance of excellent pubs and bars. Places which will delight the beer drinker and pub lover at every turn. If I lived in the town I certainly would be going out a lot more. I might end up poorer in pocket, but my pub-going and beer drinking experiences would be that much richer; certainly a lot more than they are now!

I’m not sure how this dichotomy came about, but for those readers who are unfamiliar with the town, it’s worth taking a look at Tunbridge Wells and its excellent drinking scene. Royal Tunbridge Wells, to give the town its official title, has a rather snooty, upmarket image; at least in popular folklore. However, the glory days of its late Victorian and Edwardian heyday have long faded, and whilst it remains a pleasant and thriving place, like many towns in the 21st Century, Tunbridge Wells is not without its share of problems. Being slowly choked to death by relentlessly increasing traffic is amongst the foremost of these, and unfortunately there is no easy or quick fix to the curse of the motor car, but leaving this aside let us examine what the town has to offer in the way of decent places to drink.

We’ll assume that the visitor is arriving in the town by train, as this is by far the most sensible, and obviously the only safe and lawful option for anyone intending to enjoy a few beers there. The town’s main station, and indeed now the only mainline option, is the former South Eastern station on Mount Pleasant. Originally known as Tunbridge Wells Central, in order to distinguish it from the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway’s West station, (now home to the Spa Valley Railway Heritage Line), this stop on the London to Hastings line is conveniently situated right in the town centre. The new arrival will therefore have choicer as to which direction to head off in.

I recommend turning left out of the station and ascending the steep and aptly named Mount Pleasant. At the top of the hill continue across the traffic lights in the same direction, until you come to a pedestrianised area known as Fiveways. This is opposite the town’s main shopping centre (Royal Victoria Place) and the pedestrianised precinct in front of it. From here head up via Mount Ephraim Road to the top of London Road, on the edge of the Common, from where you will be rewarded with a view over the town below. You will also have worked up a king-sized thirst, which can be slaked at the excellent and slightly off-beat Sankey's; virtually opposite the defunct former Kent & Sussex hospital, which is now the site of a major new housing development.

Although best known for its highly regarded fish restaurant, the upstairs section of  Sankey's (the one at street level), is actually a thriving and very popular pub. The Sankey family have been in the pub game a long time, and whilst Guy Sankey has now handed over the reins to his son Matthew, he still takes an active interest in the business. Back in the 1960’s, Guy’s father, Dick ran the historic and unspoilt George & Dragon at nearby Speldhurst; a fascinating old building which dates back to the 13th Century. Today, Matthew has expanded the seafood side of the business, with the establishment of a traditional fishmonger, close to the station, and the opening of a champagne and oyster bar in the historic Pantiles area of the town. (More about that later).

Interior Sankey's
To return to Sankey's, the pub boasts one of the best and most extensive collections of old original enamel advertising signs I know of. Several of these were rescued, by Guy, from the late lamented Hole in the Wall; a unique tobacconist-cum-gentleman’s smoking salon which boasted a separate bar hidden behind a curtain at the back of the shop. The pub sadly closed back in the 1980’s, but along with the metal signs, Guy also managed to retrieve a couple of magnificent cut-glass, pub mirrors. These feature downstairs in the restaurant. 

Sankey’s has always has a reputation for good beer, and was almost certainly the first pub in the area to stock a range of imported Belgian and German beers. It also serves cask beers from Goachers and Tonbridge breweries, plus craft keg from Brew Dog, along with various fruit and other speciality beers from Belgium. With open fires in winter, and a south-facing terraced beer garden in summer, Sankey's is deservedly popular amongst discerning drinkers in the town.

Beer selection at Fuggles
Sankey’s is the farthest point north on our crawl, so the visitor now needs to partially re-trace his or her steps and head toward Grosvenor Road. A short cut via Mount Ephraim and Hanover Roads leads in the right direction, towards Fuggles Beer Café, the next stop on the tour. Despite only being open just over a year, Fuggles has quickly established a reputation for offering one of the finest selections of beer in town. Decorated in a minimalist style, with exposed ductwork and RSJ’s in the ceiling, this former shop has up to six cask ales on sale, plus around a dozen craft-keg beers. Tonbridge Copper Nob appears to be the regular “house cask”, with Cristal Pilsner the "house lager". Regular craft offerings include beers from the likes of Beavertown, Burning Sky and Kernel together with a smattering of Belgian beers. At the time of writing Larkins Porter takes pride of place amongst the cask ales. As if the draught beers were not enough, Fuggles boasts around 75 different bottled beers in its fridges, and a draught cider, which varies from time to time, is also available.

Tasting Rack at Fuggles
The discerning spirit drinker is not forgotten either with a range of around 15 gins and 20 whiskies and bourbons; all chosen for their taste, quality and provenance. The food offerings centre around items such as pork pies, scotch eggs, various cured meats (Charcuterie), plus a small, but unrivalled selection of British and Irish cheeses. A selection of sandwiches, supplied fresh daily from Kett’s Kitchen are also available, as are various combinations of cheese, pork products and cured meats. Speaking of combinations, Fuggles offers tasting racks consisting of 3 x 1/3 pt tasters. Owner/manager Alex Greig and his team deserve to be congratulated for opening one of the best beer outlets around, and their boast that “We work with some of the best breweries and brewers our mighty fine Island has to offer along with some of the best Belgian beers we can get our hands on!” is no idle one. Fuggles Beer Café therefore is a definite “must visit” on any beer lover’s list.
JDW's Opera House Tunbridge Wells
Turn left out of Fuggles and head back down towards the station. On your left, before you reach the 1930’s art deco Town Hall, you will hardly fail to notice the ornate exterior of the former Tunbridge Wells Opera House. Now a JDW outlet, still called by its former name, the Opera House is well worth stepping inside for a closer look. Carefully restored to bring out its best and most interesting features, the drinker is given the choice of two bars; one facing the stage and the other, actually on the boards themselves. Standing here and looking back and up at the ornate circle and dress-circle, with their ornate and rather opulent fittings; it is easy to be transported back to the Opera House’s Edwardian heyday, when the stars of the day would perform in front of a packed house. Definitely worth a look in; even if you are not a Wetherspoons fan!
Interior - Opera House

After leaving the Opera House, continue back down Mount Pleasant and past the station towards the High Street and the lower and most historic part of the town. We will break here for the time being, and continue this tour at a later date. 
Footnote: Royal Tunbridge Wells (often shortened to Tunbridge Wells) is a large town in the west of Kent, about 40 miles (64 km) south-east of central London by road, 34.5 miles (55.5 km) by rail. The town is close to the border of the county of East Sussex. It is situated at the northern edge of the High Weald, the sandstone geology of which is exemplified by the rock formations at the Wellington Rocks and High Rocks.

The town came into being as a spa in the Restoration period and had its heyday as a tourist resort under Beau Nash when the Pantiles and its chalybeate spring attracted visitors who wished to take the waters. The town has a population of around 56,500 and is the administrative centre of Tunbridge Wells Borough.

In the United Kingdom Royal Tunbridge Wells has a reputation as being the archetypal conservative "Middle England" town, a stereotype that is typified by the fictional letter-writer "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells". Source- Wikipedia.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

I Need To Get Out More??

“I need to get out more.” I reached that conclusion a few Thursday’s ago, when I attended the “Meet the Brewer” evening at a local pub. I also came to the same conclusion after going along to my local CAMRA Branch’s AGM.

OK, Tunbridge Wells Constitutional Club isn’t really my cup of tea, but meeting up for a drink with friends is and afterwards,  as we sat in the cellar bar at the newly opened Pantiles Tap, I realised this was something I miss, and that I really do need to get out more.

If I lived in Tunbridge Wells, I undoubtedly would, as drinkers in the town really are spoiled for choice in terms of decent beer and equally decent places in which to drink it. Tonbridge is the complete opposite, with an almost complete dearth of decent pubs, and an with most offering a choice between either Harvey’s or  Doombar, there's nothing much to tempt me out.

Alright, that isn’t strictly the case; there are a number of outlets selling Tonbridge Brewery beers now, plus the odd oasis offering something different. I hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with Harvey’s; a beer that has always counted amongst my favourites, but whilst it is easy to handle, with a propensity to drop bright quickly, it is a beer which benefits from a bit of judicious looking after, especially in the cellar department.

Unfortunately, the proposed micro-pub for Tonbridge, seems to have fallen through, thereby dashing hopes there would be somewhere to enjoy a decent pint in the company of sensible and mature adults, away from the Sky Sports, karaoke and other noisy and unwanted distractions which mar so many of the town’s pubs.

With little in the immediate vicinity to tempt me out, most evenings I’m happy to sit in front of my computer, tapping away at the keyboard, composing my latest blog post. I find it relaxing, and with the added bonus of a glass or two of something decent to drink, it’s not a bad way to spend an evening. However, I do miss human company, and whilst I’m engaging with colleagues all day at work, it’s nice at times to relax in the company of like-minded individuals.

So what about the family, I hear you ask? Well, we all like our own space, with my lovely wife Eileen watching the latest celebrity nonsense on TV downstairs, and son Matthew tapping away on his own computer. With all three of us tied to busy and demanding jobs, and with Matthew not getting home until 7pm, there isn’t a huge amount of the evening left by the time we’ve finished eating and washed up.

Matt and I did venture down to the Punch & Judy with my friend Eric, last Friday; a pub I have written about before. The Punch has changed hands yet again; it’s a popular enough pub, but in recent years it has had a succession of different landlords. I’m not sure whether this is due to high rents, or if the beer tie is too restrictive, but I hope the new incumbents manage to make a go of things and stay a bit longer.

It was busy when we arrived and we had trouble finding a seat, but once settled there was no escaping the overly-loud music blaring from the speakers strategically sited around the pub. Now  much as I like Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones, I don’t want them blasted in my ear at a volume which forces me to stick my head so close to my companions that I'm practically in their faces in order to hear what they’re saying. Equally I don’t want to shout in order to make myself heard!

To be fair, the barman did honour my request to turn the volume down, but it wasn’t by much, and I do question exactly for whose benefit the music was playing? It certainly wasn’t for my benefit or that of my companions, and I expect there were quite a few others in the pub who felt the same. I will go back, but if I find music blasting out like that again I will make a point of walking out.

I do think sometimes that people go into the pub trade with a blinkered idea of what their customers actually want – well I’ve got news for them this customer wants to talk and engage with people and not be subjected to ear-splitting music, karaoke, or having to watch over-paid and under-talented prima donnas kicking a football around, as dished up by Sky Sports!

I seem to have answered my own question, as to why I don’t get out more!!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

A Short Break in Barcelona

After a frenetic spell of blogging towards the end of last month, I’ve gone a bit quiet. There are several reasons for this; the first being I’ve been extremely busy at work, trying to recruit a replacement for a valued member of my staff who has moved on to pastures new. It’s amazing just how time-consuming this process is. The second, of course, is the start of the build up to Christmas; a process which seems to creep up and catch me out every year. Third, and undoubtedly the most important, has been the four day trip to Barcelona which the family and I made just over a week ago.

It was the first time that any of us have visited the Catalan capital, although I did change trains there, as a student late one evening, back in 1975 whilst Inter-Railing around Europe. Like last years pre-Christmas trip to Prague, our travel times were dictated by son Matthew’s work timetable, where the demands of the busiest period in the retailing calendar demand that no personal leave can be taken during December. Consequently a week ago last Thursday saw us boarding an Easy Jet flight from Gatwick in search of some rest and relaxation, and hopefully some sun, in Spain’s second largest city.

We were to be disappointed on the sun front; in fact we had two days of heavy rain, but at least the temperatures remained in the high teens, and on the tourist front we managed to see a fair bit of the city. We also enjoyed some good local food and were able to sample a bit of Catalan life. Being a family trip, beer not surprisingly didn’t figure too high on the agenda, but nevertheless I still managed to track down and sample some good examples of local beer.

BierCab on a rainy Saturday
Just over a year ago, Pencil and Spoon blogger, Mark Dredge, wrote an excellent piece on the craft beer scene in Barcelona, but during the rather hectic build-up to our departure, I forgot to print off a copy to take with me. Just a day before we left for Spain, whilst doing some online checking, I chanced upon a bar called Bier Cab, which is listed as Number 4 in the world of the top 100 beer bars in the world. The best part though was BierCab was in the same street as out hotel! Fortunately my wife didn’t realise at the time, the pure coincidence of this, otherwise I could have been accused of selecting the hotel purely on its proximity to this bar. After the subject came up earlier today, at our local CAMRA branch Christmas dinner, she has since changed her mind!

Since my return I’ve found that Mark Dredge had included BierCab in his Barcelona Craft Beer Guide, and having now visited the bar I can well understand why. My opportunity to spend a bit of time there came just over a week ago, on a very rainy Barcelona Saturday afternoon. We had spent much of the morning shopping, followed by a brief spot of lunch. We returned to the hotel to dump our respective purchases, and after several hours traipsing around the shops, both Eileen and Matthew were flagging. I informed them of my desire for a stroll up the road in order to pick up a few bottles of Spanish beer, and asked would they miss me dreadfully if I was to do so?  Of course they wouldn’t, so off I went through the steady, but not too heavy rain. There is something about a wet Saturday afternoon, and it doesn’t seem to matter where in the world one experiences it. I was thinking this as I strode the few blocks up to BierCab, a modern-looking bar housed in an equally modern block.
Sitting at the bar
The place has only been open just over a year, but it has quickly established a reputation for itself which has spread far beyond Barcelona itself. Stepping inside, there was a long room with the bar to the left, and a series of tables opposite. These extended to the rear of the room. As I’d read, BierCab boast 30 taps, with an impressive electronic display on the wall behind to inform punters of the choices available, their strength, colour and cost. I joined the handful of other customers sitting at the bar in true Spanish style, and pondered which of the 30 or so beers to order first. Now, I’m a great believer in keeping things local, so whilst there were offerings from the United States, Belgium, Denmark and the UK I looked for the Spanish offerings amongst this impressive selection.

BierCab Bar & Shop
I started with La Pirata Viakrucis; a 5.6% American Pale Ale, which is contract-brewed at Ca l’Arenys - Cervezas Guineu Micro-brewery, in the mountains to the north-west of Barcelona.  This was followed by a glass of Farmer’s Choice; a 7.6% Strong Golden Ale from Naparbier of Pamplona. My final beer was another American-style pale Ale called Mango, which weighed in at 6.0%. This turned out to be the most local beer on sale at BierCab, coming from the Piris Brewery who are based in central Barcelona

Whilst sitting at the bar, enjoying these beers, I indulged myself with a plate of nachos, covered in melted Mexican cheese, to help soak up the rather strong beer. One of the barmen at BierCab was from Nigeria; and hence spoke pretty good English. When he found out I was from England he asked me why I wasn’t drinking the beers from Buxton, Magic Rock and Siren which were on offer. I explained my preference for local beers whilst visiting new places, and I think he sort of got it. Sure, I would have liked to try some of the Mikkeller beers for example, but I know that one day I will visit Copenhagen and get to sample them on their home turf.

Adjoining the BierCab bar is the BierCab Shop. It wasn’t open when I arrived, but I expressed my interest to the manager, and was told it would be opening shortly. The shop looked so new, that I took his words as meaning "it would be opening in a few weeks’ time", but as I turned to leave the manager made a point of coming over and telling me that the shop was now open. It would therefore have been rude not to pop in and check out what was on offer. As in all such places I was spoilt for choice, but I ended up buying a couple of bottles, plus one of the coolest T-shirts I have seen for a long time. The latter was a Naparbier garment, and having now checked out the brewery’s website, I have to say their bottle labels also rank as some of the most stunning and coolest I have come across.

Old Brew-Kettle
To have a top-rated beer bar at one end of the street, could be viewed as coincidence, but to have a brew-pub just five minutes walk in the other direction from our hotel should surely be seen as deliberate influencing our base for the weekend. Again I swear I picked the hotel purely for its central location, its price and its positive reviews and indeed knew nothing about the La Fabrica Moritz just around the corner. The “Moritz Factory” is a brew pub on the Ronda Sant Antoni that occupies the site of the original Moritz Brewery.
Enjoying the atmosphere at La Fabrica Moritz

The Moritz Brewery was founded in 1856 when Louis Moritz Trautmann, who came from the Alsace region of France, brewed his first beer. Just eight years later, in 1864, Moritz constructed a large modern brewery, which became known as the La Fabrica Moritz. Despite winning numerous awards and surviving the Spanish Civil War, the company hit hard times, closing the factory in 1966 and moving production outside Barcelona to Parets del Vallès.  In 1978 Moritz closed completely, but the beer re-emerged in 2004 when descendants of the Moritz family resurrected the brand, which is now brewed under license in Zaragoza. By re-launching the beer they first brewed back in 1856, Moritz have succeeded in making a dent in Estrella's market dominance, and remain a very visible emblem of the "Catalan Cause".
Brewery Shop - La Fabrica Moritz
The old factory building had remained in family hands, and in 2011 underwent a 30 million euro renovation by celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel. Today it houses the company offices, the Moritz Beer Museum, plus a hugely popular restaurant, complete with its own 20 hL micro-brewery. La Fabrica Moritz occupies three floors and covers 4500 m2 in total. In addition to the bar and restaurant there is an attractive Moritz merchandise shop plus a wine bar called "Bar à Vins", where guests have the chance to taste over 400 Calata
n and French wines. A bakery has also been opened recently. 

Two types of un-pasteurized, fresh Moritz beer are produced on site. The standard brew is a 5.4% pale lager; whilst the second, called Epidor, is a 7.2% amber-coloured lager and, of course, I just had to sample them both! Being un-pasteurised and straight from the tanks, both beers were fresh tasting and enjoyable. The Epidor in particular was full-bodied and very moreish. In what I thought an innovative and novel idea, the restaurant sells draught beer by the litre, but it comes to you table in a flip-top, re-sealable bottle, making it ideal for sharing. This is surely something that other brew-pubs and bars could follow. 

Fresh from the tap
With its location in the heart of the city’s university district La Fabrica Moritz is especially popular with students and young people. We visited it three times during the course of our stay; once, in the morning, for breakfast and also on two occasions in the evening. The second of these visits was on our final night in Barcelona, and we had to wait in a queue for a vacant table, such is the bars popularity!

So quite by chance I managed to visit two of Barcelona’s most memorable bars and enjoy some excellent beer and food in both. If you find yourselves in the city, then do give these establishments a try;  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Tesco Single Hopped Kentish Ale

It’s rather ironic that just weeks after blogging, and moaning, about single-hopped beers, I should receive an email from Tesco’s PR people asking if I would like a bottle of their new Single Hopped Kentish Ale to try. Naturally I said yes, but then promptly forgot all about it, until Tuesday, when I arrived back at work after a short, pre-Christmas break in Barcelona; more on that later. Waiting on my desk was a package; oh no, not a customer complaint I thought. (Part of my job involves investigating consumer complaints, and whilst thankfully we don’t get that many, their appearance is never welcome, and certainly not when returning to a full desk load after being away.)

I didn’t have to open the package to realise that, fortunately, it wasn’t a complaint but the bottle of beer I had been promised a week or so previously. So what is Tesco’s Single Hopped Kentish Ale about, and what is the story behind it? Well being lazy, and to save having to type it all out, I will reproduce the press release which accompanied the bottle.

“Tesco has launched a new own-label beer supporting the British Hop Association (BHA). Tesco is the first supermarket to carry the BHA’s logo on its new own-label beer - Single Hopped Kentish Ale – which has been produced in collaboration with UK brewer Shepherd Neame. Following a surge in popularity for US styled craft beers; there has been an increasing reliance on imported hops to the detriment of British produced hops.  The decline has prompted the BHA to contact UK brewers and encourage them to support regional hop growers.”

Ali Capper of the British Hop Association, who is also a hop grower, commented: “The American trend that has led to a worldwide resurgence of interest in craft brewing has been a double-edged sword at home in the UK. The interest in brewing with high quality raw ingredients has helped create jobs in the industry but unfortunately brewers don’t always choose British grown hops. In copying the trend, many British brewers have sought to emulate not only the trend but also the exact beer style. Imports in New World hops have substantially increased in recent years.”

Danielle Jack, Product Development Manager for Beers at Tesco added “Tesco is very proud to be the first major retailer to use the BHA logo on one of our products, helping to raise awareness as well as show support for British hop growers.  It is important that we maintain our British heritage in beer and hop production, highlighting the quality and flavour attributes of home grown hops wherever possible.”

It is brewed using one of the UK’s most famous hops, East Kent Golding and has a “distinct smooth taste with malty undertones, enhanced by uplifting botanical hop notes, a touch of spice and delicate herbal aromas.”

Even before I received this beer I had it in the back of my head that Shepherd Neame were involved in its production. Opening the package and finding the distinctively shaped, clear-glass bottle confirmed my worst fears. Regular readers will be aware that Shep’s are not my favourite brewery, so this was not a good start. However, I was determined to be as objective as possible and give the beer a fair and un-biased review, so here goes.

Amber-red in colour the beer poured without any head. Further more I was unable to detect the “uplifting botanical hop notes, a touch of spice and delicate herbal aromas.” described in the PR release. With a reasonable strength of 4.5%and a pleasant bitter “bite”, I did perhaps feel the beer suffered from the known tendency of Shepherd Neame’s house-yeast to over-attenuate the beer, leaving it rather thin-tasting and lacking in body. Having been brewed by Shep’s the beer is packaged in the inevitable clear-glass bottle. Both Tesco and the British Hop Association need to take this faux-pas up with the brewery, as clear glass is renowned for creating the infamous “skunked” effect, by allowing the unimpeded passage of UV radiation. Shepherd Neame’s Heritage range of beers brewed to old recipes from the brewery archives IS packaged in traditional brown-glass bottles, so there is no reason why the same cannot apply with this new beer. The British Hop Association should also know better; after all the deleterious effects of UV light on hop flavours is well documented.

I don’t wish to sound churlish, but I think it a pity that the people behind this beer didn’t choose a more sympathetic brewer than Shep’s to produce it, but like Marstons, the company are well-known contract brewers, so perhaps the choice of brewers is not entirely surprising. Sorry Tesco, for me, at least, this beer disappoints and fails to deliver on all counts. It will be interesting to see how other beer drinkers react to it, so if you want to give it a try this Single Hopped Kentish Ale is available in Tesco stores priced at £1.89 a bottle.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Seven - Brakspears of Henley-on-Thames

Written for Boak & Bailey's "Beery Long Reads" 29/11/14

Welcome to Henley
At the time of CAMRA’s founding during the early 1970’s, the firm of W.H. Brakspear & Sons plc, owned around 130 pubs in a fairly compact area of the Chilterns and Thames valley. Today, the Brakspear Pub Company is a non-brewing, pub-owning chain, which runs around 140 pubs, spread over a much wider area, so how did this change come about?

To answer that question, we must first travel back to the company’s founding in the late 18th Century, when Robert Brakspear, formed W.H.Brakspear and Sons Brewery in Henley, Oxfordshire in 1779. Robert was formerly the landlord of a coaching inn in Witney, before buying a brewery on the town’s Bell Street. In 1812 he transferred the business to the Thames-side location on New Street. In a quirk of fate, when the Henley Brewery was closed for re-development in 2002, a new site was found back at Wychwood Brewery in Witney for the re-establishment of the historic Brakspear brewing tradition

It is worth noting that the Brakspear family was distantly related to Nicholas Breakspear, who as Pope Adrian IV, was the only Englishman ever to become Pope. His reign was fairly short, lasting from 1154 —1159. Pope Adrian IV used the symbol of a bee on his mitre, the tall tapering headdress worn by senior churchmen, as a reminder of the ‘B’ at the start of his original surname; and a bee remains as the main element of the company’s logo and on their beer labels.
The Old Brewery, Henley

Like many local breweries Brakspear’s slowly expanded over the next two centuries, gradually acquiring pubs in the vicinity of Henley, but also by taking over breweries in Wokingham, Wallingford and Goring. It became a public company in 1896, primarily to raise the capital necessary to buy out its Henley rival, Grey’s Brewery. During the 1960’s Brakspear’s sought the protection of the infamous Whitbread “umbrella” as a means of self-defence against an outside speculator which wanted to buy the company, close the brewery and sell off the pubs. For a decade or so, Whitbread owned around twenty-seven percent of the company, but sold off its holding when it exited brewing. 

On 17 October 2002 the Henley Brewery ceased production and closed. The site was then sold and part of it converted to become an up-market, boutique hotel, as part of the "Hotel du Vin" chain. 'WH Brakspear & Sons Ltd' while retaining ownership of the Brakspear beer brands, licensed the brewing of the beers to Refresh UK, also the owner of Wychwood. After months of looking for a suitable site near Henley (during which time much of the beer was brewed at Burtonwood, Cheshire) production was moved, along with some of the original historic Henley brewing vessels, to Refresh's Wychwood Brewery,  in Witney, West Oxfordshire, also home to Prince Charles' Organic Duchy Originals range and Wychwood's Hobgoblin & Fiddler's Elbow beers. Subsequently, Refresh UK was bought out by the much larger Marston's group, reportedly for c. £10-11 million. 
Brakspears new home at Witney

The now non-brewing Brakspear Pub Company concentrated on maintaining and expanding its growing pub estate,but in November 2006 the company was bought by pub chain JT Davies for £106million. Following the takeover, it was announced that JT Davies' pubs would be re-branded as Brakspears. The new company now runs around 140 pubs, spread over a wide area ranging from Brakspears traditional Thames Valley base, through the southern Home Counties, and into Kent. The number includes around 15 or so pubs within the Greater London area.

My own acquaintance with Brakspears goes back a long way; to the mid 1970's in fact. I had learnt of the company's existence late in 1973 after reading Christopher Hutt's excellent and pioneering book, "The Death of the English Pub". In those days the company's pubs were signed as belonging to the Henley Brewery, rather than Brakspears, and the company had a reputation for brewing some excellent beers. However, it was not until the spring of 1975, during my student days, that I first had the chance to sample them.

Rural R&R at Eashing
I had travelled down from Manchester by train, in the company of my then girlfriend and her friend Mary. Mary happened to be dating my friend Nick who we had arranged to meet up with at Waterloo Station. The plan was to travel to Godalming in Surrey, where Nick's mother, and her partner, owned a small, “weekend cottage”. This was situated in a tiny hamlet called Eashing, roughly halfway between Godalming and Milford. After the hustle and bustle of Manchester, the idea of a long and relaxing weekend in the peace and quiet of the country had a particular appeal to me, having grown up in a small village. 

When we arrived at Waterloo Nick was waiting to greet us beneath the famous clock. He was enthusing over the fact that the nearby Hole in the Wall pub was selling Brakspears, and what's more both the Ordinary and Special Bitters were on tap. I was already familiar with the Hole in the Wall from previous trips to London, and knew it as a pioneering, real-ale free house. As trains to Godalming were fairly frequent, especially at that time on a Friday evening, it was unanimously decided that an adjournment to the Hole in the Wall was a good idea. I was thus able to sample the two Brakspears bitters for the first time.

From memory, both the beers tasted excellent, and it was with some reluctance that we had to leave in order to catch our train. Not long after, Brakspears beers began to make a welcome appearance in the London free-trade; I particularly remember enjoying them at the Tudor Rose free house in Richmond, after moving to the capital in 1978.

In 1980, I was involved with the organisation of the first CAMRA Maidstone Beer Festival. Prior to the event, a friend and I had the envious job of travelling to Henley to collect our order of Brakspears. This was in the days before the existence of beer agencies when it was necessary to collect beer direct from the breweries themselves. On the same trip we also called in at Wethereds in Marlow for the same purpose, but that’s another story.

This was my first visit, since childhood, to the lovely, unspoilt town of Henley-on-Thames. Back then, Henley formed a convenient stopping off point for our family, whilst en route to holidays in Wales. In the mid 1960’s the M4 extended only as far as Maidenhead, so a quick detour to Henley meant that we could enjoy a breakfast picnic down by the Thames, with any leftovers being thrown to the swans. I found, to my delight, that the town had not changed that much, and was still as attractive and appealing as ever.

After calling in at the brewery and loading up our hired van with casks of Brakspears, we set about sampling the beer for ourselves. First port of call was the unspoilt Three Tuns, in the middle of the main street. Here Brakspears Ordinary was sampled, along with their mild; this being the first time that I had tried the latter. Before departing for Marlow, we found our way to another Brakspears pub, the even older Bull Inn. The company's Old Ale was on sale here, so I was able to sample yet another Brakspears beer for the first time.

Three years later, along with a group of friends and fellow CAMRA members, I attended the 1983 CAMRA AGM which was held that year in Reading. As we were travelling in two cars, we arranged to rendezvous for a lunchtime drink before carrying on to Reading. The hostelry chosen was the Crooked Billet on the outskirts of Wokingham. The pub took some finding, but we managed it in the end, and were rewarded by an unspoilt alehouse offering a friendly welcome, good food plus excellent, Brakspears beers.

The Reading AGM afforded several opportunities to enjoy Brakspears Henley Ales. The most memorable, and definitely the most enjoyable, was a visit to another Crooked Billet. This one was situated in the tiny Oxfordshire hamlet of Stoke Row, and was as fine an example of a totally unspoilt country alehouse as one could wish to find. We had read about the unspoilt, time-warp Crooked Billet, so the opportunity of visiting it on the Saturday evening seemed too good to miss. It was well worth the drive through the narrow Oxfordshire lanes, and despite getting lost on a couple of occasions we eventually found ourselves outside the pub shortly after dark.

Crooked Billet - Stoke Row
To say that time had stood still at the Crooked Billet would be an understatement. There was no bar as such, merely a number of rooms leading off from either side of a central corridor. At the far end was a stable type door, the top half of which was open revealing a small, low-ceilinged room where the casks of beer were stillaged. The bottom half of the door was topped by a flat board, which had just sufficient space to stand the drinks on as they were served from the area behind.

We spent a most enjoyable evening in the pub, and had the room nearest the serving area virtually to ourselves. The other two rooms appeared to be the preserve of regular customers, an excellent arrangement all round. The fact that I wasn't driving that night made the evening even better, and towards the end of the session things definitely got a little hazy.

The night in the Crooked Billet, described above, took place over thirty years ago, and even back then, simple country alehouses, were fast becoming an endangered species. I knew that some time ago, the Crooked Billet featured on CAMRA's national inventory of outstanding unspoilt pubs, but wasn’t certain whether it was still trading. Pubs listed on the inventory are national treasures, and are ones which must be protected at all costs.

After checking, I am pleased to report that it is still open, but according to the national inventory, the Crooked Billet now primarily functioning as a restaurant. It is possible to have only a drink at some tables and in the garden. The pub was reported as being run down with a tree growing through the floor and out through the ceiling, weekly takings of just £500  and no hot water, when self-taught chef,  Paul Clerehugh bought it in 1989.

It was to be some time before I next enjoyed a pint of Brakspears. A change of job, plus different domestic circumstances meant that I had precious few opportunities in which to travel. It was not until Whitbread began selling the beer as a “guest ale” during the early 1990’s that I renewed my acquaintance with the company’s beer. It was normally Brakspear’s Ordinary though, rather than the Special that was stocked in local Whitbread houses.

Anglesea  Arms South Kensington
It was during this time that I found myself reflecting on how good Brakspears beers were. I was on a pub crawl around some of London's finest pubs and at my last port of call, the charming and unspoilt Anglesea Arms in South Kensington that I spotted Brakspears Special, nestling amongst the bank of hand pumps. I ordered a pint and, despite having consumed a fair number of other beers that day, was not disappointed with my choice. The beer was a superb blend of malt and hops, with just the right balance between the two. It made a pleasant change as, at the time, it was normally Brakspears Ordinary that was seen on sale in the West Kent area.

At the time I took pleasure in the fact that the taste of both Brakspears beers had not altered over the years. This was in stark contrast to many former favourites which at the time had become mere shadows of their former selves. Boddingtons, Youngers XXPS and King & Barnes were amongst several former, once revered beers that fitted this bill.

During the rest of the 90’s, Brakspears continued to appear as a guest ale in many Whitbread pubs; hardly surprising really considering the stake the latter had in the Henley company, but moving forward into the new century, Brakspears started branching out on their own. This was probably around the time that Whitbread began their exit from brewing following the fallout from the "Beer Orders".

In the autumn of 2001, my wife and I opened our specialist beer shop and a year later managed to secure an account with Brakspears. This was quite a coup as the company were not well represented in Kent at the time. We had already began stocking Brakspears draught beers whenever they appeared on the Beer Seller’s list, but by this time the company had diversified into offering a good range of interesting bottled beers, and these were the items which particularly interested us.

As we were quite small scale at the time, and unable to accept pallet loads of beer, we reached an arrangement with the Brakspear’s free- trade sales rep, whereby he would drop a few cases of bottles off to us when he was in the area. This worked quite well until the autumn of 2002, when the rep turned up looking very ashen-faced to tell us about the changes which would be taking place at Brakspears. The Henley Brewery faced imminent closure, and Brakspears would become a pub-owning company, rather than a vertically integrated brewing company with its own tied estate. The Brakspears brands were to be sold to Refresh UK, who would contract brew the beers elsewhere.

The much missed Special Bitter
So now the story has turned full-circle, and we are back where we started at the beginning of this post. The upshot is Brakspears beers are still brewed; albeit not on the original site, but not that far from it. Much of the original brewing kit was saved, including the famous “double-drop” fermentation vessels, and installed in its new home at the enlarged Wychwood Brewery in Witney. With the emergence of the enlarged Brakspears Pub Company, and the purchase of Refresh UK by national brewing group, Marstons, Brakspears beers are now available to a much larger audience and are sold across a much wider area. Most importantly, the beers still taste as good as they ever did, although it would be good to see Brakspears Special become a regular beer again, rather than just a seasonal.

Starting last September, we’ve prompted four rounds of ‘beerylongreads’ in which we and others aim to produce something longer and more in-depth than usual.The next is scheduled for Saturday 29 November. Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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.