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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

I'm sorry Meantime!

I am a big fan of Meantime Brewery, with an appreciation of the company and its beers which goes back many years; so when their PR people sent me a bottle of  IPA 2000 to review, from their “Brewers’ Collection”, I was both flattered and delighted.

IPA 2000 is a limited edition brew of just 1,200 bottles, with each one individually numbered. It is also a big beer in several ways, not least of which is its presentation in a wired corked, 750ml bottle. The other “big” selling point is its 8.0% ABV. 

According to the bottle the beer was brewed to celebrate their 2,000th beer tap; although initially I wasn’t sure what exactly is meant by this rather American sounding term. Apparently it refers to the brewery achieving its 2,000th beer tap listing, although I’m not quite sure how they keep such close tabs on what must be an ever changing market.

So what about the beer itself?  Well unfortunately, in spite of my  high initial expectations, this particular brew doesn’t do it for me at all. The clue lies with the rest of the write up on the back label, as the brewery claim they have combined one of their most traditional styles of beer (Meantime IPA), with Champagne yeast to infuse the beer with a delicate carbonation.

And there in lies the rub, as the label goes on to say that “The complex and fruity flavours of the IPA are allowed to develop and work with the Champagne yeast to give bready notes typically associated with sparkling wines.” Personally, I think the Champagne yeast has worked against the flavours of the IPA and smothered them. So sorry Meantime, this beer really doesn’t do anything for me, and whilst this might have been considered an interesting experiment, it hasn’t worked for me.

I am sure there are many out there who will really rave over this beer, but unfortunately I’m not one of them. This may sound rather churlish, seeing as I was given the beer for free, but I speak as I find, and whilst the beer has obviously been brewed according to the best traditions of Meantime, I am not at all keen on it.

I realise there are all sorts of strange fusions going on at present between the worlds of brewing and wine-making, and I saw plenty of evidence of this in Belgium last year with strong beer being matured in oak barrels formerly used to hold Burgundy wines. To me, these are novelty beers; interesting to try on the odd occasion, especially alongside certain foods, but I know what I like in a beer and feel that using Champagne yeast to ferment this beer muddies the water and detracts from the flavours and aromas one would expect from the malt and the hops.

Sorry Meantime, especially as I’m certain you were expecting a more positive review. That’s probably me off the Christmas card list, or worse and no more invites to new beer launches, but despite this I’ll continue looking out for your more “normal” beers, and more traditional styles, in both the on, as well as the off-trade.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Compass Alehouse - Gravesend

Earlier today, I visited the Compass Alehouse in Gravesend, in the company of my brother-in-law, David who lives in the town. It was only a fleeting visit, but I was impressed with this clean, bright and airy micro-pub, which has only been open for 15 months.

David calls in at the Compass most Thursday lunchtimes, so he knows quite a few of the regulars, as well as the owners. We arrived shortly before 2pm, and whilst there were a few seats left around some of the high tables, we decided to stand. On tap were Dark Star Hophead, Gadds No. 5, Goachers Gold Star and RCH Old Slug Porter. All beers are on gravity dispense, and are served from an impressive array of casks kept in a temperature-controlled room at the rear of the pub.

I stuck with the Dark Star, as I was driving, but David said the Goachers was also good. Not long after we got there, more people began arriving, but everyone moved up and all those who wanted to sit down were able to do so. There was a good atmosphere in the pub, and being in such close proximity we all ended up talking to one another.

From what my brother-in-law was saying, the Compass has attracted a fair bit of local trade, and certainly makes a welcome change from the nearby Wetherspoon’s . I am certainly tempted to make a return visit, although next time I will make sure I arrive by public transport!

Footnote: no interior shots, I’m afraid as not only was the pub rather full, but the use of mobile phones is actively discouraged.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

TJ's Winter Beer Festival Report

The strong ale end of the bar

I popped along to Tonbridge Juddians’ Winter Beer Festival yesterday evening, and spent a very pleasant two and a half hours sampling some of the excellent ales on sale. I bumped into several neighbours and friends; all like-minded souls out to enjoy something a bit different on the beer front and keen to see what the rugby club had on offer.

Like the much larger summer festival, which the club hold in conjunction with SIBA, the winter event has now become a firm fixture on the Tonbridge calendar, with many of the townsfolk looking forward to an occasion which helps chase the winter blues away. There was just the right amount of people in the clubhouse, with enough tables and chairs for those, like myself, who wanted to sit and chat, but with also ample space for those who prefer to do their drinking standing up.

With 24 beers on the programme there was something to suit everyone, ranging from light pale ales and ordinary bitters around the 3.8% ABV level, up to a couple of strong beers at 6.0% ABV. All beers were priced at £3.20 a pint, with purchase being by means of tokens.

I kicked off in the time honoured fashion of starting with something light and low strength, an the form of Redemption Trinity 3.0%, and worked my way on to the dark stuff, finishing with a couple of excellent porters – Brew Buddies Kent Hop Porter, and Five Points Railway Porter, both 4.8% ABV. In between I enjoyed a couple of stronger pale ales, from the same two breweries.

Some of the beers on sale
All the beers were sourced from London brewers, and a chat with TJ’s bar manager, Chris Hardwick, revealed this was quite deliberate. Chris told me that whilst in recent years he had looked to brewers based either in Kent or Sussex, this year he cast his net slightly further afield, towards the big city which encroaches on Kent’s north-western corner. Tonbridge is actually closer, in terms of mileage, to the metropolis, than it is to brewers in places such as Thanet, the far east of the county. Five Points Brewing came out tops for me, with both their 4.4% Pale and the aforementioned Railway Porter proving excellent examples of their respective styles.

This was a good choice so far as I am concerned, and most of the people I spoke to seemed in agreement. What was interesting was that three of the breweries Big Smoke, Brew Buddies and Five Points), had supplied beer which was unfined and unfiltered. Mention of this was made in the tasting notes, and there were also signs, plus a picture of a cloud, on the front of each unfined cask reiterating this and stating that the beer might be slightly hazy.

I remarked to both Chris and fellow organiser, Gary that this was a good idea, and from what I could see this extra piece of information was well-received, with few, if any complaints about cloudy beer. Both stated that the cloud pictures were there to help the bar staff as well as the punters, so full marks to all concerned. I will say though that there is a world of difference between a beer which is slightly hazy, because it contains no finings, and a pint of cloudy, yeast-laden beer common in many of the capital’s craft-beer bars, and famously described by fellow blogger, Tandleman as “London Murky”!
As mentioned in my previous post I had things to do on the domestic front today, so was unable to get back down to the festival this afternoon. Reports on social media, from friends who did manage to get along, suggest the festival was busy, but with a good selection of beers still left.

This is all very encouraging, as events like these help bring people together and, as I said earlier, give the townsfolk something to look forward to. Roll on July and the big SIBA Festival!

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Tonbridge Juddians Winter Beer Festival 2016

This coming Friday 5th and Saturday 6th February, sees our local rugby club, Tonbridge Juddians holding their Winter Beer Festival. Unlike last weekend’s Festival of Winter Ales at the Cooper’s Crowborough, the Juddians’ event is a beer festival held during the winter; but there are some dark winter ales included in the line-up.

Deciding that they couldn’t wait until the SIBA Festival returns in July, the rugby club are going ahead with their very own Beer Festival, which will be held in their warm (and dry) clubhouse.  A selection of 24 interesting looking ales, many of which are new to the area,  will be on sale, alongside a number of real ciders and perrys.

The festival kicks off on Friday 5th February at 5pm (until 11pm) and continues on Saturday from 11am to 11pm. All beers are £3.20 per pint (purchase with tokens) and a special souvenir glass has been commissioned for the festival.

Food and soft drinks will be available at all sessions and the Six Nations rugby will be shown on the big screen on Saturday, featuring France v Ireland at 2:30pm and the “big match", Scotland vs England at 5pm. Described as the "perfect antidote to the dark and chilly February blues", if last year’s event is anything to go by this one is certain to be busy.

Regrettably I’ve got other things planned for Saturday, but I’ll be heading down to TJ’s clubhouse on Friday evening. The beer list can be found by clicking on the link here, and I’m sure there will be quite a few here to whet your whistle.

If you are in the area, or fancy some time out in Tonbridge, then why not pop by and join me.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Cooper's Arms 7th Winter Ales Festival

Crowborough's most famous former resident

At 787 ft above sea level, the town of Crowborough is one of the highest points in Sussex.  Alighting from the bus yesterday in the centre of the town, and feeling the rather keen wind blowing through my hair, it certainly felt exposed to the elements, and I was wishing I had worn a thicker coat as well as a hat.

A brisk walk downhill through a residential area of mixed, but mainly quite substantial modern houses, brought my companions and I to the Cooper’s Arms; an attractive 19th Century pub constructed partially from local stone and looking somewhat incongruous amongst the late 20th Century houses and their leafy setting on the flanks of Ashdown Forest.

As mentioned in my previous post, the Cooper’s was holding its annual Winter Ales Festival, now in its seventh year. We arrived at the pub just five minutes before a bus load of around 40 CAMRA members drawn from branches in north Sussex and neighbouring Surrey. Also in our favour, were a small number of other members of our branch who had caught a slightly earlier bus and had managed to secure a table at the far end of the pub.

There were printed beers lists scattered about the pub, but I had already spotted which beer I was going to start with. Gun Brewery Scaramanga EP (Extra Pale), at 3.9% fitted the bill and certainly agreed with the tasting notes. This light straw-coloured, well-hopped pale ale is brewed by Gun Brewery, based at nearby East Grinstead, and was so good that I wished I’d ordered a pint; especially as the thirsty hordes from the bus had now arrived and were milling around the bar.

I decided on another pale beer, before moving on to the dark stuff, and this time I went for Chinook, a 4.1% single-hop ale from Crouch Vale Brewery. This beer was also nice and refreshing, but not quite as good as the EP. Had I drank this one first, then I’m certain I would have enjoyed it more.

Beer list
So then over to the dark side and Burning Sky Porter, a fine rich dark porter with a chocolaty background, and not too strong at 4.8%, was a good one to start with. This was followed by Black Pearl Oyster Stout, a 6.2% strong stout from Eddie Gadd’s Ramsgate Brewery which is was originally brewed for a local sea food restaurant, and which is normally sold in bottle form only.

For many of my companions this was the beer of the festival, but for me that honour went to Old Freddy Walker from Moor Brewery near Bristol. Full-bodied and rich and dark, this 7.3% strong ale had been ageing in cask in the Cooper’s cellar since the beginning of 2015. Priced accordingly, it really was a stunning beer, and I was not the only one to state that it was the best beer of the day.

There was one other beer which I perhaps should have tried. From a pure “missed opportunity” point of view I’m wishing that I had, but I know my body and my lack of a hangover this morning are telling me it was a good job I didn’t. Fuller’s Golden Pride is a strong, (8.5% ABV), barley-wine style beer, sold in bottles. I still have two bottles in the cupboard downstairs, but it’s not often that I want to knock back 500 ml of such a high strength beer.

The beer is only very rarely available in cask, but Cooper’s landlord David managed to persuade Fuller’s Head Brewer, John Keeling to let him have a cask of Golden Pride; in fact the according to the tasting notes, John told David he could have any beer which Fuller’s make, put into cask; “you just have to ask”, were the words quoted. The description of a “high-strength ale, with hints of orange oil and toasted grain, with a big hit of alcohol”, was almost enough to tempt me, but in the end I resisted. All who did try it though described it as excellent.

The bus party left at around 4.30pm, which meant more room in the pub and the chance to reflect on yet another excellent Festival. I had one last beer in the form of the 5.1 % Slow Dark Stout, from local brewers, Pig & Porter. The latter had two beers listed on the festival sheet, but regrettably the 5.7% Cast no Shadow; a chocolate and orange porter was unavailable.

Leaving the pub at dusk
The landlord and his staff at the Cooper’s Arms had once again excelled themselves by putting on an excellent festival. They coped admirably with the 60 plus people who must have been in the pub, making sure everyone was served promptly, and with a fresh glass each time. The mountains of wrapped and pre-prepared cheese and onion rolls at each end of the bar soon vanished, and the kitchen staff were kept busy serving either pasties or Polish sausage and chips.

Some of our party, including me, left the Cooper’s at 5pm; allowing plenty of time to a walk back up to Crowborough Cross for the bus back to Tunbridge Wells. The others remained in the pub awaiting a couple of pre-booked taxis. They were obviously warmer than we were, but I must admit I quite enjoyed the climb back up to the main road.

I stopped off to join some of the others for a quick one, at the Pantiles Tap, back in Tunbridge Wells, but as I was feeling peckish I decided to call it a day and make for home. I annoyingly just missed a bus, and with an hour’s wait for the next one (buses aren’t that frequent on a Saturday evening), I caught the train back to Tonbridge instead. I picked up a chicken shish from the local kebab shop, and after walking back up the hill, I was sat down in front of the fire, enjoying it in the company of my family.

As I have said before, it’s a good job I don’t live in Crowborough as I would be a rather too frequent visitor to the Cooper’s. The pub is currently advertising for kitchen and waiting staff, following an upgrade of the kitchen, but I think that, however good, food will always play second fiddle to the beer at this excellent pub in its delightful setting.
Footnote: Both Gun Brewery and Moor Brewery produce beers which are un-fined, and therefore can sometimes be slightly hazy. Both believe that by not fining their beers they are creating a more natural, and better tasting product. Also, the omission of isinglass finings from the brewing process means the beers are suitable for vegans.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Winter Ales at the Cooper's Arms

Tomorrow (Saturday), I’m off across the border into Sussex, for the Winter Ales Festival at the Cooper’s Arms, Crowborough. I’ve written about this excellent pub on several previous occasions, and I have also been to the Winter Ales Fest before. Unfortunately I missed it last year, due to family reasons, but I can report that the year before’s event was really good.

There will be a party of local West Kent CAMRA members travelling over to Crowborough by bus, and we’ll be meeting up with members from neighbouring Sussex and Surrey branches. Two years ago, these other members arrived by vintage bus, but whether this is the plan this year, remains to be seen.

So far as I can make out, there will be 11 cask ales on sale at the Cooper’s; most, but not all, strong and dark. Gun Brewery (a new one on me), Redemption and Pig & Porter are all supplying two beers each; with the rest coming from Crouch Vale, Dark Star, Fuller’s (cask Golden Pride, no less!), Gadds and Moor Brewery.

It promises to be an interesting day, and I will be publishing a full report in the fullness of time.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

A Brief Taste of Spain

In late November 2014, my family and I enjoyed a short break in Barcelona. Weather-wise we couldn’t have picked a worse time for our trip, as one of the heaviest storms to hit the western Mediterranean had made its way up the coast from Africa, and really hit hard on the third day of our visit.

I have written about the trip here, and my post, of course, majored on the two craft beer establishments we managed to track down. I picked up a few bottles at both these places, but I also bought a few more on the Saturday; which was the second day of our visit. Knowing that nearly all the shops would be closed the following day, we had frantically done our shopping for presents and take-home goodies, and it was in a large Carrefour outlet, on Las Ramblas, that I picked up several more bottles.

I had tried to avoid the more obvious “big brewery” brands; going instead for what, on the surface at least, appeared to be some rather more artisan brews. As you will see later though, not everything is as it first seems and some of these beers turned out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I enjoyed these Spanish/Catalan beers over the course of 2015; eventually finishing the last one last weekend. I had been keeping notes as I went along, and also took a few photos. Here’s what I found, in the order in which I drank them.

Moritz Epidor 7.2% - Amber in colour with a full malty flavour. Deceptive, as doesn’t quite drink to its strength. Attractively packaged, I bought this beer when we visited the Fabrica Moritz, a popular and fashionable brew pub on the Ronda Sant Antoni that occupies the site of the original Moritz Brewery.

Mahou Negra 5.5% - A stylishly packaged, dark, Munich-style lager, full bodied and smooth, and on a par with many Dunkel beers I have drunk in Bavaria. I later discovered that Mahou are part of the San-Miguel Group, so I didn’t spot that one!

Damm Cerveza de Navidad 2014. 6.5%. A strong pale lager, packaged in a 66cl "1876 Original". The label looks interesting as it depicts various hand-written “brewing notes”. The wort had an extract value of 14.6˚, and a colour of 9.0. Brewed solely from water, malted barley and hops, the beer was matured for 3 months and bottled in October 2014. There are some tasting notes, but my Spanish is practically non-existent, so unfortunately I cannot elaborate further.
bottle, embossed with the words

So what does the beer itself taste like? Well there’s little in the way of aroma, and despite its high ABV the beer tastes surprisingly dry. There is probably just the right level of hoppiness for a beer of this strength, although I would like to have seen a higher amount used to make this beer really stand out. However, I can imagine drinking this beer in a Barcelona bar, with a few typically Catalan dishes.

Cruzcampo Gran Reserva 1904 6.4% - This beer doesn’t drink like a 6.4% beer, despite being on the sweet side. Pale amber in colour, with not much in the way of aroma, a closer look at the bottle reveals this is a Heineken-Spain brand from Seville. I have to say, that despite its pedigree, this beer was perfectly pleasant and very quaffable.

Naparbier ZZ + Amber Ale 5.5% - A very lively bottle-conditioned beer, which was 
difficult to pour; so much so that I ended up with a pint glass full of foam. The beer was hazy and very malty tasting, with a background yeastiness. The beer did grow on me after a while, but was still disappointing considering the ornate, Grateful Dead inspired label and the beer’s obvious craft aspirations.

This was one of the beers I bought at Biercab in Barcelona. I noticed that Best before Date was 15/04/15. Today is the 2nd May 2015!

Ambar Export 7.0% - Another beer from Carrefour, described on the bottle as “Double fermented” and brewed using three different malts. The beer is certainly very malty, but not unpleasant. It is amber in colour, as its Spanish name suggests. From what I can make out, it is brewed by Zaragoana SA.

La Pirata Black Bock Imperial Stout 11.2%. I had been saving this beer for some
time as I knew it would be good. It turned out to be a real belter. The keeping qualities of a beer this strength were never in doubt, and the brewery had given my bottle a consume by date of August 2018.

The beer poured thick, black and oily. There were the typical aromas associated with a beer of this strength, such as wood, leather and a number of others which it was difficult to identify. The characteristic Imperial Stout taste of roast malt, burnt toast, and bitter coffee was present, with perhaps just a hint of Brettanomyces lurking in the background.

Cerveses La Pirata are based in of Súria, a town to the north west of Barcelona. From what I can make out, their beers are contract-brewed elsewhere. Regardless of this, their Imperial Stout was excellent, and formed the perfect companion to some strong cheese.

Seven bottles in total, representing a snapshot of some of the beers available in Spain’s second largest city. There were not many true “craft beers” amongst my haul, but it was still an interesting and, on the whole, enjoyable selection. I am off to Barcelona again, in six weeks time; travelling alone on this occasion, just for a long weekend. The reason for my visit is the Barcelona Beer Festival, which runs from 4th to 6th March.

This will be the fifth such festival to have taken place in the Catalan capital, and is being held at the Barcelona Maritime Museum, situated on the city’s seafront. There are reported to be around 300 beers at the festival, although only 60 will be available at any given time. The majority of these beers, of course, will qualify as “craft” in some way or another, and you can find further details on the Barcelona Beer Festival website.

I received my invitation to attend the festival via fellow blogger, Joan Villar-i-Martí, who I met at both the 2014 and 2015 European Beer Bloggers Conferences. Joan host his own site Blog Birraire, and has also co-authored the first Catalonia Beer Guide. You can check out his blog here, as well as links to the Barcelona Beer Festival.

I am really looking forward to the festival, and also to seeing a bit more of Barcelona itself. There’s still plenty of time to book your flight and hotel if you fancy joining me