Monday, 20 August 2018

Amtrak across the USA. Part One - Richmond V.A. - Washington D.C.

In one of my previous posts I wrote of my plans to undertake a "railroad trip" whilst over in the United States for the Beer Blogger's Conference, and as I write I'm on the final leg of my long haul train ride from Washington to Chicago.

It's been quite a journey, but all things considered a favourable one. As many people know, long-distance rail travel in the US is run by Amtrak, and despite the fairly drastic pruning of passenger services within America, the organisation still operates quite an extensive network.  There is a catch though, as most of the long-distance routes only operate one train a day.

My journey started in Richmond Virginia, where I'd spent a very enjoyable, but rather hectic day in the company of my fellow bloggers, visiting some of some of the city's many breweries, and sampling a few of their wares. The following morning I took the courtesy bus from my hotel, along to Richmond's recently restored Main Street Station.

I arrived early, so wasn't particularly surprised to fin only a handful of fellow passengers sitting in the waiting area. The train pulled in more or less on time and I boarded the rear Business Class coach, where I had a pre-booked seat. Quite a few more passengers boarded at the next stop - Richmond Staple Mill Road Station, but it wasn't until the next station that the train started to pick up speed. With a journey time of just over three hours, this was  more of a commuter service than a long distance one, which was probably why Wi-Fi was available  on the train.

We had a pleasant into Washington Union Station and before the train disappeared underground, there was a view across to the Capitol Building and other associated landmark government structures. I disembarked, and with two and a half hours before my connecting train to Chicago was due to depart, I had a bit of time to kill.

As I was travelling all the way to the "Windy City," I discovered it was possible to check my baggage in - rather like on an airline. This was a relief as I was travelling  with a bulky and quite heavy suitcase. Free of my burden, I had time to look around  the magnificent station concourse, now fully restored to its former glory.

I took a look outside too, where I had another  view of the Capitol Building,  but as it was rather hot and humid out, and also looked a lengthy walk away, I decided to stay put. I bought some water and nibbles for the journey and waited for my train to be called.

The Amtrak service between Washington D.C. and Chicago is called the "Capiol Limited" and given the length of the queue which  emerged when the gate and platform were announced, I was glad I'd decided to stay put. There was a 15 minute delay in boarding, which was frustrating, but once the gate was opened I found my way to the right car and waited to climb onto the train.

Amtrak have it all organised, with staff  stationed at the entrance to each coach. Your bar-coded ticket is scanned and you name is ticked off the list. I had booked a "roomette" in the sleeper section of the train, so found my compact little room, which had two facing seats, which when the time came could be converted into a bed for the night. There were pillows and bed-linen, stowed away in an upper fold-down section, which can be used if there are two persons travelling together,

Personally I think that would be pushing it, as whilst everything in the compartment was ergonomically laid out, it was still a quite squeeze accommodating one person. Each roomette is well-equipped with a folding table, power socket and adjustable lighting and heating/air conditioning controls, and I have to take my hat off to the designers for their ingenuity.

So with the train pulling out of Union Station, on a very hot and humid Monday evening, and passing the commuters waiting for their homeward bound Metro trains, it's time to take a break from my Amtrak journey for a short while, and reconvene next time.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Beer Bloggers Conference 2018 - some initial thoughts

I'm now into my second week away from home and also, following my brief stop-over in Iceland, my second week in the USA. I am writing this post sitting in the front room of my sister's attractive, weatherboard house in an equally attractive small town, about 40 minutes drive from Cleveland, Ohio, having travelled here across country, initially by Amtrak train from Washington D.C. to Chicago and then a short flight across to Cleveland.

I found time for plenty of writing whilst on the train, but most of the articles I've written are still in draft form and have not been posted yet. Consequently I thought I'd better get something more definite posted, whilst things are still relatively fresh in my mind.

As well as affording the opportunity of visiting my sister and her family, I was primarily over in the United States to attend the 2018 Beer Bloggers& Writer's Conference. This was held at a hotel in Sterling, Virginia, which was a conveniently short hop from Washington Dulles airport.

The conference took place over two days, although there were both pre and post conference excursions either side of the main event. I was only around for the post conference jaunt, and I have written about that separately.

I had an amazing time at the conference and am pleased to say it fulfilled all my expectations. It was good to learn about the craft-brewing scene in America today, which appears to be in a strong and healthy place. Certainly there is far more beer and loads more breweries in the country now, than there was when I was last over here, 10 years ago.

What I have found is there are a lot of what I'd call "extreme beers" - more about that later, but there is certainly a very vibrant scene when it comes to beer and it is especially pleasing to see that craft beer has reached out to the American public at large, helped by an explosion in the number of local breweries.

I met some really nice people at the conference, and it was nice to have been welcomed to the event, as one of only two attendees from outside North America. There were some interesting talks and presentations, some of which I will cover at a later date.

We also had two evening excursions, the first of which was a coach ride deep into the heart of rural Virginia. Here Vanish Farmwoods Brewery acted as our hosts for the evening, showcasing not just their own craft beers, but also brews from some of the other Virginia based breweries.

In pleasant rural surroundings Vanish had laid on an amazing barbeque for us, which included some of the most delicious and tender roast beef it has been my pleasure to have experienced. What I liked about the place was it was very family oriented, with a large outdoor play area for the kids, plus a large off-sales section where visitors could load up with bottles and cans to take away, as well as filling up their "growlers" with freshly-brewed craft beer.

The second evening event was a dinner hosted by Lost Rhino Brewing, who were situated much closer to the conference hotel. We got to enjoy yet more beer and another great selection of excellent food to help soak it all up. This was a good session to just chill out at, and mingle and chat with fellow delegates. I did make a whole series of "rough" notes, as to which beers I enjoyed and those I was not quite so keen on.

The notes, together with a host of other beer and conference-related stuff, are buried somewhere in my luggage, so I will wait until I'm back in Blighty before I go hunting for it. In the meantime, I just wanted to get something about the conference posted, so read, enjoy and let me know what you think.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

A stepping stone across the pond

Iceland was always one of those countries that I wanted to visit, but from the reports I'd read it seemed rather expensive.

It was whilst planning out my North American trip that I saw the potential for a brief visit to the country, as what I didn't realise at the time is that Iceland has positioned itself in the market (if you'll pardon the pun), as the ideal place for a stopover whilst travelling between Europe and North America.

Looking at where the country is situated, right in the middle of the North Atlantic, it makes perfect sense for travellers to break their journey there and, if their plans allow, take a bit of time to get to know the place.

This is exactly what I did, and what made this route over to the USA even better was the fact that instead of  booking a through ticket, it was massively cheaper to buy separate two tickets covering each half of the journey. It's something to do with the Air Tax introduced back when Gordon Brown was Chancellor, and this way of getting round the tax, by only having to pay it for the first leg of one's journey, isn't something the airlines or the travel industry publicise particularly well.

So last Wednesday I took the 13.10 Icelandair flight from Gatwick to Reykjavik - a civilised departure time from a conveniently situated airport (for me), and three hours later  my plane was touching down in Iceland.

A quick word about Icelandair, as this was the first time I have flown with them. The flight was on time, the seats were comfortable and with plenty of legroom - unlike British Airways who seem to have gone down the economy route, by aping the likes of Ryanair. There was also in-flight entertainment, with films, various TV shows, music and promotional videos about Iceland to keep passengers occupied during the flight.

I had a window seat, so could sea the Icelandic coast as we approached from the south-east. This gives an insight into just how mountainous the country is, with precious little in the way of flat land in order to site a major airport. This means that whilst there is a small airport on the edge of Reykjavik, this is used solely for domestic flights to other parts of Iceland, and the country's international airport is sited at Keflavik, a distance of roughly 40 kilometres from the capital.

Keflavik is surprisingly large and stylishly modern, but given its role as a midway hub between two continents, this is not particularly surprising. It operates with typical Scandinavian efficiency, and i found it a pleasure to fly  in and out of.

Flybus operate a fast and comfortable coach-shuttle to and from the airport on a half hourly basis. The coach drops passengers off at Reykjavik's  main bus station, from where they can transfer onto various pre-booked mini-buses which will take them to their respective hotels.

I chose to walk to the small apartment I'd booked, as it was only 20 minutes away on foot. After sitting on a plane for three hours, I was glad of the chance to stretch my legs and take some exercise. I was also glad to be breathing the fresh cool air, blowing in from the North Atlantic, especially after the stiflingly hot temperatures the UK has been experiencing of late. Even so, with the mercury around half what it had been when I departed, it was a bit of a shock to the system.

My accommodation was, shall we say, basic, consisting of a single room with an adjoining toilet and wash-basin. It did at least have its own toilet, as many rooms at the cheaper end of the scale, offer only shared facilities. if you want to go really low-budget, then you can opt for a hostel, which is what many young people do; Iceland being particularly popular with back-packers.

Arni's Place
Arni's Place, as my accommodation was called, suited my purpose although Mrs PBT's would not have been amused! Still, any port in a storm and it was only a 10 minute walk into the centre of Reykjavik, from the "apartment." The price of accommodation is something to keep in mind when visiting Iceland's capital, as room rates are not cheap.

So that's a bit of background to Iceland and Reykjavik, and how to use it at a convenient stepping stone on a journey across to North America. It is well worth spending a lot more time in the country though, particularly if you enjoy outdoor activities and want to see some spectacular sights. I certainly intend doing so, but I will use this as a convenient point to break the narrative, before taking a brief look next time at the beer scene in Reykjavik.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

In with the new

This year’s CAMRA Great British Beer Festival kicked off yesterday with the, by now traditional, Trade Session. With Tuesday being my final day of work before flying of to the US later today, I couldn’t spare the time, but after making a point of not going last year, I found myself being strangely drawn towards this year’s event.

The advertising this year definitely seems designed to appeal to a younger audience, and if it succeeds in attracting a younger crowd, then this surely is a good thing. It might only be a small example, but two of the younger members of my team at work will be going along for the first time; and what’s more this is without any persuasion from me!

I was a little surprised when earlier this summer they both decided to join CAMRA, and whilst this may have had more than a little to do with a desire to spend some time in the CAMRA Tent at this year’s Tunbridge Wells Cricket Week, their enthusiasm is to be applauded.

With CAMRA’s flagship event in full swing this week, the pair of them have booked Friday afternoon off and having persuaded a female friend who works in another department, to join them, are travelling up straight from work. I must admit that I got a little caught up in their enthusiasm, and was more than a little sad that I wouldn’t be joining them.

It’s silly of me really, as I don’t suppose they’d particularly appreciate my company, but all the same it’s good to see youngsters (Well they’ve both recently turned 30), taking an interest in decent beer.

Like many their age, the pair include a wide variety of different beers amongst their regular pub drinks, with certain brands of premium lager (Moretti seems to be a favourite at the moment), featuring quite highly. On the opposite side of the spectrum, local brewer Larkin’s, is another favourite, probably because of their involvement and support of village events.

I’ve told them I expect to see a full report on social media, as I shall be keeping an eye on things whilst I am away. I expect their friend from the Operations Department will be rather bemused by the whole event, as she comes from a part of the world where wine, rather than beer is the usual tipple.

She told me yesterday that if the boys think she’s going to drink five pints, they’ve another think coming. Without wishing to sound sexist, I informed her that here would be plenty of ciders and perries to sample, if she didn’t fancy the beers. I strongly suspect though, that she will be the one who makes sure they all get home safely!

Footnote: As first time GBBF attendees, I will be interested in my colleagues' feedback, what they thought of the festival, what they liked or dis-liked. CAMRA's flagship event has obviously changed and evolved over the years, and it appears to b continuing to do so, so what newcomers think of the festival will be important for CAMRA, going forward.

Monday, 6 August 2018

A quick one

So with the bulk of the packing done, the travel and transfer arrangements all sown up, and just  one more day left at work before setting off on my big adventure, I’m thinking that I might not be posting  for a while.

I’ll be taking a lap-top with me, but as I’ve found before, much depends on how much “down time” will be available over the course of the next of the next fortnight. I will obviously be making notes, not just about the Beer Bloggers & Writers’ Conference I am attending, but also of my travels, as I journey half-way across the USA from the east coast, up to the mid-west.

I will try and commit as much of these experiences to paper/keyboard as is humanly possible, but don’t expect miracles; unlike some nameless bloggers who never seem to rest, and for whom life is a never ending pub crawl. Having said that, I will endeavour to detail as many of the pubs and bars I visit, along with the enjoyment of  the various beers sold therein. That’s if I find sufficient time to type everything up, as this trip after all, is supposed to be a holiday.

My first stop will be a brief overnight stay in Reykjavik, before flying on to Washington the following afternoon. The temperatures in Iceland are forecast to be a positively cool 12º C, which will mean a brief and very welcome break for the high temperatures we’ve been experiencing lately. Then once I reach the US, it’s more of the heat again!

 So in the absence of any other photos at present, here are a few taken on Sunday morning, as part of our quest to find the perfect pub breakfast.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Ye Olde Chequers Inn

With parts dating back to the 14th Century Ye Olde Chequers Inn is one of the oldest buildings in Tonbridge and almost certainly the town’s oldest pub. It is a handsome, and quite imposing, half-timbered building, decorated in a classic black and white “Tudor Style”, even though it predates that period by a century or two.
It is situated in the shadow of Tonbridge Castle, slightly uphill from the bridge over the River Medway, which is referred to by the town as the “Big Bridge.” With its attractive exterior and an interior which is full of character (particularly if you’re a fan of exposed beams), the Chequers ought to be one of the best pubs in Tonbridge, but unfortunately fails to deliver on several counts.
I might be somewhat biased in my opinions of the pub, as the truth is I have never been a fan. When I first came to Tonbridge, initially for work in 1979 and then, five year later to live as well, I regarded the Chequers as a real “old man” pub, and looking back I suppose it was. I was in my mid-twenties back then, and would have considered anyone 40 as old, but the pub did have a real old person feel to it.
I remember one lunchtime, going for a drink in the Chequers with a colleague who was much older than me. Jim was a regular drinker in the Chequers, as he was in many of the town's pubs, and on that occasion we got into conversation with someone he knew who worked as a printer, in Fleet Street. It wasn’t long before this character confided he was supposed to have been at work, but one of his mates had clocked him in.
This practice was apparently commonplace, and I want to come back to this later, because back in the early 1980’s Tonbridge was regarded as a “print town.” There were still a couple of large printing firms in the town, along with a major magazine publisher, and a well-paid workforce, meant plenty of customers for local pubs.
The Chequers was no exception and trade flourished at lunchtime, with a selection of hot food always available. It was popular with office workers for the same reason; this being at a time when lunchtime drinking was far more commonplace than it is today.
Courage owned the pub back then, but as I was not a huge fan of Courage beer, I tended to  give the place a miss. The Courage connection came about following a series of takeovers and mergers, as evidenced by some of the many photos taken over the years. I have seen some  showing it as belonging to Maidstone-based Style & Winch, and prior to that it was a Dartford Brewery house. I'm pretty certain the pub had two bars, during my first few years in Tonbridge, but whilst the partitions are long gone, the lengthy, L-shaped bar, does help create a sense of division into different areas.
I called in at the Chequers, last Wednesday evening, in order to attend a social gathering of the Tonbridge-Heusenstamm Friendship Circle - the twin town association I wrote about earlier in the year. I was a little late in arriving, and I could see the group sat at a couple of tables at the far end of the bar. I ordered myself a beer and that's when something odd happened.
There were two cask ales on that evening, Harvey's Best and St Austell Tribute. I opted for the Harvey's and was a little bemused when having taken my order, the barmaid marched to the far corner of the bar, at the opposite end of the pub, where there was a another set of hand-pulls.
I could see she was having difficulty pulling my pint, so this did not bode well. She then disappeared for several minutes, leaving me both high and dry and frustrated at the same time. Eventually another member of staff appeared (possibly the landlady), and informed me the barrel was being changed.
I'd realised as much, and was pleased to be getting a nice fresh pint. From my vantage point at the opposite end, I watched as a plastic jug's worth of beer was pulled through, but then watched in horror, as the barmaid reached under the counter and retrieved the three quarters full pint she'd pulled through earlier and topped it up.
"Pint of Harvey's, that will be £3.90 please."  I was rather shell-shocked so without saying a word I handed over the money, picked up my pint and went and joined the people from the Friendship Circle. The more I thought about it though, the more I realised I'd been short-changed. Instead of a nice cool fresh pint of Harvey's, I'd received three-quarters of a pint of "cask-bottoms,"  topped up with a small amount of fresh beer.
I sat it out; the beer was drinkable, but it certainly wasn't the best pint of Harvey's. I scored it originally at 3.0 NBSS, but knocked it down to 2.5 in view of what I'd just witnessed. I shan't be going back to the Chequers anytime soon. I only stayed for the one, as most of the friendship-circle people had started to drift off by 9.45 pm. Instead, I walked along to Fuggles, where I had  much more acceptable and enjoyable pint of Session IPA from 360 Degrees.
So once again theChequers failed to provide me with an enjoyable drinking experience. I know times are hard in the licensed trade, but serving up a new customer with an obviously sub-standard pint is totally unacceptable.
As for the Friendship Circle meeting, well as with the previous get together, at 63 years off age,  I was the youngest person there. My presence mean the attendance just scraped into double figures; a similar situation to my local CAMRA branch socials. I expressed an interest in going across to Heusentamm to help assist the group with their stall at the town's Christmas Market, and this tentative offer, was eagerly seized upon by the organisation's chairman.
That was the sum total of the meeting, but before finishing I want to get back to the story of the printers.  As mentioned earlier, the print trade was once an important feature of Tonbridge's commercial life. Printing though was very much a “closed shop,” and in order to obtain a job “on the print” you had either to be related to someone already in the trade, or had to come with a personal recommendation.
The whole industry was highly unionised, with each branch of the different print unions involved in the trade, presided over by an all-powerful “father of the chapel.” These individuals had the power to make or break a company, so they tended to be treated like royalty by both workers and management alike. That tale of the absentee print worker, still getting paid, was commonplace, as were stories of  fictitious workers (M. Mouse and S. Claus?) clocking on, and getting paid.
Much as I detest Rupert Murdoch, he was the person who finally broke the power of these corrupt and restrictive unions and dragged the whole printing industry kicking and screaming into the modern world. Murdoch had deep pockets and could afford to sit out the many shut-downs and walkouts which resulted from his attempts to modernise the trade. The introduction of digital printing was probably the final straw.
Housing developments now occupy the sites of the three former large printing and publishing companies in the town. Whilst I have some sympathy for the workers who lost their jobs as a result of these "sharp practices." I have nothing but contempt for the corrupt and manipulative shop-stewards and their shady print union bosses,  who allowed power and greed to sow the seeds of their own demise.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Epiphany Moment

And now the promised “epiphany moment” referenced in my “Road to Damascus” post. This was when I ended my love affair with “big brand,” keg beers and started to take an interest in local and regional beers, brewed specifically to take account of local tastes and preferences.

Looking back, although there were a series of related “light-bulb” moments which combined to inspire in me a life-long passion in all things beer-related, it was a specific incident which provided that “vital spark."

That so-called “epiphany moment” took place in October 1973 when  as a young student, in my first year at Salford University, I was browsing through the shelves of the university book-shop. I came across a book which caught my attention with its unusual cover design and poignant title. The book was titled "The Death of the English Pub", its author was one Christopher Hutt and its cover price was 75p! To a student existing on around just £7 per week, this represented a considerable outlay, and yet a quick flick through the pages was enough to convince me that I just had to buy this book.

The book was well researched, and written in a lively and informative style which was hard to put down, so within a matter of days I had read the book from cover to cover. "The Death of the English Pub" was an expose on what was happening in the brewing industry and drinks trade. In particular, it highlighted the growth of the large brewers and told how they were killing off much loved local beers in favour of heavily advertised, yet totally characterless, national keg brands. It also described how pubs up and down the country were being tarted up and altered out of all recognition as the big brewers pursued their relentless quest for still greater profits.

The appalling record of the major brewing firms was contrasted with the exemplary behaviour of many of the surviving smaller, independent breweries whom, the book argued, were truly reflecting the real needs of customers rather than some obtuse marketing fantasy created by advertising moguls totally divorced from reality. In short by taking these policies to their logical conclusion, the big brewers would be responsible for "The Death of the English Pub".

The book had been written around the time when two pressure groups were starting to have a small impact on the big brewers, by alerting the drinking public as to what they were up to. These two groups were: The Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood (SPBW for short), plus the Campaign for Real Ale (or CAMRA). I was marginally aware of the existence of both these groups, and on my return to Kent, for the Christmas break, took active steps to join the latter organisation.

"The Death of the English Pub" changed my whole outlook on life and made me realise that certain things are important and are worth preserving. More importantly, they are worth fighting for. Although I had enjoyed a pint from the age of 16 or so, I had tended to take beer and pubs for granted, as my main interests at the time were rock music and chasing after the opposite sex.

I was a self-proclaimed expert in the former, but whilst I’d had some success with the latter, the ratio of male to female students at a university which specialised in science and engineering, was never going to work in my favour. In the pursuit of these aims, I had tended to frequent some of the more trendy, tarted-up outlets where the beer was normally cold, weak, gassy and overpriced. I had also been somewhat scathing when it came to some of the more traditional pubs, especially town ones, castigating them as "muck pits", frequented only by old men.

I still, however, retained a soft spot for traditional country pubs, and having been brought up in a small village, I could identify more closely with a traditional village hostelry. What I had read in Christopher Hutt's book, persuaded me that I was wrong to discount traditional town boozers, especially as they represented a fast vanishing part of our national heritage.

Living, as I was, in the Greater Manchester conurbation, surrounded by beers from all manner of local independent brewers, with some of the cheapest prices around, gave me ample opportunity to go out and sample as many local beers as I could. But it was not until the third term of that first year at Salford, that this interest and desire to explore as many unspoilt pubs really took hold. The catalyst this time was my purchase, during the Easter vacation, of CAMRA's first Good Beer Guide (cover price again 75p!).

When I returned to Manchester for the summer term, I eagerly sought out as many independent brewers and their beers as I could. I was helped in this quest by a fellow student, who shared the same lodgings as myself. Howard came from the Lake District, and was a great fan of Hartley's. He also had a van, and with the Good Beer Guide pointing us in the right direction we tracked down beers from Lees, Hyde's, Holt's, Oldham and Marston's, which were in addition to ales such as Boddington's, Robinson's, Tetley’s, Greenall Whitley and Wilson's which I had already sampled.

The rest as they say, is history, and I never really looked back. I still have my copy of "The Death of the English Pub", and refer back to it occasionally. Some of the issues it was fighting for seem rather trivial now, whilst other points have been fought over and won. However, as a pioneering and inspiring campaigning book, it deserves its place in history. It certainly changed my outlook on life and helped steer me towards the appreciation of much that I hold dear today. For that I will be forever grateful.
Looking back through the archives, I found a review I’d written, back in 2010, on "The Death of the English Pub.” The review gives a brief synopsis of the book, on a chapter by chapter basis, so if you want to get a proper flavour of what Christopher Hutt’s pioneering publication was all about, just click on the link here.