Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier - Part One

It's only fitting that we should end the series on Bamberg with a couple of posts about the city's most famous beer, and the brewer best known for producing it. I am talking of course about Schlenkerla, the brewery whose smoke or "Rauchbier " is known and admired by beer lovers the world over.

Rauchbier is the style of beer which Bamberg is best known for, but what exactly is it? In simple terms Rauchbier, is a style of beer with a distinctive smoke flavour derived from the use of malted barley dried over an open flame. Prior to the industrial revolution, virtually all malt was dried in this fashion; although drying malted barley in direct sunlight was sometimes used in addition to drying over direct heat.

Starting in the 18th Century, the practice of drying malt in a kiln, using indirect heat, became more widespread and, by the mid-19th Century, had become the near-universal method for drying malted grain. Since the kiln method directs the smoke away from the wet malt, a smoky flavour is not imparted to the grain; nor to the beer which is subsequently brewed with the malt.

As a result, a smoke flavour in beer became less and less common, and eventually disappeared almost entirely from the brewing world. But not quite, as certain breweries maintained the tradition by continuing to use malt which had been dried over open flames.

For reasons which remain unclear, the town of Bamberg in the Upper Franconia region of northern Bavaria, remained the centre of smoke beer production, and nearly two centuries later, two of the city's brewpubs - Schlenkerla and Spezial,  still produce several varieties of Rauchbier, for the continuing delight of their customers. Both breweries produce their own Rauchmalz from malted barley dried over fires made from beech wood logs.  

Of the two Schlenkerla is by far the best known, and whilst the Rauchbiers produced by Brauerei Spezial are still eminently drinkable, they are quite mild in comparison to those of Schlenkerla. It is the latter therefore that we shall concentrate our attention on.

I was vaguely aware of Rauchbier quite early on in my drinking career, because I had a copy of Michael Jackson's ground-breaking book, the "World Guide to Beer." This beer style remained a curiosity stored in the back of my consciousness, until quite by chance I overheard two beer enthusiasts talking about it whilst on a lengthy coach journey.

It was the autumn of 1984, and I was on my way home from a trip to the country which was then known as Czechoslovakia. The visit had been organised by CAMRA, and I wrote about it at some length, several years ago. Our coach hadn't long crossed the border from Czechoslovakia and into West Germany; a process which whilst quicker than that of the inward journey, was still frustratingly slow.

It wasn't until we were back in the decadent west, with its familiar symbols of capitalism, that I fully appreciated quite what was missing from the communist country we had just departed. A Shell petrol station was the first of these, but strangely enough it did endear a sense of security, and as we sped along the Autobahn and through northern Bavaria, I started slipping in and out of sleep.

The lengthy journey ahead, combined with the several glasses of Pilsner Urquell consumed earlier, during an extended lunch stop in Pilsen itself, no doubt contributed to my soporific state. I was vaguely aware of the conversation coming from  the two lads in the seats in front of me. I hadn't really mixed with them during our time in Czechoslovakia, but I was aware that they knew quite a lot more about beer than I did. Not only were they older than me, they also seemed far better travelled.

As dusk turned into the full blackness of night, I remember one of them becoming quite excited by a sign on the Autobahn. "Look," he said to his companion, "there's the turning for Bamberg; that's where they brew smoked beer."

In my imagination I thought I could see the lights of Bamberg glimmering in the distance, but in reality they were probably those of a much nearer town or village, but the very mention of the home of smoked beer reawakened my awareness of this niche beer style to the extent that I was fantasising about our driver making an unscheduled stop, just so we could sample some of it.

Of course this didn't happen and, as our coach sped steadily north-westward, all such thoughts vanished. Instead I drifted into deep unconsciousness and didn't wake up until we reached the Belgian border. (This was pre-Schengen days, and there were still check-points at the boundaries between west European countries).

My chance to sample Rauchbier eventually came in the unlikely setting of my adopted home town of Tonbridge. It must have been some time in the late 1980's that I spotted bottles of Schlenkerla Rauchbier on the shelves of our local Sainsbury's. I had learned quite a lot more about beer by then, thanks in no small measure to the late, great Michael Jackson once again.

It wasn't one of his books this time though, but rather the even more revolutionary TV series "The Beer Hunter". This had really opened my eyes to what was out there in the world of beer. In one of the series six episodes Michael had visited Bamberg and had of course sampled the city's most famous product in it most famous tavern. The fact that Sainsbury's now had bottles of the stuff on their shelves meant that at long last, I was able to sample this legendary beer.

The beer was everything I thought it would be, although I admit to be slightly taken aback that it was so dark in colour (I wasn't such a huge fan of dark beers in those days). Unfortunately Schlenkerla Rauchbier was only available for a short period. I don't know whether this was due to supply problems or low sales, but almost as quickly as it appeared on Sainsbury's shelves, it just as quickly vanished.

I tend to think that the beer was probably a beer too far; too extreme for most people's tastes at the time. Just remember, the late 80's were 30 years before today's explosion in the variety of different beers and beer styles that are available to today's' beer connoisseurs, but if there's an enterprising entrepreneur out there, looking for something different, then smoke beer from Bamberg would certainly fit the bill.

Apart from the occasional sighting on the foreign bar at beer festivals, it was another twelve or so years before I was able to enjoy a glass of Schlenkerla Rauchbier. By this time (early 2000), my wife and I had  our own specialist off-licence, and in my quest to offer something different, I managed to track down an importer specialising in German beers.

Schlenkerla Rauchbier was on their list, along with several other beers from Deutschland, so I went ahead and ordered a case. I was now able to offer this world classic beer to my discerning customers, along with the occasional bottle for myself.

Having explained what Rauchbier is, how I became aware of it, plus my first experiences of drinking it, it's time to leave the story for a while. In the next chapter I will recount how I travelled to Bamberg for the first time and drank Schlenkerla Rauchbier on its home turf; in the city's most famous, and best known tavern.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

To Norfolk for the day

I had an interesting day out on Friday which, although at one stage seemed to be going awry, worked out fine in the end. It involved a trip up to Norfolk, to visit my father. I mentioned it  briefly in my last post, but I thought I’d elaborate more and use this piece as yet another “filler”, as I’m still working on that much longer article I keep promising to publish.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been visiting Norfolk, on a regular basis, for the last 25 years. My parents moved there, from Kent, following my father’s retirement; the idea being to downsize and release a bit of the equity, locked up in the former family home.

Mum and dad settled in a mid-Norfolk village and enjoyed a happy retirement which lasted nearly a quarter of a century but in 2015, my mother sadly passed away. Nine months later my sisters and I made the sad, but necessary decision, to move dad into a care home. The Alzheimer’s he was suffering from was getting progressively worse, and for everyone’s sake, but especially dad’s, we were left with little choice but to transfer him to somewhere he would be safe and receive the proper care and attention he needed. 

Over the years, on numerous occasions, I have made the journey to Norfolk, sometimes with the family or, more often than not, on my own.  I feel sometimes that I know every motorway junction, every roundabout and almost every bump in the road of the 150 mile trip, and whilst journey times have improved with the opening a few years ago of the last dual-carriageway section of the A11 (Barton Mills to Thetford), it is still a tiring drive.

This time then I decided to let someone else do the driving and, following a little online research, opted to make the entire journey to visit dad, by public transport. There is a fast Inter-City train service operating on a half-hourly basis (weekdays), between London and Norwich, and I was also aware of an express bus running from Norwich to Dereham.

The final leg of the journey, is the three mile  section from Dereham to Gressenhall; the small village where dad’s care home is situated, and a little more research followed by a phone call, revealed that local taxi firm, Dereham Taxis, would be able to transport me to Gressenhall.

By booking in  advance, online with The Trainline, I procured a return train ticket between Tonbridge and Norwich for the bargain price of £32.10, and this included travelling in First Class accommodation on the return journey from Norwich. Konect Bus who provide services in this part of Norfolk, operate an express bus between Norwich rail station and Dereham on a half hourly basis, and what’s more their timetable shows which trains each service connects with!  Two UK public transport operators actually offering an integrated service; how’s that for joined up thinking? 

I booked Friday off from work, and with all that’s going on there at the moment, I was really glad to get away from the place. From Tonbridge I jumped on the first available London bound train and alighted at London Bridge. The completely rebuilt station is something to behold, especially for those of us who remember its cramped and over-crowded predecessor.

It was a fine morning so I decided to walk across the Thames via London Bridge, and up to Liverpool Street. I have done this several times in the past, finding it far preferable to the hot, dirty and over-crowded Underground. Also, given the lengthy passageways down to the Northern Line at London Bridge, and then the labyrinthine inter-change onto the Central Line at Bank station, I don’t think there’s that much extra walking involved. It’s certainly far more pleasant being out in the open, strolling along and observing life, as all the city workers, rush to their offices.

So a nice comfortable Inter-City train to Norwich awaited me at Liverpool Street, and a nice fast journey through East London and then into Essex. As the railway crossed the River Stour, just before the river broadens out into the wide estuary, I could see the massive cranes of Felixstowe docks, standing out on the horizon, and as the train pulled into Ipswich station, I knew we were less than an hour away from Norwich.

Or so we should have been, except the train didn’t move off. I’d already noticed the conductor walking along the platform, talking on her two-way radio, so when her voice came over the PA system I wasn’t too surprised. Apparently a passenger had been taken ill on the train, but as soon as the situation had been sorted, we would be underway.

Unfortunately the next announcement was request for anyone with medical knowledge to make their way to the First Class coaches at the rear of the train, followed by an instruction asking us all to disembark and remain on the platform, as the service was being terminated.

Things were a little chaotic, shall we say, as we had to cross via the stairs, to the opposite platform, only to then re-cross back to where we were originally, due to a fault which developed on a London-bound train, which prevented its departure. It’s a good job I’m fit, and was travelling light, but the long and the short of it was by the time the next train for Norwich arrived, I was running around 40 minutes behind schedule.

A quick call to the taxi company allowed me to adjust my pick-up time in Dereham, but I was only able to move the return journey back by 20 minutes. This was because, like many taxi operators, the company had all its available vehicles committed to the school run. Really? We had to walk in my day, none of this cosseting and being ferried around in taxis, for us!

Moving swiftly on, the No. 8 Konect Bus appeared roughly on time, at the side of the station, I bought a return ticket for the bargain sum of £5.50, and after a brief additional pick-up at the newly refurbished Norwich Bus Station, we headed out of town and were soon speeding along the A47 towards Dereham.

The bus dropped me in the centre of town, where my taxi was waiting. I arrived at dad’s care-home shortly after 2pm. Dad was looking a lot better than on my last visit. On that occasion he was asleep for much of the time, but on Friday he was alert and quite chatty. He had put back on most of the weight that he’d lost earlier in the year, when he was laid up with a chest infection.

It was really good to see him, and although I was only able to spend an hour with him, I’m pretty certain he appreciated my coming to see him. I had a brief chat with the home’s deputy manager, who said they were pleased with his progress, and that he was now back to something approaching his old self.

The journey back to Norwich was the reverse of the outward one, and I arrived back in the city at 16.10. My original plan had been to stop for a pint in the city centre, but with my train departing at 17.30, I decided to stay on the bus and get off at the station.

So where to stop for a pint?  I now have this year’s Good Beer Guide available as an App on my phone, but even without this I knew there was a paucity of decent pubs in the vicinity of the station. I was aware of the Compleat Angler, next to the River Wensum, but it has always seemed rather down at heel, and the link to WhatPub didn’t provide much that was complimentary either.

You can see quite a bit from the upper deck of a bus though, and as the bus waited at traffic lights, I noticed a sign indicating it had recently changed management/ownership. It was definitely worth a try, and as I walked over the bridge, the sight of punters enjoying a pint on the outside terrace, overlooking the river, was sufficient to gladden the heart of this very thirsty drinker.

The Compleat Angler is now a Greene King managed house (it may always have been so, but what the heck?). A sign by the entrance advised there were up to 10 ales available (Martin beware), so after stepping inside I carried out a quick scan of the hand pumps, along both sections of the bar, before deciding to ask the bar staff for their recommendation.

The two girls in charge seemed pretty knowledgeable, and after a bit of discussion as to whether I wanted something light or dark, hoppy or malty, I opted for a pint of Lupus Lupus from Wolf Brewery, who are an old favourite of mine. I was glad I did, as this well-hopped, blonde ale was just what I required, cool, bright and packed full of flavour. I scored it at 3.5 NBSS.

The interior of the Compleat Angler has been stripped back to basics, with bare wooden floors and lots of other dark wood. With the 2018 FIFA World Cup underway, one of the first matches was being shown on a wide screen. I didn’t pay much attention, although I did notice that Iran were one of the teams playing.

I headed out to the riverside terrace, and sat there enjoying my pint and updating my social media account. I was tempted to go for another pint, but it would have meant rushing; something I don’t do anymore, unless I absolutely have to. The pub was a very pleasant place in which to finish my brief visit to Norfolk, and I will keep it in mind for next time.

There almost certainly will be a “next time”, as having now “test-driven” the public transport option, I will use it again. I know it’s perfectly feasible to drive from Kent up to Norfolk and back in a day, but it is very tiring, and whilst my total spend exceeded what it would have cost me in diesel, I didn’t have to factor in the cost of my usual overnight stay.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Aecht Schlenkerla Fastenbier

Well here’s another quick “filler” post that I’ve slipped in whilst finishing off a much longer one. Life’s a bit hectic at the moment, with lots going on both at home and on the work front. In addition I’m making a quick dash up to Norfolk tomorrow to visit my father.

Bamberg, or rather Bamberg’s best known beer, is the subject of this mini-post as, surprise-surprise, I haven’t finished with the city yet. "Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier" is Bamberg’s most famous and most widely known beer. It is brewed by Brauerei Heller-Trum, and follows the age old tradition of using malt which has been kiln-dried using burning beech-wood logs.

This imparts an intense, aromatic, smoky flavour to the beer which makes Schlenkerla Rauchbier one of the most distinctive, as well as one of the most recognisable beers in the world. Schlenkerla have their own maltings, where the Rauchmalz (smoked malt), is produced, and after brewing, using first-class hops, the beer matures in 600 year old cellars, deep below the hills of Bamberg. The result is a fine, mellow, magnificent-tasting beer, best drunk directly in the "Schlenkerla Tavern", in the heart of Bamberg’s old town.

The post I hinted at earlier, is a fairly lengthy article, which may run over two parts, about Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Rather than keeping you in suspense, and making you wait for it to appear, I’ve knocked out this quick post about the bottles of Schlenkerla Fastenbier (Lent Beer) I brought back from Bamberg with me, following last month’s trip.

The Original Schlenkerla Lentbeer is an unfiltered smoke-beer which, for a short season (Ash Wednesday to Easter), is sold from a wooden cask in the Schlenkerla Tavern. It is available in bottles over a much longer period; until stocks run out. The beer is reddish-brown in colour with a natural cloudiness, due to the presence of the yeast. Its smoky aroma is really noticeable, especially when combined with the hop aromas which are also present.

On the last afternoon of our stay inBamberg, I called in at the historic Schlenkerla Tavern, where there is a kiosk, specially reserved for off-sales. Once I’d managed to grab the attention of the two young girls who were supposed to be serving, I bought a six-pack container consisting of two bottles of Fastenbier, along with four bottles of the classic Original Märzen. The pack cost me just over €10, and was worth every cent.

The pack survived the flight home (Schlenkerla package their beer in thick and sturdy glass bottles), and seeing as the Fastenbier has a BBE date of August 2018, I thought I’d better crack one open and see what it is like.

Well, as with the brewery’s own description, there is an intense smokiness which permeates through the thick fluffy head which forms on top of the beer. There are plenty of rich malty notes to complement the smoke; not really surprising, given the 5.5% ABV of the beer. 
The beer is also surprisingly thirst-quenching, indicative of a generous hopping regime, but you know what, rather than sit here analysing and writing about this gorgeous beer, I’m going to sit back, savour and enjoy it. Zum Wohl, Prost and all that!

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Which route to market?

I have written before about the seemingly unstoppable rise in the number of new breweries in the UK, and how I consider that for some time, their numbers have reached a level which is un-sustainable. I know I’m not alone in thinking this, but they keep on coming, fuelled either by people “following their dream” or investors out to make a quick buck in what they see as a still growing market.

If proof were needed that brewery numbers have increased exponentially, I picked up a copy of the latest (Summer) edition of “Sussex Drinker” last week, whilst attending a joint social at the Greyhound in Charcott between my own CAMRA branch and a neighbouring one.

The Bru-News section, which gives updates on all current Sussex brewers, now runs to eight pages, and lists 60 separate breweries. A few of these are still in the “start-up” phase whilst, for various reasons, there is no update on several others. One or two are reported as “not currently brewing”, but the overall picture still remains one of un-fettered growth.

The main question to ask in relation to this is where does their custom come from? How do they find outlets wanting to take their beer, and if they do find places, does this involve elbowing another small brewer’s beers off the bar? The overall picture in the on-trade looks less than rosy, with pubs continuing to close, and whilst there are some well-publicised re-openings (see this blog for examples), trying to find sales outlets for these new brewers.

The appearance on the scene of micro-pubs, may have taken up a little of the slack, but given their size and often limited opening times, they are not proving to be the licensed trade’s salvation by any stretch of the imagination. This still leaves a growing number of micro-breweries chasing a dwindling number of pubs and bars, willing or able to take their beers. So what can be done in order to avoid mass carnage on the UK brewing front?

Having recently returned from a trip to Bamberg; a city which is home to nine breweries, I could not fail to be amazed by the variety of good beer available there, not just in Bamberg itself, but in the surrounding towns and villages. For example, the small town of Forchheim, which is a short train ride from Bamberg, boasts four breweries, each turning out a variety of different beers. So how is it possible for a town of just 25,000 people, to support four breweries?

The answer lies in the history of this part of northern Bavaria, which is known as Franconia (Franken in German). Following the end of WWII, and the partition of Germany into East and West, Franconia found itself relatively isolated from its former neighbours by the Iron Curtain, which ran along its northern and eastern flanks. This isolation allowed the region to plod along slowly at its own pace, sticking with the traditional ways and methods which had served it well for many decades.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in brewing, and here beers which have disappeared from other parts of Germany, can still be found; almost as if the whole region had been stuck in a time warp. Many villages in the area still boast their own brewery, and the majority of them are family-owned. They have been passed down through several generations to the present day, carrying on in much the same way as they have done since pre-industrial times.

I have been visiting Franconia on and off for the past decade, so am quite familiar with the region, its pubs and its beers. This interest was sparked after I picked up a copy of The Good Beer Guide to Munich & Bavaria; a CAMRA publication, which appeared in 1994. It was researched and written by former journalist, Graham Lees, who was one of the four founder members of CAMRA.

Lees had produced the guide after spending several years living and working in Munich during the late 1980’s- early 1990’s. Given that Bavaria is by far the largest of the German states, occupying a similar land area to that of Scotland, he obviously carried out an impressive amount of research, and the guide is certainly no light-weight when it comes to recommending the best beers and the best places in which to drink them.

When Graham was researching his book,  Bavaria boasted 750 breweries, which was a fifth of the world’s total at the time, so you really have to take your hat off to the man. Considering its importance as Bavaria’s capital, and the fact that Lees was living there, Munich gets a fair mount of attention, but Lees does make special mention of Franconia which, at the time contained over 450 breweries; not bad for an area the size of Wales!

In the introduction to the chapter on Franconia, Lees opens with the statement, “For the beer enthusiast, Franconia is close to Paradise – and fortunately not so inaccessible.” He then goes on to describe a brewing culture which predates industrial times in both scale and practice. He mentions villages, of no more than 2,00 people, having two or even three breweries; many producing no more than a few hundred barrels of beer a year, most intended for consumption in the family run pub.

And here is the crux of the matter, and the key as to why this rural, almost cottage industry has survived for so long. He elaborates by describing how alongside the brewery and the pun, the family enterprise might also include a small farm, a distillery producing Schnapps, a butcher’s shop, or even a slaughterhouse. No single part of these family is profitable on its own, but lumped together they combine to produce a reasonable income.

Bearing in mind when the book was written, the author says that as we approach the 21st Century, Franconia is gradually sliding into the 20th, placing much of this centuries old way of life at risk. He warns that in the years leading up to the publication of his guide, more than 50 breweries closed in Franconia, taking with them some excellent beers.

Having read this you can perhaps understand as to why I was first tempted to visit Franconia. I was not alone, as the region is now a Mecca for dozens of other beer enthusiasts including, in recent years, many Americans. The latter group have particularly taken the area to heart, possibly because of past military links. A large contingent of American forces was stationed in Bamberg, in the years which followed the end of WWII, and then afterwards as a result of Cold War tensions. It is also not uncommon to come across fellow beer enthusiasts from closer to home, when visiting the local pubs

Nearly a quarter of a century after Graham Lees’s book appeared, good beer is still widely available in Franconia, perhaps given a welcome boost by the conditions described above. With the increase in “beer tourism” many village pubs have branched out by offering accommodation, and this obviously provides an additional and very welcome source of income.

If this model works in rural Franconia, then why shouldn’t it in a county such as Sussex?  If small breweries can prosper in the former, why can’t the same thing apply in the latter? The answer of course is that most of the breweries in Franconia are well-established enterprises, which often date back many years, whilst nearly all those in Sussex are relative newcomers, devoid of the ties and the back-up which enable their Franconian counterparts to not just survive, but also prosper.

In Britain the traditions of close links with village life and the land have virtually died out; even in rural areas. The disappearance of this way of life was not as long ago as you might think, as just few generations ago it was not uncommon to find the landlord of a rural pub either working on the land during the day, or employed elsewhere, leaving his wife to run the pub during his absence. Several of our now sadly vanished country breweries, started off in a similar fashion, providing beer to thirty agricultural workers, and a handful of rural pubs. Ridley’s and Rayment’s  spring to mind, but I’m sure there are quite a few others.

There is one area though where the new wave of UK brewers could follow their much longer-established Franconian counterparts, and that is in off sales at the brewery. It is quite common in Germany to turn up at the brewery yard, and load up you car with a  crate or two of bottles, to drink at home. I saw evidence of this, a couple of years ago, when I visited the small brewery of Kloster Mallersdorf, where the brewing is carried out by nuns, and last year I saw customers loading crates into the back of their cars at Spital Brauerei, in Regensburg.

This practice has also become increasingly popular in the US, where there has been an unprecedented growth in small breweries. Filling up your “Growler”, as portable and reusable containers for draught beer are called on the other side of the Atlantic is a common occurrence at many breweries, so this is another area where UK breweries could capitalise on.

Quite a few of them have gone down this route and are reaping the benefits. Locally Westerham and Rockin’ Robin, spring to mind, but I’m certain there are many more. Selling your beers in Farm Shops is another source of income, and here breweries are mimicking their German counterparts. Five litre mini-casks are also a good idea, and I have seen an increasing number of local shops offering these.

Although Harvey's of Lewes and Fuller's of Chiswick, are long established breweries, both have impressive and well-stocked shops attached to their respective breweries. Fuller's have only recently re-opened their Chiswick shop, following an extensive re-fit. Fellow blogger BryanB, found  "Growlers" being used this side of the Atlantic for draught takeouts, when he called in the other day, along with much more.

Certainly these options are far better, and also far less risky, than relying on the fickleness of a diminishing free-trade market. The latter is increasingly accompanied by ruthless price-cutting, so if you have a brewery shop, not only do you have a guaranteed outlet for your products and somewhere to showcase them, but you will be able to charge a much more realistic price for them.

Monday, 11 June 2018

George & Dragon - Speldhurst

Here’s a short post to act as a "fill-in" whilst I work on a couple of longer ones. It’s about visiting a pub which you haven’t been to in ages, and being pleasantly surprised when you find that, in-spite of a few changes, it's still pretty much as you remembered it.

Our son Matthew, passed his driving test at the tail end of last year. He finally got round to buying himself a car back in March; although to be fair to him, the delay was partly caused by his mother being laid up in hospital for seven weeks at the beginning of the year, and me not having sufficient time to spend looking at suitable vehicles with him.

Well although he’s now got a set of wheels, he hasn’t been that far with them. He’s somewhat on the cautious side (not a bad thing), and still a little lacking in confidence, so I’ve been accompanying him on some of his drives out.

On Sunday, we took a drive over to nearby Southborough, in order to visit the Majestic Wines outlet situated there. Being a lager fan, Matthew has taken quite a liking to the re-vamped Hofmeister Lager, which was relaunched in blaze of publicity around 18 months ago. This time around, the beer has much more genuine credentials, being brewed in Bavaria under the strictures of the Reinheitsgebot, rather than being just another big-brewery brand, promoted by a “jack-the-lad”  bear.

Unfortunately for Matthew, only a handful of local pubs are stocking the beer, and as far as we can make out, the bottled version is only available by mail order. It was therefore something of a fool’s errand to drive over to Majestic, in expectation of them stocking it, but it was an excuse for a drive out, and it gave me a break from digging over our rather weed-infested borders.

Well Majestic was a nicely laid-out store, with friendly and helpful staff, but it is much more of a wine merchant’s than a beer stockist. So needless to say, Hofmeister was nowhere to be seen, although Matt did pick up a case of Radeburger, and I acquired a pack of "King Hop Lager", brewed specially for the chain by Meantime Brewery.

So what to do after was the question? I wasn’t in a hurry to return to my digging, and Matthew fancied a slightly longer drive. We decided to  carry on towards the village of Speldhurst and take a look at the George & Dragon, a rather splendid looking half-timbered building which can trace its origins back to the 13th Century.

The G&D is situated opposite the village church, towards the top of a rather steep hill. Going back to when I worked in the High Brooms area of Tunbridge Wells, it was one of my favourite pubs for a lunchtime drink, even though it was a bit of a drive. Lunchtimes in those days, were slightly more flexible,  so arriving back late on the odd occasion, didn’t raise too many eyebrows.

Matthew wasn’t born in those days and has never set foot in the G&D,  and since work had taken me in other directions, it was quite a few years since last visit. I was aware that, for a while, it had been acquired by a company from Tunbridge Wells, who attempted to turn it into an upmarket eatery, but thankfully in more recent  times it has reverted to much more a traditional village.

According to the website, in May 2017 the pub was acquired by Silverlake Leisure, with the aim of providing  local bitters,  good wines, simply cooked  local and seasonal food using the bountiful produce from the surrounding heart of Kent. 

We pulled into the car park, which was around two thirds full, and headed for the bar. Before entering, I stopped to take some photos and noticed the pub sign which indicates the establishment as a Brakspear’s house. After entering, via a lobby, we went through the right hand door which has always led to the Public Bar. 

Nothing much seemed to have changed, which was re-assuring, with the same old flagstone floor, worn smooth over the course of the centuries by the passage of many feet, and the massive inglenook fireplace opposite the bar. There were three cask ales on tap; Harvey’s Sussex, Larkin’s Traditional and Brakspear’s Oxford Gold. I went for the Harvey’s and was glad I did, as it was in fine form, scoring 4.0 on the NBSS.

The bar was virtually empty, as most people were sitting outside enjoying the fine weather. There are areas both in front of the pub, as well as behind, where customers can enjoy their drink or their meal out in the fresh air. Matthew and I opted for the former, and from our table in the shade of the front of the pub, we could see across to the Parish Church of St Mary's. 

Despite having known the pub on and off for the past 40 years, I have never been upstairs, but the upper floor is home to a 70 seater restaurant, set beneath the ancient oak beams of the rafters. There is also a much smaller private dining room, which can hold up to 14  people.

Obviously a building of this age is full of character, so it is pleasing to see that many of the ancient features have been retained. The beer range is not as extensive as it was in the early 1980's, when I first became acquainted with the pub, but given the known quality issues associated with stocking too many casks, this is no bad thing.

So if you fancy a trip back in time, then do yourselves a favour and pop in. You won't find food at "Pub Grub" prices, but if you do feel like pushing the boat out, then the George & Dragon looks like the ideal place to do so.

Friday, 8 June 2018

An afternoon in Wunderburg

A short distance east of Bamberg, along the line of the Main-Donnau Kanal, lies the suburb of Wunderburg. It is almost a self-contained community with its own church and shops, but of more interest to the beer lover, it is also home to two breweries. What’s more the breweries are on opposite sides of the same street. On the second full day of our stay in Bamberg, and on a day which was perfect for drinking,  our tour group visited both establishments

Many UK beer enthusiasts will be familiar with the name Mahr’s, and it was in the courtyard beer garden which fronts the brewery that we later ended up but, as the beer garden doesn’t open until 4pm, our first port of call was at the lesser known Keesmann Brewery.

We sat outside in what in effect is the brewery yard, where there are a number of tables and benches laid out for those who
enjoy al fresco drinking during warm weather. There was a bit of disgruntlement from a  couple of group members, as they wanted to sit inside, but they were persuaded by the majority of the group that they should join us out in the sunshine.

Sitting in the courtyard brought back memories of that first visit in 2010, when Matt and I sat there watching the brewery staff getting things ready for the local Wunderburg Kerwa; an annual celebration which has religious origins, but nowadays seems just an excuse for a get together accompanied by plenty of beer drinking. This time though the  activity in the yard seemed much more workaday, although that routine was shattered when several cases of bottled beer came crashing to the ground, due to the actions of a careless fork-lift driver.

Keesmann are best known in Bamberg for their Herren Pils brand, which probably is one of the best pilsners in the local area. I also enjoyed the brewery's Helles and their Gold. We had eaten earlier, at the nearby Fässla Keller (more about that another time), but some of our party were getting impatient, and having drank their way through the Keesmann range, were keen to move across the road to Mahr’s Bräu and start on their beers.

An advanced party were therefore sent over, with instructions to secure a table with sufficient space for all 13 of us. Matt and I wandered over later, with the stragglers, and
found the other ensconced at a long table, sheltered from the fierceness of the afternoon sun, at the far end of the courtyard. The garden was relatively empty when we arrived, but by the time we departed, it was packed.

We joined our comrades and got stuck in with the sampling of several of the excellent Mahr’s Bräu beers on offer. This obviously pleased the “Untapped” contingent, who had several more beers to tick-off electronically. As I hinted earlier, Mahr’s are quite familiar to UK beer enthusiasts, and the brewery has even gone as far as launching a collaboration with an English brewery.

The pub attached to the brewery is also well worth a visit, although it was deserted whilst we were there, as everyone was outside enjoying the sunshine.  I popped inside a couple of times, in order to visit the toilets, and managed a look around and also took some photos.

I have been inside the Mahr’s pub during the depths of winter, and it is a lovely old, comforting sort of place, with a real timeless feel about it. During that visit, in late December 2010, one of the beers “Ungespundetes”, was being dispensed direct from a wooden cask, perched up on the bar counter, but I understand this practice has unfortunately ceased.

The temperatures during May’s visit were at the opposite end of the scale and we were glad of the large, square umbrellas which provided adequate shade for the entire table. I enjoyed both the Mahr's Ungespundete Lagerbier, known as "U" and the Helles.

As the late afternoon gave way to early evening, most of the party headed back to the hotel. Matt and I still had some beer left in our glasses and not wishing to rush decided to make our own way back. The only trouble was that despite having been to Mahr’s several times, we couldn’t find the bus stop.

We decided to follow the course of the Main-Donnau Kanal back into the city centre, but rather than walking along the bank, we kept to the road which runs parallel with the canal. We eventually came across a bus stop, but discovered that it was only two stops away from the central bus station. It still provided some welcome relief from the sun which, even at 7pm was still very fierce.

Later that evening Matt and I joined three of our companions for an Indian meal. It was an old friend’s birthday, and instead of pork knuckles and Schnitzels, he fancied a curry. We’d been discussing this earlier, whilst still at Mahr’s, and the consensus was that Germans didn’t really do hot and spicy food; how wrong could they be!

It was quite a hike to the curry house; the Germans haven’t really taken to curry in the same way that us Brits have, so there are only a handful of Indian restaurants in Bamberg. With one of our party following the route indicated by Google Maps on his phone, we found our way to the restaurant via a maze of back-streets which afforded a totally different view of Bamberg.

Indisches Restaurant Swarg was certainly worth finding, and looking back at the map, it wasn't far from Bamberg's main shopping area. As it was Monday evening, it was virtually empty and we almost had the place to ourselves. We were handed English menus, although I imagine the German version would have been quite easy to decipher.

Matt and I both went for a Jalfrezi; lamb in my case, chicken in his. The waiter asked how spicy we wanted it, so we both said "mild". Our companions are seasoned curry lovers, so opted for chicken vindaloo each. They also decided to share a bottle of Burgundy between themselves, but Matt and I stuck to beer - Schlossbrauerei Reckendorf.

We should have gained a hint from the curry paste which accompanied the poppadom starter, as it was exceedingly hot. That cold glass of Helles was already coming in handy. When our main course arrived, it was anything but mild, although I have to say it was extremely good. It certainly put paid to the myth about Germans not liking really hot curries!

We spent an enjoyable couple of hours at Restaurant Swarg, reminiscing over old times and having a good laugh remembering shared experiences. We made our way back to the hotel, by a slightly different route, joining the rest of the group in reception for a couple more beers. They had dined at Cafe Abseits; Bamberg's premium beer cafe, just a short distance away on the other side of the tracks. It had been a good day, but I certainly felt that curry the following morning!