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Friday, 31 October 2014

A Well Deserved Win!



The good news, especially for local readers, is that the “Beer of the Festival”, as voted for by attendees at the recent Spa Valley Railway Beer Fest, has been awarded to Larkins Brewery for their Green Hop Best.

This 4.0% ABV best bitter certainly packed in the hops, and when married with the toffee-like, chewy maltiness imparted by the generous use of crystal malt, that is Larkins signature; this beer was a worthy winner, especially as this is only the second time they have brewed Green Hop Best. The beer is brewed on harvest day, with hops straight from the fields that aren’t dried and is only available for about 10 days. The two casks of it at the SVR Festival sold out really quickly; such is the reputation and the taste of this excellent beer.

Larkins beers are brewed just outside the small, but picturesque village of Chiddingstone, in the south west corner of Kent. The company was founded in 1986 by local farmer and hop-grower, Bob Dockerty, at the family home - Larkins Farm; hence the name. They produce a range of fine traditional Kentish ales which are listed as follows: Traditional 3.4%, Platinum Blonde 3.6% (Seasonal Summer), Best 4.4% and Porter 5.2% (Seasonal Winter).
Larkins grow around four acres of hops but, somewhat ironically, Bob had to stop growing them when the brewery was first set up as, between farming and getting the brewery off the ground, he just didn’t have sufficient time. Then, around four or five years ago he decided to start hopping again due to difficulties in sourcing the varieties of hops he wanted for the beer.  Fortunately the wirework and poles needed to support the hop bines were still there, so Bob replanted the hops, and has been using them in his beers ever since. Larkins grow three varieties: Early Choice Goldings, Bramling Cross and Whitbread Golding. Each has a different aroma, and they are used in differing amounts in each of the company’s four beers.

Bob and Harry Dockerty
Having been brewing for nearly 30 years, and farming for even longer than that, Bob has now been joined at the brewery by his nephew Harry. Harry has been learning the trade and is now assistant brewer. Having known Bob since he first set Larkins up, I am extremely pleased for him, Harry and their fellow co-workers at the brewery for wining this thoroughly deserved award, and look forward to trying their Porter when it is officially launched next week. (I missed it at the SVR Festival, as it sold out even quicker than the Green Hop!).

This article about hop-picking at Larkins, recently appeared in the Guardian newspaper.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Some Post Festival Reflections




Well after a busy week and an, at times, somewhat manic weekend, I am slowly returning to normality. A beer festival organised and run by two disparate organisation, both of which are staffed and run almost entirely by volunteers, was never going to be easy, and yet, somehow, it all came together and the event happened. How successful it was in monetary terms remains to be seen, as there was a fair bit of beer left, but in terms of attracting people to a preserved railway, and offering them one of the best ranges of cask beer in the south east, then the festival was an undoubted success.
 
I am talking of course about the 4th Spa Valley Railway Beer and Cider Festival. I was heavily involved with the organisation and running of the event, and like most of my CAMRA colleagues I am both pleased and relieved it is all over. This festival is more complicated than most because as well as there being beer available at the railway’s Tunbridge Wells headquarters, there was also a selection of different beers further down the line at both Groombridge and Eridge stations. To further complicate matters there were two train sets operating up and down the line; both of which also had beer on sale.

A logistical nightmare in terms of ensuring all points of sale were adequately stocked and suitably staffed, but also extremely difficult  when trying to forecast likely demand. Entrance to the main site at Tunbridge Wells West is free, which means the Spa Valley have no idea how many people attend each year. They know how many tickets they sell for the trains, but many of those enjoying the ride along the line are enthusiasts who have turned up because of their interest in preserved trains, rather than to enjoy the many and varied beers we have on offer. Those arriving at the other stations will equally not be counted, unless they have bought a ticket, but even then not everyone gets off at these stops, or wants to buy a beer. These factors all combine to make the job of estimating the amount of beer needed at these intermediate stops doubly hard.

We ran out of beer early at the previous two events, but this year there was quite a bit left; as mentioned earlier. Of course none of this should detract from the excellent range of beers that we had on offer, and the undoubted attraction of riding up and down this preserved line, through the glorious Kent and Sussex countryside which lies between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge.
 
Will we do it again? Well next year’s festival already appears on Spa Valley’s promotional posters, so unless something totally untoward happens between then and now then it’s very likely the event will go ahead. Whether or not I will do it again remains to be seen, but to end on a positive note I heard nothing but praise for our choice of beers and their overall quality. More on this subject in a subsequent post.

Friday, 17 October 2014

A Beer Buyer's Lot is Not a Happy One!


Waiting for the thirsty hordes

As regular readers will be aware, I’ve been charged with ordering the beer for the forthcoming beer and cider festival which our local CAMRA branch is running in connection with the Spa Valley Railway. The latter are a preserved railway who runs trains over five and a half miles of restored track between Tunbridge Wells West and Eridge. This line, which closed in 1986, was one of the last to axed by a cash-strapped British Rail before it was split up and privatised. A senseless closure given the line's strategic importance as a cross-over route, but since when did sense ever come into these decisions?
                 
To return to the fast approaching beer festival; the event takes place next weekend, from Friday 24th to Sunday 26th October. What makes the event unusual is the fact that beer is available at the stations at both ends of the line, as well as the intermediate stop at Groombridge. Beer will also be served on the trains! As you can imagine, the logistics of setting up and manning three separate static bars, as well as two moving ones, have been a bit of a nightmare, so surely picking up the phone and ordering the beer should be a piece of cake in comparison?

Last year’s experience should have told me otherwise. Brewers may be wonderful, creative and interesting people, but they are often not very good at dealing with sales enquiries. Whilst this might seem perverse, given that there is no point in them brewing the beer if no-one is able to buy it, you have to remember that many brewers are extremely busy people, who as well as stirring the mash tun will often be out delivering the beer, sorting out the accounts or stuck out in the yard carrying out every small-brewer’s favourite job – cask washing!

This explains why  quite often they don’t return phone calls or respond to email enquiries, and whilst I can  understand why, it doesn’t make the job of ordering beer any easier.  I cheated this year, though by placing the lion’s share of the order through a beer agency, and then struck lucky when a local publican came to our rescue by offering to source those beers we’d had difficulty with. Our friendly landlord and I spent several evenings mulling over lists, together with the CAMRA colleague who had drawn up the original list, and by last Monday we were finally there.

There had been quite a few changes along the way. Several breweries were unable to supply for reasons ranging from distance, lack of capacity or even a reluctance to supply CAMRA festivals. I won’t name the latter as I understand and respect their reasons, but all this had meant the beer list was in a continual state of flux as we strove to achieve a balanced selection.
 
Green Hop Ales at last year's festival
Unfortunately all the threads which made up the final list came together two days after the print deadline for the festival programme, which meant some of the work another colleague had put regarding tasting notes, beer styles etc, was wasted. I felt for him, and understand his frustration, but the decision for going to press early was that of the Spa Valley and not our own.

Had we waited a few days longer, everything would have been good, but such is life! I’ve spent today ringing round those breweries who are delivering separately, just to check everything is still on course. I’ve been assured that it is, so fingers crossed that all the beers we’ve ordered do actually turn up next Tuesday, as promised. I’ll be on site the following day, helping to get the beers stillaged and then tapped and spiled. Come the weekend I’m looking forward to serving them to the thirsty punters. If you are in the Tunbridge Wells area next weekend, then do call in and say hello.

“A veritable smorgasbord of the county's finest 3.5% flat brown bitters.” Was how one rather unkind commentator described the festival. He couldn’t be more wrong, as ironically, traditional “brown bitter” is quite hard to come by these days; especially from many of the smaller micro-breweries. Golden ales, pale ales, IPA’s and all manner of porters, stouts and other dark beers, are abundant, but apart from local stalwarts Harvey’s and Westerham, not many other breweries in Kent and Sussex brew a brown bitter. My colleague and I both reached this conclusion whilst compiling the list. Perhaps CAMRA should launch a campaign in the same manner as that for mild, only this time for “brown bitter”!

Monday, 13 October 2014

A Brief Interlude in London

I had a brief interlude in London last Thursday. I was in town for a trade show; the Dental Showcase to be precise. The event, which took place at London’s Excel, is designed, as its name suggests, to showcase all that is best in dentistry. The dental manufacturing company I work for hasn’t exhibited at Showcase for a number of years now, as we are concentrating our efforts on the export market. We will however, have a stand at the grand-daddy of all dental exhibitions. IDS (International Dental Show), which takes place every two years in Cologne, dwarfs Dental Showcase by a large factor, and for this reason the latter did seem rather tame. There were a large number of stands there from accountancy firms, finance houses, insurance companies and other lenders, which shows the general direction the field of dentistry is heading in, and the increasing corporate nature of the industry as a whole.
   
After acquiring sufficient free samples of toothpaste and mouthwash, I was done with the show by about two thirty. I had obtained a ticket for my son Matthew, who for curiosity’s sake not only fancied a look around the show, but also a late afternoon/early evening in London, so after leaving Excel we took the DLR along to Stratford. We had a look around the impressive and rather upmarket Westfield Shopping Centre where, more by luck than judgement, we chanced upon Tap East.

Tap East, Stratford
Tucked away in a far corner of "The Great Eastern Market" section of the centre, just along from Waitrose, this contemporary brew-pub has been trading for a number of years. I had read good reports about the place, so we popped in for a look. Being mid-afternoon on a Thursday, the place was fairly quiet, although there were still a few groups of people enjoying a drink.

The bar was adorned by two banks of three hand pumps; one at either end. In the middle was a bank of keg taps. To one side, behind a glass screen, was the brew-kit. Three of Tap East’s regular beers were on the left hand set of pulls, with a couple of guests on the right hand set. I went for the 3.0% Tonic Ale, a well-hopped, session pale ale. Matthew went for the 4.5% Frontier Lager from Fullers. We only stayed for the one, but I have to say Tap East is a very pleasant place, with helpful and knowledgeable staff behind the bar. I will certainly pop in, next time I’m in that part of East London.

We headed for Camden Town next, in order to visit the Brew Dog pub which is a short walk down from the tube station. This was our first visit to a Brew Dog establishment, and we probably hit it at just the right time; late afternoon, before it started to fill up with people on their way home from work or students calling in for a pint following afternoon lectures.

Brew Dog, Camden Town
The pub itself is an attractive, late Victorian building, standing on a street corner like so many pubs from that era. The outside has been painted black, giving the pub a very contemporary look, and this them extends to the inside. We sat looking towards the bar on some raised benches, towards the rear of the pub. Being “Brew Dog Virgins” we were a little unsure what to go for, but a booklet, handily placed on most of the tables pointed us in the right direction. Avoiding some of the more extreme, super-strength bottles we opted for a couple from the draught selection; This. Is. Lager. for Matthew, and Brixton Porter for me.

The former is Brew Dog’s newly launched lager, which describes itself as a "21st Century Pilsner". At 4.7% abv, and with a hop-bitterness of 40 IBU, This. Is. Lager. Is brewed from a grist consisting of Pilsner, Munich and Caramalts, and is bittered with a mix of Hallertauer Hersbrucker, Saaz and Columbus hops. The beer is then cold-conditioned for five weeks resulting in a stunning lager which is a pleasure to drink. Brixton Chocolate Porter is a 5.0% beer, with notes of chocolate, coffee and autumn berries. The company claim that “This is how a porter would taste if it were invented in the London of today.”

It was certainly very good, but rather than have another I decided to try something else from the draught list. Punk IPA at 5.6% hit the spot. I’ve enjoyed this beer in bottled form, but this was the first time I’ve tried it on draught. Matt stuck with the lager; he’s a lot less adventurous than me!

Interior,  Brew Dog
Things I liked about Brew Dog included the contemporary layout, the information leaflets and the wide choice of beers, which included quite a few guests. Most of all though, the helpful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff who really seemed to know their beers, really stood out. Compare this to the average Pub Co operation with the bored and totally indifferent spotty yoof behind the bar, who is more interested in flicking through the TV channels or texting his or her mates, than actually engaging with the customer! BTW, that last comment is not directed at young people in a negative way, as all the staff at Brew Dog were around the same age as Matthew. It just shows the difference which adequate training and investment in your staff can make!

After leaving Brew Dog we headed back into Central London in search of something to eat. Thursday evening is Curry Night at Wetherspoons, so a ruby seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately we couldn’t get near to the JDW outlet in Leicester Square, as much of the area was cordoned off for some red-carpet film premiere, (I can’t tell you which luvvy this was in honour of and besides, I couldn’t care less anyway). Instead we made our way to the Lord Moon of the Mall, just along from Trafalgar Square.

Despite the size of this pub it always seems packed to the gunwales, but this time we were fortunate and managed to find an empty table. I went for the 4.5% Citra Session India Pale Ale, brewed at Bank’s Brewery by Chuck Silva (whoever he might be?), as part of the "Wetherspoons American Craft Brewers’ Showcase". I won’t say what Matthew had, but I’m sure our old friend Cooking Lager would be proud of him.

The Thursday night curries at JDW come with a drink, but the draught offerings were not to my liking. Some outlets allow customers to choose one of the guest ales instead, but I’m certain this is not official company policy so, rather than pushing my luck, I went for one of the cans from Sixpoint Brewing. The Bengali Tiger that I asked for was out of stock (none left in the fridge), but the 5.4% The Crisp went down well with my Chicken Tikka Masala. Matthew had another big-brand, international lager!

After that it was a short walk along to Charing Cross and the train home followed by a relatively early night, ready for work the next day.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Heavenly Brew - Part Two



The first part of this article described the two best known Kloster Brauereien in Germany;  places of worship, and retreat from the world which have continued the centuries old tradition of monastic brewing. Now, in the concluding part, we look at some of their lesser known brethren.

Kloster Ettal
This summer’s trip to Munich afforded the opportunity of a brief visit to Kloster Ettal. I have already described our visit which we undertook during our trip south to Mittenwald, and apart from picking up a few bottles and having a beer in the imposing Klosterhotel “Ludwig der Bayer”, opposite, there’s not a lot to report.

The Good Beer Guide to Germany claims the monastery brewery has an annual production of 12,000 hl, and the beers are available in around 55 local pubs, so the brewery is perhaps larger than I first thought. Having now had the chance to sample the bottled beers I returned home with, I can report they are very good.  I am therefore glad we made the detour to Ettal, as the bus ride through the pine forests up into the hills, and the setting of the monastery against the backdrop of the mountains, was worth the trip alone.

Kloster Reutberg Beers
Kloster Reutberg, which lies to the south of Munich, close to the town of Holzkirchen, at the end of S-Bahn Line 3, is a monastery brewery we’ve yet to visit, although two years ago we did find a pub selling Kloster Reutberg beers in Holzkirchen itself. One reason to visit Reutberg is said to be its south-facing beer-garden which, on a clear day, affords spectacular views towards the Alps. There is an excellent photo on the Kloster Reutberg website, which shows the beer-garden and brewery complex in the shadow of the imposing monastery church. Today, the brewery is owned and run by a co-operative with some 4,000 members. It is definitely a place to visit on our next trip to Munich!

Kloster Scheyern
On our recent trip, I picked up a couple of bottles of Kloster Scheyern beer; a Helles and a Dunkles. These beers are brewed at a complex consisting of a hotel, Bräustüberl, and Klosterstub'n, plus of course some imposing monastery buildings. Brewing at Scheyern dates back to 1119, but ceased on site, sometime during the last century. Kloster Scheyern beers continued to be brewed by Hasen-Bräu in nearby Augsburg until May 2006, when a newly-installed brewing plant commenced production, bringing brewing back to the monastery, which is situated to the north-east of Munich.

There are three other breweries with monastic connections in Bavaria; two of which are situated at opposite ends of the state. In the far north of Bavaria, close to the border with the neighbouring state of Hessen, is Klosterbrauerei Kreuzberg. This is a genuine monastery brewery, which is owned by the Franciscan Order, with the beer still brewed by the monks. Brewing here dates back to 1731, although the monastery buildings are slightly older


The isolated Kloster Kreuzberg
Kloster Kreuzberg is situated in the mountainous Rhön region, at a height of 928 metres above sea-level. It is one of the most isolated, and the most difficult of the monastery breweries to access; certainly by public transport, although here is a hotel and restaurant attached for those arriving by car and wishing to stay the night.. Well worth a trip, and an over-night stay, as the hotel rooms are very reasonably priced. However, overnight visitors beware; the Klosterschänke closes at 8pm each evening. The monks rise at 4am for morning prayers, so they need their beauty sleep!

Irsee Klosterbräu lies in the south-eastern corner of Bavaria; with a brewery, a pub and a hotel situated in the former monastery buildings. Like its counterpart in the north, Kloster Irsee is difficult to access by public transport, although again the presence of the hotel makes arriving by car and an overnight stop a worthwhile option and here they keep serving until 11pm!


The final Klosterbrauerei on my wish-list isn’t run by monks; instead it’s a convent brewery operated by nuns. It’s called Klosterbrauerei Mallersdorf, and is based in the 900-year-old Mallersdorf Abbey, which overlooks the town of Mallersdorf-Pfaffenberg, situated to the south of Regensburg.

Sister Doris - enjoying the fruits of her labours.
For nearly 45 years, Sister Doris has been the legendary Brewster at this imposing abbey, rising before most of the other sisters on brewing days, in time to start work in the abbey brew-house by 3:30 am.  She’s even allowed to skip the obligatory morning prayers in order to perform her tasks in the brewery! Depending on the time of year, Sister Doris turns out a copper-toned Vollbier, Helles Bock, Zoigl Beer, Doppelbock or Maibock.

Mallersdorf-Pfaffenberg has a station, so a day trip there to sample Sister Doris’s wares would not be a problem; (the beers aren’t available anywhere else!). Like at the previous two concerns, the abbey has its own hotel, so again an overnight stay is an option. I’ve read good reports about the beers at Mallersdorf, and the pictures on the website, of the abbey complex and the small beer garden also look attractive.

To sum up, the ancient links between church and beer are alive and kicking in Catholic Bavaria, with a number of attractive and welcoming Klosterbrauereien to visit. As you can see from this brief guide there is plenty to interest for the beer lover, and I am looking forward to delving a bit deeper into the fascinating and centuries old tradition of monastic brewing.


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Getting the Beers In



I’ve been rather pre-occupied recently, as I’ve been tasked with ordering the beers for the forthcoming Spa Valley Real Ale and Rail Festival, which takes place in just over a fortnight’s time.

The festival is a joint collaboration between West Kent CAMRA and the Spa Valley Railway. It’s the fourth such event, and following the success of the previous festivals, we are hoping this will be the best one yet.

I’ve spent the best part of the last few months emailing and phoning round breweries in order to provide a varied selection of the region’s best ales for the festival’s thirsty punters. It’s been a rather thankless task though, and it’s amazing just how many breweries that haven’t bothered to responding to emails or replying to phone messages. I appreciate that many small breweries operate with a minimum amount of staff, and that the brewer might be in the middle of digging out the mash tun when the phone rings, but surely they want people to buy their beer, don’t they?

Anyway, with the help of a well-known local beer agency, and a helpful local publican I think the order’s finally been cracked. There are two meetings scheduled for next week, at which the final details should all be sorted out, and then we can begin getting the beer set up the week after.

If you are in the area over the weekend of 24th – 26th October, then why not call in and see what it’s all about. The bulk of the beers will be on sale at Tunbridge Wells West Station, but there will also be a smaller range of beers available at the two stations back down the line; Groombridge and Eridge - the latter station having connections with mainline train services to London Bridge.

Full details can be found here on the Spa Valley Railway website.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Micro-pubs



I have a confession to make; until last Friday’s excursion to Thanet, I had never set foot inside a Micro-pub. For someone living in the county where the Micro-pub concept was established, this is not a good thing to admit to, but it is nevertheless a fact. Having now visited, and drunk, in a few I can safely say I’m sold on the idea, but for the benefit of those not familiar with the concept, what exactly is a micro-pub?

According to the Micro-pub Association, which was established in 2012, “A Micro-pub is a small free-house which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks”.

The passing of the 2003 Licensing Act, which became effective in 2005, made it much easier to set up a small independent public house, so it is no coincidence that the same year the Butchers Arms Micro-pub  was opened by Martyn Hillier, in Herne, Kent. This original Micro-pub is the winner of numerous CAMRA and other industry awards, and has become the template upon which all subsequent micro-pubs have been based.

In 2009, Martyn gave a presentation to the Campaign for Real Ale AGM, held that year in Eastbourne, showing the simplicity of the 'Micro-pub' model and encouraging other people to follow his lead. It proved to be a catalyst with the opening of the Rat Race Ale House in Hartlepool six months later, and the Just Beer Micro-pub in Newark-on-Trent, which started trading in August 2010. These two were followed soon after by the Conqueror Alehouse in Ramsgate, which opened later the same year.

Since then, there has been a flurry of Micro-pubs opening, and the number now stands at 68! I am pleased to report that 25 of these are in Kent, which can therefore truly proclaim itself as “Home of the Micro-pub”. There may be differences between the pubs; they may or may not have a bar, they might serve beer straight from the cask or through hand pumps, but they are united in one philosophy - a simple pub with the focus on cask beer and conversation for entertainment.

Having been in a few micro-pubs now, I can certainly vouch for them being real community locals, attracting a range of like-minded individuals, drawn from a wide cross-section of the local neighbourhood. All the establishments visited on Friday were places where conversation ruled, or where during less busy times, customers can come and sit and read the paper, or a good novel, whilst enjoying a well-kept pint.

The latter is obviously of high importance, and the fact that all the pubs we visited kept their beer in a temperature-controlled area, and dispensed it straight from the cask, shows a commitment to maintaining the high standards of quality which many of their macro counterparts could do with copying.

The Micropub Association website lists all 68 Micro-pubs in chronological order of their opening, along with brief details of each establishment and links to various reviews plus, where applicable, links to the pub’s own website. The association also offers lots of practical advice for people wanting to open their very own Micro-pub; in fact they say “Open a Micro-pub in your town before somebody else does!” 

Footnote: Tonbridge has been promised its very own Micro-pub. Planning permission has been obtained for the conversion of a former tattoo parlour into a Micro-pub, which will be called the Two Pigs.