Friday, 20 February 2009

And The Winner Is

I am pleased to announce that the Rose & Crown at Halstead was selected as West Kent CAMRA's Pub of the Year for 2009. This follows the tour of the six finalists undertaken by branch members last Saturday. In an extremely close contest, the Halfway House at Brenchley was declared runner up. Congratulations to not just the worthy winner and runner up, but to the other four pubs which made the final selection.

I'm off to Tallinn on Sunday, so won't be posting for a while. I hope to report on the beer scene in Estonia upon my return.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Saturday's Pub of the Year Tour

The West Kent Pub of the Year Tour took place last Saturday. Unlike previous years when we've suffered anything from broken down mini-buses, to adverse weather conditions, this year's trip went remarkably smoothly. Eleven members turned up, including some old faces we hadn't seen for a while, plus a very welcome guest from Croydon and Sutton branch. The weather was dry and sunny when we set off, and this helped set the scene for an excellent day's pub visiting and beer sampling.

Six pubs in total were visited, starting at the Dovecote Inn at Capel where the licensee was presented with a certificate to mark his 10 years in the Good Beer Guide. Being the first port of call I sensibly stuck to the lower gravity Black Sheep Bitter, which at 3.8% was a good beer to start with. All the cask beers at the Dovecote are dispensed by gravity, by means of taps which stick through a false wall. This allows the casks to be stillaged in a temperature controlled room behind the bar, a system that was developed by former licensee. Richard Allen, who has adopted the same system for use at his current pub - the Halfway House at Brenchley.

The latter was to be our third port of call, but en route we stopped at the Hopbine, in the small hamlet of Petteridge. For a long time this was the only King & Barnes tied house in Kent, but since K & B's sad demise back in 2000, it now belongs to Hall & Woodhouse and sells Badger beers. Landlord Mike Winser has been at the pub since the mid 1980's and is due to celebrate 25 continuous years in the Good Beer Guide - something of a record for West Kent CAMRA. As well as enjoying some excellent Badger beer, most of us partook of some more solid refreshment; my home-made steak and kidney pie, with chips, vegetables and gravy was particularly good.

From the Hopbine it was a short run down to the aforementioned Halfway House. Since taking over this ex-Whitbread pub, Richard has carried out extensive alterations and has moved the serving area into the former adjoining restaurant. This has allowed him to adopt the same arrangement for the gravity dispense of the beer that he had at the Dovecote, only this time with even more beers available. There were 11 cask beers on tap when we called in, including a mild, and old ale, and several different bitters ranging in strength from 3.8% up to 5.2%. All the beers were either from micro-breweries or established independents, with a good hand full of local names such as Goachers, Kings, Rother Valley and Westerham making up the range. Between us we must have sampled most of them, and what's more they were all in good nick. Richards' prices are also very reasonable, and on the whole reflect the price charged to him by the breweries concerned. For example, the excellent Skinners Best Bitter, which was my first pint was only £2.20. Contrast that with the Harveys Sussex Best, which although a good beer, and also probably the most widely available real ale in the region, Richard is having to sell it for £3.00 a pint, due to its higher wholesale cost. The Halway House also runs its own beer festivals; one taking place over the late May Bank Holiday, with the other being held over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

From the country we headed off to town; into the centre of Tunbridge Wells to be precise. Here we stopped at the Royal Oak, an up and coming free-house which has been given a new lease of life by its keen and very enthusiastic new owners. Dark Star Hophead was the star attraction on this visit, so far as I was concerned, but previous visits have seen the superb Larkins Porter available. As well as Dark Star, there was a beer from Wychwood brewed to mark the Six Nations Rugby competition being played out on the nation's TV screens. The pub's menu looked inviting as well, and seemed particularly good value for money. Had I not eaten earlier, I would certainly have partaken of the food on sale in the Oak.

It was a long drive to the fifth pub on our itinerary, namely the Rose and Crown. I have written before about this excellent, unspoilt, two-bar village local, which nestles high up on the North Downs, just inside the M25 ring. Tripple fff Moondance was my choice here, but the Moorhouse Black Cat mild also slipped down well. Bob, the landlord, had laid on some sausage rolls and sandwiches for us. This was a nice touch, as despite having eaten at lunchtime, it was now getting well on into the evening and many of us were starting to get a bit peckish again. A few members adjourned to the public bar in order to watch the England v. Wales rugby match, but most of us stayed in the quieter saloon, enjoying the beer, the company and, of course, the complimentary food.

We departed the Rose and Crown and headed down into Sevenoaks to the Anchor, which was to be our last pub of the evening. Although unassuming from the outside, licensee Barry Dennis has created a thriving and well run town centre pub where both regulars and casual visitors can be assured of a warm welcome. People like Barry are something of a rarity in this day and age. He comes from a family with a long tradition of running pubs, and has been at the helm of the Anchor for 30 years. Whilst such achievements were not that uncommon when Barry first entered the trade, these days pubs seem to change their licensee every few years, with people not prepared to "stick at it" anymore. Whilst some of this is undoubtedly due to the many changes undergone by the licensed trade in recent years, there does seem to be a misconception in certain quarters that the pub trade is "easy money", and a way of quickly getting rich . The short of it is that many new entrants to the trade go in with their eyes closed, impervious to the sheer hard work involved in running a pub, and soon end up disillusioned, and often broke as well.

The Anchor is different though, and we were soon enjoying the well-kept Harveys Sussex Best and Sharps Doom-Bar bitter. Yet more complimentary food was placed in front of us; this time sandwiches plus a selection of Indian snacks. Now I don't want people to get the wrong idea and assume that certain landlords were trying to buy votes, as nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is the food was most welcome at this late stage in the evening and helped to soak up some of the excess beer we had all consumed.

So ended a most enjoyable day out. All the pubs surveyed were of the highest standard and when it came to totting up the scores (based on CAMRA's standard criteria for pub of the year awards), there were not many marks separating them all. Unfortunately although I know which pub won, I am not at liberty to reveal it at the moment, as it has not been made public knowledge yet. You will all therefore have to watch this space for further details!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Pub of the Year Tour

This coming Saturday sees me and some of my fellow CAMRA members from West Kent Branch embarking on our annual Pub of the Year Tour. Now CAMRA, like a great many other organisations, seems to thrive on acronyms; hence Pub Of The Year gets shortened to POTY. I particularly despise this abbreviation, to me it's only one step up the evolutionary scale from Baldric (a.k.a. Tony Robinson) waffling on about "Geophys" on "Time Team" - the word is Geophysics man! I've lost count of the number of times I've wanted to throw something at the television when this whining, extremely irritating little man ruins what should and could be a very interesting and enjoyable programme - but I digress.

For better or worse, our Pub of the Year Tour kicks off just before midday, and those members who have booked a place will be whisked by minibus around the highways and byways of West Kent visiting the finest hostelries the area has to offer.

Actually we're confining our trip to six pre-selected pubs, carefully chosen at last month's Good Beer Guide selection meeting. A few years ago we ended up with eight nominations, and had to run two separate trips. This led to all sorts of problems, especially with the scoring, as some people were unable to attend both trips. It was unanimously decided after that to restrict the number to six - even if it meant taking a vote on the nominations. Six pubs are just about do-able over the course of a Saturday afternoon, especially as the branch covers quite a large area of West Kent.

All six pubs are automatic guide entries, and several are either past winners or runners up. The list does change slightly from year to year, otherwise things would get a bit boring, and this year we are doing the circuit in reverse. This is a good idea, as in spite of all good intentions, by the end of the trip (i.e. by the time we have reached the final pub), people's judgement does become just a little clouded by the amount of alcohol consumed over the course of the day!

Attendees are given a score sheet and are asked to mark each pub according to CAMRA's standard scoring criteria. As well as beer quality, several other areas come into play, including involvement with the local community, attitude of the bar-staff, plus of course that all-important, but hard to define quality we refer to as "atmosphere".

We will linger in one of the pubs for lunch, but the whole trip will hopefully be a relaxed affair. I can think of few better things to be doing on a dreary Saturday in mid-February, and am really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Good Beer Guide Selection Meeting

It's been a while since I last posted anything, so I thought I'd better update my small, but loyal band of readers about what's been happening in this corner of Kent.

Members of West Kent CAMRA held their Good Beer Guide selection meeting the wekend before last. We normally hold these meetings on a Sunday lunchtime, with the business starting at 2pm. This gives those members wishing to partake of a spot of lunch prior to the meeting, the oportunity to do so. This formula has always worked well in the past, and usually ensures a reasonable turn-out. Unlike some branches, nominations for the new GBG are asked for prior to the branch AGM, which takes place in November. All nominations received are then surveyed prior to the January selection meeting. This means that when it comes to actually deciding entries for the forthcoming guide, the branch are in a good position to sort the wheat from the chaff - having completed survey forms to hand, plus the recommendations, or otherwise, of the person (or persons) who actually carried out the suvey.

This years selection meeting took place on neutral territory, just over the Sussex border, at the Brecnock Arms, Bells Yew Green. This excellent Harveys pub is about five minuts walk from Frant station, which itself is just one stop away from Tunbridge Wells on the Hastings line. Regular readers will remember a previous blog of mine where we were thwarted in our efforts to hold a social at the Brecknock due to over-running building work. This time I am pleased to report that the pub was well and truly open for business.

The alterations carried out to the Brecknock involved moving the bar-counter back into the rear saloon bar, a part of the pub that was rarely used, and knocking through the dividing wall between the bars. Normally I am not in favour of knocking bars through, but in this case there are still two separate drinking areas and the limited space in the pub has been much better utilised.

Roughly half of us took the lunch option, and my steak and ale pie, accompanied by roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy was most excellent. Also excellent was the Harveys Old to wash it down, It was just a little unfortunate that halfway though the afternoon it ran out, having been the choice of most of the attendees at the meeting.

The selection process went remarkably smoothly; in fact I was slightly disappointed there were no arguments or any real bones of contention. We filled our allotted quota of pubs, and aso selected a couple of reserves, should space allow. It was particulaly good that on a wet and dismal Sunday afternoon, we managed an attendance which ran into double figures. What was also good was the throng of happy drinkers, as well as diners, packing the Brecknock on what was its first Sunday lunchtime since re-opening. Full marks therefore go to Joe and his missus (whose name escapes me at the moment), for continuing to run an excellent village local which remains at the heart of the local community, and also to Harveys for the sympathetic way in which they have extended this much-loved pub.