Sunday, 31 January 2010

More Dark Ales

After months of what seemed to be an absolute dearth of dark beers, today's foray across the border into Sussex certainly yielded some results.

Our local branch Good Beer Guide 2011 selection meeting took place earlier today at the Brecknock Arms, just over the Kent-Sussex border. This excellent Harvey's pub is easy to get to by train and. for guide selection purposes, is on neutral territory. Although our numbers were swelled later on, six of us caught the earlier train in order to partake of the Brecknock's Sunday lunch menu. Most of us opted for the roast pork, which was just the right sort of fare on a bright, but freezing cold January day. On arrival at the pub we were pleased to see three dark ales on offer, namely Harvey's Mild, XXXX Old Ale plus, much to our surprise, Fullers London Porter. The latter was totally unexpected, as I didn't think Harvey's allowed guest ales in their pubs, but whatever the brewery policy, I have to say this beer was absolutely superb. The Old Ale was also in tip-top condition, and I ended up having a couple of pints of each. I should perhaps have tried the mild as well, but a friend who did, pointed out that whilst it was in good condition, it was a bit on the thin side.

The selection meeting went remarkably smoothly, with consensus being reached on the majority of the entries. This is not to say that there wasn't the odd moment of lively, and occasionally heated debate, but on the whole the meeting passed off without controversy.

After the meeting ended, a group of us moved on back to Tunbridge Wells. We made our way to the Grove Tavern, a perennial Good Beer Guide entry, where we were pleased to see a further dark ale on sale. This time it was Hogs Back Winter Ale, a well-balanced and tasty, 4.4% dark seasonal ale.

It's probably just as well I don't live in Tunbridge Wells, otherwise I would be in the spending a lot of my spare time in the Grove! Suffice to say, the pub was pleasantly full without being overcrowded. The Hogs' Back Winter Ale was just the right beer to end up on, following an excellent afternoon of sampling the dark stuff.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Tonbridge Crawl

A couple of weeks ago we had one of the best turnouts for a mid-week CAMRA social that most of us can remember. The event was a tour of a few selected Tonbridge pubs; pubs we perhaps might not normally go to. We kicked off at the Ivy House at the top end of the High Street. This 350 year old inn re-opened earlier last year after an extensive refurbishment. It is now somewhat of a foodie’s pub, with links to Michelin Star Chef, John Burton-Race. It certainly wasn’t packed out with diners on a damp Wednesday evening, and only had Harvey's Best on sale. The barman though, must have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of beer he sold in a short space of time. Seventeen of us amounted to over two gallons of ale! I must say that the Harvey's was in good condition, although a tad expensive at £3.20 a pint!

We then moved on to the Wharf, in Lyons Crescent. This converted former wharf building has been through several changes since it first opened as a Beefeater Restaurant back in the mid-1980’s. I have fond memories of its time as a Hogshead Alehouse, when it offered a wide range of real ales direct from casks kept behind the bar. In more recent times it had stopped selling cask beer, changed its name to the Wharf and become something of a young persons haunt. Now it is good to see the Wharf back in the real-ale camp.

That night, there were two cask ales on offer; Adnams Old and London Pride. There was some doubt that the former was Old Ale, as it certainly wasn’t the dark colour this style of beer should have been. The London Pride was quite drinkable though, and just before we left the bar staff put on a third ale – Black Sheep Best. The pub didn’t seem to have changed all that much since its Hogshead days and is definitely a place worth keeping an eye on.

Our third port of call was Mojo’s, at the back of the station. Again this is a pub that has a couple of name changes. For many years it was called the South Eastern, but in more recent times it was known as the Station House and unfortunately acquired a bit of a bad reputation. Now a recent refurbishment and change of name has given the pub a new lease of life. Decorated in a modern, minimalist style, Mojo’s was selling Harvey’s Best alongside Sharp’s Doom Bar on the night of our visit.

Time was getting on so we moved on to the last pub of the evening, the Punch & Judy in St Stephen’s Street. This is yet another pub that has seen several changes of name, being formerly known as the Gardener’s Arms. The Punch hit the headlines just over a year ago, when the then landlord, Mr Colm Powell, went on hunger strike in protest at the high rent being charged by the owning pub-company. He was pictured in several national newspapers lying in a coffin, symbolising the "Death of the English Pub". Since Colm's departure there has been a succession of landlords. When we called in, Young’s Bitter and the ubiquitous Doom Bar were the ales on offer, but unfortunately the former was way past its best and had to be returned. It was replaced, without question by mine host, and several of us got stuck into the Doom Bar whilst a fresh cask of Young’s was brought into service.

So ended a most enjoyable and highly successful tour of Tonbridge, during which we were pleasantly surprised by what these four pubs had to offer.

Monday, 25 January 2010

CAMRA Good Beer Guide 2011

I’ve been somewhat tied up this past couple of days. We’ve got our branch Good Beer Guide selection meeting coming up this weekend, and I’ve been kept busy filling out a load of boring Survey Forms. The joke of it is that these forms haven’t changed much since the early days of CAMRA, and were primarily designed for old-fashioned typesetters.

We all know that the world of printing has moved on since then, but these antiquated forms are laid out in a series of blocks. Entries for each section have to be made within the relevant squares using BLOCK CAPITALS. One is not supposed to break words at the end of a line – very frustrating when you have a word that is just one letter too long to fit at the end of a line! In short, the forms are a proverbial pain in the butt!

The even bigger joke though is that these forms are not now the final format in which the data is submitted to the guide editors. Instead some poor sod (our Branch Chairman and his wife) will have to sit down at a keyboard and input all this data onto the National Online GBG Submissions System. In short local branch members are doing the bulk of the Good Beer Guide editors work for them. So what exactly is Herr Protz being paid for?

Why also have I wasted the last couple of evenings writing out pub descriptions and beer lists in BLOCK CAPITALS, a form of writing I haven’t used since primary school? Come on CAMRA get a grip, stop taking the piiss and stop taking your hard-working members for granted!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Dark at Last!

At long last I have managed to track down a drop of the dark stuff, in fact I managed it two days on the trot! Friday lunchtime saw myself and a work colleague paying a flying visit to the recently re-opened Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath. The purpose of our visit was to inspect the pub ahead of next weekend's West Kent CAMRA Good Beer Guide 2011 selection meeting.

I have written about the Rock before. It is a fine example of an unspoilt rural alehouse, with low-beamed ceilings, a floor of bare and well-worn bricks and in winter a cosy log fire keeping the place warm. For many years it belonged to the local Larkins Brewery - just down the road in Chiddingstone village, but at the end of last October Larkin's owner Bob Dockerty, decided not to renew the lease on the pub and it reverted back to its original owners. After being closed for most of November, the pub re-opened the following month after an extensive re-fit. This involved replacing the rotten floorboards in the saloon bar, scrubbing the brick floor clean in the public bar, re-painting the ceilings, installing new toilets and, most recently, a new kitchen.

There is a very pleasant young couple running the pub now; those who remember the previous incumbent will breath a huge sigh of relief on that score. Larkins beers are still on sale, alongside Sharp's Doom Bar - a beer that seems to be everywhere at the moment. We were pleased to see Larkins Porter on sale, and can report that this 5.2% dark beer, full of rich roasted and bitter chocolate flavours, was in fine form.

Today, I nipped in to our local Wetherspoons in Tonbridge, and was pleased to see S.O.D (Shefford Old Dark) from B&T Brewery on sale. Like the porter the previous day it too was in excellent condition, and was just the ticket on a damp January afternoon.

Last night I enjoyed a bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra (I bought several last weekend at ASDA for just £1 each!). I had forgotten just how good this high strength version of Guinness could be. I won't have one tonight; I've got a bottle of Marstons Oyster Stout to enjoy instead. I've also got a couple of bottles of Innis & Gunn left over from Christmas to sample, including one that has been matured in a rum cask. Should be an interesting evening!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Bad Day at Black Rock

I know it's got nothing to do with beer, but this morning's news that American processed cheese manufacturers, Kraft have finally won their battle to buy Cadbury's must come as a blow, not only to all chocolate lovers, but to anyone who holds this much-loved, iconic British company in their affection.

To hear Cadbury's chairman declaring on the six o'clock news that the £12 billion deal will be good for shareholders just about sums up all that is wrong with British business today. His comment that the deal will be less good for Cadbury's employees, whilst brutally honest, just shows how the interests of shareholders (often large, faceless city institutions), seems to override those of both workers and consumers alike.

The whole affair has a sadly familiar ring to it, looking back to the takeover of Rowntrees, by Swiss giant Nestle, but at least Nestle had a background in chocolate and confectionery. All Kraft manufacture is plastic, processed American cheese, packed full of salt, artificial colours and other nasties. Just where Cadbury's fit into Kraft's scheme of things remains to be seen, but as is inevitable following any such takeover, the victor will seek to recuperate some of their costs by closing plants, slashing jobs and cutting back on investment.

Cadbury's R.I.P.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Burn's Night Celebrations at Wetherspoons

Popping into my local Wetherspons for a quick breakfast this morning, I noticed a promotion for Burn's Night. However, the company seem to have turned the occasion into "Burn's Week" as the celebration runs from 20th-25th January.

Now at the risk of upsetting my friends from north of the border, I have to say I am not a great fan of this particular poet, who's verses, to my mind at least, seem virtually un-intelligible. This aside, I am all for pubs trying to promote trade, and where this involves the celebration of a national hero, then so much the better. The promotion for "Burn's Week" is offering a traditional Burn's Night Supper dish of haggis, neeps and tatties, all for the princely sum of £3.99. This also includes a drink, and more importantly the company's outlets will be showcasing cask-ales from Scotland's craft brewers.

I therefore take my hat off to JDW, and will be heading down to my local "Spoons" to enjoy some of the above. (Just as long as I don't have to listen to any of the man's poetry!).

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Puting a Price on Things

One thing I have noticed on my trips abroad, and something I have been meaning to comment on for some time now, is the practice of many restaurants and bars of displaying their prices on a notice or small display board outside the premises. This is an excellent idea especially when visiting a new country or strange city, as it gives an indication of the prices charged. This is particularly important with regard to food prices. I am not tight, but believe in value for money, and knowing the prices beforehand helps in the decision making process and can help save any embarrassment.

The question I have to ask then is why are there so few pubs and restaurants over here following this practice? Have they got something to hide or indeed to be ashamed of? or is it just not considered a "British" thing to do? There must be dozens of visitors to these shores totally puzzled by the lack of information displayed outside licensed premises here, and all asking the same question. How about it landlords and restaurateurs?

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Closer to Home

Whilst there's something both highly satisfying and immensely enjoyable in flying off to foreign parts in order to sample different beers, sometimes it makes sense to pay a bit more attention to what is going on a bit closer to home.

Today, being the last day of the long Christmas break, I was determined not to waste it by sitting indoors. I was up quite early, we had taken the last of the Christmas decorations down, and now it was time to get out in the fresh air and enjoy a long walk in the countryside. My destination was the Hare & Hounds, in the small village of Bidborough, a pub which although virtually on my doorstep, was somewhere I hadn't been in a long time.

I set off following the scenic route up towards Bidborough Ridge. Although there was still frost on the ground in places, it was very pleasant being out in the bright January sunshine. I wasn't hurrying, and it took me an hour and a half to reach the pub, (I could have driven there in 15 minutes!). On the way I stopped to take in the spectacular views from the top of the ridge, right across the Medway Valley towards the Greensand Ridge.

The Hare & Hounds is a Victorian building on a cross-roads in the centre of Bidborough. Internally there are four separate drinking/eating areas ranging from a basic public bar (complete with darts and pool), a saloon with comfortable sofas, a large main bar with tables for bar food, plus a restaurant to the rear. There were four cask beers on sale: Harveys Best, Youngs Bitter, Sharps Doom Bar (a beer that seems to spring up everywhere round here!), and my choice of the day O'Hanlon's Firefly. This was a cracking beer; at just 3.7% it proved the perfect session bitter. I sat in the corner, close to the fire pleased to see that this particular village pub was thriving with a good mix of different customers.

After a couple of pints it was time to leave. I chose a different route back, following the Weald Way footpath down off the ridge. I was keen to follow this route as this is the next long-distance footpath that my friend Eric and I are planning to walk later in the year. The path was quite muddy in places, and I was glad to get back onto more solid ground.

I popped into our local Wetherspoons when I got back to Tonbridge. The pump clip for the Thornbridge Pioneer said "Available Soon" (how many times does that happen in JDW?), so I settled for a warming cup of coffee instead. After that it was time to meet my son from work and head for home for a most welcome dinner.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Christmas Beers

Unlike many fellow beer bloggers, my sampling of the juice of the barley was somewhat limited over the first couple of days of the Festive Season, and didn't really pick up until I went to Prague. Eileen's brother David came to us for Christmas and whilst he enjoys a drop or two of beer, for our Christmas meal we ended up drinking wine. We did have a largish container of Harveys Best to polish off beforehand, that had been given to me as an early Christmas present by one of the lads that works for me. Being "bright beer" I knew it wouldn't keep more than a couple of days, so after having made a sizable dent in it on Christmas Eve, it needed finishing up on the day itself.

In addition, as I was due to fly off to the Czech capital for a few days, I hadn't got too many speciality beers in for the Christmas season. I am looking at a couple of bottles of Rochefort (an 8 and a 10 degree) as I write. It would have been nice to have moved onto these with the cheese course, along with perhaps the Chimay Bleu that is also staring at me, but both David, and my son Matt were keen to get started on the port. It seemed rude not to join them, and I must confess I'm quite partial to a drop of Oporto's finest, so that was the end of the Trappist idea.

The several pints of Harveys, followed by a decent bottle of Merlot to help wash down a rather large turkey dinner would have been quite sufficient for me normally. The best part of a bottle of port between the three of us (Eileen doesn't drink!) was therefore more than enough to ensure that after the washing up was done I ended up falling asleep, and missed most of the first installment of Dr Who.

Later on in the evening, (quite a bit later on), and wanting something light and refreshing, I cracked open a bottle of Tesco's own premium Czech lager, Boheme 1795. This 4.7% beer is brewed by Ceske Budejovice's other brewery, Budejovicky Mestansty Pivovar - otherwise known as Samson. Somewhat confusingly the word "Pilsen" appears prominently on the label; surely "Budweiser" would be more appropriate? This aside, the beer itself has a good maltiness which nicely balances the fragrance and bitterness of the Saaz hops, and was just the thing to revitalise my jaded palate.

Boxing Day was a very sober affair. I had a 7.15 am flight to catch from Stansted the following morning, which would mean leaving home at around 2.45 am. For obvious reasons I wanted to be in a fit state to drive, so decided to leave my body to metabolise the remaining alcohol in my system and apart from a small glass of Boheme 1795 with my cold turkey and bubble and squeak, stuck to tea and coffee for Boxing Day.

I of course more than made up for this lack of beer when I got to Prague, but that's another story.

Friday, 1 January 2010

First Reflections of Prague

I arrived home from Prague yesterday afternoon, having enjoyed a fantastic four days of sight-seeing, and of course beer sampling in the Czech capital. Much of course has changed over the past 25 years since my first, and only, visit back in 1984 and back then it would have been almost impossible to believe that such changes could occur.

I intend to write a full description of my time in Prague on my other blog, Paul's Beer Travels, but for now here's a brief summing up of some of the best, and not so best things I found.

Best Dark Beer: Bernard Specialni cerny lezac, 5.1% - an absolutely stunning, chocolately dark lager, that I enjoyed on a couple of occasions in the Kyvadlo (Pendulum) restaurant in Prague's New Town.

Best Pale Beer: Pivovarsky dum Svetly lezak 4.0% - a stunning, unfiltered pale lager, enjoyed in the brew-pub of the same name, again in Prague's New Town.

Best Pub: U Cerneho Vola (The Black Bull) - a real basic, stand-up-to-drink, unspoilt local's pub in the shadow of Prague Castle, complete with bare-brick floors, a high, heavily beamed oak ceiling, and two noisy, smoke-filled rooms packed wih people sat on simple wooden benches, all enjoying each other's company plus the pub's excellent beer (Kozel), dispensed from a font on a free-standing bar-counter by a surly, apron-clad barman. I couldn't understand a word of what was being said, but loved every minute of it, and to think I nearly gave up on trying to find this classic pub having walked straight past it twice! Pure heaven on earth, and sited in one of the loveliest, and possibly most desiable parts of Prague in which to live.

Cheapest Beer: - the 12 degree pale and the 10 degree dark beer from Kozel, in the U Cerneho Vola pub above. At just Kc 26.5 per half litre, less than a pound a pint, I was thinking life doesn't get much better than this, given the classic, unspoilt Czech pub I was drinking it in!

Dearest Beer: St Thomas 14 degree dark lager from the Matuska Broumy micro-brewery housed in the former U Svateho Tomase beer hall, just across from the Charles Bridge. This legendary drinking establishment is now part of a very plush and upmarket hotel complex called The Augustinian. All very nice, but a real shame as I had fond memories of drinking in this beer hall on my previous visit to Prague. As for the beer, nice enough, but at Kc 55 for a 33cl glass, it is not somewhere the locals go to drink!

Most Nostalgic Moment:
Drinking in the legendary U Fleku brewpub where I'd enjoyed a good evening's eating and drinking on the CAMRA Travel/Cedock organised trip to Pilsen and Prague, back in 1984. Although the beer is now on the dear side at Kc 59 for a 40cl glass, it is still a world-classic dark lager. On top of this you never quite know who you'll be sitting next to in this rambling old pub.

Best View of Prague: Forget the classic views of the Charles Bridge and up towards the Castle. After walking up Petrin Hill (which felt like the north face of the Eiger!), and then along to the small micro-brewery at Strahov Monastery - Klasterni pivovar Strahov, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Castle District, crowned by the Gothic towers of St Vitus's cathedral, with the Vltava River shimmering far below. This vista was worth every step of the steep ascent up from Mala Strana, as was the St Norbert beer in the aforementioned micro-brewery!

Strangest/Most Surreal Sight:
Seen in an Old Town bookshop window; a book about Neville Chamberlain, the hapless British Prime Minister who disgracefully sold the Czechs out to Hitler in 1938 by allowing him to annexe the so-called Sudetenland instead of having the balls to stand up to the Nazi dictator's bullying tactics. Chamberlain even had the cheek to dismiss the whole shameful episode as "A quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing". An incredibly crass and stupid statement from someone who was responsible for the largest, and most far-flung empire the world had ever known!

First Beer in Prague: Arriving on a freezing cold Sunday, just after Christmas and being too early to check into my hotel, I took refuge in Bredovsky Dvur, a modernish pub not far from Wenclesas Square, serving excellent, unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell from cellar tanks. The roast pork lunch I enjoyed there was also very good too.

Last Beer in Prague: On my final evening, on a day when I'd probably drank more than enough, I made my way through the rain to U Medvidku (At the Little Bears), where I enjoyed a glass of Oldgott Barrique 5.2%, a half-dark amber lager, brewed on a small plant somewhere in this rambling, 500 year old pub, famed for its Budvar beer. The perfect end to a perfect winter's break.