Sunday, 28 November 2010

West Kent CAMRA 2010 AGM

I mentioned in a previous post that this weekend my local CAMRA branch (West Kent), was holding its Annual General Meeting. This took place at the Oak Tree in Sevenoaks, a large town-centre pub housed in an historic building that dates back several centuries. We had booked a side room that leads off from the main bar, for the meeting, as this area is generally quieter than the rest of the pub, and is free from both TV and piped music.

The Oak Tree has, in the past, offered up to five cask beers, so it was not a good sign when, on arrival, we noticed the Harvey's pump clip turned round and just two other ales on sale; Wells Bombardier and Westerham British Bulldog. I opted for a pint of the latter, which was excellent and, at only £2.40 a pint, extremely good value. The meeting was slightly late in starting, but branch chairman Iain manged to keep things in order, and business was conducted at a brisk pace. Halfway through though, my glass was empty so I sneaked of to the bar for a refill. I hadn't really noticed before just how busy the pub had become, but as I waited to get served I was joined by a friend and we both noticed that only Bombardier seemed to be available. We were even more mortified when we heard the barmaid announce that there would be no bitter on for a while, as she needed to pull another one through.

Apart from a dozen or so of us CAMRA members, the Oak Tree was primarily busy because of the England v South Africa Rugby match being shown on the three TV screens dotted throughout the pub. It was only when I fought my way through to the gents that I realised just how many people were packed into the place. Now rugby supporters are well known for their love of decent beer, so it was perhaps not surprising that supplies were running low, but fortunately the new cask had been pulled through on my return. I patiently queued and was rewarded with a pint of Bombardier for the princely sum of just £2.30! Now I have never been a huge fan of this beer, but I have to say that my pint was superb, with a wonderful aromatic hop aroma evident as soon as one placed the glass to ones lips, and a nicely-balanced citrus hop flavour to match.

I rejoined the meeting in time for the election of the new committee. I had previously agreed to stand again as BLO for Larkins, and was duly re-appointed without challenge. We had a short break in order to eat the buffet that the pub had laid on for us. Afterwards the meeting resumed to consider nominations for the 2012 Good Beer Guide.

We would probably have stayed longer in the pub had there been a wider variety of beers available. As it was the new cask of Bombardier looked as though it was going to run out soon. I couldn't help thinking that the pub's management had missed an opportunity here. Not only were there a dozen or so CAMRA members present who's presence they must surely have been expecting, given the fact that the meeting was pre-booked a couple of months previously, but also the fact that a major rugby game was being televised could not have escaped their notice. To have failed to ensure that sufficient cask beer was available was a spectacular "own goal". Having said that I will certainly give the Oak Tree another try, as I especially like its keen prices, as well as its layout and good mix of clientele.

We moved on to sample the wares of a couple of other pubs in the town. First stop was the Sennockian, scene of our visit a couple of nights previously. This time they had a couple of interesting dark ales on tap; both left over from their recent festival. Lion Stout, at 5% was good, but not as good as the 8% bottle-conditioned version I used to stock in my off-licence. The Titanic New York Wheat Porter was much better, in my opinion, despite its lower strength of 4.2%.

Some of the party wanted to move on, so we walked the short distance, back up the High Street, to the Chequers. I have long considered this 16th Century, former staging post inn, to be one of the best pubs in Sevenoaks, not only for its historic and characterful interior, but for the interesting range of beers it often has on sale. I didn't clock all the ales they had on offer, but I did pick out St Austell Tribute and Black Sheep Best Bitter as the ones to go for. We grabbed a section at the far end of the bar, furnished with plenty of comfortable chairs, and looking out over the street outside. On such a bitterly cold night it was nice to be in the cosy warmth of this ancient inn, and bask in the glow from the open log fires that were keeping the freezing outside temperatures at bay.

A few hardy souls went on to the Anchor, but the majority of us had had sufficient beer by this time, and made our way home. It was bitingly cold walking down to Sevenoaks station, and I was glad to reach the warmth of home. All in all it had been a good afternoon/early evening, with a successful AGM behind us, and another year's campaigning and socialising to look forward to.


Anonymous said...

Re The Oak Tree. Why if you've got a load of passionate beer drinkers in tow didn't you collectively grab the landlord by the collar and shout "FFS PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!" ?
West Kent is a wasteland of these dreary pubs peddling the same old boring brews, run by couldn't care less individuals - look around you fellas! Look at the number of new breweries springing up making delicious fresh exciting beers! London Pride? Greene King? Get out of here.
Why haven't we got an Evening Star/EustonTap/Rake in the area? WHY?
West Kent CAMRA pull your finger out, stop being so benign and make it count!

Paul Bailey said...

Good point, anonymous. However, the landlord was nowhere to be seen, and it would have been rather unfair to have vented our frustrations on the hard-working bar staff who did their best in coping under trying circumstances. That said, the lack of forward planning by the licensee, must be called into question.

Yes, we could certainly do with an outlet like the Rake or Evening Star in West Kent, that would act as a showcase for some of the exciting new beers that are appearing on the scene. If anyone's interested in exploring this idea further, then please get in touch via these pages.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree that in West Kent we do not have bars of great quality. The Halfway House at Brenchley being a good starting point. Sankey' are always testing the boundaries with interesting ales as their reent Brew Dog meet the Brewer session proves.
To be fair to the Oak Tree the Manager was only in place a week and the previous Manager did not pass on the booking or place a decent beer order for the incoming Landlord. It appears to be common practice for outgoing Managers to place their successors in a poor light, shameful it is but it happens all too often.

Paul Bailey said...

I take your point "anonymous Kentish Scot", about the Halfway House Brenchley and Sankeys, both of which stand out like beacons in a sea of otherwise mediocrity. There are also a handful of other excellent "destination pubs" in the West Kent area that are prepared to push the boundaries when it comes to stocking an interesting range of beers. (Royal Oak, Tun. Wells springs to mind!)

Far too often though, landlords would rather play safe and stick with the same range of bog-standard beers that are available in pubs and bars up and down the country, most of which are obtained straight off the Pub Company's standard list.

With regard to the Oak Tree, I was trying not to be too hard in my criticism, especially as the bar-staff were clearly doing their best in what were trying circumstances. What we have to examine closer though, is why pubs like this keep changing manager? Is it company policy? or are they set targets that are impossibly high to achieve?

I would agree with you about too many out-going licensees adopting a "couldn't care less" attitude, when it comes to passing on information to their successors. Perhaps it's just a case of "I'm glad to be out of here"!