Monday, 25 November 2013

Larkins Porter at Last!

Last Friday I managed to sample, for the first time this year, one of my favourite, seasonal “winter” beers. At 5.2% abv, dark and full-bodied with lashings of scrumptious chocolate from the chocolate malt used in the grist, Larkins Porter is a beer whose appearance each November is eagerly awaited by its devotees. Every year, Larkins brewer and company owner Bob Dockerty, produces just two brews of this superb beer; one in mid-September, and the other towards the end of November, (round about now). Following brewing and primary fermentation, each brew is allowed to mature, in cask, for a minimum period of six weeks before it is released to trade. (During exceptionally cold and prolonged winters, I have known Bob to brew a third batch of Porter in January, but this is by far and away the exception).

Bob has been brewing Larkins beers for the best part of thirty years. The brewery is housed in a converted cow-shed at the family farm, on the edge of Chiddingstone, in a splendidly rural setting over-looking the valley of the River Eden. Three different strength bitters are produced: Traditional at 3.4%; Chiddingstone at 4.0% and Best at 4.4%. All are quite similar in character, and it is difficult to tell the last two apart. Traditional is the best seller by far, outselling the other two beers by a factor of 150%. This is hardly surprising given the rural location of the majority of Larkins outlets. Although just 3.4% in strength, “Trad”, as the beer is normally referred to, packs in a lot of taste for its low gravity, and is a fine session beer, and the ideal lunchtime pint. Being relatively low in alcohol, drinkers in local pubs can enjoy a couple of pints of Trad safe in the knowledge they will not be over the drink-drive limit for the journey home.

Porter, on the other hand, is a totally different beast. At more than one and a half times the strength of the Trad it is definitely a “one pint” beer for anyone contemplating getting behind the wheel.  Consequently very few pubs stock it, particularly those located in rural areas, and as for outlets in the towns, I know of only one pub that stocks the beer, and even then it is only on an intermittent basis.

Fortunately the Castle Inn, at Chiddingstone is one pub where a pint of Porter, during the winter months, is practically guaranteed. Situated just a few hundred yards along the road from the brewery, the Castle Inn is an impossibly attractive pub in an equally impossibly attractive village. The pub, the local tearooms plus the village shop and post office are all owned by the National Trust, who bought them in 1939, along with other nearby houses in Chiddingstone, as an almost perfect example of a Tudor one-street village. The Trust leases out these properties as businesses to suitable tenants, and after many years under one such leaseholder, the Castle changed hands a few years ago, and seems to be doing equally well under its new management.

Chiddingstone takes its name from the large sandstone outcrop in the village known as the 'Chiding Stone'. It’s also only 10 minutes drive from my workplace, and so a lunchtime visit is eminently practical. It was a grey, chilly late-November day when I arrived in Chiddingstone, and after parking the car just up the road, I made my way to the Castle. The building dates back to 1420, but it didn’t become an inn until three centuries later. Like many of the buildings in the village, it’s constructed in typical Kentish style, with half-timbered sides, gables and a red, tile-hung frontage and roof.

What I like about the place is the appearance that time has stood still. I say “appearance”, because in spite of its olde worlde feel, the Castle is bang up to date in many respects, not least of which is the high standard of food and drink which it offers. A free Wi-Fi connection is also available - other pubs please take note! Going back to the time-warp theme for a moment though, the Castle is that rarity these days in so much as it still has two separate, but linked bars.

I usually head for the public, as not only is this bar unspoilt; it is also where the village characters congregate. Bob Dockerty numbers amongst the locals here, but not normally until the day’s work at the brewery is finished. Other characters include farm workers, gamekeepers, foresters and other assorted “country folk”, but on Friday I had the bar to myself. I could hear a few diners along the passageway, in the saloon bar, but with no-one to talk to in the public I had to alert the bar staff to my presence by an effected cough and noisily moving one of the bar stools!

I had, of course, noted the Larkins Porter pump clip upon entering, so as soon as mine host appeared behind the bar I ordered a pint. It wasn’t cheap at £4.20 a pint, but then we are talking National Trust prices, plus all the atmosphere and ambience of an unspoilt 18th Century inn. In addition, the beers in the Castle are priced according to their strength, so that a pint of Trad for example, may be some 50-60p cheaper.

I am pleased to report though, that the Porter was worth every penny, being smooth, chocolaty and malty, balanced by just the right degree of bitterness. As I said earlier, Larkins Porter is definitely a “one pint” beer for anyone getting behind the wheel. On top of that I had a busy afternoon’s work ahead of me, so with the taste and memory of this excellent beer still fresh in my head, I bade farewell to the Castle and returned to work. Fear not though, I will be back before the porter season is out!

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