Friday, 28 February 2014

It’s not often that I get sent free stuff, but when I do it’s always gratefully received. Several years ago I received a mixed case of beers from Woodforde's for me to review, and just recently I received a mixed case of “craft beers” from the good folks at BEER52. The latter are a newly established beer agency  who are based in Scotland. Each month they offer a case of eight different  hand-picked craft doors, which  they will deliver to your door. The beers work out at around £3.00 a bottle, and each case is accompanied by detailed, and well laid-out, tasting notes. There is no delivery charge.

In exchange for these beers I offered to review them on behalf of BEER52, and like other bloggers in similar situations, I wish to record that my thoughts, opinions and comments on the beers will be as honest and objective as possible, and will not be influenced by the fact I received these items foc.

There are eight beers in total, six of which are from breweries I have never heard of. The two breweries I am familiar with are Grain and Oakham; both of which are quite well known, having been established for some time now. Anyway, here’s the beers listed in the order I drank them, together with what I thought of them:

Oakham Ales Citra 4.6% - Pale gold in colour and topped with a thick foamy head, this classic new wave beer has a stunning citrus-like, grapefruit aroma, from the renowned Citra hop. Oakham claim they were the first UK brewery to use Citra, back in 2009, and such were its unique qualities it quickly became a permanent fixture. The brewery also claims lychee and gooseberry aromas in the beer, and they are certainly correct about the dry bitter finish. A really good and very drinkable, all round beer.

Church Farm Brewery Harry’s Heifer 4.2% - A pale amber best bitter. Poured without a head, but still with a reasonable amount of condition. A slight floral nose, but not much else in the way of aroma. Quite sweet tasting, with some citrus flavours present in the background. Not a huge amount of bitterness, (certainly not a hop monster!), but still a pleasant and refreshing drink. Half-way through the bottle now, and I’m of the opinion the beer is too sweet, and too floral for my taste. Perhaps more suited to a summer afternoon, than a damp, cold, evening in mid-February.

Top Out Brewery Staple Pale Ale 4.0% – Pale amber in colour, this bottle-conditioned beer pours well giving an inviting head of loose white foam. With a lovely zesty aroma from the American hops, the citrus theme extends through into the taste, enhanced by a touch of wheat in the grist. Top Out are based on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and have only been brewing since July 2013. If they can keep coming out with brews like this then they are on to a winner!

Grain 316 Extra Pale Ale 3.9% - I visited Grain Brewery’s central Norwich pub, the Plough, last April, whilst in the city for the CAMRA National AGM. Being fairly late on a Saturday night the place was heaving, but heaving in a good way with mainly young people, all enjoying the extensive range of Grain beers on sale in the pub. The bar maids were young and attractive too and, more importantly, they were very knowledgeable about the beers as well!.

What I am trying to say is that Grain seem a young and go-ahead brewery, and this is reflected in this bottled beer. Brewed using lager malt, which gives an extremely pale colour to the beer, 316 has a delicate malt body with a pronounced citrus hop aroma and flavour. The tasting notes from the brewery suggest necking it straight from the bottle, but to me that would be sacrilege, as it would with any bottled beer. Perhaps I’m not so young and go-ahead after all?

Stevens Point Brewery Belgian White 5.4% - A confession, I’ve never been much of a fan of what beers, so how did I fare with this craft wheat beer from Wisconsin? Surprisingly well, the beer poured pale with a colour approaching that of white wine. There was surprisingly little of the fruity, bubble-gum ester flavours associated with Bavarian Weiss Biers; instead there was a pleasant graininess, with a hint of coriander.

It is interesting to see from the tasting notes that as well as wheat, the beer contains rolled oats and is flavoured with a touch of Curacao orange peel and coriander, alongside the Hallertau and Saaz hops.

Stevens Point Brewery Black Ale 5.2% - Like its name suggests, jet black in colour. Poured completely flat, with no head present at all. A smooth tasting dark beer, with plenty of roast and caramel notes Bittered with choice Cluster, Saaz and Cascade hops for a smooth, bitter finish.I’m not really certain which style“black ale” fits into, although stout might be the most appropriate.

The Tickety Brew Company Dubbel 6.5% - Black in colour with just a hint of red when held to the light. Inspired by the famous Belgian Abbey/Trappist style the tasting notes state that the beer contains no roasted malts. Instead the “deep burnt red appearance” is achieved by adding dark sugar syrup. There is certainly a background taste from this syrup which reminds me of molasses; something I am not a huge fan of. However, this taste is not over-powering and the overall impression is that of a sweet beer, with a touch of spice and gentle bitterness. Definitely a beer which grows on you and a good take on a Belgian classic by an up and coming British brewery.

Summerhall Brewery Barney’s Beer 3.8% - This bottle-conditioned beer describes itself as a “Good Ordinary Pale Ale”, so does it live up to expectations? Well it pours nice and clear, is amber in colour and has a thick, but fairly loose head. There’s some hop, citrus and peppery notes in the aroma, but to me the beer is a little thin, but although it lacks somewhat in body, the hoppiness compensates with its thirst quenching properties.

Like the Church Farm Brewery beer, this pale ale is far more suited to a warm summer’s day, than a damp, cold, evening in late February. It would be interesting to see what some of the brewery’s other beers are like.

If you fancy trying some of these beers yourself, then why not place a trial order from BEER52?  The company are kindly offering a £10 per case discount to readers of this blog. To qualify for this, all you need do is type in Coupon: BAILEYS10 when placing your order. Happy drinking!

Footnote: this post originally attracted a small number of negative comments relating to the service provided by and, more importantly, to difficulties experienced by some people when attempting to cancel their subscriptions.

Following assurances received from’s founder, James Brown and his team, that the situation has now been improved, and that issues associated with cancellation have been resolved, I have decided to take down the comments.

This is not a decision I have taken lightly, but having run my own business in the past I know how hard it is getting everything right, especially first time around. As have introduced “super easy online cancellation”, I have given them the benefit of the doubt.

Final point; there has been no financial inducement, or “goods in kind” received on my part, as a result of this action, and I remain, as always, an impartial observer.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

A Night on the Tiles

Actually, rather than a “night on the tiles”, it was a night on the Pantiles. This famous and historic part of Tunbridge Wells is a Georgian colonnade leading from the well that gave the town its name. The area was created following the discovery of a chalybeate spring in the early 17th century and is now a popular tourist attraction.  The Pantiles today includes a variety of specialist shops, art galleries, cafés, restaurants and bars, and is the area of Tunbridge Wells that is best known to visitors to the town.
As well as the shops, galleries and cafés, there are also several interesting pubs, and in order to visit a few of these, our local CAMRA branch held a social on Wednesday night. Eight members attended, which for a damp evening in mid-February wasn’t bad. We met at the Ragged Trousers, which is the newest of the three pubs we visited. I say “newest” because the pub only opened in 2006. However, the building itself is the same age as the rest of the Pantiles Colonnade, although I do not remember what it was prior to becoming a pub.
The Ragged Trousers is a long narrow cafe-style pub straddling from London Road to the famous Georgian Pantiles area of the town. During periods of good weather the front seating provides an excellent position to observe passers by and activity of the local traders’ market. Inside the candle lit scrubbed wooden tables and low lighting create a cosy feel which contrasts with the vibrant atmosphere. Three hand pumps dispense the local Larkins and Long Man ales and a guest which on Wednesday evening was Coppernob from Tonbridge Brewery.
I stuck with the Long Blonde, from Long Man, an excellent and well-hopped ale, pale in colour and strong on taste. We stayed for around an hour, during which time we were joined by another member. The Trousers was pleasantly quiet, with just a handful of other drinkers, apart from our selves. I say pleasantly quiet because at weekends, particularly in summer, the place can be absolutely rammed, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to get served.
Round about 9pm we moved on to the next pub on the agenda, the nearby Duke of York; situated on the Lower Walk and within shouting distance of the Ragged Trousers. The Duke of York is an historic Pantiles pub which dates back to the 18th Century. Described as the ‘country pub in a town setting,’ the pub has thankfully reverted to its proper name after a spell as Chaplin s. The pub is now owned by Fullers of Chiswick, and features a range of the company’s beers who have recently taken direct control of the Duke of York, from its former management company – Pantiles Pubs; the people who run the Ragged Trousers and the Sussex Arms, (see below).
There was a reasonable sprinkling of drinkers in the pub when we arrived. We were greeted by a bank of five hand pumps offering four different cask ales; two beers from Fullers and two Gales brands. Most of our group opted for the Gales HSB, but a colleague and I spotted pump clip advertising one of my favourite Fuller’s beers, namely Bengal Lancer. Now I believe I have only ever drunk this beer in bottled form and as far as my colleague was concerned, this was definitely the case. Imagine our disappointment then when the barman attempted to pull a pint, only to find the cask had run out!
My choice as an alternative, Gales Seafarer, proved a bad one. The beer had a distinct “meatiness” about it and was lacking in condition. It wasn’t quite bad enough to return, but was definitely past its best. The others who had gone for the HSB fared somewhat better, proving that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The Duke of York is a pleasant pub though, and as the company was also very convivial, I wasn’t too bothered about my slightly “tired” pint.
From where I was sitting I could see across through the clear glass windows to the former Tourist Information Office, which has undergone quite a transformation over the past six months. It is now Tunbridge Wells’s first and only Champagne Bar. Now apart from a similar establishment in Whitstable I’ve only ever seen these sorts of places in airport departure lounges. I have sometimes wondered at the wisdom of tipping un-cooked shellfish down ones gullet before jetting off to exotic climes, thereby risking spending the first half at least of one’s hard earned holiday sitting on the toilet! However, that’s just me, and I’m sure that modern hygienic practices relating to the handling and serving of oysters, mean that any such risks are pretty minimal.
The people behind Tunbridge Wells’s Champagne Bar certainly know what they are doing, as they are none other than Sankey’s; a family of well-known and long established publicans, restaurateurs and fishmongers. Check out Sankey’s Bar and Fishmongers. This establishment of tiles, piles of crushed ice and beautiful people sitting at the bar, sipping champagne certainly looked busy for a damp mid week in February, and is a welcome addition to the food and drink scene in Tunbridge Wells.
It was time to move on to the last stop on our mini-pub crawl, the Sussex Arms. Tucked away from the main Pantiles area, but now surrounded by new development, the "Sussex Shades" as it was known locally is no longer the pub of legend. I have written extensively about its heyday here, so won’t repeat what I said apart from adding that following the 1987 redevelopment of the area, the Sussex ended up being changed from a pub full of character, run by and used by “characters”, into a trendy pub aimed at the youth market.
Because of these alterations I am always going to be biased against the Sussex in its current guise, although to be fair the new owners have tried their best, and the transformation has certainly mellowed over the past 27 years. Today it is a pleasant place for a quiet drink, although I believe it does host live music events from time to time. It was pretty quiet when we called in, shortly after 10pm. On the bar were Black Sheep Best, a red ale from Milestone Brewing Company called Rich, and what appears to be a limited edition 4.2% brew from Elgoods called CXXX. Not being a fan of red ales, I plumped for the Elgoods and was glad I did. Not only was my beer a well-balanced hoppy brew, it turned out a lot better than the offering from Milestone. I won that one then!
With work the following morning, I just had the one beer in the Sussex. This meant I was able to catch the 22:59 train home. There are two other pubs on the Pantiles in addition to the three pubs mentioned. These are the Swan Hotel and the Grey Lady. I can’t really say much about either. The Swan has recently been extensively furnished under its new owners, and I haven’t been in yet to see what it is like. The Grey Lady describes itself as a “music lounge”, and specialises in jazz and blues as well as other music genres. It sounds like a nice place to impress your significant other with a nice romantic meal and some live music, but never having been there myself, I can’t really comment. Do check these places out though if you are in the area; along with the Champagne Bar and the other three pubs, of course!

Friday, 21 February 2014

The Beer Drinker's Companion

I was prompted to write this piece after learning via Boake & Bailey’s Blog, of the passing of the pioneering beer explorer and writer, Frank Baillie. Frank passed away last week at the grand old age of 92, and a touching, and very apt tribute to him appeared on the CAMRA website. Appropriately for a man who did so much in the early days to spark an interest in good beer, and who provided much in the way of information about the UK brewing industry for the fledgling Campaign for Real Ale, the tribute was written by Graham Lees;one of the original four founders of CAMRA. You can read it in its entirety here.
Frank Baillie’s major contribution, back in the early 1970’s, was the publication of the ground-breaking piece of work which he had written following  several years  of assiduous research. Titled "The Beer Drinker's Companion", the book appeared in 1973 as a hard-back edition only, priced at £2.95. I was a student at the time, and the cover price represented quite a sum to me, so much so that I had to wait until the summer vacation before I could afford to purchase a copy! It was however, worth every penny.
The dust jacket hinted at the delights to come, by describing how Britain was still fortunate in having over 1,000 home-produced brands of beer. This was qualified by the statement that whilst many of them were beers of great character, the majority of them were little known and hard to find. It ended by informing readers that Frank Baillie "assiduously researches the practical aspects of beer as a hobby", that he has "drunk beer in thirty-six countries" and that he had "drunk all the draught beers at present available, as well as a great many bottled and keg beers".

"The Beer Drinker's Companion" was a pioneering work; never before had any publication attempted to list every brewery company still operating in Britain, let alone go on to describe the different beers produced by these breweries. The book was definitely a labour of love, being well researched and written in an entertaining and often witty style. It included sections on: 

What Is Beer?
Beer Types Defined
Dispensing Systems
The Flavour of Beer
Gravity and Strength
The Brewer’s Art
Home-Brewed Houses
Changes and Trends in the Brewing Industry

The main part of the book listed, in alphabetical order, all the regional breweries of Great Britain and the Channel Islands. Under each entry, the address of the brewery concerned was given, together with a short description of the town (or village), in order to set the scene. This was followed by instructions of how to recognise pubs belonging to the brewery and, more importantly, where to find them. Outposts, where a particular brewery's beers could be obtained, were also listed, and in some cases the actual pubs were named.

All the beers, produced by the brewery, were then listed and described, starting with the draught beers, before moving on to the keg and bottled ales. The dispense method, such as traditional hand pumps, top-pressure, or keg and tank systems, favoured by each brewery company were also mentioned. In all 88 different independent breweries and their products were described, but unfortunately over half of them are no longer brewing.

There was also a section on the National Brewers, but the book did not list all their individual; breweries, or indeed describe all the beers they produced. However, when one considers that Whitbread at the time operated some 16 breweries and Bass 11 plants, this omission is perhaps not surprising. In addition, Whitbread and Bass were in the process of rationalising these plants (closing many of them), so their inclusion would have been a futile exercise anyway.

Frank Baillie stated in the introduction to his book that "the shelves of practically any book store are overflowing with books about wine, but apart from a few books about home brewing, books on beer are very few and far between". He then went on to say (rightly in my view), "that beer with its infinite variety of palate and even bouquet is man's most popular drink. There are still over a thousand brands of beer to be found in Britain (not including imported beers), and the philosophy that "beer is beer", implying that all beer tastes alike could not be more misguided".

He called for a little more customer orientation on the part of both brewers and pub landlords alike, so that a new customer in a pub belonging to an unfamiliar brewer would know what to order, how strong the beers were and a rough indication of what they taste like.

He concludes by stating "As these ideal are not likely to be realised, this book has been compiled, and it is dedicated to the many beer drinkers who would like to find, know about and drink some of the wonderful beers still left before it is too late." I count myself as one of those beer drinkers and remain hugely indebted to Mr Baillie for compiling "The Beer Drinkers Companion".

Things of course, have moved on since the early 1970's, when traditional beer really was in danger of disappearing. Fortunately, thanks to the sterling work carried out by CAMRA, not only is traditional beer widely available, but the choice of beer available to today's drinkers is far in excess of that which existed forty years ago. In addition to the surviving established independent brewers, there are now hundreds of new micro-breweries that have started up in the intervening years.

Extinct styles such as porter and cask-conditioned stout have made a comeback. Seasonal ales are now widely produced, and even the large breweries have significantly increased the range of beers sold in their pubs. On top of that, the author's plea for more customer orientation has been largely recognised. The strength of beer, in terms of alcohol by volume (ABV), is now listed by law either at the point of dispense, or on the bottle or can, and CAMRA's best selling Good Beer Guide gives details of all the cask conditioned ales produced in the UK, as well as tasting notes for the vast majority of them. Interest in beer, breweries and brewing has also increased dramatically, not just here in the UK, but on a truly global scale. In short we beer drinkers have never had it so good.

In the latter part of 1996 an article concerning Frank Baillie appeared in "What's Brewing". As well as informing younger readers about "The Beer Drinkers Companion", it interviewed Frank some twenty-five years on. The article described how he was still enjoying beer at the ripe old age of 73 and that, whilst he had no plans to update his work, he was glad that it had sparked the amount of interest that it did.

Eighteen years after that interview, Frank Baillie is sadly no longer with us.I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I remember hearing the tale of a memorable encounter a former Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA branch chairman had with the man, back in the late 1970’s. I won’t name the person concerned, but him and another former branch member were in Blackpool, for an early CAMRA National AGM. Frank Baillie happened to be staying at the same boarding house as the two Maidstone members, and my friend recounted that on the first morning of their stay Frank arrived down for breakfast and when the landlady asked what he would like for breakfast, he requested kippers. “I’m afraid kippers aren’t on the menu, sir,” was the landlady’s reply. Frank looked a bit disappointed, but accepted the news with good grace. At breakfast the following morning, when asked the same question, Mr Baillie produced from under the table, a couple of kippers, wrapped in newspaper, which he had procured earlier that morning from the local fish market! The landlady was taken aback, but nevertheless agreed to cook them for him.

I don’t know whether this arrangement continued for the rest of the weekend, but my two CAMRA colleagues found the whole thing highly amusing, and very apt and true-to-form behaviour from someone who was known to be quite a character. CAMRA was full of them in the early days!

Monday, 17 February 2014

Spanish Customs?

I noticed some strange drinking habits whilst in Norfolk over the weekend, which set me thinking back to my post last year about mixing drinks. I was in the county for family reasons, visiting my mother who is in hospital recovering from a chest infection. She seems on the mend, so hopefully will be discharged soon, but whilst I was in the area I had the opportunity to visit a couple of local hostelries, and it was in both of these that I couldn’t help noticing some strange requests.

The first of these was a large family pub, built to cater for visitors to a busy retail park, close to the Norfolk Showground. Called the Copper Beech, this Marstons’ owned establishment reminded me at first of a 1970’s estate pub; except it was much better built and a lot more comfortable. As far as I know the Copper Beech has only been open a couple of years, but given its large size, and convenient location, it is obviously very popular. My parents took me there for lunch, when I visited last March, and on this occasion I was able to return the favour by taking my father there to dine, prior to calling in to check on my mother at the nearby Norfolk & Norwich Hospital.

As on our previous visit we opted for the carvery. At just under £6.00 a head, this offered excellent value, especially in view of the amount of meat, plus the help-yourself vegetables. Not only was the food good value, the quality was also there, with the beef amongst the most tender and flavoursome I have had in a long time. Whilst waiting at the bar to order our food, I noticed a lad in front of me returning a virtually full pint of lager;  Peroni as it happened, and his request for it to be changed was the strangest I have heard in a long time.

His pint apparently was too flat, and he wanted it changed. Now “flat” can mean a variety of things; to a Northerner it usually means there is no head on the beer (for head read an inch or two of shaving foam!).  To us, more sensible Southerners, “flat” normally means a lack of condition in the beer ie, “there’s not enough fizz”. I’m not sure what the issue was with this gentleman’s pint, as whilst the exchange Peroni was being poured it was our turn to be served. Dad and I both opted for the Boon Doggle, from Ringwood  to go with our food, and we were pleased to find it nicely conditioned and certainly not flat in the southern sense of the word; although for a southern beer it was incorrectly pulled through a sparkler! I was still left wondering though what the problem was with the Peroni, especially as I didn’t realise big-brand, lager drinkers were so fussy! Was it the lack of a head, caused by a dirty glass, or a line that hadn’t been cleaned properly? Or was it a lack of carbonation in the beer, possibly caused by the gas regulator being set too low? Obviously we will never know, but it was interesting to see that it’s not solely real ale drinkers who return pints they are unhappy with.

The second pub I visited was the Mermaid in the tiny village of Elsing. The pub is next door to the Bed & Breakfast place I have been using on my trips to Norfolk, and is the pub I wrote about here. After returning from the hospital, and dropping dad off back at the parental bungalow, I drove the short distance to Elsing, checked in at the B&B, and then an hour or so later wandered down to the pub. I arrived shortly after 8pm, to find the place buzzing. The first sitting of diners was just finishing, and people were starting to leave to make room for the second sitting. After asking whether any of the tables were reserved, the landlord told me I could sit at one of the smaller ones close to the half-height wall dividing the dining section of the pub from what still functions as the public bar area.

There was a couple playing pool, and after a while they were joined by several other locals who to a tee all ordered pints of Draught Guinness. Later, several more obviously local people came in, and all ordered the same thing. One couple requested a shot of blackcurrant in with their Guinness; a strange combination if ever there was one!

I’ve never seen so much Guinness being drunk anywhere, although admittedly were I to venture across the Irish Sea then things would undoubtedly be different; but what was even  more puzzling was that the pub had three cask ales on offer, and no-one, apart from myself, was drinking them! The choice was Adnams Broadside and Old Ale, plus Woodforde’s Wherry. Being a fan of darker beers, I stuck with the Old Ale and am pleased to report it was in fine form. I don’t know what the other two cask beers were like, but I imagine that as both were bitters they would have been more popular than the old.

The main point of this post though isn't really about strange drinks and strange requests, instead it's about pubs doing well. In these times when pubs are closing at an alarming  rate, it is especially pleasing to report that both pubs  I visited over the weekend were pulling in a good trade. They obviously cater for different markets, with the Copper Beech targeting shoppers looking for a spot of decently priced, but good quality lunch, and the Mermaid playing to its strengths as a village local, which also offers a range of slightly more expensive, but top quality meals. It all goes to prove that if you give the public what they really want, rather than what you think they might want, you are more than halfway there on the road to success.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Proper Job

It was a right “Proper Job” in the Chequers at Sevenoaks last Monday night, the venue for the West Kent CAMRA Open Business Meeting. The iconic IPA from St Austell Brewery was one of half a dozen beers on sale that evening; a selection which also included Tribute from the same brewery, a couple from Tonbridge Brewery – definitely our local “rising star”, plus that “must stock beer” in these parts the ubiquitous Harvey’s Best. What made the beer selection even more special was the fact that on Monday nights all cask beers in the Chequers are sold for just £2.50 a pint!
Well it was a no-brainer, so far as I was concerned, and despite its relatively high strength (4.5%), and the fact it was work in the morning, it was Proper Job all evening for me! The turnout for the meeting was in double figures (just), despite the absence of our husband and wife chairman and branch secretary, and the business was dealt with in a precise and controlled manner by our new vice-chairman, Tony, who is a very experienced and professional former licensee.

As mentioned in one of the responses to my “Still Fit for Purpose?” post, none of the members present were under the age of 50, and none of them were women. I have said before that we desperately need to encourage some younger blood along to our meetings, but the way to achieve this remains as elusive as ever. The business was the usual branch stuff, with the highlight being discussion of the forthcoming social programme. Pub Preservation also featured quite highly, and it is encouraging to report a recent re-opening of a flagship pub which had been closed for ages, and the imminent re-opening of another. The trouble is none of this would be of much interest to younger members, or those more concerned about the latest developments on the “craft beer” scene, and therein lies the concern.

So what of the pub itself? Well in my opinion the Chequers is definitely the best pub in Sevenoaks, combining the best aspects of an old, traditional former coaching inn, with the requirements of a modern 21st Century operation. Situated close to the junction of the London and Dartford roads, and adjacent to the town’s market, the Chequers dates back to the 16th Century. Its antiquity is obvious upon entering, with the expected low ceilings and exposed beams. During the winter months a log fire adds a nice welcoming touch. Away from the main bar there is a separate area, which we have taken advantage of many times in the past, as a place where we can conduct our meetings in relative peace and quiet.

As well as a good range of traditional beers, the Chequers offers value for money meals; every lunchtime, and evenings on Monday to Thursday. The pub was pleasantly busy last Monday, although I suspect the discounted beer price helps in this respect. It is a fine example of a thriving town-centre local, of the type which has disappeared from many towns, and is certainly well worth a visit if you are ever in Sevenoaks.

As for the beer, well Proper Job is definitely one of the finest beers produced by St Austell. Pale amber in colour, with a strong fruity character, with citrus notes to the fore, and a decent level of bitterness in the finish, Proper Job is certainly a very aptly named beer. Enjoy!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Still Fit For Purpose?

CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, has been described as "the most successful consumer organisation in Europe". Since its formation in 1971, CAMRA has not only saved traditional cask-conditioned ale (Real Ale), from almost certain extinction, but has been responsible for the establishment of hundreds of new breweries here in the UK, and a huge explosion in the numbers of new and exciting beers that are available to today’s drinkers.

This success has not been confined purely to these shores, as spurred on by, and in many cases in imitation of, the huge rise in interest in traditional beer styles, thousands of new breweries have commenced operation around the world, most noticeably in the United States. There are now in excess of two thousand craft breweries in America, and an unimaginable number of different beer styles and variations. A country once notorious for its bland, big brewery lagers, is now home to some of the most tasty, interesting and diverse types of beer anywhere on the planet.

The four young journalists, who, whilst on holiday in Ireland back in 1971, set up the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, as CAMRA was then known, could not have dreamt their fledgling pressure-group would be so successful; neither could they have imagined their efforts would have so much impact. Today, some 43 years on, CAMRA is a highly professional consumer organisation, with a paid staff, offices in St Albans and nearly 160,000 members, and yet at a time when the campaign has never looked so successful, just how relevant is the group today? Is CAMRA still fit for purpose in today’s increasingly diverse brewing industry?

I ask that question because around five years ago, the brewing industry in this country changed. The change happened imperceptibly at first, but then slowly gathered momentum until today it is like a juggernaut, almost out of control and who knows where it will take us next? I am talking of course about “craft keg”, hipster bars, and a virtual explosion of different tastes, ingredients, styles etc. In short it seems that in this short space of time the whole world of brewing, pubs and beer appreciation in general has been turned on its head.

Prior to this, virtually all the new concerns established in the wake of the “real ale revolution” were breweries that offered a standard range of several bitters, with perhaps a golden ale, complemented by a few seasonal brews such as a porter or a strong ale. The beers would invariably be cask-conditioned, and whilst some were stunningly good, many were shall we say mediocre, or even on the borderline of being boring.

There were a few exceptions to this cask only rule, such as Lovibonds and Meantime, but these companies were on the whole regarded as mavericks, particularly by the CAMRA fraternity.  However, things were about to change. I am not intending to relate the rise from nowhere of "craft keg", as I don’t know enough about the subject to do that. In addition there are others, far more qualified than me to undertake such a task, but having said that I don’t think anyone in the industry was quite prepared for what happened next, particularly in London. There are now around 50 new-wave breweries in the capital, and the new ones seem to be springing up all the time.
This explosion in breweries and beer styles, coupled with an unfamiliar means of storage and dispense caught CAMRA off-guard, and there was certainly a great deal of suspicion surrounding the latter on behalf of the campaign. The very mention of the word “keg” was like a red rag to a bull, so far as many die-hard CAMRA activists were concerned, and I must admit that even a broadminded member such as myself, took a bit of convincing.

A letter in the current, (February) edition of the CAMRA monthly newspaper, “What’s Brewing”, by the renowned and well-respected writer, Tim Webb (he of Belgian Beer Guide fame, amongst several other fine publications) makes the point that the world has moved on since the early days of CAMRA, and there are now some very good beers which, whilst not falling within the campaign’s definition of “real ale”, are still excellent beers in their own right.

I think this is something many of us have known for quite some time; especially those of us who have travelled abroad and enjoyed the beery delights of places such as Bavaria, Belgium, Bohemia and the United States. It is also something known to anyone who enjoys a bottle or two of decent beer. Yet again though, if the latter are not “bottle-conditioned” they will not fit in with CAMRA’s strict definition of “real ale”, but I defy even the most die-hard, died-in-the-wool CAMRA traditionalist to argue they do not taste as good!

I am sure the majority of members feel the same too, and yet, as Tim Webb points out in his letter, by using the term “Good Beer Guide”, CAMRA has boxed itself into a corner, because only those pubs serving cask-conditioned ale can be considered for the Good Beer Guide, and by definition pubs or bars which don’t can be deemed as NOT selling “Good Beer”.

To be fair, CAMRA has recognised this paradox and taciturnly admitted that there are many other forms and styles of beer, which are equally as “good” even though they are not “cask-conditioned”. Over the past decade or so the Campaign has published “Good Beer Guides” to Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and the West Coast USA; and very good guides they are as well! More recently it has published a guide to London pubs and bars, many of which also serve “craft keg”, foreign ales and lagers along with other “non-approved” beers. Des de Moor’s excellent “CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer Pubs & Bars” is an essential companion on visits to the capital; although the beer scene is changing and evolving so rapidly there that the guide is in danger of fast becoming out of date.

So should CAMRA now stop concentrating solely on cask-conditioned “real ale”, and embrace other styles? I’ve already demonstrated that to a certain extent it has, but should it go further? Is there a danger that in doing so the campaign loses its way, as after all exactly what constitutes a “good beer” is open to interpretation and can be somewhat subjective anyway. Answers on a postcard please. Alternatively just post them on this blog!

With acknowledgements to Curmudgeon who has written his own, albeit short, post on this subject. His post though was primarily responsible for me writing this one.

Personal Statement:

I have been a CAMRA member since the mis-1970’s, with an un-broken subscription; as witnessed by a membership number in the low 3,000’s. Over the years I have made many good friends through the campaign, have visited numerous breweries and countless pubs. On top of that of course, I have drunk and enjoyed an untold number of beers.

I have been actively involved with the campaign for many years, including over 25 years on the committee of my current local west Kent CAMRA branch, where I have served as secretary, chairman and Brewery Liaison Officer. These days I’m content just to go along to socials and other branch events, although I have recently taken the job of sourcing and ordering beer for our Spa Valley Beer Festival. 

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Meantime Union Re-launch

It’s not often I get the chance to attend the launch of a new beer, so when I received an invitation from a gentleman at the Meantime Brewing Company to attend the re-launch of their Union Lager, I jumped at it. I’ve been a fan of Meantime’s beers for a long time, so the opportunity to try something new, meet people from the brewery, and also get to know more about the company and its products, was too good to miss. The re-launch of Union Lager took place not at the brewery in Greenwich, but rather in a pub on the other side of London. The pub in question was the Ship, a Young’s pub at Jews Row, Wandsworth, over-looking the River Thames.
I arrived at the Ship shortly before 7pm, and after grabbing myself a pint of Young’s Gold, a new (for me), 4.0% refreshing golden ale, I made my acquaintance with our hosts for the evening, Dominique Daly and his colleagues from Meantime Brewery. Unfortunately, despite writing down people’s names and contact email addresses, etc, I  left the vital piece of paper in the pub at the end of the evening, so apologies in advance to all those I was conversing with on Tuesday night, and whose names I now cannot remember.
Before describing the events of the evening, a word or two about the pub. The Ship is a pub whose name I was familiar with, but was somewhere I never quite managed to visit. In the past I have been on several pub crawls of Wandsworth; either staggers in their own right, or a few pubs which were taken in prior to visiting the much lamented and fondly remembered Young’s Brewery. If I had known just how close to Wandsworth Town station the Ship actually is, I would have called in before. Crawls had usually started from the Alma, which is the other side of the tracks, but having been there now I feel the Ship would have been a better starting place. Oh well, such is the benefit of hindsight!
Back to the beer; Union Lager is named after the Greenwich Union, which was Meantime’s very first pub. Regular visitors to Greenwich will know it is at the top of Royal Hill, next door to the famous Richard I. A Young’s pub for many years, the Richard I is still known today as “Tolly’s”, after its former owners, the Ipswich brewers, Tollemache & Cobbold Ltd. Back in the day the company had a subsidiary brewery at Walthamstow in East London, which gave them a toe-hold in the capital, as well as a small number of pubs. Today there seems to be a tie up between Meantime and Young’s, as I noticed the Ship was stocking several Meantime brands, including lager,  although the pub was still stocking Heineken and Kronenbourg. One of the Meantime people at the re-launch, was the brewery account manager for  Young’s, but I wasn’t able to ascertain for certain whether or not  the latter have dropped their own branded lagers in favour of those from Meantime.
Anyway, back to Union Lager. This 4.8% beer is unusual as it is a Vienna-style “red lager”, of the sort that has virtually disappeared from the city of its birth, but one which is still brewed in Mexico of all places. The style was developed by the brewer Anton Dreher in Vienna in 1841. Its popularity in Europe eventually faded, eclipsed by the all conquering golden beer from Pilsen which swept all before it during the latter half of the 19th century. However, several Austrian brewers who emigrated to Mexico revived the style in the late 1800's, and it is still brewed there today.
Meantime's version first appeared in the late 1990's, but was discontinued around 2002. Now the company are keen to revive the style; hence Tuesday evening's re-launch event. So what is the beer like? As a keg beer, the beer is of course well conditioned, refreshing, slightly sweet with a pleasant, but not over-powering bitterness. Served well chilled, it makes a very pleasant alternative to standard pilsner lagers. Quite how the market will take to it remains to be seen, but given the renewed interest in craft beers it stands every chance of being a success. Meantime are keen to enhance their range with this historic style of beer, and feel it will act as a bridge between more traditional pilsner-style beers and ales such as bitter and IPA.
All in all it was a good evening, with excellent beer, good food, pleasant surroundings and above all some really nice people.  I’m not very good at remembering names and to make matters worse I left the piece of paper with peoples’ contact details and job titles in the pub; as stated earlier. I did though make the acquaintance of fellow beer blogger, Justin Mason , who writes the very informative Get Beer, Drink Beer blogspot, and also met legendary beer historian and writer Martyn Cornell, who had several interesting anecdotes to relate. My thanks to Dominique and his colleagues at Meantime for their hospitality, and also to all the staff at the Ship for looking after us so well on such a damp and blustery evening.
"Vienna Lager is a lager style that originated in Vienna, Austria. The colour should be medium red-brown to copper. There should be an obvious malt sweetness in both aroma and taste. Hop presence should be low. Mouth-feel should be clean and crisp. ABV should also be somewhat low."

Monday, 3 February 2014

Dark & Delicious Winter Beers at the Cooper's Arms

It’s probably a good job I don’t live within walking distance of the Cooper’s Arms in Crowborough, as I’d probably be in there every night. Not only would my waistline be even more expansive than it already is, but my bank balance would also be looking rather unhealthy. I say this because the unspoilt Cooper’s, in its tucked away location, right on the edge of Crowborough, is definitely my sort of pub.

I first became acquainted with the Cooper’s over 20 years ago, when I was taken there for lunch by the owner of a printing company who used to look after the print requirements of the company I worked for at the time. The pub was Brian’s local, and straight away I could see why he liked the place. Back then it was a Charington’s tied house which served a very acceptable pint of Draught Bass, and also a very good lunch!

Fast forward to 2007 and several changes of job later, I returned to the Cooper’s Arms in the company of a group of local CAMRA members, to find it too had undergone several changes. After a number of changes of ownership, which included a spell under Greene King, the pub had become a thriving free-house. At the time of our visit the Cooper’s was holding a mini-beer festival celebrating that most threatened of native beer-styles, mild. It must have been a goods festival, as my recollections of that visit are somewhat hazy, but three years later I returned to the pub for a third time, again with friends from West Kent CAMRA. On that occasion we were on our way home from a visit to the1648 Brewing Company, who are based in the Sussex Wealden village of East Hoathly, just behind the King’s Head pub. Our journey had involved several changes of bus, so we decided to break the return trip up a bit with a stopover in Crowborough, and a visit to the Cooper’s Arms.

It’s a long walk down to the pub from the centre of Crowborough; in fact it’s one of those walks where you keep thinking the pub is just around the next corner, or just over the brow of the hill. We found the same on Saturday, when seven of us made the 20 minute bus trip from Tunbridge Wells, in order to attend the Cooper’s Dark and Delicious Winter Beer Festival. Crowborough is the highest town in South East England, and has a reputation for being cold and windy. This was certainly the case on this occasion, although we were rewarded with some sunshine; a welcome sight after the torrential downpours of recent weeks. The route down to the pub takes one past some large and very posh looking houses, many of which have splendid views out towards the High Weald. The terrain dips sharply as one turns into the side road where the pub is situated, and here the views of the edge of Ashdown Forest are quite spectacular.

The pub itself is an attractive late Victorian building perched on the side of the hill. It is constructed out of brick and local stone, with a terrace at the front. Internally there is one long and quite narrow bar, which opens up at both ends. There are rooms leading off at either end as well; one of which functions as the pub’s dining room. There was plenty of room when we arrived at the pub, shortly before 12.30pm, but that was soon to change. We had been invited along by members of North Sussex CAMRA, into whose branch area the pub falls. They would be arriving slightly later by bus, along with a contingent from the adjoining East and Mid-Surrey branch. Luckily for us this meant we were able to grab the best seats, and also order our food before the rush.

So what Dark and Delicious Winter beers were on sale? Well there were twelve in total, all dispensed from several banks of hand pumps dotted along the bar. With the exception of the pale, citrus-flavoured 3.8% Jarl, from Fyne Ales, all the beers were dark, ranging from milds and porters, to stouts and old ales, plus a barley wine. There was also a brown Abbey-style beer from Steenbrugge in Belgium, which was dispensed from a keg tap.

I didn’t try them all, and neither did I have pints of all those that I did try, but I did indulge myself with a few pints of the beers I was especially interested in. The ones which really stood out were Dark Monro, a 4.0% chocolate and coffee flavoured dark mild from Highland Brewery. (Their 5.0% Oat Stout was also very good). “Rhatas”, a rich dark bitter from Black Dog Brewery of Melmerby, North Yorkshire, was very enjoyable, but the star of the show, as far as I was concerned, was the award-winning 1872 Porter from Elland Brewery in West Yorkshire. Despite its 6.5% strength, this definitely was a beer to be drunk, and enjoyed by the pint!

The pub had one further surprise in store, a cask of Dark Star Critical Mass; a 7.5% winter ale which is brewed just once a year. The Cooper’s landlord had a cask of this strong and robust dark ale, which was brewed back in 2012, maturing in his cellar. Given the high strength of this beer to start with and lengthy maturation period it had been through, I wisely plumped for a half pint. It was certainly interesting, shall we say; slightly vinous in character with a taste which reminded me of the Galloway’s Cough Linctus I had been dosed up with as a kid. Not unpleasant, but definitely a beer to be sipped, rather than swigged!

The aforementioned bus party turned up about 20 minutes after our arrival. Their mode of transport was a vintage red London Transport Route-Master, double-deck bus, complete with its front destination board showing Putney Common. The pub, of course, was expecting them, although as they all started filing in I had my doubts there would be enough room for them. I needn’t have worried, as the Tardis-like pub managed to accommodate them all. I had taken the precaution of ordering another pint, as well as my lunch, the moment I saw the bus drive past the pub window, but the landlord and his two helpers behind the bar coped admirably with the thirsty arrivals, and soon everyone had a beer and found a place, either seated or standing, and people were mingling and chatting affably.

The Cooper’s is a “quiet pub”, in respect of no recorded music or fruit machines, but in the room at the left, closest to the entrance, it had provided a large screen TV for those wanting to watch the opening games of the Six Nations Rugby Tournament. I was quite content, for my part, to sit and enjoy my home-made burger and chips, together with the excellent beer. Later, I enjoyed mingling amongst some of the newcomers, and swapping information about beer and pubs as CAMRA members are wont to do.

We left the pub just after 4pm, for the long walk back up the hill into Crowborough. The festival was still in full swing when we departed, but we thanked the landlord and his staff for their excellent beer and food and for their hard work in looking after us all. We called in at two other pubs on the way back to Tunbridge Wells; possibly not the wisest of decisions considering the amount of strong beer we had already drunk! I won’t say anything more at this stage, but both were good and both were heaving. It seems that at least some pubs in this part of the country are doing things right!