Thursday, 27 November 2014

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Seven - Brakspears of Henley-on-Thames

Written for Boak & Bailey's "Beery Long Reads" 29/11/14


Welcome to Henley
At the time of CAMRA’s founding during the early 1970’s, the firm of W.H. Brakspear & Sons plc, owned around 130 pubs in a fairly compact area of the Chilterns and Thames valley. Today, the Brakspear Pub Company is a non-brewing, pub-owning chain, which runs around 140 pubs, spread over a much wider area, so how did this change come about?

To answer that question, we must first travel back to the company’s founding in the late 18th Century, when Robert Brakspear, formed W.H.Brakspear and Sons Brewery in Henley, Oxfordshire in 1779. Robert was formerly the landlord of a coaching inn in Witney, before buying a brewery on the town’s Bell Street. In 1812 he transferred the business to the Thames-side location on New Street. In a quirk of fate, when the Henley Brewery was closed for re-development in 2002, a new site was found back at Wychwood Brewery in Witney for the re-establishment of the historic Brakspear brewing tradition

It is worth noting that the Brakspear family was distantly related to Nicholas Breakspear, who as Pope Adrian IV, was the only Englishman ever to become Pope. His reign was fairly short, lasting from 1154 —1159. Pope Adrian IV used the symbol of a bee on his mitre, the tall tapering headdress worn by senior churchmen, as a reminder of the ‘B’ at the start of his original surname; and a bee remains as the main element of the company’s logo and on their beer labels.
The Old Brewery, Henley

Like many local breweries Brakspear’s slowly expanded over the next two centuries, gradually acquiring pubs in the vicinity of Henley, but also by taking over breweries in Wokingham, Wallingford and Goring. It became a public company in 1896, primarily to raise the capital necessary to buy out its Henley rival, Grey’s Brewery. During the 1960’s Brakspear’s sought the protection of the infamous Whitbread “umbrella” as a means of self-defence against an outside speculator which wanted to buy the company, close the brewery and sell off the pubs. For a decade or so, Whitbread owned around twenty-seven percent of the company, but sold off its holding when it exited brewing. 

On 17 October 2002 the Henley Brewery ceased production and closed. The site was then sold and part of it converted to become an up-market, boutique hotel, as part of the "Hotel du Vin" chain. 'WH Brakspear & Sons Ltd' while retaining ownership of the Brakspear beer brands, licensed the brewing of the beers to Refresh UK, also the owner of Wychwood. After months of looking for a suitable site near Henley (during which time much of the beer was brewed at Burtonwood, Cheshire) production was moved, along with some of the original historic Henley brewing vessels, to Refresh's Wychwood Brewery,  in Witney, West Oxfordshire, also home to Prince Charles' Organic Duchy Originals range and Wychwood's Hobgoblin & Fiddler's Elbow beers. Subsequently, Refresh UK was bought out by the much larger Marston's group, reportedly for c. £10-11 million. 
Brakspears new home at Witney

The now non-brewing Brakspear Pub Company concentrated on maintaining and expanding its growing pub estate,but in November 2006 the company was bought by pub chain JT Davies for £106million. Following the takeover, it was announced that JT Davies' pubs would be re-branded as Brakspears. The new company now runs around 140 pubs, spread over a wide area ranging from Brakspears traditional Thames Valley base, through the southern Home Counties, and into Kent. The number includes around 15 or so pubs within the Greater London area.


My own acquaintance with Brakspears goes back a long way; to the mid 1970's in fact. I had learnt of the company's existence late in 1973 after reading Christopher Hutt's excellent and pioneering book, "The Death of the English Pub". In those days the company's pubs were signed as belonging to the Henley Brewery, rather than Brakspears, and the company had a reputation for brewing some excellent beers. However, it was not until the spring of 1975, during my student days, that I first had the chance to sample them.

Rural R&R at Eashing
I had travelled down from Manchester by train, in the company of my then girlfriend and her friend Mary. Mary happened to be dating my friend Nick who we had arranged to meet up with at Waterloo Station. The plan was to travel to Godalming in Surrey, where Nick's mother, and her partner, owned a small, “weekend cottage”. This was situated in a tiny hamlet called Eashing, roughly halfway between Godalming and Milford. After the hustle and bustle of Manchester, the idea of a long and relaxing weekend in the peace and quiet of the country had a particular appeal to me, having grown up in a small village. 

When we arrived at Waterloo Nick was waiting to greet us beneath the famous clock. He was enthusing over the fact that the nearby Hole in the Wall pub was selling Brakspears, and what's more both the Ordinary and Special Bitters were on tap. I was already familiar with the Hole in the Wall from previous trips to London, and knew it as a pioneering, real-ale free house. As trains to Godalming were fairly frequent, especially at that time on a Friday evening, it was unanimously decided that an adjournment to the Hole in the Wall was a good idea. I was thus able to sample the two Brakspears bitters for the first time.


From memory, both the beers tasted excellent, and it was with some reluctance that we had to leave in order to catch our train. Not long after, Brakspears beers began to make a welcome appearance in the London free-trade; I particularly remember enjoying them at the Tudor Rose free house in Richmond, after moving to the capital in 1978.

In 1980, I was involved with the organisation of the first CAMRA Maidstone Beer Festival. Prior to the event, a friend and I had the envious job of travelling to Henley to collect our order of Brakspears. This was in the days before the existence of beer agencies when it was necessary to collect beer direct from the breweries themselves. On the same trip we also called in at Wethereds in Marlow for the same purpose, but that’s another story.

This was my first visit, since childhood, to the lovely, unspoilt town of Henley-on-Thames. Back then, Henley formed a convenient stopping off point for our family, whilst en route to holidays in Wales. In the mid 1960’s the M4 extended only as far as Maidenhead, so a quick detour to Henley meant that we could enjoy a breakfast picnic down by the Thames, with any leftovers being thrown to the swans. I found, to my delight, that the town had not changed that much, and was still as attractive and appealing as ever.

After calling in at the brewery and loading up our hired van with casks of Brakspears, we set about sampling the beer for ourselves. First port of call was the unspoilt Three Tuns, in the middle of the main street. Here Brakspears Ordinary was sampled, along with their mild; this being the first time that I had tried the latter. Before departing for Marlow, we found our way to another Brakspears pub, the even older Bull Inn. The company's Old Ale was on sale here, so I was able to sample yet another Brakspears beer for the first time.

Three years later, along with a group of friends and fellow CAMRA members, I attended the 1983 CAMRA AGM which was held that year in Reading. As we were travelling in two cars, we arranged to rendezvous for a lunchtime drink before carrying on to Reading. The hostelry chosen was the Crooked Billet on the outskirts of Wokingham. The pub took some finding, but we managed it in the end, and were rewarded by an unspoilt alehouse offering a friendly welcome, good food plus excellent, Brakspears beers.

The Reading AGM afforded several opportunities to enjoy Brakspears Henley Ales. The most memorable, and definitely the most enjoyable, was a visit to another Crooked Billet. This one was situated in the tiny Oxfordshire hamlet of Stoke Row, and was as fine an example of a totally unspoilt country alehouse as one could wish to find. We had read about the unspoilt, time-warp Crooked Billet, so the opportunity of visiting it on the Saturday evening seemed too good to miss. It was well worth the drive through the narrow Oxfordshire lanes, and despite getting lost on a couple of occasions we eventually found ourselves outside the pub shortly after dark.

Crooked Billet - Stoke Row
To say that time had stood still at the Crooked Billet would be an understatement. There was no bar as such, merely a number of rooms leading off from either side of a central corridor. At the far end was a stable type door, the top half of which was open revealing a small, low-ceilinged room where the casks of beer were stillaged. The bottom half of the door was topped by a flat board, which had just sufficient space to stand the drinks on as they were served from the area behind.

We spent a most enjoyable evening in the pub, and had the room nearest the serving area virtually to ourselves. The other two rooms appeared to be the preserve of regular customers, an excellent arrangement all round. The fact that I wasn't driving that night made the evening even better, and towards the end of the session things definitely got a little hazy.

The night in the Crooked Billet, described above, took place over thirty years ago, and even back then, simple country alehouses, were fast becoming an endangered species. I knew that some time ago, the Crooked Billet featured on CAMRA's national inventory of outstanding unspoilt pubs, but wasn’t certain whether it was still trading. Pubs listed on the inventory are national treasures, and are ones which must be protected at all costs.



After checking, I am pleased to report that it is still open, but according to the national inventory, the Crooked Billet now primarily functioning as a restaurant. It is possible to have only a drink at some tables and in the garden. The pub was reported as being run down with a tree growing through the floor and out through the ceiling, weekly takings of just £500  and no hot water, when self-taught chef,  Paul Clerehugh bought it in 1989.

It was to be some time before I next enjoyed a pint of Brakspears. A change of job, plus different domestic circumstances meant that I had precious few opportunities in which to travel. It was not until Whitbread began selling the beer as a “guest ale” during the early 1990’s that I renewed my acquaintance with the company’s beer. It was normally Brakspear’s Ordinary though, rather than the Special that was stocked in local Whitbread houses.

Anglesea  Arms South Kensington
It was during this time that I found myself reflecting on how good Brakspears beers were. I was on a pub crawl around some of London's finest pubs and at my last port of call, the charming and unspoilt Anglesea Arms in South Kensington that I spotted Brakspears Special, nestling amongst the bank of hand pumps. I ordered a pint and, despite having consumed a fair number of other beers that day, was not disappointed with my choice. The beer was a superb blend of malt and hops, with just the right balance between the two. It made a pleasant change as, at the time, it was normally Brakspears Ordinary that was seen on sale in the West Kent area.

At the time I took pleasure in the fact that the taste of both Brakspears beers had not altered over the years. This was in stark contrast to many former favourites which at the time had become mere shadows of their former selves. Boddingtons, Youngers XXPS and King & Barnes were amongst several former, once revered beers that fitted this bill.

During the rest of the 90’s, Brakspears continued to appear as a guest ale in many Whitbread pubs; hardly surprising really considering the stake the latter had in the Henley company, but moving forward into the new century, Brakspears started branching out on their own. This was probably around the time that Whitbread began their exit from brewing following the fallout from the "Beer Orders".

In the autumn of 2001, my wife and I opened our specialist beer shop and a year later managed to secure an account with Brakspears. This was quite a coup as the company were not well represented in Kent at the time. We had already began stocking Brakspears draught beers whenever they appeared on the Beer Seller’s list, but by this time the company had diversified into offering a good range of interesting bottled beers, and these were the items which particularly interested us.

As we were quite small scale at the time, and unable to accept pallet loads of beer, we reached an arrangement with the Brakspear’s free- trade sales rep, whereby he would drop a few cases of bottles off to us when he was in the area. This worked quite well until the autumn of 2002, when the rep turned up looking very ashen-faced to tell us about the changes which would be taking place at Brakspears. The Henley Brewery faced imminent closure, and Brakspears would become a pub-owning company, rather than a vertically integrated brewing company with its own tied estate. The Brakspears brands were to be sold to Refresh UK, who would contract brew the beers elsewhere.

The much missed Special Bitter
So now the story has turned full-circle, and we are back where we started at the beginning of this post. The upshot is Brakspears beers are still brewed; albeit not on the original site, but not that far from it. Much of the original brewing kit was saved, including the famous “double-drop” fermentation vessels, and installed in its new home at the enlarged Wychwood Brewery in Witney. With the emergence of the enlarged Brakspears Pub Company, and the purchase of Refresh UK by national brewing group, Marstons, Brakspears beers are now available to a much larger audience and are sold across a much wider area. Most importantly, the beers still taste as good as they ever did, although it would be good to see Brakspears Special become a regular beer again, rather than just a seasonal.


Starting last September, we’ve prompted four rounds of ‘beerylongreads’ in which we and others aim to produce something longer and more in-depth than usual.The next is scheduled for Saturday 29 November. Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

Monday, 24 November 2014

New Kid on the Block


The Taps at the Pantiles Tap

Just when we all thought the drinking scene in Tunbridge Wells couldn’t get any better, up pops another outlet offering all sorts of beer-related goodies.,

The outlet in question is the Pantiles Tap which, as its name suggests, is situated in the historic and popular Pantiles area of the town. The “Tap” held a low-key opening last Thursday evening (20th) as proprietor and owner Geoff Wentworth, who I understand used to run a bar in Bexhill, claims to “Have always hated bang flash openings which never work.”

Sited in the former beer cellars of Tunbridge Wells oldest hotel 'The Gloster Tavern', the Grade 2* listed cellars were crying out to be turned into a pub so that's what Geoff and his partner Jo are doing. With 6 cask lines, 6 keg lines and 2 ciders, the pub is going all out to woo local drinkers and beer enthusiasts.

Grade 2 listed buildings come with their own unique list of planning restraints; the main one of which being that should the business close, or decide to move premises, the space it occupies must be restored to its original state. This all seems a bit OTT for some dusty old cellars which had lain un-used for many years. Despite some on-line research, I have been unable to discover anything about the Gloster Hotel; particularly when  it closed and why, but as the buildings above the cellars appear much more modern, I would imagine this subterranean section is all that remains of the original hotel.

I called in on Saturday with some of my West Kent CAMRA colleagues, after the branch AGM. I only had time for a couple of swift beers as I had a ticket to see the multi-talented and incomparable Joan Armatrading at the town’s Assembly Hall later that evening. Joan performed a stunning, solo “Acoustic Set”, which was one of the best concerts I have been to for a long, long time, and it was a privilege to have been there to witness her faultless performance. The following assessment of Tunbridge Wells’ newest watering hole is therefore limited to the hour and a half I spent there on Saturday evening.

Local CAMRA members enjoying their first visit
The Pantiles Tap is partly underground, and with its stripped-back, bare-brick walls, tiled floors and old original fireplaces, reminded a couple of us of an East European bar. I said Prague, even though there are no vaulted ceilings at the “Tap”. A friend said Lithuania, but whatever country one is comparing the place to, there’s no denying the pub has a feel to it which is unique to the area.

As mentioned, the Pantiles Tap has six cask lines and six keg ones, plus two ciders. Geoff was quite happy to show us his cellar, which is behind the bar, at the same level. The cask taps are “gas-assisted”, which presumably is some form of “top-pressure” system. However, the beer didn’t taste gassy, and certainly not how I remember “top-pressure” beer tasting. The majority of the kegs were "Key-Keg", with one or two of the more traditional variety. It is certainly an interesting set-up, with even a specially adapted cellar door, which takes the cellar temperature down to 13˚C and releases the heat into the bar. (Geoff had to fit this ingenious device, as planning regulations did not permit the more usual heat exchangers to be fitted to the outside of the building!).

 During my short visit the two beers I had were Hardknott Colonial Mayhem and Burning Sky Devils Rest. The latter comes in at 7.0%, so I just had a swift half. According to the brewery website, the Hardknott beer is 8.1%, but I’m pretty certain the pint I had was around the 4% mark. I assume that the bottled and draught versions are brewed to different strengths, but would be grateful if someone could enlighten me further.
 
So here, in a nutshell, are my first, highly favourable impressions of the Pantiles Tap. I know I will be making a return visit in the not too distant future, but in the meantime would like to wish Geoff and Jo every success with their new venture. Apologies for the poor quality photos; they were taken using my phone and the flash tends to bleach out one side of the picture.

The Pantiles Tap doesn’t have a website (yet), so for those who twat, here’s a link to the pub’s Twatter feed.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Let's Be Having Your Glasses!



Amongst a number of interesting points which came up at last week’s “Meet the Brewer” evening at the Vauxhall Inn, Tonbridge was the subject of branded glasses. The pub’s duty manager happened to ask Tonbridge Brewery’s Paul Bournazian if he could supply some branded glasses. Paul replied that he could, but asked what had happened to the ones the brewery has supplied earlier in the year. “All gone”, was the manager’s reply, at which point, in my naivety, I asked if this was due to breakage? “No, they were all pinched”, was our host’s response, "and they vanished fairly quickly!"

I hadn’t realised this was a growing problem for many pubs; something exasperated by the rise of glasses branded specifically for different brewer’s beers. According to the Vauxhall’s manager, the problem initially started with lager glasses, such as Stella, which were amongst the first beer glasses to be branded and promoted in this way. Now most ale brewers also produce glasses, emblazoned with their logo, as a means of promoting their beers.

I thought back to my student days when, whilst it wasn’t uncommon for the odd glass or two to find its way back to our lodgings after a night in the pub, the theft of glasses was on the whole, pretty minimal. After all, most drinking back then was done in pubs, and the only time students would drink in their accommodation would be if they were hosting a party.

Now the problem appears much more widespread, with attractively styled, branded glasses disappearing from pubs, on a regular basis. Glass theft is much more of a problem in summer, when people are drinking outside, and it is easier to sneak the glass into a bag, and then drive off with it. Presumably, branded glasses appeal sufficiently to certain drinkers so as to make them want to pinch them.

Some drinks manufacturers are resorting to desperate measures, as this national newspaper article shows, but fitting tags which douse customers in ink, if they take them beyond the confines of the pub or bar, does seem pretty extreme and could, potentially, leave bar owners open to claims for damages.

The use of branded glasses is obviously much more widespread on the continent, with Belgium being the ultimate example where for every beer there is the right glass to drink it from. (Note: it must be a nightmare running a bar in Belgium!). However, the spread of the branded glass across to this side of the Channel is one which should be welcomed, as nothing sets a beer off properly than serving it in the correct glass. If that glass is further enhanced with the name of the brewer whose beer the customer is drinking, then so much the better!

At a time when we are trying to educate people about the finer points of beer appreciation, rather than just necking the stuff straight out of the bottle, the correct glassware can make all the difference. It would therefore be a real backward step if pubs were to move back to plain glasses, just because a few light fingered individuals want to half-inch the branded ones!

It would be interesting to hear from brewers and licensees about how extensive they feel theft of glassware, from pubs and bars, really is.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Meet the Brewer



As it is only five minutes walk from where I live, I popped along to the Vauxhall Inn last night in order to attend a “Meet the Brewer” evening. The event was organised by local boys, Tonbridge Brewery in order to promote their beers and to help people learn a bit more about all the things which go into the brewing of a good pint.

Tonbridge Brewery was established in March 2010 by Paul Bournazian in an outbuilding adjacent to his home in Capel, just outside Tonbridge. Starting with a 4 BBl plant, the company rapidly expanded and by April 2013 had outgrown its original home. This precipitated a move to new premises in nearby East Peckham, where a 12 BBL plant was installed.

The company’s aim is to produce distinctive, high quality ales at competitive prices and provide a great service to its customers. The beers are predominantly brewed with Kent grown hops and a strain of live yeast that originated from the former Barclay Perkins Brewery in Southwark. Tonbridge Brewery believe that this yeast adds individual character and great condition to its beers, which have established an excellent reputation with Kentish drinker; with over 200 pubs and clubs now supplied.
  
When I arrived at the Vauxhall, Paul and his new brewer Dave had their presentation set up on a couple of tables. All that was needed now were some interested customers. I said hello to Paul, who I have known since he first started out, and was introduced to new boy, Dave. Dave has joined from Old Dairy Brewery, where he was one of a team of brewers who helped create the Old Dairy taste and range. He is now getting stuck into Tonbridge’s range of seven cask beers, and will be working closely with Paul to come up with some new and innovative brews.

Laid out in dishes on the tables were examples of different malts and hops, for people to sample or, in the case of the hops, sniff. The only trouble was apart from me, there wasn't anyone else there to try the ingredients! There were obviously people in the pub, but most of them were either lager drinkers, diners or a combination of the two. Undeterred Paul and Dave decided to wait a while, hoping that a few more people would show up.

I later found out that there was a new pub opening in Tunbridge Wells that night and that most of my fellow CAMRA members were over there. I’ll find out this weekend whether or not the pub was offering free drink! That wasn’t the only factor though not working in Paul’s favour, as whilst the pub had advertised the event, they had neglected to display the start time.

Not a very auspicious start, but I nevertheless spent an interesting evening chatting to Paul and Dave, about brewing, different beers, other brewers plus local pubs and their landlords. There were two Tonbridge beers on sale at the bar; the ever popular 3.8% Copper Nob, plus seasonal dark beer, the 4.2% Ebony Moon. The latter is a rich, dark porter hopped with locally-grown Bramling Cross hops. These impart a blackcurrant taste which perfectly complements the roasted malts used in the beer. I stuck on this excellent dark beer all evening; such was its flavour and quality.

Eventually, just as Paul and Dave were thinking of calling it a night, a couple of drinkers who I’d noticed earlier, sharing a bottle of wine, wandered over to see what the table display was all about. Paul talked them through the different hops (five varieties in total), inviting them to “rub and sniff”. The hops ranged from traditional Fuggles and Goldings, through to aromatic newcomer, Citra. In between were newer varieties such as Challenger and First Gold. One fact which surprised me is that Paul sources his Fuggles from the Alsace region of France, as they are virtually impossible to obtain in this country, due to problems with disease.

He then moved on to malts which form both the body and the colour of the beer, with pale, crystal and chocolate malts for us to try, along with roasted barley. I think the two late-comers left suitably impressed and with their beer knowledge enhanced, but it was just a pity there weren’t a few more punters there to share Paul and Dave’s enthusiasm and passion for brewing.

The Vauxhall Inn, which was the venue for the evening, is an enlarged former coaching inn, right on the edge of Tonbridge, on the old LondonHastings road. Today it forms part of the Chef & Brewer chain, although when I first moved to Tonbridge it was a much smaller, and more basic Whitbread pub. I learned from Paul that the pub is allowed to stock quite a range of different ales, including Tonbridge beers, which are sourced through the SIBA scheme. It was pleasant and relaxing there last night, sitting in front of the log-burner in the surroundings of the heavily-beamed, centuries old bar, and at just under £3.60 a pint, it wasn’t too badly priced for the areas either. I shall be making a return visit; especially if there’s more Ebony Moon on tap!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Beer52.com Re-visited



Well those good people at Beer52.com have kindly sent me another case of beers to review. Their most recent selection has seen the company cast its net further a field to encompass countries such as Spain, Sweden and even Iceland, as well as places nearer to home, such as France and Germany.  It’s a real mixed case, with some really interesting beers, so without further ado, here are my thoughts on the eight beers.


Oppigårds Bryggeri – Golden Ale 5.2% - an excellent golden ale from Sweden. Pours nice and clear in the glass, with a loose foamy head. Some aroma from the Cascade hops which are added late in the boil, but these are more prevalent in the taste. Overall an excellent, refreshing beer, with a nice dry bitterness offset by the sweet juicy malt. This beer really hits the spot as far as I am concerned, but as I’m thinking of going there next year, I wonder how much a bottle costs in Sweden?

Meduz Blonde 5.0% - a pale, bottle-conditioned beer from the town of Uzès in the south of France. Top-fermented and un-pasteurised, the brewery claim Meduz beers are specially developed by their Brewmaster in the spirit of Belgian beers and those of Northern France.

Pleasant enough, with some notes of citrus and fresh fruit to add interest to the typically northern French style of this beer.

RedWillow Brewery Wreckless Pale Ale 4.8% -   nicely presented, light-amber coloured, pale ale, from Macclesfield-based RedWillow.  Well-balanced with citrus and other fruit aromas from the Amarillo and Citra hops used in the brew, and these find their way into the taste of the beer in the glass.
An excellent beer; bitter but without being over-powering and with just the right balance between the malt and hops.

Belhaven Brewery Scottish Oat Stout 7.0% - deep, dark and intense, according to the label, and the brewery is right. With intense roasted coffee and dark chocolate notes, this complex beer is ideal for enjoying on a cold autumn evening. The mash includes roasted barley, oats, plus three types of malt, to produce a multi-layered, silky-smooth beer, which is very enjoyable.
 
A turn-up for the books here. Belhaven are brewing giant, Greene King’s Scottish subsidiary, better known for their range of easy drinking, Scottish-style pale ales, than this complex and intense beer; but full marks for coming up with this one. Definitely a beer worthy of wider distribution.

Freigeist Bierkultur Abraxxxas 6.0% a surprisingly good modern interpretation of an old German beer style, known as “Lichtenhainer Weiße”, a smoked sour, wheat beer.

Cloudy, as one would expect from a wheat beer, with hints of smokiness lurking behind the tartness. Surprisingly refreshing, with nothing to suggest this is a six percent beer. Brewed by an off-shoot of Cologne’s experimental brewery, Braustelle, whose mission is to “break the chains of industrial brewing by reviving and updating Germany’s unique and historical beer styles.” They’ve certainly succeeded with this one!

Einstök Icelandic Toasted Porter 6.0% - a first for me, a beer from Iceland! The  Einstök Brewery is situated just 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle and uses  what the brewery describe as some of the purest water on earth to brew this beer.

A real winner, as far as I am concerned; jet black in colour, rich, thick and velvety smooth. Roast notes combine with toffee and rich dark chocolate, to make this excellent bottle-conditioned porter dangerously drinkable.

Barcelona Beer Company Cerdos Voladores 6.0% - described as the company’s rowdiest and most likeable craft beer, this amber coloured pale ale, certainly packs in the hops. Bitter, but with plenty of juicy malt to balance, a beer to enjoy with food, or in the company of friends.

It certainly does what it says on the tin; or should that be bottle! I'm off to Barcelona at the end of the month, so I'll be keeping an eye out for this brewery and its beers.

Ascendancy
Panda Frog Project Ascendancy 7.4% - brewed by the “experimental arm” of Mordue Brewery, and billed as a Belgian Double IPA – Weizen Hybrid, this beer is probably a touch too experimental for my liking!

Pours with virtually no head, and with surprisingly little condition either. This is all the more puzzling, seeing as it is a bottle-conditioned beer Hops are certainly to the fore; both in the aroma and the taste, and there is an underlying tone of fruity sourness. My thoughts are that someone is trying to be just that little bit too clever, and it hasn’t worked; certainly not for me.

It was good to try the beer, and it’s certainly not bad enough to pour away or anything, but one is definitely enough! 

 
With over 16,000 members, Beer52.com is now the world's largest and fastest-growing craft beer community, offering members, each month, a range of different, carefully-selected, small-batch beers from around the world. If you fancy giving the company a try, click on the link here to their website, then enter code BAILEY10. This will get you £10 off your first box, making it £14 instead of £24 for the 8 beers. You will also receive free delivery, plus a copy of the company's new craft beer magazine, 'Ferment'. This 24-page magazine is packed with interesting and informative articles about  craft-beer, as well as containing background information about the beers in your case.

Disclosure: This is the third case of beers I have received from Beer52.com. Like previous reviews I've conducted, this latest one is completely impartial and reflects my true and measured opinions on each of the eight beers sampled.


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Shep's Heritage Beers at Lidl



Discount supermarket, Lidl, have once again come up trumps in the bargain beer stakes. This time it’s two beers from the Shepherd Neame Heritage Range; namely India Pale Ale 6.1% and Double Stout 5.2%. The beers are on sale at just £1.49 each; a saving of 50-60p compared to other supermarkets which stock them.

Not my favourite brewery, of course, but the higher gravities of these two beers, compared to the normal stuff churned out by Sheps, means there’s a lot less chance of the brewery’s rather voracious, house yeast ruining them. (Most Shepherd Neame beers suffer from being too attenuated – fermented right out, leaving virtually no residual sugars, and therefore no body in the finished beer. The result; a thin, very dry and harsh-tasting beer).

I picked up an eight-bottle case of the stout this morning, and am tempted to do the same with a case of the India Pale Ale, before stocks run out. I do sometimes wonder about Sheps and their relationship with Lidl, as the latter often have “one-off” special brews from Sheps on sale by the pallet load. In the main these are beers in the 3.8% bracket, and despite retailing at just 99p a bottle, are not normally worth buying, for reasons stated above.

The two “heritage beers” though are in a different league; reputedly being based on old 19th Century recipes that were recently discovered in the brewery archives. I’m not quite sure how they ended up being discounted in Lidl though, unless the beers have not been selling as well as Shep’s hoped, and they needed to sell them off cheap in order to shift them.

The latter scenario is unlikely though, as the stout at least has plenty of shelf life, with an expiry showing of October 2015. Whatever the reason, if you fancy picking up these beers at a reduced price, then get down to your nearest Lidl.

The illustrations above are pump-clips for the draught versions of these two beers, which are brewed to a lower gravity than their bottled counterparts.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Single-Hop Beers



In a recent post I praised the virtues of “Green-hopped” beer, describing this relatively new phenomenon as one of the most exciting developments of recent years in brewing. Unfortunately green-hopping has been paralleled by a less welcome development, and one which to me seems more of a gimmick than anything else.


I am talking about “single-varietal” hop beers, i.e. beers that are bittered with just one variety of hops, rather than the more usual practice of balancing the flavours by using several. I was reminded of this yesterday, whilst browsing the bottled beers on sale in M&S. To my amazement there were five different single variety hop beers on the shelves; each beer being brewed using a different hop variety and by a different brewer.

The hops used are Sovereign, Citra, Brewers Gold (Hallertau), Cascade and Mosaic. The last named hop is a relative newcomer on the scene, following on from Citra and Cascade, which are citrus-flavoured varieties from North America. The brewers concerned are Elgoods, Oakham, Crouch Vale, Castle Rock and Adnams.

Part of the M&S range of single-hop beers
I remember M & S running a promotion on the first four of these beers some 18 months or so ago. My wife bought me a few to try, and with the exception of the Citra beer, I was singularly unimpressed. I would describe them as “one-dimensional”, which is hardly surprising. The established brewing practice has been, for many decades, to brew using a combination of hops; adding some for bitterness and some for aroma. There will also be several additions throughout the boil, with bittering hops added to the copper at the beginning, and aroma hops towards the end.

Single varietal hop beers fly in the face of decades of brewing wisdom, so bearing in mind that the varieties used will either be strong on bitterness or strong on aroma, is it any wonder the resultant beers lack complexity and appear very “one-dimensional”.

I am surprised that these five beers still form part of the M&S range. One of our larger local brewers, Westerham, had a rolling programme a few years ago of brewing a different single varietal hop beer every month. I have to say I was not overly impressed with the ones I tried, and the fact they have all been quietly dropped from the range suggests the drinking public thought the same way about them.

We only have to look to the wine industry in order to see similar parallels. A decade or so ago Chardonnay was all the range, with the chattering classes raving over wines produced from this particular grape variety. Several years later, attention shifted to Pinot Grigio. As I’m no longer involved in the of-licence trade, and I probably drink as much wine in a year than your average Frenchman drinks in a week, I have no idea as to which grape variety is the current “flavour of the month”.

What I do know is that whilst very good wines can be produced from a single grape variety (white Burgundies spring to mind here), such wines are usually at the top end of the market, where a whole host of other factors, such as climate, soil etc (the famous “terroir”), come into play. When bog standard plonk is produced from just one grape variety, the results are often less impressive, although much less so than with single varietal hop beers.

The question to ask then is “What future, if any, for single varietal hop beers?” Are they just a fad, or are they an important tool when it comes to educating the beer drinking public about the different varieties of hops that are now available, and the effects they have on both aroma and flavour?


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Getting the Juices Flowing



“A Moveable Feast” is the title of a series of observations and impressions written by Ernest Hemingway. Published in 1960, the writings look back at Hemingway’s time in Paris, during the years 1921-1926, when he was a young and virtually unknown writer, living in a cold and draughty top-floor garret with his wife and young son.

Hemingway of course, was not the only literary figure living in Paris at this time; he shared the city with such luminaries as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis and Gertrude Stein. “A Moveable Feast” is a fascinating glimpse into a long vanished world; a world of boozy and leisurely lunches and long café nights, of hanging around in bookstores to escape the cold and windswept streets outside and of writing long into the night. “Une Génération Perdue”"a lost generation", was how this group of writers and artists were often referred to, and it is perhaps no surprise to learn that drink, and often rather a lot of drink, played a significant part in the lives of Hemingway and many of his contemporaries.

It might seem shocking to admit, but like the "lost generation", I find my creative juices are at their most abundant after I have had a drink or two. No more than a couple of glasses of beer, otherwise I start losing focus on what I am trying to say, but I sometimes wonder as to why this might be? Is it because, in moderation, alcohol loosens up people’s inhibitions, or are there other reason? Perhaps the drink just helps people relax more, so their minds are not cluttered up with everyday thoughts. Does it allow them to focus on what they really want to say, rather than having to worry about that un-finished work project, the bills that need  paying or that squeaky garden gate that needs oiling?
 
I’m certain I am not alone in thinking this; neither am I alone in experiencing an upsurge in creativity after a beer or two. Do other Bloggers feel the same, I wonder?

“A Moveable Feast” is  probably my favourite book from one of my favourite writers. It provides a fascinating glimpse into a world that was a mixture of simple pleasures and decadent delights. A world free from political correctness, health and safety and the Nanny State. A world where people were left to get on and live their lives as they saw fit. In short, not just the world of “the lost generation”, but a lost world altogether.
 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A Decent Glass at Last!



I’ve been searching for a decent beer “tasting” glass for some time now, unaware that the answer to my quest lay much closer to home than I thought. For years I’ve been using a classic, straight-sided pint glass, courtesy of local brewers, Larkins. It’s great for volume drinking, but as a glass designed to bring out the best in a beer in terms of appearance, aroma, condition and taste, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Leffe presentation set
I knew the answer lay in a “chalice-style” glass, and the obvious place to source one seemed to be Belgium. A work colleague was paying a brief visit to the country back in the summer, so I asked her to look out for a suitable glass for me. To my colleague’s  great credit, seeing as she knows next to nothing about beer, she brought me back a presentation gift box, produced by Leffe which not only has two Leffe branded, chalice-style glasses, but also four different bottles of Leffe beer.  Most UK drinkers will be familiar with two of the bottles; Blond and Bruin, but also included were two other Leffe beers which I hadn’t come across before; Tripel at 8.5% ABV, and Rituel 9˚at 9.0% ABV.
  

I haven’t drunk these potent beers yet, but I look forward to doing so, especially as we’re into November now and the mercury has plummeted. More to the point, as far as this post is concerned, I haven’t tried the glasses either! They are perhaps more goblet than chalice, but have an attractive motif, and would grace any bar, or indeed dining table, but the real reason I haven’t made use of them is their wide bowl shape is not conducive to retaining, or indeed concentrating beer aromas.

Having been a participant in a couple of training sessions for CAMRA Beer Tasting Panel members, I know these things, and I therefore knew exactly the type of glass I was after.

After lots of fruitless scouring through various charity shops; an often over-looked but sometimes surprising source of unusual glasses, I had a look on Amazon; again a useful and surprising market place for branded beer glasses. Most of the glasses produced by the well-known Trappist brewers were featured, along with examples from several lesser known Belgian brewers. In a deliberate attempt to make each one stand out they were all subtly different from each other, with two main styles emerging – either chalice type or thistle shape. What I was really after was something in between the two!

The right glass, at last!
After I had almost given up, salvation came in the form of the lined half-pint “tasting” glasses, produced for use at our recent CAMRA Beer Festival, at the Spa Valley Railway. Tall and slim, with a reasonably sized bowl above the stem, which tapers inwards, and then out again in a thistle style, so as to form a “trap” which concentrates aroma, and maintains condition within the beer. The glass also holds significantly more than half a pint, making it suitable for beers packaged in the increasingly popular 330ml size bottles.

For the tasting and enjoying of speciality beers, especially the stronger ones, this glass is ideal. But for everyday quaffing, I’ll be sticking with my trusty straight-sided pint glass.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

In Praise of Green-Hopped Beer



For the past two years running I’ve written a post or two about Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight .  For those who haven't been paying attention, Kent Green Hop Beer is beer made with fresh, or green Kentish hops, rather than using hops that have been dried, as is more traditional in brewing. The resulting beers have a characteristic fresh taste because the green hops used contain oils and other aroma compounds that are normally lost when hops are dried. The brewers make sure the hops are as fresh as possible by using them within 12 hours of being picked.

Hops are used as the ‘seasoning’ rather the main ingredient in beer, and impart tanginess, bitterness and aroma. When beers are brewed with green hops, the fact the hops are fresh and un-processed means they are an unknown quantity. This combined with the influence of the weather, and other seasonal factors, on their growing period ensures the flavour of the resultant beer will be different each year. As brewers are normally at pains to ensure their beers taste the same every time, these factors add a variety and interest which would not normally be present.

Almost every brewery in Kent makes at least one green-hoppedsome make several, and with over 20 breweries in the county that’s a large range of beers! In fact more than 30 were brewed this year, and with each brewer creating their own recipe, they were all different as well.

In order to showcase these beers, and bring them to the attention of the public at large, the Kent breweries have banded together to set up Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight. This officially begins at the Canterbury Food & Drink Festival; held this year on Friday 26th September 2014. This is the only occasion and location when all (or nearly all!) Kent Green Hop Beers are available in the same place at the same time. Select pubs throughout the county also stock Kent Green Hop Beers throughout the two week period following the festival, ending just before the middle of October.

Of course green-hopped beers aren’t confined to the Garden of England alone; brewers as far distant as Ilkley in Yorkshire have brewed their own versions, as have brewers in the Thames Valley and  those based in England’s other main hop-growing area – the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. It is therefore worth noting that the Teme Valley Brewery, who are based at The Talbot at Knightwick in Worcestershire, run their own Green Hop Beer Festival which is of a size to rival that of the Kent one. This year’s event featured around 35 green-hopped beers sourced mainly, but not exclusively, from local brewers.

So do green-hopped beers taste different to more conventional ones? The short answer is yes, but the difference is perhaps rather more subtle than that between green tea and normal dried tea. Green-hopped beers have a definite resinous taste which is almost certainly due to the abundance of hop oils and other flavouring compounds. These are elements which are either diminished, or lost altogether during the normal drying process. Friends have commented on a distinct mouth-feel to the beer, and I have noticed this too in the form of a slight furriness on the tongue and the roof of my mouth. Whatever the difference, the fact that brewing with green hops can only be done during harvest, creates a very special beer with a truly unique flavour.

.The idea of green-hopped beers has now spread far beyond these shores, with brewers in New Zealand now producing their own version of these beers. A number of American brewers also produce what is known as a “Wet-Hopped Beer”; sometimes referred to as a “Harvest Ale”. As far as I can tell, these are beers brewed using fresh, un-dried hops, so to my mind, at least, they are equivalent to our green-hopped ales.

The very first green-hopped beer, certainly in the modern era, was surprisingly not brewed in a hop-growing area, but was instead conceived by Wadworth of Devizes, in Wiltshire. The company’s Malt & Hops was the original, and some would say, still the best, green- hopped beer. Somewhat surprisingly, the beer has been brewed on an annual basis for the past 22 years; the first batch having been brewed as long ago as 1992! In view of this achievement, the name of the beer has now been changed to The Original Green Hopped Beer.


Wadworth brew this beer in their traditional old Victorian brew-house, which particularly lends itself to the green hop brewing process. The malt used is a pale ale malt with just a hint of crystal, and the main hop used is Earlybird Goldings. Once brewed the beer is stored in casks for a few days to obtain natural conditioning and can be drunk almost immediately the yeast has settled out.

Some might dismiss the whole “green-hopped” thing as just another publicity exercise; with a few people going even further, comparing it to the media circus which surrounded Beaujolais Nouveau, a decade or so ago. However, unlike the marketing of an immature and, at times, rather thin red wine, which incidentally the French thought we were crazy to go chasing after, green-hoped beers are all about the heritage and future of Britain’s hop-growing industry.

This isn't just about grabbing a seasonal product while you can: English hops are in desperate need of a boost. Hop acreage has dropped from a high of 71,189 acres in 1878 to around 2,500 now, and this decline has continued in recent years by the increasing popularity of hops from places like America and New Zealand. The demand for the citrus and tropical fruit flavours imparted by these hops shows no sign of abating, and is side-lining the earthy, floral, hedgerow fruitiness of traditional English varieties. Anything which helps reverse this trend, by encouraging an interest in our home-grown varieties, has to be encouraged and is surely worthy of the support of every English beer drinker.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Stocking Up



As if people hadn’t guessed from all the tat in the shops, the dreaded “C” word is fast approaching. With child now grown up, and no sign of any grandchildren on the horizon, Christmas in the Bailey household has long since lost its sparkle. It would be nice to go away; somewhere snowy and cold with fir trees, picturesque scenery, time-worn towns and villages and a real traditional Christmas feel. Austria, Bavaria or Switzerland would all fit the bill nicely; they seem to celebrate Christmas on the continent with much more meaning and far less commercial tack than we do in the UK.
 
Unfortunately, our son works in a hardware shop, and Christmas is the busiest and most lucrative time of the year for the retail trade. The whole of December and the beginning of January are a “no” as far as him taking leave is concerned so, for the foreseeable future, it’s Christmas here in dear old Blighty.

Like most beer lovers I usually get a stock in for Christmas, to accompany the mountain of food we always seem to have, and to see me through the days of between Christmas and New Year, (like many firms, the company I work for has an enforced shutdown over the festive period.) In the past I used to get a polypin in; but drinking the same old beer day after day does get a trifle boring and, besides, one needs different beers for different occasions; different times of the day and to go with different foods.

So, as in previous years, I’ve already started stocking up. Everyone’s favourite supermarket Waitrose have been of assistance here, with some good offers on a number of beers. Several weeks ago, the large 750ml “sharing “ bottles of Meantime IPA and Porter were selling for a pound off, but for the past couple of weeks a number of  eminently quaffable and well respected beers are on offer at four for £6.

Included in the deal are St Austell Tribute and the same brewery's excellent Proper Job. Gem and Organic Wild Hare from Bath Ales also feature, alongside various beers from the Duchy Originals range. The crowning glory, as far as I am concerned is that the complete range of Fuller’s bottles are also selling at four for £6, and what’s more, you’re allowed to mix and match. Some Waitrose outlets carry Golden Pride; Fuller’s premium, superior-strength bottled ale, which weighs in with an ABV of 8.5%. This stunning beer is also included in the deal, but it always seems to be out of stock at my local Waitrose. Hardly surprising, I suppose as in pure terms of more bangs for your buck, it’s excellent value.
Not all the beers shown here are included in the offer

Golden Pride aside, I’ve been stocking up on London Porter and 1845, but before the deal comes to an end on Tuesday (4th November), I’ll be getting in some bottles of Bengal Lancer and Wild River. If, like me, you want to take advantage of this excellent offer then I suggest you hot foot it down to Waitrose before Tuesday.