Friday, 27 February 2015

Incommunicado



After last weekend’s beery excesses, this weekend looks set to be a pretty quiet one; perhaps even totally abstemious!

I’m off back up to Norfolk, to visit my parents. My mother is still languishing in hospital, although the medics are now looking at arranging some respite care for her, in a more suitable and quieter environment. Dad, with the help of the carers who visit thrice daily, seems to be coping alright.

The main news though is the eldest of my two sisters has flown over from her home in the United States, to spend a few weeks keeping an eye on mum and dad. She will be swapping the sub-zero temperatures, and deep snow, of an Ohio winter, for the more clement, but ever changing early spring of  Norfolk.

I will, of course, do my utmost to drag her down the local pub for a few bevies, as we’ve lots of news and happenings to catch up on. Failing that, I’ll get a few bottles in, and sup them in the peaceful surroundings of my parents’ bungalow.

One final point; there’s no Wi-Fi or other Broadband connection where I’m staying, so I’ll be a little out of touch with what else is going on. Probably not a bad thing??


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Saturday 21st February Part Two: Three Rural Gems



As mentioned in the previous post, last Saturday a party of 24 volunteers who had helped a last October’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, set off by mini-coach to present our longest established local brewery with a well-deserved certificate, after their Green Hop Ale was voted Beer of the Festival.

Waiting for opening time, outside the Queen's Arms
We visited three pubs over the course of the day; ithe Queen’s Arms, where the presentation took place, the Fountain at Cowden, where we had an excellent lunch and finally the classic and unspoilt Rock Inn at Chiddingstone Hoath. What follows is a description of the pubs, in an attempt to wet peoples’ appetites and tempt them into visiting these rural gems.

Described as a rare, rural time-warp pub, the Queen’s Arms at Cowden Pound was built in 1841, and is named after the Queen’s Royal West Kent Regiment. The pub has one of the last remaining totally unspoilt rural public bars dating from the Victorian era and which, apart from the paintwork, has been almost untouched since the end of the nineteenth century. The pub had been in the hands of the same family from 1913 to 2014, with the former landlady, Elsie Maynard taking over in 1973.

Much of the pub’s character was down to Elsie, who was born in the pub and until quite recently, when advancing years and declining health had forced her into a nursing home, had lived there all her life. Her mother had been the licensee before her, when the pub was universally known as “Annie’s”, and I understand that in some quarters it is still referred to as such.

Traditional Public Bar at the Queens Arms
Like many local CAMRA members, and indeed local drinkers, I have my own fond memories of the Queen’s Arms which stretch back many years, so what follows are my own observations of the pub. If you require a more detailed description, then this can be found on CAMRA’s National Inventory Site, along with some excellent photographs.

The Queen’s Arms has two bars; a traditional, no-nonsense public bar, and a larger saloon. The latter was rarely used, as all the activity took place in the public bar, which is on the right as one enters. It was a real old-fashioned public bar, of the sort which only we older drinkers can remember; lino on the floor, a plain wooden bar, an open fire in winter, and just the one draught beer. The latter had changed over the years. When I first knew the pub, it was tied to Whitbread and the beer was the long discontinued and much-missed Fremlins Bitter. After the Fremlins Brewery closed, Flowers Bitter was the replacement, but eventually Elsie ended up selling Adnams Bitter, although there may well have been a period when Brakspears Ordinary was the house beer.

Wot, no lager?
Like I mentioned earlier, there was just the one draught beer dispensed from a bank of three original, ebony-handled beer engines on the counter. Elsie didn’t hold with lager and didn’t sell it. According to legend she associated the beer with the Germans and two World Wars, but the real reason was its higher price compared to cask-ale. Nevertheless, she displayed a sign outside proclaiming “Lager Not Sold Here”; a policy supported at the time by many CAMRA members. Elsie didn’t sell alco-pops either and stocked a very limited range of soft drinks. Bags of crisps were kept in old-fashioned tins behind the bar, but she did provide food of sorts in the form of incredible value-for-money ploughman’s. These consisted of a substantial hunk of cheese, served with door-step thick slices of bread and optional, homemade pickles.

As Elsie’s health declined, the pub was looked after and run by a group of dedicated regulars, who were determined to keep though place as it was for as long as possible. By this stage, opening hours were restricted to weekday evenings, plus Sunday lunchtimes. Elsie would sometimes appear sitting on a stool behind the bar, taking everything in. She was quick-witted with a delightful sense of humour, and was one of the few people I know who spoke with a genuine Kentish accent, rather than the "Estuary English" which has almost totally subsumed the local dialect.

The fact that the Queen’s Arms continued to trade following the time when Elsie first started to find it difficult to manage on her own, right up until when she had to go into a nursing home is due, in no small part, to the dedication of local resident and pub regular, Mary McGlew.  Mary and her team of volunteers were instrumental in keeping the pub going during this period, and without their dedication there is no doubt the Queen’s Arms would have shut a long time ago.

It is interesting to note that Elsie used to baby-sit Mary, when the latter was a small child. Things then turned full circle, with Mary returning the favour and looking after Elsie, in later years, as she became increasingly frail.  Sadly, Mary herself died suddenly, a few weeks ago, following a short illness.  With thanks to Guy Beckett from Larkin’s, for filling me in on this recent part of the pub’s history. For further information, please follow this link to an article published in the local newspaper in 2013, to celebrate the centenary of the Maynard family's stewardship of the pub.

Today the Queen’s Arms is owned by a local businessman who has day jobs so, like the Old House at Ightham Common it is essentially a “hobby pub” Hence it is only open evenings and weekends. Larkin’s beers (Traditional, plus seasonal) have replaced the Adnams, but apart from a spruce-up and some much needed structural work, the pub remains pretty much the same as it’s always been. However, unlike the Old House, new owner Jonathan has plans to make the pub viable without ruining its essential character. I won’t go into these, especially as they were described to me by a third party, but from what I’ve heard they should provide a regular injection of cash which will, in effect, subsidise the running of this classic, unspoilt, time-warp pub.

Fountain at Cowden
As there are no facilities, at present, to prepare food on anything but a very limited scale at the Queen’s Arms, we moved on to the Fountain, in nearby Cowden village. Here our tour organiser and social secretary had arranged for the pub to extend its kitchen opening hours to accommodate us for a pre-booked lunch.

The Fountain is now the only pub in Cowden; a small, unassuming but rather picturesque High-Wealden village. The village’s other pub, the much larger Crown, closed around 10 years ago, and is now a private house. The Fountain is an attractive red-brick building, sited on a bend in the road, and is entered by means of a number of stone steps. Parts of the pub are said to date from the 18th Century, and possibly even earlier. This thriving village community pub is owned by Harvey’s of Lewes, and is one of just a handful of their pubs in West Kent.

A large conservatory has recently been added at the rear of the pub, and this in turn leads to a suntrap garden. The pub’s management had set out sufficient tables in the conservatory in expectation of our visit, so after ordering our beers, we were ushered into this room and shortly after our food began arriving.

A real, proper pie - lunch at the Fountain
I have written about the Fountain before, and have eaten at this excellent Harvey’s pub on a number of occasions. I therefore knew my steak pie (and a proper pie at that), complete with new potatoes and vegetables was going to be just right, and it certainly was. The steak filling was cooked to perfection and just melted in my mouth; as did the excellent pastry casing. To accompany my meal there was some superb Harvey’s Old; the first, and quite possibly the last, I have sampled this season. Also on sale were Harvey’s Sussex Best and IPA.

Shortly after 4.30pm we once again boarded our coach and departed from the Fountain, heading towards our final stop of the day, the Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath. The Rock is an old favourite, and is another example of an unspoilt pub. Situated on high ground to the west of Penshurst, the pub takes it name from one of the striking rocky outcrops nearby. It is believed to date back to 1520 and was at one time an old drover’s inn. Today it remains as a fine example of a 16th century pub, boasting a wealth of original features and a large inglenook fire place.

The entrance and the main bar have a floor of well-worn brick. The bar counter is straight ahead; whilst to the left of the counter is the large fireplace, containing an equally large wood-burning stove. This was certainly chucking out plenty of heat when we arrived at around 5pm. There is also a smaller, and a cosier saloon bar leading off to the right.

Rock, Chiddingstone Hoath
The pub was reasonably full with a mixed bunch of locals and other characters, but we all managed to find our way in, and some even managed to find a seat. A group of us made a bee-line for the fire, whilst others had a go at the Rock’s other attraction, the 100 year old “Ringing the Bull” game. The choice beer-wise was Larkin’s Traditional and Pale, plus Peregrine Porter from Cotleigh Brewery in the West Country. Phil, the landlord, hails from the South-West, so the pub often features Cotleigh beers. I tried the Larkins Pale and the Cotleigh Porter, and can report that both were in fine form.

We left the Rock around 6pm, and boarded our coach for the journey home. The driver dropped the bulk of the party in Tunbridge Wells, and the rest of us, including me, in Tonbridge. A few hardy souls continued on to Wetherspoons, but I had drunk sufficient beer over the course of the day to call time on any more, so made my way home.

The trip reminded me, once again, of how lucky we are to live in such an attractive and picturesque part of the country, and of how blessed we are to still have such fantastic pubs. Do take the opportunity to visit them if you are ever in the area.


Sunday, 22 February 2015

Saturday 21st February Part One: Larkin's Presentation.



The following article is the first of two interrelated posts, both connected with last Saturday’s presentation of a CAMRA certificate for “Beer of the Festival”, to local brewers Larkin’s. The award was for the brewery’s Green Hop Ale, which emerged as the clear and worthy winner, as voted for by punters at last October’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival.

The presentation took place this weekend (21st February), at the unspoilt and National Inventory-listed Queen’s Arms at Cowden Pound. (More about this gem of a pub in the second article). All the volunteers who helped at the festival were invited to the presentation, with a specially chartered mini-coach laid on to transport those volunteers who accepted the invitation to Cowden Pound. The Queen’s Arms was chosen as it is a regular outlet for Larkin’s beers and, given its history and unchanging nature, was considered a fitting place to hold such an event.

The presentation marked a very special day for both Larkin’s and the Queen’s Arms. The latter does not normally open on Saturday lunchtime, but new owner, Jonathan had agreed to do so especially for us. Some of the younger members of the Larkin’s team had been in earlier to get the place ready for us, and had lit the fires in both bars. Most importantly they had racked up several casks of Larkin’s beers to sell alongside the Traditional Ale, which is the pub’s normal tipple.

Waiting for the pub to open
Two dozen of us travelled by mini-coach, and we were joined later by several other members plus, of course, representatives from the brewery along with a compliment of the Queen’s Arms’ regulars. We arrived slightly early, and waited outside in eager anticipation for the pub to open. We were not disappointed by what greeted us, for alongside the award winning Larkin’s Green Hop Ale, were Traditional Ale and Porter, plus the brewery’s new 4.2% Pale.

All the beers were in fine form, and for most of us this was the first opportunity to try the new Pale. It is considerably paler than the other beers in the range, with the exception of the seasonal Platinum Blonde of course, but is well hopped with that distinctive Larkin’s taste. It certainly got the thumbs up from all who tired it, as did the Green Hop Ale. The latter was the last cask of this beer, which was originally brewed back in September last year, at the start of the hop harvest. The brewery had kept a cask back especially for this event, and it was interesting to experience how the beer had mellowed over the last five months. Like most “green hop” beers there was still that layer of hop oils as a reminder of the hop gardens, coating one’s tongue. Excellent stuff!
Award-winning brewers - Chris & Harry 
 The pub was pretty full, and we ended up occupying both bars. Along with the excellent selection of Larkin’s beers, the pub had laid on sausage rolls plus cheese and crackers. The presentation of the certificate took place outside. As the beer buyer for last year’s festival, yours truly ended up presenting the certificate to Harry Dockerty and his young helper Chris. My short and off-the-cuff speech praised Larkin’s for their longevity; the brewery will be celebrating its 30th anniversary later this year. I also mentioned their commitment to brew full-bodied and well-hopped ales in the true Kentish style; a stance which continues to be non-compromising in keeping the tradition of Kentish brewing well and truly alive.

Larkin’s founder and, until very recently, head brewer Bob Dockerty missed the actual presentation due to a spot of car trouble, but turned up a bit later to enjoy the beer and a chat with the assembled guests. It was good to see Bob up and about, enjoying a few of his brewery’s beers, particularly as he underwent major surgery earlier last year.
The award winners with their certificates
 A second presentation also took place that day; this time for the “Cider of the Festival”. This award was won by Oakwood Farm Cider & Perry, of Robertsbridge, East Sussex, and cider-maker Matthew Wilson travelled up specially, along with his family, to be presented with his certificate. Keith Ennis, who was the cider buyer for the festival, did the honours in handing over the certificate.

Our coach party departed around 2.15pm. The pub was getting ready to close, and we were in need of some solid sustenance. This was provided at the Fountain; an excellent Harvey’s pub in nearby Cowden village. Don, our tour organiser, had arranged for the pub to extend its kitchen opening hours in order to accommodate us for a pre-booked lunch, so with our bellies full of beer we departed in search of something to soak it up!

To be continued………………………..

Thursday, 19 February 2015

CAMRA's Legacy?



As a follow on from my recent post about the dwindling active membership within CAMRA, I was going on to write about why over the last five or six years I have become increasingly disillusioned with the campaign. However, not only do I think this would not make good reading, I also feel it would appear very negative, and serve no useful purpose, save that of CAMRA bashing.
 
Now that is something I do not want to do, even though I have recently been accused of doing this. For the record my relationship with the organisation has on the whole been very positive, and the group has contributed towards many good things which have happened to me over the years. For example, membership of CAMRA has helped foster a life-long interest in beer and pubs; both at home and abroad. I have made many good friends through the campaign, and it even played a part in securing my current job. 

However, there is no hiding from the fact that over the past few years I have become increasingly disillusioned with CAMRA and that, combined with personal reasons, prompted my resignation from the committee of my local branch, and the cessation of an active role within the branch. After 30 years, virtually unbroken service, I felt more than entitled to do this, and I have to say that it’s nice just to turn up now on a purely social basis and enjoy a few pints, without having to concern myself with pub inspections, survey forms or other forms of un-necessary  paperwork. For my part, I shan’t mind too much if CAMRA continues to morph into a middle-aged drinking club. This may not be what the National Executive and Head Office have in mind, but apart from the odd brewery tour, or occasional beer festival, that’s what I mainly go along for these days.

Despite my misgivings with the current state of the campaign, there is little doubt that, in many respects, what CAMRA set out to do has largely been achieved. I actually think it has achieved far more in its 40+ years of campaigning than its early members could ever have dreamt of; and by this I mean the explosion of new breweries and the massive upsurge of interest in beer which has spread around the world.

Most importantly though, CAMRA saved cask-conditioned ale (“real ale”), as a style and undoubtedly helped save many of the remaining independent family brewers who were brewing it. Over the course, of the last 40 years there has been quite a lot of fall-out in relation to these survivors; some have fallen by the way-side as victims to corporate greed, poor business decisions (getting out of brewing being the obvious one, and a strategy which has been shown to fail time after time), but others have prospered (think Adnams, Fuller’s, St Austell to name but three). Some have remained more or less where they were, carrying on in the same old time-honoured way (Harvey’s?). A couple have even risen to become national brewers in their own rights, (Greene King, plus Marstons/Wolverhampton & Dudley).

Of equal, if not far greater importance has been the establishment of literally hundreds of new, vibrant, independent and innovative breweries up and down the country. Many of these “new wave” brewers were responsible for re-introducing long lost beer styles, such as porters, Imperial Stouts and Stock Ales, whilst others looked further a field to other brewing nations, such as Belgium and Germany for their inspiration.
There are now 1,285 breweries operating in Britain; one for every 50,000 people and the largest number since the 1930s. In fact the UK now boasts more breweries per head of the population than any other country in the world. What is even more encouraging is that a growing number of these pioneering breweries have now passed to a new generation, ensuring both continuity plus an injection of new blood and fresh ideas. 

Looking further a field, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that drinkers in countries such as the United States and Australia, as well as many other parts of the world, owe CAMRA a huge debt of gratitude for showing them the way forward, and inspiring them to start up new breweries and re-create long-lost beer styles. Obviously, many others played a part in this process, not least of which was the huge contribution of the late and great, pioneering beer-writer Michael Jackson.

Jackson, of course was responsible for defining the majority of the beer styles found in the world today, although since his ground-breaking work, others have added to the original list, and brewers all over the world, but particularly in America, have added styles of their own. (Black IPA, being the obvious example, but an oxymoron if ever there was one!)

Interest in beer today is unparalleled in its long history and the choice of brews and variety of styles has never been greater. No longer is beer seen as the drink of the “lower orders” or the “working man”. Beer can now hold its head high and compete with wine at every level. On price alone, beer wins hands down, as where else can you obtain such a quality and passion-infused drink as beer? The serious beer connoisseur can stock a serious-sized cellar with a selection of the world’s finest beers for a fraction of the cost of doing the same with wine. If you doubt any of this then I suggest you read Evan Rail’s excellent little e-book, “Why Beer Matters”. Beer is often a far better match with food than most wines. Again if you question this then treat yourself to a copy of the ultimate beer and food matching publication, Garrett Oliver’s “The Brewmaster’s Table”.   

CAMRA's four founders, Co. Kerry, Ireland, 1971
For a  moment then, just stop and consider what today’s world of brewing  would be like if those four young friends from the North-West of England hadn’t taken that fateful holiday in Ireland back in 1971. They soon discovered that the choice of beer in the country was so limited that it prompted them into making comparisons with what was going on back home. They realised that the brewing industry in the UK was also moving towards a monopoly situation, so they decided to try and do something about it. Their decision, as they sat in Kruger's Bar in Dunquin, County Kerry, in the far west of Ireland, to form the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale was to have far-reaching implications, which none of them could have foreseen.

As you sit there supping your barrel-aged, Saisson, Imperial Stout, American-style IPA, or just a good old fashioned Pint of Bitter or Maß of Helles,  raise your glass and drink a toast in thanks to the Campaign for Real Ale for not only increasing awareness of the worlds’ classic beer styles, but for encouraging and nurturing an environment which has led to the explosion of interest in the world’s greatest long drink , and the proliferation of the vast choice of different beers which is available to today’s discerning drinker.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man.*



Here’s a more light-hearted post than some of my more recent ones have been.

I was looking through my beer stocks the other day, and amongst the goodies left over from Christmas are a sizeable number of Fuller’s London Porter bottles. I remember taking full advantage of the pre-Christmas offers in both Sainsbury’s and Waitrose where the beer was retailing at three bottles for £5.

I obviously bought more than I thought, but given the cold outside temperatures at present, this is no bad thing. The beer is drinking exceptionally well at the moment, so much so that whilst in our local Sainsbury’s last night, I noticed the offer is being repeated.

I couldn’t resist grabbing another three bottles, even though I had popped into the store for some completely un-related and non-beery items.  Got to grab these bargains while you can, and all that!

 *A pint of plain is your only man" - from the poem "The Workman's Friend", by Flann O'Brien.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Black IPA - Innovative Beer Style or Oxymoron?


M&S Special

I have always been uneasy with both the term and style of Black IPA; a misnomer if ever there was one, and an oxymoron to boot! How can a beer which, according to its name, should be pale at the same time also be black?

Well obviously it can’t, and I think those brewers across the pond, who first came up with this idea back in 2011, have done the world of beer a grave disservice. Black IPA can rightly be described as a gimmick and a definite example of “style over substance”. But hey, wait a minute; no such style exists so let’s invent one.

Now you can just imagine the scene, it’s late at night and a few “over-refreshed” American craft-brewers are sitting in a bar, and quite naturally are discussing beer. Nothing wrong so far, but as the night draws on and the beer continues to flow, our brewers move on to comparing how many different styles of beers they’ve tried, and how this compares with their own portfolios.

One of them mentions the Great American Beer Festival and the 90 odd different styles which are used to categorise, and then judge, beers exhibited at the festival. One brewer then brings the GABF site up on his phone/tablet and they run through the various styles, and sub-styles of beer. Virtually every type of beer imaginable is covered, but wait, one brewer has an idea and after several moments of beer-fuelled discussion they decide to come up with a completely new style.
 
“Be good for business”, says one member of the company. “One in the eye for those stuck-up sticky-beaks running the show”, says another. And so you can see how, without too much imagination, the concept of Black IPA was born. So one brewery’s off-beat idea, conceived in a moment of over-indulgence, is soon copied by other breweries and before long the whole thing snowballs.

It doesn’t take long for the concept to cross the Atlantic, and before you know it, breweries in the UK are falling over themselves to rush out their own Black IPA, and trendy beer-writers are trying to outdo each other by singing its praises. Not one of them has bothered to pause for thought and think, this really is nonsense”. However, it is much more than nonsense, and a classic example of the story of  “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

I’ve tasted a few Black IPA’s and quite frankly they all disappoint. At best they taste like an overly-hopped porter, whilst at worst they resemble nothing more than a stout; and a poor one at that! Here are some notes I made after sampling a couple of different bottles of Black IPA, which I was given for Christmas.

Meantime Greenwich Black IPA 5.7% - This is a beer brewed exclusively for Marks & Spencer. Described on the label as “A rich caramel Black IPA inspired by American craft-beers”, it does what it says on the tin. Not unpleasant at all, but still rather confusing. A good beer, as might be expected from Meantime, and packed full of flavour, but I would have preferred to see it labelled as a porter or a stout.

Collaboration brew from Oddbins
AleChemy Brewing Co & Oddbins No. 3 Black IPA 5.0% - another Black IPA, this time a collaboration brew between AleChemy of Livingston of West Lothian & Oddbins (the off-licence people).

Unpleasantly bitter and harsh-tasting to my palate; probably from the over-use of roasted barley. Jet black in colour, with a thin, pale-yellow head. Not much more I can say about this beer, apart from an unusual and slightly sinister-looking label. Oh, I nearly forgot to add, I won’t be buying it again!

These experiences, combined with those from tasting cask Black IPA in pubs, have been enough to put me off this totally contrived style for life. I doubt whether I am alone in this.

Footnote: take a look at the Great American Beer Festival site here, and the list of beer styles recognised by the organisation. You will find no mention of Black IPA.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Should Have Gone to Specsavers!



This is the second time now that I’ve made the same silly mistake! Earlier this evening I selected a bottle of what I presumed to be Fuller’s London Porter from the rather dark cupboard under the stairs. This is a good place to keep beer, as it remains at a fairly constant temperature, and is of course nice and dark.

I placed the aforementioned bottle out on the back door step, to allow the contents to cool for a time. Then a short while ago, I brought the nicely chilled bottle in doors, cracked the bottle open and began pouring it into my glass. I raised the glass to my lips, only to realise I had not picked a bottle of Porter at all; instead I had selected a bottle of Golden Pride, 8.5% ABV; definitely not the type of beer I want to be drinking when there’s work in the morning!



The trouble is the labels look very similar, and the colour of the strap label around the neck is almost identical. My own silly fault, of course, as I should have been paying more attention, and like I alluded to above, this is not the first time that I’ve made this mistake. The first time was during the Christmas break, when having a bottle of strong ale to get through wasn’t exactly an arduous or unpleasant task. Even so, I consumed the bottle over two days; re-sealing the crown cork as best I could, and keeping the bottle in the fridge.

I’ve attempted to do the same this time, but I could do with one of those hand-held crimpers which home-brew shops used to sell, in order to do the job properly. Unfortunately I’ve now got nothing suitably chilled to take the place of the Golden Pride, so I think a cup of coffee followed by an early night will have to suffice.
 

Footnote: the bottle of Golden Pride is back-lit in the photo, giving it a much lighter appearance than when viewed under normal light. Side by side, the Porter and the Golden Pride really do look very similar!

Monday, 9 February 2015

Which Way the Road to Damascus?



An article which appears in the most recent edition of CAMRA’s “What’s Brewing” newspaper raises concerns about the growing gulf between an increasingly aged, active membership and the new, young, “hipsters” of the craft beer movement.

Written by a long-standing CAMRA activist, the author uses examples from his own branch to illustrate the problem. It appears that despite membership numbers being at a record level, the number of active members within the branch is declining year on year, making it increasingly difficult to fill committee posts and leading to problems with the day to day functioning of the branch.

West Kent CAMRA members 30 years ago
This situation is reflected in my own, West Kent branch, where none of the principle officers are younger than their mid 50’s. The same applies to the handful of active members we now see. Committee posts are increasingly hard to fill; so much so that one poor chap is covering the positions of both Membership and Social Secretary.

These sorts of situations are untenable; not only in the medium term, but increasingly in the short term as well, but no-one seems to have an answer. The correspondent in “What’s Brewing” makes the point that CAMRA is in danger of becoming a two-tier organisation; one which has sway with government, and able to influence policy on beer and pubs, but at the same time is far less capable of making an impact locally.

I’m sure there are branches which can demonstrate this is not the case, but for branches like mine, what is the way forward? When I first joined the Campaign for Real Ale, as a young student, over 40 years ago, it was by and large a young person’s organisation. This may not have been apparent at the time, but looking back at photos of those early days, in particular those of marches held to protest against various brewery closures, shows this to be the case.

West Kent CAMRA members 3 years ago
Today, CAMRA’s membership is predominantly, but not exclusively, late middle-aged and male, and the fact that the old guard, including myself, is not getting any younger is proved by the obituaries which appear on a regular basis in the pages of  “What’s Brewing”.

The article in “What’s Brewing” makes a plea for the campaign to engage far more with the predominantly young people involved in the flourishing craft beer scene. This is a sentiment I wholly agree with, and I know many of my West Kent colleagues feel the same. However, there are also many within CAMRA for whom craft beer, and especially “Craft Keg” is a total anathema. This is a view shared by those in charge of the organisation; at least publicly. Privately they might well admit there are hundreds, if not thousands of excellent “non-real” beers produced both at home and abroad, but because CAMRA has boxed itself into a corner by its narrow definition of “Real Ale”, they are unable to come out in support of these beers.

The new generation of young beer enthusiasts have no such restrictions, and base their judgement of a beer on what it tastes like in the glass, rather than on an out-dated and increasingly irrelevant definition based on post-brewing processing and dispense. This unfortunately means CAMRA will be seen as increasingly irrelevant by younger drinkers, to whom no such constraints apply.
 
So will it be a case of never the twain shall meet? I sincerely hope not, but unless CAMRA is prepared to undergo a seismic shift in policy; a “Road to Damascus” experience, then I’m afraid that as the old guard depart their watch, and with no new blood coming along to replace them, the campaign will literally whither on the vine; or should that be hop-bine?

Sunday, 8 February 2015

TJ's Sells Out



Disappointment was the order of the day following the beer selling out early at this weekend’s Winter Beer Festival, held at Tonbridge Juddian’s Rugby Club.

We sort of knew the event was going to be popular; coinciding as it did with the start of the Six Nation’s Rugby Competition, so for this reason most of us avoided the opening session on Friday evening. As the club were screening the opening game of the contest, featuring Wales versus England, it seemed wise to wait until the following day to get along and sample the beers. My wife’s niece and her partner had gone along on the Friday and had sent a message via Social Media that the club-house was absolutely rammed; so much so that it was difficult to move around and that it was standing room only.

Considering I had made a wise decision not to go along for the opening night, I set off from home shortly after 4pm, looking forward to sampling a few of the 24 ales on offer; the majority sourced locally from Kent and Sussex breweries.  I walked along the riverside path beneath the walls of Tonbridge’s historic 12th Century castle, and made my way past the swimming pool to the TJ’s clubhouse. As I approached I thought I recognised the figure coming towards me as friend and fellow CAMRA member, Jon. When he told me that most of the beers had run out and that the place was absolutely heaving, I thought he was joking.

He wasn’t though, as he had just come from the clubhouse. He suggested that I pop in and take a look for myself. On doing so one of the women on the door explained there was only around five or six beers still on, and that these were likely to run out soon. The organisers were putting a further three casks on sale at the clubhouse bar, so suggested I go in for a quick look first, before deciding to purchase a “starter pack” (glass plus tokens).

A much more relaxed festival at TJ's back in 2013
I forced my way inside, but there were so many people present that I was virtually impossible to get near the bar, or to see what, if anything was available on the stillages at the front of the clubhouse. I gave the whole thing up as a bad idea, but on my way out I bumped into Jon again. He was aware that Nigel, another friend of ours was in the clubhouse and he asked if I had seen him. Well given the number of people inside my reply was “No”, so after leaving a message for him on “WhatsApp”, we headed off in the direction of our local Wetherspoons for a much needed beer.


The Humphrey Bean was busy, but not too crowded and after ordering our beers, we managed to find a table. Jon went for Birra Armada a 4.8% Spanish Craft Beer brewed in collaboration with Adnams at their Southwold Brewery. I went for a pint of  Turner’s American Pale Ale, which was very good. We hadn’t been there that long before we were joined by Nigel. He explained that having bought £10 worth of tokens at TJ’s, he wanted to use them up before joining us in Spoons. He mentioned a very nice Oatmeal Stout from 360˚ Brewery, and had also managed  to sample the new Pale Ale from local heroes, Larkin’s.

The Bean also had a presentation of Rockin’ Robin beers on the bar, with three of the brewery’s beers on sale. Both Jon and Nigel went for one, but for my next pint I opted for the Spanish beer which Jon had been drinking earlier. I can’t say I’m a fan of Rockin’ Robin beers, despite having met the brewery’s gregarious and larger than life founder, Robin Smallbone. Robin readily admits he has stuck with the tried and tested malt-driven, “brown bitter” format, rather than going down the strong pale ale, bittered with New World, citrus-like hops style which has been very much in vogue over the last few years, and his decision has obviously struck a chord with local drinkers. Good luck to him for going against the trend and sticking to what he does best!

A third pint was called for, along with a bite to eat. The 6.0% ABV Rogue Brutal IPA, another collaboration brew from Adnams, hit the mark, as did the pulled-pork sandwich I ordered. Nigel departed; he had promised his wife he would pick up some shopping on the way home. Jon had the best part of an hour to kill before his train home, so we decide to head up towards the station and call in at the Punch & Judy.

This suited me as well as the P & J  is on my way home. The pub was pleasantly busy and had a welcoming log fire blazing away. On the bar were Harvey’s Best, Tonbridge Alsace Gold, plus a beer from Wychwood whose name escapes me. Jon went for the latter, whilst I opted for the Alsace Gold, which was in fine form. There was just time for another swift half before Jon left to catch his train. I wandered back up the hill towards my house and surprised my family with my early arrival. They had obviously been expecting me back home a lot later.

It was obviously a shame about the TJ’s festival; good for the club, but not so good for all us thirsty local punters. For those interested in what brews were available, here is a list of the 24 beers.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Other Weekend's Bus Trip



Our bus trip the other weekend, out to a few of the more outlying pubs in our area, proved to be something of a mixed bag. I am referring to the social organised by West Kent CAMRA to Edenbridge; a small town situated at the far western extreme of Kent and close to the border with Surrey.

The first pub on our itinerary was the GBG listed Old Eden; an attractive 16th Century building sited right on the banks of the River Eden. For reasons I've never been able to put my finger on, the Old Eden has never been a "destination pub" as far as I am concerned, despite the pub ticking all the right boxes,. And so it proved thus the other Saturday.

Our party of nine had been split into two, due to a mix up with the buses. I was in the advanced group. The Old Eden is a long, narrow building; having been converted from a number of former cottages knocked through into one. There were a couple of open log fires which were a welcome sight on a cold January day. We grabbed a table close to one and then proceeded to see which beers were on offer. This was probably the first indication that things had changed at the pub. The usual two Westerham beers were still on, but the Taylor's Landlord and the Whitstable Brewery beer had disappeared.  In their place was Otter Bitter, from the West Country.

Most of us went for the Otter, which was in good condition, tasty and, at just £3.40 a pint, was excellent value as well.  The same could not be said about the next beer I went for; Westerham 1965. Not only was the beer hazy, it was also expensive - a shocking £4.00 a pint! To be fair to the pub, Westerham beers are notoriously expensive; a fact I know only too well, having been the beer buyer for last year's Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival.

Lunch - not as good as it looks!
Shortly after ordering my second pint, the other members of our party arrived. Having missed the bus in Tunbridge Wells, they had adjourned to the nearby Bedford where, as usual, there was a choice of 10 beers. I was getting peckish, so ordered myself a spot of lunch. Unfortunately it wasn't just the beer which let the Old Eden down, the liver and bacon I ordered was definitely not up to scratch, with undercooked liver, and chewy, tough and rather fatty bacon. Most disappointing!

Before catching the bus to our next scheduled stop, we walked the short distance up the road to the King & Queen; a Shepherd Neame pub, but one which we had heard some good reports about. Regular readers of this blog will know I am no fan of Shep’s beers, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a pump-clip advertising Otter Ale – the stronger 4.5% counterpart to the 3.6% bitter we had enjoyed earlier. The beer was in fine form; a sharp contrast to the visit the same group of us made a few years previously, when all the cask beers (all Shep’s), were undrinkable and we ended up walking out.

The pub is under new owners, and it seems they have made a pretty good job of turning the place round. In common with several other pubs in Edenbridge the King & Queen is an old pub with the associated beams and wooden floorboards. There are some comfortable leather sofas in front of a roaring log fire, and a raised area where pool and darts can be played. It was good to see the pub on the up.

Four Elms Inn at Four Elms
Our last port of call was on the bus route home. The Four Elms, in the village of the same name, is another pub with a recent chequered history. It is also a pub which has been rescued by new and sympathetic owners, and is in the process of being turned round. The Four Elms dates back to the 16th Century, and is deceptively roomy inside. Inside there is a main bar, a snug, a saloon, plus a restaurant and family room. Outside there is a large garden with a stream, but being a freezing cold  January day we didn’t hang around long to investigate.

As in the previous two pubs, there was a nice warming and welcoming log fire to greet us as we entered the main bar. The place had befitted from a recent redecoration, giving a bright and airy feel to the place. There were two beers on sale; local favourite Harvey’s Sussex Best and Wadworth Henry’s IPA. Not being a huge fan of Wadworth’s beers I plumped for the Harvey’s and was glad I did for two reasons. The first was the Wadworth IPA was coming to an end; a fact realised by the landlord, and the cask was promptly changed for Larkin’s Traditional (an even more local favourite). The second was the Harvey’s was in excellent form and turned out to be one of the best pints of Sussex I have had in a long time.

I had a brief look around the rest of the pub, before joining my fiends at a table close to the fire. I was racking my brains to try and remember whether I had been in the Four Elms before. If I had it must have been over 30 years ago, so it was small wonder that not much looked familiar. Our branch chairman and social secretary stood at the bar, chatting to the landlord, who was undoubtedly pleased to see us. Eight thirsty CAMRA members must be a welcome sight to a hard-pressed publican on a cold January afternoon! Mine host is a trained chef, who has major plans for the pub. It is good to see a formerly closed hostelry being brought back to life and we all wish him and his team every success with this.

We had to leave shortly before 5pm to catch the last bus back, but a brisk walk along to the bus stop saw us there in plenty of time. My colleagues continued into Tunbridge Wells, but I alighted at Bidborough in order to catch a bus back to Tonbridge. I had just received a phone call from my sister, informing me of my mother’s fall, so I needed to get home and get a bag packed ready for the trip up to Norfolk the following morning.


Sunday, 1 February 2015

Leave of Absence



I’ve been stuck up in Norfolk, away from the blog, and also from my immediate family for the past week. My mother had a bad fall just over a week ago, and is currently still in hospital. I took a week off work to look after my father, who has Alzheimer’s. There’s no internet connection at my parent’s bungalow, which meant the only chances I had to go on line were when dad and I visited mum in hospital.

The Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital offers free Wi-Fi for both patients and visitors, giving me a brief chance to catch up with what’s going on.

I’m back in Kent now; mum is slowly improving and I managed to arrange a package of  three times a day “home care” visits to look after dad. Luckily I’ve a sister that lives close-by who can pop in and keep an eye on dad, and also visit mum when her work schedule allows.

It was good to spend some time with dad, even if his conversation and memory aren’t up to much these days. I did think of dragging him down to the local pub for a quick pint, but he’s never been much of a drinker and besides he can’t walk far anymore. Tempted though I was to get a few bottles in, it somehow didn’t seem right, so on top of being away from the all-encompassing world-wide-web, it’s been a pretty dry week as well.

I’m just about to crack open a bottle of Fuller’s London Porter which, I’m sure, will taste all the better following my forced abstinence!