Sunday, 15 July 2018

By train and plane across the USA

The other night I made the final booking for my forthcoming trip to the United States, and the travel arrangements are now complete. It's been a little complicated at times and I've had to make a few changes, but now with the last of five flights and two train journeys, plus hotels in two different locations booked, I can sit back and do the interesting stuff - like searching out the best bars and breweries where I can enjoy a few beers.

I won't bore people with all the details, but basically I'm flying into Washington Dulles, and then spending three nights in nearby Loudon County, Virginia, at the hotel which is hosting this year's Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference.

The conference, of course is one of two reasons for my trip; the second being spending a few days with my sister and her husband at their home in a small Ohio town to the south-west of Cleveland.

Once the conference has finished, I've got to travel between the two locations, but before doing so I will be heading south-east from Loudon for a brief visit to Richmond, on the BBW Post-Conference trip. This will be a whistle-stop tour of some of Richmond's finest breweries and bars.

I mentioned before that Richmond was the Confederate State Capital during the American Civil War, but I don't think we'll be seeing much from those times, as the city was raised to the ground by the victorious Union forces in the closing days of the conflict. I'm certain though, that in the intervening 153 years, Richmond will have had plenty of time to rise from the ashes, reinvent itself, and get brewing some amazing beers.

CC BY-SA 3.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons
The following morning it's time to let the train to take the strain, as I'll be heading back to Washington on the first leg of a two stage journey, which will take me all the way to Chicago. So it's a three hour train ride into central Washington and then a 17 hour journey to Chicago, on the Amtrak service known as the "Capitol Limited."

CC BY-SA 3.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons
I've booked a "roomette" for this stage of the journey, as the train will be travelling through the night, but there's a further civil war connection en route. From Washington the rail line follows the valley of the Potomac River, and passes through the historic settlement of Harper's Ferry; best known as the location of John Brown's raid on the federal armoury at Harpers Ferry.

The raid took place in 1859, and Brown's objective was to start an armed insurrection amongst local slaves. The skirmish certainly escalated tensions and alarmed many of Virginia's slave owners, and was one of the contributory factors which led to the secession, a year later, of the Southern States from the Union; an event which led directly to the  start of the American Civil War.

The rail-line then follows a winding route up through West Virginia and into Maryland, before crossing into Pennsylvania. The train reaches Pittsburgh at around midnight, and I had considered leaving the train and spending the night there, before taking a Greyhound bus to my sister's the following morning. Amtrak's poor time-keeping record (more on that later), plus the hassle of checking into a hotel in the early hours of the morning, persuaded me it was best to stay on the train, and sleep the night away in the comfort of my roomette.

The following morning we will be journeying through Ohio and up towards Cleveland. I could have asked my sister to meet me there, but as our arrival would be around 2am, it didn't really seem fair to ask her and, as I've said already, I fancy a decent night's sleep.

The train is due in to Chicago at 8:45, having travelled from Ohio, across the state of Indiana and into Illinois. In theory this should have left ample time for me to walk across to the Greyhound bus station and take the 11:15 service to Elyria; the nearest large town to my sister's place. I mentioned earlier though about Amtrak's poor time-keeping, and this somewhat threw a spanner into the works.

A friend of mine, who has travelled extensively all over the US by rail, told me that it is not unusual for delays of several hours to Amtrak services. I did some checking of my own and discovered this was indeed the case. The delays are due to the fact that Amtrak do not own any of the tracks their trains travel over. Several large railroad companies own the majority of America's remaining rail routes, and freight, rather than passengers, is their main concern.

Anyone who has travelled through America cannot failed to have been mesmerised by the sight of some of the incredibly-long freight trains, hauled by two or sometimes even three powerful locomotives as they pass by. On a still evening, you can hear them from my sister's house, as they emit their ghostly whistles whilst rumbling onwards through the night.

Although they are not supposed to, the railroad companies will normally give priority to these massive freight trains; after all they are their bread and butter and the fees they collect from Amtrak pale into insignificance compared to a lucrative shipment of coal, timber, iron ore etc. Amtrak's own site indicated that delays of up to three hours are not uncommon on the southern section between Washington and Pittsburgh, whilst from Pittsburgh to Chicago delays of up to 90 minutes may be experienced.

I decided to change my plans, swapping road transport for air, and booked a flight of just one hour 20 minutes back to Cleveland. It was considerably more expensive than what Greyhound would have charged me, but it not only gave me a lot more "slack" time to play with at Chicago, it also saved me a bus journey of almost nine hours!

So after two days and one night's travelling, I will have five and half days to spend with my sister and her husband. I know my brother-in-law has booked a few days off work, and if my last visit, nearly 10 years ago, is anything to go by, there will be quite a lot of beer drinking involved.

My brother-in-law developed a liking for decent beer during his 13 year deployment with the USAF at Lakenheath airbase in Suffolk. Returning to the states, with my sister in tow, some 20 years or so ago, he managed to track down plenty of interesting local beer, and I imagine what was a burgeoning brewing scene back in 2008, will have changed out of all recognition.

Cleveland-based, Great Lakes Brewing are now one of the major players locally, but there are plenty of others. One place I know we will be visiting, is a place called the Brew Kettle. This establishment, in the suburbs of Cleveland, acts as a place where enthusiasts can visit in order to brew their own beer, as well as enjoying a few of the multitude of different ales on tap at the Brew-Kettle bar and  restaurant.

The good news is that a branch of the Brew Kettle has opened in the town, where my sister and her family reside. We can now just stroll down the road, and all enjoy a few excellent local beers, without any of us having to moderate their consumption for the drive back.

I've left the "there and back" part of the trip until last, but it's no less interesting. I'll be flying with Icelandair, who operate out of Gatwick, and fly to both Washington Dulles and Cleveland, via Reykjavik. On the outward journey it's significantly cheaper for me to break my journey, and when I say "significantly," I mean virtually half-price!

I'll therefore spending a night and a morning in the Icelandic capital - not the cheapest place for a beer, but another destination to cross off the list.

A quick final word about the photos. Most were taken on my previous visit to America, back in 2008,and several of them relate to places described in the narrative.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

A touch of Spargel

I mentioned in my post on Würzburg, about how much I enjoyed a plate of white asparagus at the beer garden of Würzburger Hofbräu. Served with hollandaise sauce and new potatoes, it really was a dish fit for a king. That was not my first experience of the seasonal vegetable the Germans call Spargel; that happened three years previously, when I was staying in Nuremberg for the Fränkisches Bierfest. 
Whilst at the festival, I met up with ex-pat American and local beer enthusiast, Erlangernick Nick. Nick acted as my guide to the best beers at the festival, as with close on 40 breweries with stands there, some were bound to be better than others. It was therefore really good to be guided by someone with both knowledge and experience of the beer scene in that part of southern Germany.
I really enjoyed Nick’s company. He encouraged me to converse with him in German, so this  provided a good opportunity to practise both my listening and conversational skills. 
The festival itself was great fun and there were lots of interesting beers to try, but it did get very busy and rather crowded; and this was on the Friday afternoon! Saturday would no doubt prove even busier, so at Nicks ’s suggestion we decided it would be nice to get out of the city and experience some of the Franconian countryside.
The following day we met up at Roppelt’s Keller, in the tiny village of Stiebarlimbach, to the north-west of Forchheim. Nick had arrived by car, and would therefore not be drinking much, but explained his proposal to drive the two of us around a few Kellers in the area. There were a couple he wanted to check out, and he thought I would also like to visit some which were well off the beaten track.
Too right; I jumped at the chance, so after I had finished my beer, we set off in his car in order to sample a few of Franconia’s finest breweries and Kellers. Driving through the unspoilt countryside of the Steigerwald, in search of good local beer, with some vintage Yes playing on the car stereo, made me think “life doesn’t get much better than this,” and when we arrived at our first port of call I was right.
This first stop was the tiny village of Adelsdorf-Aisch; set on a hill overlooking the River Aisch, and its surrounding meadows. On the edge of the village, and overlooking the flatlands is the Brauerei & Gasthaus Rittmayer Aisch. Nick  informed me that there are three breweries in the region, all sharing the Rittmayer name, but the one in Aisch is the smallest. Just up from the pub and the brewery was the village church, making up that classic combination of pub and church which is so common in English villages as well.
We both went for the Hausbrauer-Bier and to eat the obvious choice was the local white asparagus, known in German as Spargel. This was my first experience of Spargel, and wrapped in slices of ham and served with boiled potatoes, it was delicious. The beer was good too, and sitting there under the shade of the chestnut tree, against the backdrop of the pub, brewery and the splendid view was really as good as things can get, so in some ways it was a shame we had to move on.
That first experience of Spargel was memorable, as was the location plus the company, and I deliberately went into a lot more detail than was strictly necessary for this write up. A handful of fellow bloggers, who know Nick better than I do, will appreciate the reason for this, so I won’t elaborate further, but on the off-chance that he does accidentally stumble upon this piece, I want him to know that his friends in England, and I’m sure in Franconia too, are thinking of him. For my part, I would like Nick to know, just how much I enjoyed that memorable trip we took together three years ago, on that baking hot day in late May, around some of Franconia’s finest Bierkellers.
Returning now to Spargel, and a word or two of explanation. White asparagus is really no different than normal green asparagus, expect that it is grown underground in small mounds. This prevents photosynthesis from occurring, thereby keeping the stalks from turning green. The white variation has a slightly milder and sweeter flavour than green, although in a blind tasting, you would need to be a connoisseur to tell the two apart. 

Green asparagus is usually best when picked early, because it will become woody and quite tough. White asparagus, on the other hand, can be grown for a while and the thickness has no impact on the tenderness. However, white asparagus should always be peeled before cooking. I brought some white asparagus back from my recent trip to Bamberg, and whilst I did mention this tip to my wife, she obviously wasn’t listening, and our Spargel was quite chewy.
The Germans take the Spargel season very seriously, probably because, like in England, the crop is only available for a short period. This starts in May and runs through into June, and take a walk through any local fruit and vegetable market during this time,  and you will see bundles of white asparagus piled up on display.
Most pubs and restaurants will feature at least one Spargel dish on their menus. It is estimated that 82,000 tons of Spargel are actually produced in Germany each year — which only meets around 60% of consumption needs. I understand the balance is imported from neighbouring countries, with France being the major exporter.
Asparagus thrives best in loose, sandy soil which is not too moist, but in theory can be grown on any soil that does not contain too many stones and is not waterlogged. Each region of Germany claims to grow the best spargel, but the states of Baden-Württemberg and Lower Saxony are the two most important asparagus areas. Further east,  the town of Beelitz, in the state of Brandenburg, is famed as the “AsparagusTown,” and even has a museum dedicated to Spargel.
As for me, whilst I have obviously enjoyed my encounters with White Asparagus in Germany, I still prefer the much more usual green version. I find it more tender and more subtle in taste, but this is probably down to familiarity, than anything else.
One final point, and just to muddy the waters even further, there is a much rarer purple variety of asparagus, but in order to appreciate the purple colour, it has to be eaten raw, as it turns green when cooked!

Sunday, 8 July 2018

SIBA South East Beer Festival 2018 at TJ's Rugby Club

It's that time of year again with the SIBA South East Regional Beer Festival taking place and hosted for the 12th year by Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club. As part of the deal between  TJ's and SIBA, the rugby club provide the premises for the the SIBA South East Region Competition, and once this brewery plus guests, trade event is over, the beers are handed over to the Juddian's so that the festival proper can begin.

The breweries, who are all SIBA members, supply the beer foc, which results in a healthy profit for the club, particularly as the people staffing the festival are all volunteers. The good people of Tonbridge are therefore able to experience and enjoy a festival which is several orders of magnitude above what would otherwise be possible, but before the festival throws its doors open to the public, the beers are judged. This after all is a contest for places in the SIBA South East Region Competition. 

I didn't make a note of the number of brewers exhibiting this year, but I do know that around 180 different cask ales are judged across nine separate categories. The SIBA South East Region covers a wide area which encompasses the counties of Berkshire, East and West Sussex, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Kent, and Surrey, plus London.

The tasting and judging of the beers takes place earlier on Friday, and I know several people who volunteer as judges each year. I have been asked to judge in previous years, but as it entails taking a day off from work I normally decline. I have taken part in beer judging before, but normally I prefer to drink and enjoy my beer, rather than attempting to pigeon-hole and assess it against others.

The festival takes place on part of the playing area in front of the clubhouse, with the beers and the beers housed in a large marquee. This leaves plenty of room for people to sit out and soak up the sun, whilst enjoying the beer. In previous years we have made it a family  day out, going along, armed with folding chairs plus plenty of food. We have then met up with other family members  and friends, but this time a certain football match got in the way.

I called in on Friday evening, arriving shortly before 9pm. The crowds in the tent had thinned out, but there were still plenty of people sitting outside on the grass, enjoying the warmth of what had been probably the warmest day so far of this incredibly long hot spell. leaving plenty of space inside the marquee and ample room to move about and peruse the rows of different casks.

I met up with a few fellow CAMRA members and friends, and ended up staying until closing time. I did the same yesterday (Saturday) evening, arriving at a similar time, after the football had finished and I'd been suitably fed. It was this social side of the festival that I particularly enjoyed, as opposed to just sampling some interesting beers, although I must say there were some interesting ones.

As in previous years, all beers were priced at one token per half pint, regardless of strength, which certainly made life easier for the mathematically challenged amongst us. Tokens were priced at £1.80 each. I seriously  wish our own beer festival, a joint venture between West Kent CAMRA and the Spa Valley Railway, would adopt this eminently sensible practice, as it would make life so much easier for both staff and customers alike.

I didn’t go overboard on the sampling, but I enjoyed most of the beers I sampled and the ones which really stood out were: Twin Spring 4.0% from New River Brewery; Backstage IPA 5.6% from Signature Brewery and XPA 4.0 from Five Points Brewing. The above were all pale, well-hopped premium bitters with that refreshing, citrus-like bite. With temperatures in the high twenties, these types of beer early hit the spot in terms of their refreshment and their thirst-quenching properties.

Later, on both Friday and Saturday evenings, I got stuck into a few porters, with Bedlam Porter 5.0% from Bedlam Brewery, 1770 London Porter 4.7% from Brumaison and Smokestack Porter 6.0% from Tap East coming out particularly good.

On Saturday there was live band playing in an adjacent marquee, which got the crowd on their feet, but it was noticeable that the numbers in attendance were very much down on previous years - thanks to that football match.

Despite this rather unforeseen setback, the annual TJ's Beer Festival has really come into its own, and has been taken to heart by the good townsfolk of Tonbridge. It remains firmly fixed in the local social calendar, and is talked about long after each event – surely the ultimate accolade!

As ever thanks go to Tonbridge Juddians, and all their hard-working volunteers, for once again, putting on such an excellent and highly enjoyable festival, and to the brewers from  SIBA South-East , who provided such a fine range of beers.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Würzburg for the day

Just when I thought I’d finished recounting my recent trip to Bamberg and northern Bavaria, I realised I hadn’t written about the day Matt and I spent in Würzburg. This was on the Tuesday, which was the penultimate day of our stay in Bamberg.
Würzburg is roughly an hours journey, by rail, from Bamberg, so after buying our Bayern ticket  at the station, and purchasing a coffee plus a couple of rolls to eat on the train by way of breakfast, we boarded the Regional Express which was heading for the city.
We sat in the upstairs section of the coach, which is a feature of these double-deck trains I really appreciate. I hadn’t looked that closely at the map, but I knew our journey from Bamberg would first be in a northerly direction, following the valley of the River Regnitz, before turning towards the west, along the course of the River Main. With this in mind, I knew the scenery would be particularly interesting, and to be able to view it from our upper deck vantage point, would be a real bonus.
I was correct about the scenery, although there was a section where the train climbed up onto a plateau, presumably between the two river systems, which was less interesting. Würzburg lies right in the heart of the Franconian wine producing region, and is in fact the centre of this important industry, so as we journeyed along the course of the River Main, I was not surprised to see rows of carefully tended grape vines set out in terraces on the steep slopes of the river valley.
These became more noticeable as the train made the steep descent into Würzburg, and after a slight signalling delay, we pulled into the city’s main station. We’d arranged to meet up with my friend Ian from Tonbridge and his wife who, instead of staying with the rest of us in Bamberg, had opted to base themselves in Nuremberg. The pair had travelled by a different route, and would be arriving from the opposite direction to us, but both trains were timed to arrive within a few minutes of each other.
Our friends were waiting for us on the central concourse, and had already procured a guide plus a couple of city maps for us, but after looking at the map, and studying the tram and bus routes for a while, we decided it would be easier, and more pleasant to walk into the city centre, and then head up to our first object of interest, and the first port of call on most visitor’s itinerary.
This was the world famous Würzburg Residenz; an imposing palace, overlooking the city, which acted as the home of the Prince-Bishops, who ruled Würzburg until the late 18th Century.
It’s hard to believe that, like much of the city,  this magnificent structure was
severely damaged by a devastating air raid carried out by RAF Bomber Command, in March 1945. All of the city's churches, cathedrals, and other monuments were heavily damaged or destroyed in the raid, and the city centre, which mostly dated from medieval times, was decimated in a firestorm in which 5,000 people perished.  I won’t write too much about this act of wanton destruction, as I know there are people who, even today, will claim the raid was justified, but what I will say is this.
Unlike me, my two friends were unaware of what happened on that fateful March night, which was less than two months before the end of the war in Europe. They had read in the leaflet, picked up from the Tourist Information Office,  that around 90%  of the city had been destroyed in the raid, which only lasted for just over 20 minutes. Their only thoughts were why? What was the point of such destruction and the devastating loss of life which went with it.
I could only answer that it was man’s inhumanity to man, and before all the apologists for indiscriminate carpet bombing of civilians pipe up, “They started it,” let me remind you that two wrongs do not make a right, and by so doing there is no way in which we can claim the moral high ground.
We didn’t venture inside the Residenz. I would imagine it could take the best part of a day to fully explore all of the palace’s treasures, and time wasn’t on our side. It was also a lovely day weather-wise, so we decided to spend time looking around the extensive gardens at the rear of the building.  These were laid out in a formal style and, as might expected, were very well-maintained. The part which really stood out for all of us, including Matt who’s a bit of a Philistine regarding such things, was the topiary, with some immaculate examples , as can be seen from the photos.
It was lovely and peaceful in the gardens, and difficult to believe we were only around 20 minutes’ walk away from the city centre, but time was marching on, and there were several other attractions we wanted to see. We began our descent from the Residenz and moving in a zig-zag route, made or way towards the main thoroughfare, and the Alte Mainbrücke  across the River Main.
We stopped at the attractive looking Sternbäck pub, overlooking Dom Straβe, for a coffee at the insistence of my friend’s wife. Seeing as the weather was so good, we sat outside soaking up the atmosphere whilst watching the shoppers going about their business just yards away. 

We were to return to this particular pub, for something stronger, later in the day, but it’s worth mentioning if only for the “tickers.” The Untapped contingent from Maidstone CAMRA, who’d remained in Bamberg for the day would have cursed themselves for missing the distinctive Distelhäuser beers which are brewed in the small village of Distelhausen, to the south of Würzburg.
Suitably refreshed, we headed down towards the River Main and crossed by means of the centuries old bridge. The Alte Mainbrücke is now closed to road traffic, but was certainly busy with pedestrians when we walked across. The bridge towers high above the Main, which is quite wide at this point, and because of the height it provides a vantage point for lots of photo opportunities.  Looking along the river, we could see on the steeply sloping valley sides, the extensive terraces where the vineyards are situated, covering virtually every available square metre of free land.
We also stopped to take some photos - not selfies, I hasten to add, but shots looking back across the bridge as well as some of our next destination, the Marienberg Fortress, which dominates the west bank of the river. Rising some 200 metres from the riverside, the massive bulk of the Marienberg cannot be missed. This natural defensive mound, is crowned by the an equally imposing fortress, and climbing to the top was our next objective.
It was certainly a climb and a half, but I impressed myself by not getting out of breath as we followed the winding path, interspersed by flights of steps, inexorably upwards. My daily lunchtime walks had obviously paid off. Even so, by the time the four of us reached the summit I was ready for a nice cold beer. That was the plan, anyway!
Unfortunately much of the fortress is given over to a conference centre, which doesn’t really cater for casual visitors. We could have had a coffee, but somehow that just didn’t feel right. Fortunately I had done my homework and had looked up the location of Würzburg’s main brewery; Würzburger Hofbräu. The brewery, plus attached beer garden, lay on the far side of the Marienberg mount, at the foot of it, so after resting a short while, we began the long descent from the other side.
Eventually we found the brewery and beer-garden complex. It was a little further than it looked on the map, but was well worth the extra walk. Würzburger Hofbräu are a relatively large brewery producing over 100,00 hl per year. The  company’s products are well regarded, and easy to find, locally.
Since 2005,  Würzburger Hofbräu GmbH has been owned by the KulmbacherHYPERLINK "" Brewery, a subsidiary of Brau Holding International. As we discovered, there was a pleasant, shaded beer garden attached to the brewery, and it was at a table, close to the adjacent beer hall, that we plonked ourselves down. We were certainly glad of a rest after the walking and climbing we had done earlier.

We were even more glad of a nice cool beer, and the Würzburger Premium Pils did not disappoint. Something more solid to accompany the beer was also called for, and whilst it was on the dear side I grasped the nettle and went for a plate of Spargel – white asparagus served with hollandaise sauce and new potatoes. It was worth every cent. 

The Germans make a big fuss about the Spargel season, which lasts from May into June. Take a walk through any local fruit and vegetable market and you will see bundles of white asparagus piled up on display. Most pubs and restaurants will feature at least one Spargel dish on their menus, whilst this vegetable is in season, and it is definitely worth trying.
 The beer garden wasn’t particularly busy, but it was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, so this wasn’t that surprising. It was still a very pleasant place to spend the afternoon and just chill out. After a couple more beers, we walked along to the nearby tram stop, for a ride into town.
As mentioned earlier, we called in at the Sternbäck pub we’d been in earlier, but with the threat of thunder in the air, decided to sit inside. The 5.4% Kellerbier from the Distelhäuser Brewey was particularly good. Matt and I left Ian and his wife to make their way back to the station, whilst we had a brief look around the shops. 

We got caught in a light shower as we made our own way to the station, and on the train journey back to Bamberg, the rain increased in intensity. Despite the soggy end our visit to Würzburgwas a really enjoyable day out. The city had long been on my list of places to visit, so I was glad to have taken advantage of the opportunity.

 Würzburg today is thriving after the almost total destruction which took place. It took around 20 years for the buildings of historical importance to be painstakingly and accurately reconstructed, but as most of the surrounding buildings date from the 1960’s or later, it is difficult to imagine, what medieval Würzburg must have looked like.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Distracted by the "Beautiful Game"

“Never write posts after a penalty shoot-out,” says the Pub Bloggers Manual. Fortunately after that roller-coaster of an emotional ride, I had no intention of doing so; in fact I was ready for my bed!

I posted the above comment on Retired Martin’s blog. The instruction in parenthesis was Martin’s opening line, and the fact that after issuing the warning he went on to write a full-length post, shows he’s either got a lot more staying power than me or, by virtue of being retired, he doesn’t have to get up early and go to work in the morning.

I suspect it’s a combination of the two, but the point I was trying to make was the last two night’s compelling World Cup games have kept me away from my computer, and glued to the TV set.

I’m not a huge follower of the “beautiful game,” although I do take a passing interest. For example I like to see how Gillingham FC, Kent’s only team in the Football League, do each week, but having said that, I’ve no idea how their season ended this year, or even which division they are now in!

The World Cup is different, and every four years, it’s something of a tradition in the Bailey household to endeavour to watch those games where England are playing. Mrs PBT's in particular, is both an avid, and sometimes rather noisy fan, and woe betide anyone who attempts to interrupt her viewing. Of course we’ve seen more than our fair share of upsets and disappointments, but writing as someone who not only remembers England’s historic win, back in 1966, but who sat glued to our Black and White TV set, intently watching the game in the company of his father, I probably steal a march on most of today’s football fans.

Having witnessed once, history being made I would like to see a repeat performance, as I’m sure, would the whole nation. So last night’s game, despite its nail-biting conclusion, was much more than just a step in the right direction. Instead it showed a well-disciplined bunch of talented individual players, who really gelled as a team.

This is something few England sides have achieved since that historic win, and it is that, more than anything else, which fills me with optimism. Manager (or should that now be coach?), Gareth Southgate has done a brilliant job in moulding the players under his command into this team, and his appointment, coming as it did on the back of “Big Sam” Allardyce’s foolish indiscretion nearly two years ago, was not only well-deserved, but very fortuitous for the England side.

So that was last night’s cliff-hanger, but what about Monday evening’s equally compelling game? I’m talking here about Belgium v Japan; a game which nearly caused another major upset along the lines of Germany, Portugal and Argentina’s early departures.

It was not to be, but for a while underdogs Japan, came close to upsetting the apple-cart. I was rooting for them anyway, but it would have been doubly nice to see them going through as, at the moment, we have a couple of our company directors visiting from Japan.

They watched the match in their hotel, and when we offered our commiserations the following morning, were very philosophical about the whole thing. Japanese people are renowned of course, not only for their politeness, but also for their inscrutability, so we will probably never know their true feelings but, as the World Cup carnival continues, it certainly is “ a funny old game.”

Sunday, 1 July 2018

It's a gas (Pumping Back Cash)

The carbon dioxide shortage which has affected the production of beer, fizzy drinks, fresh meat and even crumpets, might be coming to an end, with the news that one major producer of CO2, has re-started production of the gas, and another is about to shortly.

As the media has delighted in informing us, there have been shortages of CO2 over the past 10 days, amid longer than expected shutdowns at ammonia and ethanol plants, key producers of the gas, across Europe. To make the situation worse, three out of five key UK producers have also been shut down, hitting the country particularly hard.

Ensus, announced that their bio-ethanol fuel processing plant at Wilton, near Redcar reopened on Friday, and Billingham based CF Fertilisers, expect production at their plant to re-start on Monday. Both companies produce carbon dioxide as a by-product of their respective processes.

The news that the CF Fertilisers plant is coming back on stream is particularly significant, as it produces 340,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. The gas is supplied to Praxair, a major distributor of food-grade carbon dioxide and dry ice to food and drink firms around the country.

The shortages of CO2 have come at a time of high demand, prompted by the continuing hot weather and the football World Cup, leaving some businesses short of stock. Pubs and retailers are therefore keeping their fingers crossed for a return to normal by the end of next week.

There have been some restrictions in place, but the biggest impact of the shortage appears to have been in meat processing, with producers warning that some production lines had been suspended. This was because there was not sufficient CO2 available for packing. (The gas is used to help preserve fresh meat in sealed packs.)

So far as the licensed trade is concerned there were shortages of certain brands, and wholesaler Bookers, have been limiting customers to a maximum of 10 cases of beer. In addition, a small number of JD Wetherspoon pubs do not have John Smiths Smooth or Strongbow cider available on draught, (no great loss there!); although the company anticipates things will return to normal early next week.

On a personal level, I did notice on Friday evening that shelves in the beer aisle, of our local ASDA, had been stripped bare, but over the weekend, both Sainsbury's and Waitrose seemed well-stocked, beer-wise.

So like all these things, a storm in a tea cup, or should that be beer glass? It's also the start of the "silly season" as far as newspaper editors are concerned, so expect more along these lines.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

The British Guild of Beer Writers AGM 2018

Last Wednesday evening I took the train up to London, in order to attend the Annual General Meeting of the British Guild of Beer Writers. This was the third trip I’ve made to the capital in the space of the past two weeks, but much like buses, things often come in threes.

Wednesday evening's AGM was another number three, as it was the third such meeting I have attended, since joining the Guild in the summer of 2015. It’s no surprise that meetings of an organisation for people who write about beer, should take place in a pub, and this year’s venue was the Bishop’s Finger, a Shepherd Neame pub in West Smithfield, just a stone’s throw away from the famous Smithfield Meat Market.

I had a virtually seamless journey up from Tonbridge, courtesy of the enhanced Thameslink service. Just a simple platform change at London Bridge station, now fully operational after years of re-building and re-modelling, and I was hopping onto a sleek new 12 coach,  Thameslink train.

I must say I am really impressed by the investment that has gone into the Thameslink project, and the fact it now offers speedy travel, without having to change trains, across central London for those of us who live in the south. For example, my train, which had come from Brighton, was bound for Bedford, and I understand there are also through services to Cambridge.

I wasn't going that far, as I alighted just three stops later at Farringdon. From there it was a five minute walk to the pub. My route took me through the splendour of the Victorian buildings which make up Smithfield Market, and as I walked under the ornate,  cast-iron canopy, lorries were parking up ready to deliver their meat for the early morning trade.

I think I am correct in saying that the Bishop’s Finger was the first pub which Shepherd Neame owned in London, and for many years it represented the Kent brewery's sole presence in the nation’s capital. It’s probably getting on for 40 years since I last set foot inside the pub, but as our meeting was held in an upstairs room, I didn’t see that much of it. Downstairs there was just one open plan bar, although I’m pretty certain that back in the 70’s, the Bishop’s Finger had two bars.

The British Guild of Beer Writers was formed in 1988 to help spread the word about beers, brewing and pubs. It’s members include the cream of the country’s beer media experts – be they journalists, authors (writers or bloggers), producers, photographers, illustrators or PR people.

The Guild’s wish is for the public to be given every opportunity to learn about beer at first hand from its members, and for the public to be able to read, listen and view how beer is flourishing in Britain today. Supporters of the Guild include brewers, pub companies, and many suppliers associated with the brewing trade.

I was admitted to the Guild, as a full member, back in 2015. I qualified for membership by virtue of having written this blog (at the time), for seven years, and also for having edited, as well as written most of the copy for, two magazines/newsletters, published by local CAMRA branches.

I am proud to be a member, and although I am in illustrious company, I have found everyone I have met so far, to be friendly, engaging and helpful. You can check out the Guild’s many members here, should you wish.

I made my way upstairs, where the 30 or so members present were squeezed into the pub's function room. Fortunately the room had its own bar, and with a choice of Spitfire and Whitstable Bay Pale on hand-pump, and Five Grain Lager on keg, we were unlikely to go thirsty. There was also selection of bottles, chilling away in the fridge. Chilled beer was certainly needed as it was a very warm evening outside, although the rather fierce air-conditioning certainly kept things cool in the room.

The proceedings stuck to the usual AGM format of reports from the various officers, followed by an election for four places on the board. I say board, because a couple of years ago, the Guild changed its status from that of a members club, to that of a company. This was done primarily to place things on a firmer financial footing.

It was also time to say goodbye to Guild Chariman, Tim Hampson who was stepping down  after 12 years in the role. Addressing the assembled members, Tim reflected on his years as chairman.  “The Guild has moved from being a club to a more professional organisation,” he said. “When I took on the role, my priority was to put the Guild on a more stable financial footing and I’m delighted that, thanks to our Treasurer Paul Nunny, we have now achieved that.  This allows us to offer far more to our members  in the way of seminars, events and training.”

He continued, “I am especially proud of our Annual Awards and Dinner, which has become one of the highlights of the drinks industry calendar.”

Members extended their heartfelt thanks to Tim for his unstinting dedication to the Guild, which during his tenure has been transformed into the thriving organisation it is today.  The Guild’s individual membership has passed 300 for the first time, thanks in large part to membership secretary Matthew Curtis.

Former Secretary of the Guild and current Beer Writer of the Year, Adrian Tierney-Jones spoke fondly about the decade he worked alongside Tim Hampson, before presenting him with a bottle of Bass King’s Ale 1902 and an engraved tankard on behalf of the Guild.

In addition to Tim, three other directors stood down from the Guild Board at the meeting and elections were held. It was particularly encouraging to see that three of the four new directors are women, especially as they will be bringing some new ideas to the Guild.

Once the meeting had finished, members tucked into a buffet which went well with the beer. There was just the right amount of food, and the same applied to the beer. With work the next morning, I restricted myself  to three pints; two of Whitstable Bay and one of Five Grain.

It was a highly positive meeting and it was good to catch up with a few familiar faces from past Guild events and also a couple of past European Beer Bloggers' Conferences. I left around 9.30pm, retracing my footsteps back to Farringdon and then my rail journey back to Kent.

After the heat of the city it was rather chilly when I stepped off the train at Tonbridge, but a brisk walk home soon warmed me up.