Thursday, 14 November 2019

Grolsch bows out

By Source, Fair use,
In what is seen as yet another shake-up of the global beer market, the iconic lager brand Grolsch is set to be discontinued in the UK after 35 years on supermarket shelves. This follows reports in recent weeks, that Grolsch had been de-listed in both Tesco and Asda supermarkets. 

Industry insiders had been saying that supplies of the lager had dried up, and now the reasons behind this have become clear. The brand's owners, Asahi of Japan, have ended their joint venture agreement with Molson Coors,  meaning the brand will no longer be available in the UK or Ireland. 

Molson Coors brewed Grolsch at their Burton-on-Trent plant, but the brand has been passed from pillar to post in recent years, following various takeover and mergers within the industry. Grolsch became a part of the SABMiller group in March 2008, but following their merger with Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2016, the brand was spun-off to Asahi, along with other former SABMiller beer brands such as Peroni and Pilsner Urquell.

By Ccyyrree - Own work, CC0,
The reasons for the decision to drop the brand are unclear, but Grolsch , has experienced a decline in popularity in recent years with sales in supermarkets and shops falling 22 percent in the last year alone. It is not known how much of this fall is due to completion from cheaper rivals, or to the rise in popularity of lower alcohol alternatives. Some commentators have even suggested the increased interest in craft beer may also have been a contributing factor, although personally I am rather sceptical about this.

The Grolsch Brewery was founded in 1615 in the Dutch town of Groenlo, which at the time was known as Grolle. The name Grolsch, means “of Grolle.” At the time of its takeover in 2006, Grolsch was the second largest brewer in the Netherlands (after Heineken), with an annual production of 320 million litres. 

Today, Grolsch is best known for its 5% abv pale lager, Grolsch Premium Pilsner and for its characteristic chunky green bottles, with their swing-top lids. The latter eliminates the need for an opener. The bottles are very robust, and the flip-top cap means they can easily be sealed by hand without the expense of new crown caps. This has made them very popular with home-brewers. 

To me, Grolsch always seemed one of those “other brands,”  a second-division sort of beer, if you like; although to be fair I always found it pleasant enough to drink.  When my wife and I had our off-licence, Grolsch was never a big seller, but it did attract a small band of devotees. 

I am sorry in a way to see it go, but reading between the lines it has been elbowed off the shelf by larger and more “powerful” brands, backed up by the power of mass-advertising. 

I expect home-brewers too, will be sorry to see it go, as will people like me who use the bottle for other purposes. The 1.5 litre bottle in the photo, is my 20p jar, which holds around £300 worth of coins, when full. It is now heading towards its second full load. I acquired it as a novelty, during my time at the off-licence.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Blackburn Skyline - with apologies to a certain Mr Dylan

Like virtually everyone who owns a Smartphone, I get news-feeds popping up on my screen from time to time and, thanks to Google, which has already made a careful note of my preferences, likes and dislikes, quite a few of these news stories are beer related. (I receive quite a few music-related ones as well, but that’s a different story).

One item which caught my eye the other morning, was footage taken from a drone flight, over the centre of Blackburn, Lancashire – the town with the 4,000 holes, according to the Beatles’ song, “A Day in the Life.” The footage captured the demolition work being carried out on the former Thwaites Brewery which, until recently, dominated the local skyline.

The decision to demolish the nine storey building tower, was made last year after Thwaites brought to an end 211 years of brewing in Blackburn. This followed a downsizing of the company’s brewing activities and the sale of a number of key brands to Marston’s (Wainwright's and Lancaster Bomber); a move that saw brewing transferred to a new, purpose-built plant at Mellor Brook in August 2018.

I am writing about this because Thwaites was one of the first breweries I visited. It wasn’t actually my first brewery tour, as that honour went to Marston’s of Burton-on-Trent; somewhat ironically, in view of what is written above. Instead the trip I made to Thwaites’ Blackburn plant was the first of many such tours I have organised over the years, initially for a university society, but then on behalf of my local CAMRA branch.

That trip would have taken place sometime in late 1974, when I was in my second year as a student at Salford University. What struck me at the time, especially after having visited Marston’s the previous year, was just how modern Thwaite’s brewery was. The nine storey structure, topped with its illuminated sign, dominated the town and made quite an impression on a 19 year old youth who was just starting out on his drinking career.

We were told that the brewery had been completely re-built, on the same site, during the mid-1960’s, and was constructed as a traditional tower brewery, whereby the process starts at the top, and then gradually flows downwards, using gravity to do the work. I don’t remember much about that visit, although I do recall being taken into a nearby pub, by the tour guide, for a few complimentary pints. I also recall, measured, cylindrical electric pumps being the order of the day.

With this in mind, I found it sad to see footage of this impressive structure being pulled to the ground. The end of an era and the result of changing tastes within the beer market and the pub trade.

A quick word about Thwaites, with particular reference to the four years I spent living in the Greater Manchester area. The company produced three cask ales at the time, a light, but well-hopped bitter, which was very quaffable, plus two milds. The ordinary mild was dark and creamy, whereas the Best Mild was much paler in colour.

The majority of Thwaites pubs were situated in the north of the region, with a large concentration in and around the town of Bury, which lies to the north of Manchester. I understand this followed the takeover, by Thwaites, of the local brewery several decades previously.

Bury was quite easy to travel to, either by bus, from Salford, or by means of the train from Manchester Victoria. For the train buffs out there, that particular line was unusual in having a third electric “juice” rail, similar to that in use on the old Southern Region of British Rail.

During the early 1990’s, the line was converted into a tramway, using the original track-bed and stations, but now powered by an overhead electric system. It forms part of the Manchester Metrolink, and incorporates another former rail line which runs from the city centre, to Altrincham.

For Salford University students, it wasn’t always necessary to journey to Bury for a pint of Thwaites, because toward the end of my second year, the brewery obtained the contract to supply the Student Union Bar. The beer was tank, rather than cask, but still streets ahead of the Tartan and Tetley fizz stocked previously.

Returning to the main story, for a minute or so,  I suspect the good people of Blackburn must be sad that the brewery which looked down on them for all these years, and which was such a familiar sight, is alas no more. But if you are fortunate to come across a pub selling Thwaites, and in particular, their dark mild, treat yourself to a glass and raise it in memory of a vanished piece of our heritage.

Photos - Wikipedia and Lancashire Telegraph

Saturday, 9 November 2019

November - the sombre month

As I wrote a couple of years ago, November is probably my least favourite month of the year. It’s something of a “nothing” month, and whilst some would say it’s the herald of Christmas, and as such gives people something to look forward to, it’s much too early for all that. No doubt we’ll still have to suffer the over-blown wave of commercialism, which kicked off as soon as the schools returned from their summer break.

Although the weather’s been relatively benign this past week - unless you live in those parts of the country that have experienced torrential rain and flooding, there’s still something about November which makes people want to curl up in front of a nice warm fire and hibernate. 

Following our short “mini-cruise,” last weekend, I returned to work at the beginning of the week to find that orders have virtually dried up. So after months of working flat out, we’re now scratching around looking for things to do.

The reason for this fall off in orders is the majority of our customers panicked at the thought of not one, but two potential “no deal” Brexits. Not wishing to run out of product, they understandably overstocked, and are now sitting on sufficient goods to see them through, well into the New Year.

The upside to this has been a chance to catch up with certain tasks, which has been put to one side in the rush to meet these artificial deadlines, as well as having a good clearout. Ironically, we’re embarking on a major expansion project, having just taken on an adjacent unit, so interesting times lie ahead.

The quietness at work has been mirrored on the beer front. I unfortunately missed last Sunday’s visit to Westerham Brewery,  organised by my local CAMRA branch, as Mrs PBT’s and I were travelling back from Southampton at the time. But on the plus side, I gather that Harvey’s Old Ale has been spotted in a number of local pubs, so I must get out and track down some of this delectable dark ale.

That’s about it for the time being, apart from slowly replenishing my stocks of both bottled and canned beer for home consumption. I’d deliberately allowed stocks to run down over the summer months, and with foreign trips few and far between this year, there’s been little coming in from overseas.

Canned beer seems very much in vogue at the moment, and I picked up a couple of real bargains earlier today at our nearest Tesco store. First and foremost amongst these have been 4-can packs of Life & Death IPA from Vocation Brewery.  This feisty US style IPA slips down rather too well for a 6.5% ABV beer, but is proving itself as one of the most enjoyable beers I have found in recent years. It is also unfiltered and un-pasteurised and, according to the can, may contain sediment.

I’m not sure if this complies with CAMRA’s increasingly stretched definition of “Real Ale” or not, but frankly I couldn’t care less. I do wonder though whether by discounting some of their excellent beers in this fashion, this Hebden Bridge based brewery might be exposing themselves to cash flow problems, whilst at the same time turning themselves into just another commodity brewer.

The same applies to the other beer I purchased this morning. Six-pack 330ml cans of Pilsner Urquell, costing just £5 a pack at the supermarket giant, also cheapens the brand. As a consumer, I’m not complaining, and I’m certain that brand owner Asahi, can afford to discount in this manner, from time to time.

Perhaps it’s time though for a major re-think of the whole beer marketing game?

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

On the waterfront

After departing from Southampton at around 5pm on Friday, and sailing through the night, our cruise ship, the Queen Elizabeth, docked at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge early on Saturday morning. Neither Mrs PBT’s or I were in a hurry to get ashore, particularly as our ship wouldn’t be sailing until the early evening.

We’d both enjoyed a good night’s sleep, so much so that I at least had forgotten that my good lady wife had ordered breakfast in bed. She was in the shower, when a knock came at the door and one of the waiting  staff arrived with her tray of bacon and eggs.

I say “her,” because I was not partaking of such frivolities, even though room service, if wanted, was included as part of our package. Unlike Mrs PBT’s, I’ve never been a fan of eating in any bedroom, whether in a hotel or onboard ship, so as soon as she’d reappeared I left her to enjoy being pampered, and set off  to locate the buffet on one of the Queen Elizabeth’s upper decks.

There was a choice of at least two buffet and dining areas, so I picked the least crowded. After scanning what was on offer, I loaded my plate up with a couple of rather tasty Cumberland sausages, a few rashers of back bacon and a good helping of scrambled eggs, and sat down at a vacant, port-side window seat. I was just wondering what to do about an accompanying hot drink, when the waiter turned up with a most welcome jug of coffee.

From my vantage point, nine decks up from the waterline, I had a good view of the comings and goings on the quayside below. There were various groups of passengers disembarking, in order to board the coaches, waiting to transport them away on a number of pre-booked, shore excursions, but myself, Mrs PBT’s  and our two travelling companions had a more leisurely day in mind.

I mentioned in a previous post that the excursions were expensive and, apart from the trip to Ghent, were heading off to places I’d been to before. Our plan was to make a short trip ashore, have a look around, buy some Belgian chocolate and a few Belgian beers, and then come back onboard in time for that most British of institutions - afternoon tea.

As well as the various coaches, I noticed the appearance of red, single-deck buses at regular intervals, and quickly sussed out these were the means of leaving the port. I’d already read that no pedestrian traffic is permitted in the port area, and that passengers wishing to make their own way ashore, were required to use the buses, so after finishing my breakfast, and a second cup of rather strong coffee, I set off back to our cabin to collect my good lady wife.

She in turn had gathered our fellow travellers – her sister and her brother-in-law, who were staying in the adjacent cabin. After donning our coats as protection against the rain, we set off to leave the ship. It’s worth mentioning here that everything onboard the Queen Elizabeth is controlled by means of electronic cards, issued to all passengers, and unique to that particular individual. The cards are pre-charged against the owner’s credit card, and as well as providing proof of identity, can be used for all purchases onboard ship.

With an all-inclusive package, the only things to buy are alcoholic drinks, luxury items (perfume and jewellery), an upgrade to one of the more exclusive restaurants and the service charge added in lieu of tipping individual stewards or waiters. On leaving the ship your card is scanned, and it is scanned again on return. Additional airport-style security checks are also carried out on all returning passengers.

Once on terra-firma we boarded a bus, which transported us the short distance to the cruise terminal. I was expecting a passport check to be carried out, but with our passport information already linked to our card, there was no need. Apart from a souvenir shop, plus a series of desks offering various excursions, there was very little at the cruise terminal. It was also very windy outside, which did not please my wife – something about messing up her hair!

I discovered at the terminal that we could have instead taken a bus to the nearby seaside town of Blankenberge, where there is a lot more in terms of shops, cafés and bars. Unfortunately my companions seemed much less keen on the idea of a couple of hours in Blankenberge than I did, and my suggestion to Mrs PBT’s that I could shoot off there on my own, met with one of those real old-fashioned and very disdainful looks.  

Directly opposite the terminal, and overlooking a marina, there was a factory-outlet shop, selling a large variety of keenly priced, Belgian chocolates. We dived in, and my wife and her sister bought more chocolate than they could possibly eat (some of the boxes were gifts, apparently). I resisted the temptation, although I did succumb to a few of the strategically-placed freebies.

On the way into the shop, I’d noticed the tell-tale canopies of a bar, further along the marina, so when Mrs PBT’s went to pay for her purchases, I enquired, all innocently, as to the whereabouts of the nearest café. Just a short distance along the marina said the lady at the till. “Would you recommend it?” I asked. “Certainly,” was the reply.

My suggestion of a short walk and a coffee met with universal approval, and a few minutes later we piled into the American-themed, Café Chevvy's. There were a group of locals sitting at tables close to the door, (typical dour-looking Belgians as my wife later described them), but the proprietress was friendly enough and told us we were welcome to sit wherever we liked. 

After ordering either coffee or hot chocolate for the rest of the group and a Westmalle Dubbel for me, we sat there enjoying our drinks and taking in the atmosphere of this typical and rather pleasant Belgian café. There wasn’t a huge variety of beers on the menu, but what was available was quite respectable. I tend to prefer the dark Dubbel-style beers, to the paler, but stronger Trippels, and I have always enjoyed Westmalle’s version

Naturally my Westmalle was served in the correct badged glass, which came as no surprise to Eileen, but quite impressed her sister. Café Chevvy's was a lucky find in an area consisting largely of modern apartments and unused yacht berths. It was also a good place to spend some time with our travelling companions and to enjoy the excellent Trappist ale.

All good things come to an end and having another beer would have been pushing my luck, and to be honest one strong Trappist beer was sufficient at lunchtime. I paid the bill and we made our way back to the cruise terminal. Before boarding the shuttle-bus, I called in at the souvenir shop, which was actually offering a range of reasonably-priced beers.

I came away with a Brugse Zot Dubbel, from De Halve Maan Brewery, plus a selection from Fort Lapin; an artisanal brewery located just outside the centre of Bruges. After that, it was back on the bus and back on the boat, ready for afternoon tea.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Under starter's orders

Our short “taster cruise” certainly lived up to our expectations, and the only regret was it was too short. I knew this would be the case, but I didn’t want to big things up too much, especially as Mrs PBT’s had selected and booked this mini-break herself.

So before getting on to the whole cruise experience, I want to make a brief mention of the pub we called in at for lunch, on our drive down to Southampton. As mentioned in the previous article, we booked our mini-break in partnership with Mrs PBT’s sister and her husband, so it made sense for us to travel down to the cruise terminal in one car.

My brother-in-law offered to do the driving; a gesture I was happy to accept. We set off mid-morning, having met up at the in-law’s place at Bexhill. Being a weekday, the traffic was quite heavy, particularly on the A27 as it passes through Worthing. We were therefore glad of the chance to stop for a spot of lunch, at a pub that our host couple knew quite well.

The pub in question was the Old Stables at Fontwell; roughly halfway between Arundel and Chichester. It is situated in the grounds of Fontwell Park Racecourse and is open to the general public. The pub comprises a large open-plan restaurant with a bar where drinkers are welcome. 

Despite its rustic sounding name and old world appearance, there is nothing “old” about this  Mitchells & Butlers-owned, Vintage Inn, as it is a modern building, carefully designed to look old. This deception was good enough to fox me, and regardless of my feelings about fakery, I have to say I found the Old Stables to be a thriving, attractive and well-run pub.

It was fairly quiet when we arrived, but it didn’t take too long before the pub started to fill up. We were offered the choice of either ordering  at the bar, or opting for table service. We went for the latter, so directed to a group of tables at the far end of the building. 

My experienced “drinker’s eye” had already clocked the St Austell Proper Job, sandwiched in between the pumps for Pedigree and Doom Bar, so as I’d been excused driving duties for the duration of the weekend, I went for the Cornish beer. My pint was quite drinkable, although I felt it lacked condition, but I still scored it at 3.0 NBSS. 

We each made a selection from the fixed price lunchtime menu, which offered two coursed for £12.95. I opted for the lobster fishcake, rightly surmising that the chicken & mushroom pie, topped with puff pastry,” would be a stew with a pastry lid. Why call something a pie, when it plainly isn’t? I also made the right call with my dessert choice of  Hot drink and a mini pudding.”

With the cruise offering an extensive choice of different courses, I didn’t want the weekend to begin with too many calories, so a flat white, plus crumble of the day, allowed me to enjoy a coffee, plus just the right portion of dessert.

All in all, a pleasant and welcoming pub, situated at just the right position for a break in our journey. If you are tempted by a longer stay, possibly in conjunction with a day at the races, the Old Stables shares a car park with the next door Travelodge.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Carry on cruising

On Friday Mrs PBT’s and I are embarking on our first ever cruise. It’s billed as a “taster cruise” and, as the name suggests, is designed to give novice, “cruise virgins” like us, the chance to experience life afloat, combined with that touch of luxury that seems to be an essential part of the whole package.

We’ll be accompanied on the voyage, by’s Eileen’s sister and her husband, who are both cruise veterans. They have offered to act as our guides, although I suspect their real reason is the desire to enjoy a short break, as what can be a depressing time of year.
Without wishing to appear smug, or ungrateful, neither of us really need “guiding,” as surely part of the fun is finding things out for oneself, but having said that,  my sister and brother-in-law obviously know the ropes, and it will be with the little things where their experience will undoubtedly come to the fore.

This being our first cruise, we are pushing the boat out, if you’ll excuse the pun, and will be sailing from Southampton on the Queen Elizabeth; Cunard’s newest ocean liner. If we enjoy it, there’s the possibility of a longer cruise next year, with the Norwegian fjords being my voyage of choice.
Mrs PBT’s still doesn’t feel up to being herded around at airports, even though assisted boarding is available at most locations, so the idea of a cruise, where we can just drive down to Southampton, hand over the car keys, and leave the vehicle to be parked, whilst our cases are delivered direct to our cabin, obviously appeals. I did tell her that isn’t an excuse to pack everything but the proverbial kitchen sink!

 I’ve had to pack rather more than I would normally take, and certainly quite a bit more than I took on my recent visit to Krakow, where I crammed everything into  a medium-sized rucksack in order to fly with just cabin baggage. That certainly beats queuing at check-in and waiting at baggage reclaim.

Back to the point, dinner on board the Queen Elizabeth is a formal affair – not quite DJ’s and dickey-bows, but smart attire nevertheless, including a jacket which would not travel well crumpled inside a rucksack.

Our destination is the Belgian port of Zeebrugge; a town once again in the news for all the wrong reasons. Our ship will dock there for a day, and there are several shore excursions to take advantage of. These are not cheap, and are undoubtedly an easy way for cruise lines to bump up their profits.

Destinations for these excursions include trips to Bruges, Ghent or the First World War Commonwealth cemeteries. All involve a fair amount of walking, which neither of the ladies feel up to, so we’ve agreed to forsake the coach trips, and spend time ashore at Zeebrugge.

I’ve been to Bruges several times, so am not overly concerned at not seeing the place again, but I would have liked to visit Ghent. Also, a trip to the war graves would have been particularly poignant this time of year, but with several operators offering tailor-made guided tours, that is something that can wait for another time.

So with packing well on the way to completion, and then a drive down to Southampton for an overnight stay, tomorrow morning, there’s just one last thing for me to say.

I was being economical with the truth at the beginning of this post, as I am not a “cruise virgin.” Instead I am the person who, at the tender age of 16, undertook a two week “educational cruise” as a member of a party from my school, along with similar groups of pupils from schools all over Kent.

The “SS Nevassa,” a converted troop ship operated by the now defunct British India Line, acted as our home for a fortnight, as we cruised around the mid-Atlantic, visiting Portugal, the Canaries, Madeira and the Azores. Being “educational” there were lectures, films and slideshows about the places we would be calling at, and there was also plenty to keep a boatful of lively teenagers amused, (no alcohol though, for obvious reasons).

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, especially as it was my first time abroad, and have fond memories of life on-board ship. I even found a few old photo’s, taken on my Kodak Brownie camera. (For those who might be interested, I'm the one in the back row with the scruffy haircut, third from the left).

This time though, I’ll be swapping a rather spartan dormitory for a balcony stateroom, and an equally basic ship’s mess-room for fine dining. I will, of course, keep people posted, but not whilst at sea.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Greene King Heritage Chevallier Series

We take a short interlude from tales of visits to Canterbury, Krakow, London, Norwich and even Tonbridge, and take a brief look at an unusual beer I picked up the other day. The beer in question is Heritage Vintage Fine Ale (6.5%); a limited edition premium beer from Greene King.

I saw this beer on sale at Tesco for much of last year and kept meaning to grab a bottle. There are actually two beers in this series, but the second one - Heritage Suffolk Pale Ale (5%), was not available when I finally decided I ought to give these beers a try. Typical, but this is what happens when you procrastinate.

First, some background. Both beers are brewed using East Anglian Chevallier malted barley. Originally developed in the 1820’s, Chevallier barley was once the predominant strain of malt, but was discontinued due to its low attenuation rate. This meant that whilst it added lots of body to the beer, it was difficult to ferment right out, and as the demand increased for lighter beers, Chevallier’s popularity declined, in favour of more modern varieties.  

We are talking here about a timescale of around 100 years. As an experiment, Crisp Malting Group, sowed five preserved Chevallier seeds, which were then re-sown and harvested to create sufficient volume to brew a batch of beer.

Crisp's partners in this exercise were Greene King, and the remit was to try and replicate a traditional GK ale from the 1800s. As mentioned above, the brewery produced two ales, both  of which are bottle-conditioned and packaged in 568ml bottles – Imperial pints. To complete the historical touch, the bottles are embossed with an old-fashioned GK logo.

Both beers are inspired by recipes from the brewery archives, and are said to be typical of the types of ales consumed in rural Suffolk in the early 1800s. So by using just five barley seeds, recipes from their brewing archives plus lots of patience and expertise, Greene King have created what it describes as its "Heritage Series."

Speaking last year, at the launch of the Heritage Chevallier Series, Greene King's Director of  Brewing & Brands, said, “These ales are an exciting addition to our stable of beers as they are a wonderful representation of Suffolk ales long thought to be extinct. Working alongside Crisp Malt who has carefully re-introduced the rare Chevallier malt and using our own extensive archive and brewing experience, we have been able to produce these two ales with traditional Suffolk roots.”

I really enjoyed my bottle of Vintage Fine Ale, the other evening, finding it a rich, flavoursome beer, with plenty of biscuit-like malt flavours, off-set by a soft fruity and floral bitterness, from classic English hop varieties - Fuggles, Bramling Cross and Goldings.

The GK website added that the beer included a proportion of Amber malt, which adds a hint of caramel, giving a beer that really lives up to its promise.

For the record, here’s what the brewery has to say about the other Heritage beer - Suffolk Pale Ale. Brewed from Chevallier malt, and bittered using Saaz and Strisselspalt hops (these don’t sound very traditional), to give the brew a refreshing flavour.  Herbal, citrus, floral and spicy notes add to the sweet malt taste, creating an easy drinking “heritage” ale.

I’m keeping a look out for the Suffolk Pale Ale, and wouldn’t be averse to a few more bottles of the Vintage Fine Ale. If you come across either of these, I can certainly recommend giving them a try, especially if you want to sample a little bit of history.