Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Follow the bear, as lager beats cask, on a baking hot day

Sunday 14th August and the heat showed no sign of abating. After two days at home keeping my head down and attempting to stay cool, I felt the early signs of cabin fever creeping in. Mrs PBT’s doesn’t do well in the heat but was relatively happy to sit indoors in the relative cool of the front room, with the curtains drawn. We could do with some of those wooden shutters that the French have fixed to the exterior of their houses, but as most UK properties have windows which open outwards, that wouldn’t really work.

Matthew wasn’t working that day and claimed that he needed to go out. I was happy to join him, providing he drove, but where should we go? I had a follow-up appointment the following morning, to see the consultant who performed my surgery. That day he was working from the Tunbridge Wells Spire Hospital, which is actually just outside Fordcombe – a hill-top village which is six miles away from Kent’s only spa town. Fortunately for me, Fordcombe is less than 20 minutes’ drive from where I work.

Unsure of the Spire’s exact location, it seemed a good idea to check it out first, rather than getting lost and arriving late, so that is what we did. As it happened, it was just as well we did the recce trip, as the hospital wasn’t quite where I thought it was, but having located the place, it seemed a good idea to stop off for a beer. There is a handsome looking pub called the Chafford Arms, just off the centre of Fordcombe, but when we pulled up outside, vehicles were queuing up to get into the car park.

We gave that up as a bad job, which is a shame as it is a decade or more since I last set foot in the Chafford. According to What Pub, it still retains its public bar, which is a real rarity these days. The photo above, dates from October 2010, which means even more time has elapsed since my last visit, but with nowhere to leave the car – without causing an obstruction, Matthew had little choice but to drive on.

My initial suggestion was to head down into Penshurst, on the other side of the Medway valley, and enjoy a pint in the garden of the imposing Leicester Arms, but on the way, I thought we could divert to the tiny hamlet of Smart’s Hill, where there are two fine rural pubs. In my book, the Spotted Dog, which is the first of the pair, has a much more pub-like feel to it, whereas the Bottle House, which is further up the hill, is more of a restaurant. In a different location, it’s a pub I’d be quite happy to visit, but up against its neighbour it becomes less of an attraction.

As we were pulling into the car park, opposite the Spotted Dog, I thought perhaps we should have carried on to the Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath – talk about being undecided, but also spoilt for choice. We stuck with our first choice, particularly as there was plenty of room to park, and after crossing the road and descending the steps to the pub entrance, made our way inside. I have written several previous posts about the Spotted Dog, so I’m not going to repeat myself, apart from saying the pub is built into the side of a hill, with far-reaching views from the rear garden, and it was to there that we headed, after first ordering our drinks.

The pub was surprisingly empty inside, especially for Sunday lunchtime, and I remarked on this to the bar staff. They were blaming the excessive heat and, as the young girl behind the bar said, “Who wants to eat a roast dinner on a baking hot day like this?” There was a good choice of beers, with two offerings from Harvey’s complementing local favourite, Larkin’s Traditional, but the beer that really caught my eye, as well as my fancy, was the imposing font for Hofmeister – Imported Bavarian Lager.

It appealed to Matthew as well, and with Salty Dog crisps on the bar it was “Two pints of lager and TWO packets of crisps!” It was nice and shady in the terraced garden at the rear of the pub, and whilst part of the view remains obscured by the trees, there is sufficient gap to see right across the valley. The Hofmeister was enjoyable, and just the right beer for such a scorching hot day. Those who remember the brand from the 1980’s, when it was just another weak and insipid, ersatz continental lager, brewed by on of the big boys (Courage, in this case), will be amazed by the transformation the beer has undergone.

I won’t recount the whole story, as you can read it on this link, but basically the rights to the Hofmeister name were bought by two friends, who set about relaunching the beer, as a proper authentic, German lager. Hofmeister is now brewed by a fourth-generation family brewery, based in the heart of Bavaria, and the difference in taste and improvement in quality, has to be experienced by all those who love good beer.

Looking around the beer garden, as well as in the pub, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the beer, and whilst Hofmeister’s old advertising strap-line might have been, “For great lager, follow the bear,” in this instance it should have been, “Head for the dog!”


Sunday, 14 August 2022

Bucking the trend at the Buck's Head?

Friday’s dip in the in-law’s swimming pool was most welcome, although Saturday and today seem even warmer, if that’s possible. If I’m brutally honest, the excessive heat isn’t conducive to going out, especially when it means closing all the doors and windows and generally shutting the house up. It isn’t much fun walking anywhere, unless it’s through a shady forest, but that would involve driving along roads that are over-crowed with people who are also seeking some form of escape from the heat.

Fortunately, the air-con unit on my car is fully gassed, so at least it’s cool behind the wheel, but as there is little point in driving somewhere, just for the sake of it, I’ve been largely confined to the few shady areas of the garden at Bailey Towers. It’s a peculiarly British thing to keep talking about the weather, but surely some sectors must be benefiting from it.Take the licensed trade, for example, surely the heatwave has been good for beer sales? On the other hand, how much of those sales have been cask, and has this dwindling, but still vital area of the beer market been adversely affected by the high temperatures?

I have only visited a handful of pub since my recent surgery, so I don’t know how cask is bearing up. The fact that one of my recent visits was to a real ale “destination” outlet, doesn’t give a true picture, and things would have been very dire it that particular pub hadn’t been doing well. The two other pubs were mentioned in my recent post about a bus trip (codgers’ outing), and in fairness to both outlets, the cask ales I sampled were on good form. Again, it was difficult to judge the overall ratio of cask to keg, as in both pubs, the beers were enjoyed in an outdoor setting, rather than stood at the bar.

Last Thursday, I called into what might be called an “old-fashioned pub,” and whilst again it was difficult to know how much cask was being sold, this time around the cask beer I initially chose, had to be returned. To be fair this was probably just a one-off situation, and when I took my not terribly good pint back, the barmaid took one look at it and said that, given its hazy appearance and lack of condition, it must have been approaching the end of the cask. She changed it without any trouble, which is the way things should be, when the beer isn’t quite right.

So where exactly was this old-fashioned pub, and what was I doing there? I shall answer the last question first, as it leads onto the initial one, but simply put, I was visiting Sevenoaks with young master Matthew. We’d taken my car, and after calling in at the large Lidl store, close to the station, found ourselves at the top end of the town, looking for a parking space, so I could visit the bank. We gave up on the car parks; it might be Sevenoaks, but who is going to pay a minimum charge of £2, for an hour’s parking, to undertake an errand that is likely to take 10 minutes tops?  I said we’d drive back to Tonbridge and stump up the 70p for 30 minutes at Waitrose. In the meantime, seeing as we were on the eastern edge of Sevenoaks, and close to Knowle Park, I thought we’d drive home that way.

What I didn’t realise, despite having visited Sevenoaks dozens of times, is the extent that the National Trust-owned, Knowle Park encroaches on the heart of the town. This encroachment only became apparent when I looked later, at an OS map of the area, but it does at least explain why there are no roads heading directly east from the town centre. I had it in my mind to head for the tiny hamlet of Godden Green, home to the Buck’s Head. The latter is a well-known country pub owned by Shepherd Neame - not exactly a point in its favour, but it’s a pub I haven't visited for a decade or more, so I thought it would be interesting to see how it was faring.  Our route there was quite convoluted and involved heading out of Sevenoaks in a north-easterly direction, before eventually cutting across due east to Godden Green.

Apart from the pub, a scattering of houses, and a large green, there is nothing much there, although a little way further south, Sevenoaks Preparatory School caters for children who are not old enough to attend Sevenoaks School. It’s the type of educational establishment that charges astronomical fees, which is probably why it counts David and Victoria Beckham’s kids amongst its list of former pupils. Matthew and I were more interested in the pub, which faces out across the green and pond, with that air of permanence which indicates a well-established old inn.

There was a surprising number of cars parked in front, but we manged to squeeze in on the edge of the green. A series of steps lead into the pub, which has one large, long bar, with a dining area at the far end. There is a garden to the rear, but as all the shaded tables were spoken for, we took our drinks to one of the bench tables at the front of the pub, The beers were the typical Shep’s offering of Master Brew, Spitfire, and Whitstable Bay. I opted for a pint of the latter, whilst Matthew went for the Hurlimann’s. Known in the past as “hooligans,” this premium strength Swiss lager, was the first continental-style beer brewed by Shepherd Neame – way before the likes of Kingfisher, Oranjeboom, Samuel Adams and all their other contract-brewed lagers appeared on the scene.

Matthew enjoyed it, which is more than I can say about the Whitstable Bay Pale. As described earlier it was exchanged without question and replaced with a pint of Spitfire. From a quality point of view, I couldn’t fault this beer, but I have never been a fan of this beer, despite it being one of Shepherd Neame’s flagship brands. We only stayed for the one beer but given the tucked away location of the Buck’s Head, I was surprised at how busy it was. Lots of dinners, of course, but also groups of friends who had met up for a drink and also a party of walkers. Much as I enjoy a good ramble, I do prefer conditions to be a little cooler, but as there are plenty of woods in the area, a walk through the woods might have been what this intrepid bunch had in mind.

One final point about the Buck’s Head is that according to What Pub, it pub still keeps old fashioned opening hours, with afternoon closing between 3-5.30pm. The pub’s new website, which is still “under construction,” states otherwise, so the wisest thing would be to phone first, especially if you are contemplating an afternoon session. Apart from that, I’m sure you will enjoy this gem of a pub – assuming you can find it, that is!

Friday, 12 August 2022

Feeling the heat

Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, and whilst I am generally a massive fan of warm, dry, and sunny weather, this summer’s heat wave has been a bit too much – even for me. The warm cloudless days have been characterised by a relentless heat that not only saps one’s energy, but also leave’s people lethargic and unwilling to perform even the most basic tasks outdoors. I am left as one Englishman who, unlike the mad dogs in Noel Coward’s famous song, steers clear of the midday sun, as much as possible.

The temperatures experienced these past couple of months, remind me very much of holidays in Bavaria, and days spent visiting the lovely shady and cool beer gardens, that the region is famous for. On a hot day, nothing quite beats sitting out in the delicious coolness of one of these gardens, and enjoying a Maβ or two of equally delicious, cooling and refreshing Helles Bier. Perhaps, if these conditions of extreme heat continue, we too might find ourselves mimicking the Bavarians and opening up beer gardens of our own.

I rather think not, as being situated on the western edge of a continent does mean experiencing a much more maritime climate, compared to a continental one, but even so it’s a little surprising that the normal westerly fronts that normally blow in off the Atlantic, have been kept at bay for quite as long as they have.

It’s one thing being on holiday, but something completely different for people that have to work in the heat. I am lucky in that respect, as my workplace is fully air-conditioned. This covers the whole factory, office and laboratory areas are air-conditioned, in-fact the same heat-exchange units keep us all warm during the winter months. Sometimes it can be too cold in the office, and whilst this can be a source of friction, especially amongst desk-bound colleagues, the use of air-conditioning is not taken to the extremes that seem to prevail in the United States.

Over-chilled, icy cold air being blasted at people is both unpleasant and uncomfortable, and yet seems the norm in many places. This was brought home to me when I attended the 2018 Beer Writers’ Conference in Loudon County, Virginia. The first speaker of the day made reference to the over-chilled temperatures of most US hotel conference venues. Very sensibly he was wearing a fleece, unlike me, dressed in my shorts and T-shirt. I soon got wise, and at the first break in the proceedings, returned to my room to don my fleece as well.

When I visited Japan, 10 years ago for work purposes, the temperatures in May were approaching the low 30’s, but it was the high humidity that made things really uncomfortable. Just two years after the Fukushima meltdown, caused by the disastrous tsunami of 2011, the country was in the grips of a power shortage, which meant the use of air-conditioning was restricted to certain times of the day. Now, we are witnessing many European countries bringing in similar controls over the use, and more particular the temperature settings of air-conditioning. This is being done to reduce their over-dependence on Russian gas, following crazed dictator, Vladimir Putin’s failing “Special Operation” in Ukraine.

Returning back home again, the high temperatures have been accompanied by an almost total lack of rain. This situation is particularly bad here in the south-east, where the July rainfall total was just 8% of what is normal for the month. This follows on from an exceptionally dry spring. This would, have to coincide with my decision to take up vegetable growing again. With more free time, following my switch to a three-day week, it seemed a good idea, but having been out with a watering can most evenings, I’m not quite so sure now.

The tomatoes in the greenhouse are cropping well, but my runner beans, growing up a Dick Strawbridge type construction, supported by the greenhouse, are in a sorry state. The plants themselves seem scorched by the heat, and with very few of the characteristic red flowers present, the crop is likely to be minuscule. The nation’s farmers have similar problems, but on a far larger scale, and with crops such as barley and hops that are close to the hearts of us beer lovers, likely to be severely diminished, we are definitely looking at higher prices next year for our favourite beverage, and possible shortages as well.

My lawn is more hay than grass, and whilst this doesn’t bother me on a domestic level, the surrounding countryside looks severely parched, and several orders of magnitude removed from the "green and pleasant land" that England is supposed to be.  I largely missed the previous great drought, that followed the famously hot summer of 1976, as I was living in Greater Manchester at the time, and whilst it was hot and sunny, the area didn’t completely fail with its reputation for "rain at times!"

On a more personal note, I have put off plans for completing the North Downs Way until things are a little cooler. Walking in 30 degrees of heat is not a good idea, and with much of the last section being open countryside, rather than the shady beech-woods that have been such a feature of the last few sections, I am now looking at September for completion.

Finally, there is another factor that has prevented not just me, but thousands of others from getting out and exploring our towns and cities, and that is this current spate of strikes that are crippling the rail network. I don’t want to get into the politics here, and I’m sure that any plans I may have had, pale into insignificance, but there seems to be stand-off from both sides and a total reluctance from a moribund government, fixated by the freak show that is the Tory leadership contest, to get involved and sort the matter out. 

That’s enough for now, so stay cool and keep calm. As for me, Mrs PBT’s has just informed me, we’re off to visit her sister and niece this later today. They live in Uckfield, and have a swimming pool in the garden. Needless to say, it was the perfect place for keeping cool, this afternoon!