Saturday 27 December 2008

Norfolk Beckons

Am off to Norfolk tomorrow for a brief family visit. Not sure how many times I'll be able to escape to the pub (if any!), but should be able to manage at least one session. Have booked into a hotel in Dereham so will probably visit the GBG listed George Hotel.

Last time I visited Norfolk (August) my son and I stumbled across the Railway at North Elmham which was hosting its own beer festival. This was a very relaxed affair; basically you paid at the bar each time you wanted a drink and then wemt imto the room at the back and helped yourself from one of the casks. Unfortunately I was driving, which kind of defeated the object, but I did manage a few interesting halves. Why is public transport non-existent in these out of the way places? - there's not even a proper railway at North Elmham anymore!

Hopefully this trip should prove a bit more fruitful; I would especially like to track down some of the rarer Norfolk ales - Blue Moon, Spectrum, Tipples and Winters spring to mind. Come to think of it I don't think I've ever had a pint of Reepham apart from at beer festivals.

Thursday 25 December 2008

A Merry Christmas to One and All

Well it's the evening of Christmas Day. We've all enjoyed an excellent dinner, in my case washed down with several glasses of Belgian Dubbels. We've watched Harry Potter and Doctor Who, and now because the lady of the house wants to watch Strictly Come Dancing, I've escaped upstairs, put my new Genesis Platinum Collection CD on and have decided to knock out a few words on my computer keyboard.

I see that it's been three weeks since I last posted anything, which isn't good for someone who's supposed to be hosting his own blog spot, so hopefully I can make up a bit for lost time.

It's been a hectic run up to Christmas with the attendant shopping for presents, card writing, lights to put up etc. I've been to a couple of good bashes, including my firm's Christmas Dinner - I stuck mainly to wine as the function was held in a Greene King pub, but the meal plus the company were both very good. I also attended the annual Christmas Dinner hosted by West Kent CAMRA branch, where this time the beer as well as the food and company were excellent.

The venue for this feast was the Rose & Crown at Halstead, a village high in the North Downs above Sevenoaks. This was the fourth year running that the branch has chosen this well run village local as the place to hold our annaul gathering and, as usual, the pub did us proud. There was a good range of well-kept beers on offer including Larkins Traditional, Whitstable East India Pale Ale, a nice dark mild from a brewery who's name escapes me, but I think it was Three B's, plus a beer from Cottage Brewing Company. My only slight grouse was there wasn't a stronger dark ale on offer; Harveys Old Larkins Porter or would have fitted the bill nicely!

Speaking of Larkins Porter, this season's brew seems even better than last year's if that's possible. I've enjoyed several pints recently of this superb dark brew in Larkins own tied pub - the basic and unspoilt Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath, as well as at the brewery. I was tempted to get a polypin of it in to drink at home over the festive season, but a combination of having spent too much already this Christmas, coupled with the fact I have several cases of bottled beers, including some interesting Belgian and Czech offerings, sitting indoors persuaded me that this might not be such a good idea in the cold light of dawn.

I'm off to the wilds of Norfolk later in the week to visit family, so hopefully I'll be able to track down some good beers there. I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone the compliments of the season and hope that 2009 turns out to be not too bad after all.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

House Beers

One practice that is becoming increasingly more prevalent is that of pubs offering what is known as a “house beer”. This is a beer that is branded as being exclusive to the pub in question, and may be named after the pub itself, the landlord or a feature of local interest.

Unfortunately the term “house beer” covers a multitude of sins, ranging from a beer brewed to a certain recipe and then made available to any pub interested in taking it, through to a beer that is genuinely brewed specifically for a particular pub. However, when one examines the matter logically, it becomes self evident that it would need a combination of a very small micro and a pub with a very large turnover to make the brewing of a genuine “house beer” worthwhile. The smallest sized plant normally chosen by micro-brewers is five barrels (180 gallons), which amounts to an awful lot of beer for any pub to shift in one go! Admittedly the beer can be stored for a while, but it is likely to change in character during the storage period, which is why I am certain that very few so-called “house beers” are the genuine article.

I like to count myself as something of a beer connoisseur. To me there is nothing finer than a carefully crafted pint of beer, brewed to the highest standards from the highest quality ingredients. When I come across a beer I haven’t seen before, then I will invariably give it a try. Unfortunately I have learnt from bitter experience that many so called “house beers” do not match up to the standards described above. This is especially true when a brewery chooses to mix two or three different beers, and then pass them off as a “house beer”. They are the result of blending rather than brewing, and whilst they may be good for the landlord’s ego, they do the cause of the small independent brewer no good at all.

Even worse than pubs selling brewery mixes, are pubs that sell a brewer’s bog-standard beer under their own name. I have come across several examples of this form of deception, and to my mind it stinks. Several years ago I was nearly thrown out of a local free house for asking too many questions about the beer they were calling “Our Own”. “Where does it come from?” I enquired. “Is it a local brew, or do you bring it in from elsewhere?”

All these questions were met with a stony silence, so I then asked mine host if he brewed the beer “out the back” - knowing full well that he didn’t. I was told, in no uncertain terms that the beer was “Our Own” and if I couldn’t accept that then I should take my custom elsewhere. As I was with company, I ignored this suggestion and settled for a pint of Fullers London Pride instead - I like to know what I am drinking. I later discovered that the landlord had been prosecuted for passing off Fremlins Bitter as his own brew.

My message to landlords, and also to micro-brewers, is a simple one. I appreciate that times are hard and that you need to drum up sales and increase trade. However, please don’t do it in such a way that deceives the drinking public, and which in the end does your reputation no good at all. By all means offer a genuine “house beer”, but please don’t try and insult our intelligence, or our taste buds with half-measures or out and out fakes.

A Major Regret

If there is one major regret that I have in my life, it is not acting on an idea I stumbled upon in the spring of 1974. I had recently obtained a copy of Frank Baillie's excellent and pioneering book, "The Beer Drinker's Companion".
Reading the section on home-brew pubs, of which there were just four left at the time, I noted with interest the closing paragraph which stated:
"It would be easy to imagine the success of a new home-brewed house in another part of the country - especially in this era of standardisation. If there is any property developer with vision, looking for a sound investment, reading this, he could do worse than give it some thought - the equipment can still be obtained."

This seemed an excellent idea to me, even though I was only 19 years old at the time. Unfortunately I had little idea about how to go about raising the necessary money, or obtaining the training, in order to get such a project of the ground. Also at that time, I was committed to completing my degree course; heaven only knows why when I look back now!

That same year, the Miners Arms at Priddy in Somerset became the first pub to start brewing its own beer for several generations. It was soon joined by the Masons Arms, at South Leigh, in Oxfordshire. However, it was not until David Bruce and his Firkin chain of pubs came along that the idea really caught the public's imagination. Starting with the Goose and Firkin, and followed shortly after by the Fox and Firkin, the concept of pubs that brewed their own beer made David Bruce a very rich man, and deservedly so.

I must admit the concept of busy city centre pubs, brewing their own ale was somewhat removed from the idyllic rural home-brew house that I had in mind. Nevertheless having spotted the potential for a home-brew pub and then seeing others make a spectacular success of it, still rankles. I very much regret now that I did not pursue things further back in 1974, but I have only myself to blame.

They say that life teaches us lessons as we go through it, and it certainly taught me one there. Since then I have always tried to ensure that I will never allow such an opportunity to slip through my fingers again. After all I have heard it said that “an old man never regrets the things he tried and failed - just those things he never tried.”

Unwanted Junk in "What's Brewing"

I've just received my copy of December's "What's Brewing". I don't want to sound like I'm knocking CAMRA again, but when I opened the wrapper, amongst the usual flyers that fell out were a load of tacky scratch cards.

Reading the small print on these, anyone wishing to claim a prize is instructed to phone a hotline number charged at the rate of £1.50 a minute. We are then informed that calls will last no more than 7 minutes, so in order to claim a prize it will cost you over a tenner! Alternativley you can register by texting. This will only set you back a fiver, as long as you remember to text STOP. If you don't, you will be billed for five pounds every week until you do remember.

I've thrown my tickets straight in the bin, but what on earth are CAMRA playing at by accepting such tacky advertising? It makes me wonder what next month's magazine will include. Answers on a postcard please!

Thursday 27 November 2008

Time to Bury Bad News

Ok, this isn't really about beer, imstead it's about a topic that's been done to death by our friends in the media over the last few months. I'm referring of course to the so-caled credit crunch and economic downturn.

Right, we all know that the housing market's taken a bit of a tumble and several of the big banks have screwed up in spectacular fashion, but why keep ramming it down our throats? It seems to me that certain journalists and other "media" types have taken a great delight over the past weeks and months in bringing us bad news. I would even go so far as to suggest that they have talked us into a recession.

This is not so far fetched as it seems. Keep telling people that things are getting tough and we're heading for trouble and guess what? they start tightening their belts. People rein in their spending and put certain purchases on hold "just in case". Major items, such as a new car or a foreign holiday are postponed and before one knows it, the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. It's a bit like telling people not to panic buy petrol when there's a minor problem with tanker deliveries.

It's fair to say that good news doesn't sell newspapers, but why try and utterly depress us with tales of doom and gloom, financial meltdown and how we'll all be out of work by next Christmas? Most of the news reporters who trot out these depressing statistics day after day do so safe in the knowledge that their well-paid jobs are safe and secure, come what may.

I stopped buying a daily newspaper years ago, as I firmly believe papers only exist to make money for their proprietors. There's a lot of mileage in the saying "never let the truth get in the way of a good story", and that the only thing you can believe on the front of a newspaper is the date! I would urge others to take a leaf out of my book; stop buying these sordid publications and hit these doom-mongers where it really hurts - in their pockets!

As we approach the festive season let's try and lighten the mood a little and look around us. Despite what the media would have us believe, it isn't all bad. People have survived far worse times and although there will undoubtedly be casualties along the way we'll eventually pull through. Don't forget, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. There are plenty of good things happening in the world; the media just don't want us to know about them.

So with Christmas fast approaching now's the time to look on the bright side. For beer lovers there will be plenty of seasonal brews available shortly, alongside those darker beers that are already on sale. What could be more satisfying than sitting in an unspoilt country pub, next to a roaring log fire, enjoying a glass of warming winter ale following a brisk walk across the frost-covered fields? As I raise my glass of Larkins Porter it's definitely time to bury bad news, along with all the prophets of doom who take great delight in bringing it to us!

Sunday 23 November 2008

A Short Video of Larkins Brewery Chiddingstone

One duty I undertake for CAMRA is to act as Brewery Liaison Officer for my local brewery, which is Larkins of Chiddingstone. Duty is probably the wrong word, as it implies something potentially onerous. It is much more a pleasure to fulfill his role.

For those of you not in the know, Larkins Brewery was founded and is still run by Bob Dockerty and takes its name from the family farm. Larkins beers are full bodied ales brewed entirely from malt and hops, with no added sugar or other adjuncts. They have a real smack of Kentish hops, and are a firm favourite with local drinkers.

Bob has been brewing Larkins beers now for over a quarter of a century. Three regular bitters are produced, starting with the 3.4% Traditional Ale, ranging through to the full-bodied 4.4% Best Bitter. In between is Chiddingstone Bitter at 4.0%. My personal favourite though is Larkins Porter, which is a magnificent, almost black-coloured beer with strong roast coffee and chocolate flavours produced by the liberal amounts of chocolate malt used in the brew. It is only available between November and March, but is well worth tracking down.

Larkins have their own tied pub, the Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath. The Rock with its low beamed ceilings and floor of bare brick is as about as unspolit as pubs get nowadays, and mix this in with a roaring log fire in winter and a pint or two of Porter and one gets pretty close to paradise.

The Rock features on the video clip, but also shown is the Castle in Chiddingstone village - just a stone's throw from the brewery. The Castle is owned by the National Trust, as is much of the village itself, and has one of the few genuine public bars remaining. The Castle's public bar is another excellent place in which to sample Larkins Beers, and the video ends with owner, and brewer, Bob Dockerty enjoying a pint of his beer in the pub.

First Posting

The above title is not quite true, as I've posted a couple of Blogs on Paul Garrard's excellent Real Ale Network, where I'm a guest blogger.

As someone who's been passionate about beer for the last 35 years or so I thought it about time that I published some of my thoughts and observations online. But with such a long history spent enjoying decent beer, where does one start?

I won't repeat the boring stuff about me - that's listed elsewhere on the site. What I will say though is although I've been a CAMRA member since the mid 1970's, unlike some campaign diehards I do not confine my beer sampling solely to real ale. (It's strange, but I know several CAMRA members who won't even try dark cask ales, such as old ales, porters or stouts).

Having just returned from a very enjoyable trip to the United States I would have been denying myself the chances of drinking some truly excellent beers if I had! Earlier this year I spent a week in Regensburg, Eastern Bavaria, where again the beers available, whilst obviously not cask-conditioned, were superb. On home soil though, I invariably choose the cask-ale option, and would not compromise my principles by drinking such travesties of brewing as "smooth" and "creamflow" beers!

What I found particularly encouraging about my recent trans-atlantic trip was the amount of interest in, and availablity of, what the Americans would call craft-brewed beers. I had expected to have to track down these beers , but even in the small Ohio town I was staying in beers from the likes of Great Lakes, Samual Adams and Blue Moon were widely available, alongside the offerings from Bud and Miller, and what's more a lot of people were drinking them! A brew-pub I visited had a guest beer list to die for, alongside its own excellent offerings.

This desire to try something a little out of the ordinary, and something that actually tastes of malt and hops, seems also to becoming more prevalent over here. Obviously CAMRA must take a lot of the credit for this, but so should companies like J.D. Wetherspoon with their strong committment to real ale, coupled with their support for micro-breweries, plus the availability of some of the decent contintental beers sold in their pubs. Publications such as "Beers of the World" have also played their part as have, of course, the growing number of beer writers, many of whom of course host their own websites or produce blogs of their own.

All beer has to do now to maintain its new-found respectability, is to fight off the twin threats from the anti-alcohol brigade and health lobby. It is up to all of us that care about the "best long drink in the world" to ensure that it does.