Monday, 16 February 2009

Saturday's Pub of the Year Tour

The West Kent Pub of the Year Tour took place last Saturday. Unlike previous years when we've suffered anything from broken down mini-buses, to adverse weather conditions, this year's trip went remarkably smoothly. Eleven members turned up, including some old faces we hadn't seen for a while, plus a very welcome guest from Croydon and Sutton branch. The weather was dry and sunny when we set off, and this helped set the scene for an excellent day's pub visiting and beer sampling.

Six pubs in total were visited, starting at the Dovecote Inn at Capel where the licensee was presented with a certificate to mark his 10 years in the Good Beer Guide. Being the first port of call I sensibly stuck to the lower gravity Black Sheep Bitter, which at 3.8% was a good beer to start with. All the cask beers at the Dovecote are dispensed by gravity, by means of taps which stick through a false wall. This allows the casks to be stillaged in a temperature controlled room behind the bar, a system that was developed by former licensee. Richard Allen, who has adopted the same system for use at his current pub - the Halfway House at Brenchley.

The latter was to be our third port of call, but en route we stopped at the Hopbine, in the small hamlet of Petteridge. For a long time this was the only King & Barnes tied house in Kent, but since K & B's sad demise back in 2000, it now belongs to Hall & Woodhouse and sells Badger beers. Landlord Mike Winser has been at the pub since the mid 1980's and is due to celebrate 25 continuous years in the Good Beer Guide - something of a record for West Kent CAMRA. As well as enjoying some excellent Badger beer, most of us partook of some more solid refreshment; my home-made steak and kidney pie, with chips, vegetables and gravy was particularly good.

From the Hopbine it was a short run down to the aforementioned Halfway House. Since taking over this ex-Whitbread pub, Richard has carried out extensive alterations and has moved the serving area into the former adjoining restaurant. This has allowed him to adopt the same arrangement for the gravity dispense of the beer that he had at the Dovecote, only this time with even more beers available. There were 11 cask beers on tap when we called in, including a mild, and old ale, and several different bitters ranging in strength from 3.8% up to 5.2%. All the beers were either from micro-breweries or established independents, with a good hand full of local names such as Goachers, Kings, Rother Valley and Westerham making up the range. Between us we must have sampled most of them, and what's more they were all in good nick. Richards' prices are also very reasonable, and on the whole reflect the price charged to him by the breweries concerned. For example, the excellent Skinners Best Bitter, which was my first pint was only £2.20. Contrast that with the Harveys Sussex Best, which although a good beer, and also probably the most widely available real ale in the region, Richard is having to sell it for £3.00 a pint, due to its higher wholesale cost. The Halway House also runs its own beer festivals; one taking place over the late May Bank Holiday, with the other being held over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

From the country we headed off to town; into the centre of Tunbridge Wells to be precise. Here we stopped at the Royal Oak, an up and coming free-house which has been given a new lease of life by its keen and very enthusiastic new owners. Dark Star Hophead was the star attraction on this visit, so far as I was concerned, but previous visits have seen the superb Larkins Porter available. As well as Dark Star, there was a beer from Wychwood brewed to mark the Six Nations Rugby competition being played out on the nation's TV screens. The pub's menu looked inviting as well, and seemed particularly good value for money. Had I not eaten earlier, I would certainly have partaken of the food on sale in the Oak.

It was a long drive to the fifth pub on our itinerary, namely the Rose and Crown. I have written before about this excellent, unspoilt, two-bar village local, which nestles high up on the North Downs, just inside the M25 ring. Tripple fff Moondance was my choice here, but the Moorhouse Black Cat mild also slipped down well. Bob, the landlord, had laid on some sausage rolls and sandwiches for us. This was a nice touch, as despite having eaten at lunchtime, it was now getting well on into the evening and many of us were starting to get a bit peckish again. A few members adjourned to the public bar in order to watch the England v. Wales rugby match, but most of us stayed in the quieter saloon, enjoying the beer, the company and, of course, the complimentary food.

We departed the Rose and Crown and headed down into Sevenoaks to the Anchor, which was to be our last pub of the evening. Although unassuming from the outside, licensee Barry Dennis has created a thriving and well run town centre pub where both regulars and casual visitors can be assured of a warm welcome. People like Barry are something of a rarity in this day and age. He comes from a family with a long tradition of running pubs, and has been at the helm of the Anchor for 30 years. Whilst such achievements were not that uncommon when Barry first entered the trade, these days pubs seem to change their licensee every few years, with people not prepared to "stick at it" anymore. Whilst some of this is undoubtedly due to the many changes undergone by the licensed trade in recent years, there does seem to be a misconception in certain quarters that the pub trade is "easy money", and a way of quickly getting rich . The short of it is that many new entrants to the trade go in with their eyes closed, impervious to the sheer hard work involved in running a pub, and soon end up disillusioned, and often broke as well.

The Anchor is different though, and we were soon enjoying the well-kept Harveys Sussex Best and Sharps Doom-Bar bitter. Yet more complimentary food was placed in front of us; this time sandwiches plus a selection of Indian snacks. Now I don't want people to get the wrong idea and assume that certain landlords were trying to buy votes, as nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is the food was most welcome at this late stage in the evening and helped to soak up some of the excess beer we had all consumed.

So ended a most enjoyable day out. All the pubs surveyed were of the highest standard and when it came to totting up the scores (based on CAMRA's standard criteria for pub of the year awards), there were not many marks separating them all. Unfortunately although I know which pub won, I am not at liberty to reveal it at the moment, as it has not been made public knowledge yet. You will all therefore have to watch this space for further details!


Curmudgeon said...

As a matter of interest, why does the Halfway House say "Isle of Wight" on the sign?

Paul Bailey said...

I believe it's something to do with the pattern of the local roads. Apparently, when viewed on a map, they form the outline of the Isle of Wight. I haven't actually checked this out for myself, but I'm reliably informed this is the case. Must have been a bunch of map-reading anoraks to have come up with a story like this though!

Ale Fan said...

I like the look of the Dovecote - more pubs should look like that behind the bar - a great way to deliver beer!

michael-j said...

the false-wall gravity-fed arrangement looks interesting - i presume the vertical slot allows the tap to move when the cask is tilted, in which case there would be the added bonus of seeing how much is left in the cask by the height of the tap?
looks handy for getting a pint of something popular before it's all gone!

Paul Bailey said...

Yes you are right Michael, the vertical slot does just that, and the position of the tap is a good indicator of how much beer is left in the cask. (I'm not sure though where the landlord got the extra long taps from though - must ask him sometime).

Leigh said...

interesting stuff - never seen that false wall thing before!!