Friday, 31 December 2010

Return to Bamberg - Day One

I returned early this morning from Bamberg, where I spent four extremely pleasant, but very cold days enjoying the beery delights of this beautiful Franconian city. In contrast to our visit earlier in the year, where we enjoyed temperatures in the mid-30's, the mercury this time was well below freezing and there was a covering of snow, at least a foot deep. Still Germany is a country used to cold winters, and everything was functioning as normal. My inbound flight was delayed slightly by around 40 minutes, but that was all, and although it was snowing heavily when the plane touched down at Nuernberg Airport, the runway was clear as, I observed, were the pavements when I later arrived in Bamberg.

After checking into my hotel, and donning some extra layers of clothing, I walked the short distance into the Altstadt, or old town. My first port of call was Ambraeusianum, a brew pub situated just a few doors along from the famous Schlenkerla tavern. Back in July my son and I sat outside, but one would have needed to be an Eskimo to survive the kinds of low temperatures the city was experiencing this time around!

Ambraeusianum is pleasantly decorated with tiled floors and lots of light-coloured wood-work. Like all of the city's pubs it was looking suitably festive, as befitted the time of year. I ordered a tall mug of the pub's house-brewed Helles, which I remembered from the previous visit as being particularly enjoyable. Some beer writers have, unkindly in my view, described it as disappointing and lacking in balance, but I found it to have a good, full-bodied, underlying maltiness.

Even so, one beer was enough before moving on the short distance to Schlenkerla, but not before a quick reconnaissance along Untere Sandstrasse where I wanted to check out a few other drinking establishments for later on. As it turned out, none of these places opened until the evening, so not wishing to stay out in the cold any longer I headed back to Bamberg's most famous pub.

I should add that for guidance, as well as jolly good read, I had brought along a copy of John Connen's excellent Guide to Bamberg & Franconia. Now in its second edition, the guide has been completely revised and updated, with lots of colour photo's, as well as vital information about what can rightly be described as "Germany's Brewing Heartland".

Schenkerla was packed, as it seemed to be on every day of my trip, but I managed to find a seat, and settled down to enjoy a glass of the famous, almost coal-black, Rauchbier. It was every bit as good as I remembered, and I followed it with a glass of the stronger, seasonal Ur Bock. At 6.5% this is like a stronger version of the brewery's normal strength beer, but is sufficiently well-hopped to balance the additional body supplied by the malt. At 500ml a time though, it is definitely not a session beer so with this thought in mind, and the fact I was feeling peckish, I headed across the road to the Alt-Ringlein.

This former brew-pub is now a slightly up-market hotel, but its downstairs rooms still retain their traditional ambiance. I also remembered it as serving some extremely good roast pork! Unlike its neighbour across the road, Alt-Ringlein wasn't full to bursting point and I had no trouble in getting a table to myself. I ordered a glass of Spezial Lagerbier which although nowhere near as smoky as Schlenkerla's version, still has a pleasant, subtle smokiness lurking in the background. I decided to leave the Schweinebraten (roast pork) for another time, ordering instead a Schnitzel and chips. Once the Spezial was finished, I decided to move onto one of the hotel's other beers; this time Ungespundetes from Mahrs Braeu.

Dark amber in colour, with sufficient maltiness to match, Ungespundetes was a good beer to finish on. It had been a long day and I had been up since the early hours for the drive to the airport. I settled my account and wandered the relatively short distance, through the snow-covered streets, back to my hotel and a welcome night's sleep.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas Day

I was quite restrained on both the drink and the food front yesterday, surprising even myself. I cracked open my first bottle of beer shortly before one o'clock; my choice being Festivity from Bath Ales, as recommended by Mark Dredge. The brewery describe it thus: “Hints of rum mingle with coffee and vanilla flavours to make a truly wonderful old-style porter.”, but I thought it more of a cross between old ale and porter. Whatever it's supposed to be, it was an excellent winter ale, and a good beer to start the day's drinking with.

Christmas dinner was on the table by two o'clock, and as usual my wife Eileen had done us proud. We had a roast turkey crown, with pigs in blankets, stuffing, bread sauce, roast potatoes, broccoli, chestnuts plus, of course, the obligatory brussel sprouts! It was truly excellent, so thanks once again, Eileen. To help wash this feast down I had selected a couple of bottles of Fuller's 1845, with a bottle of Brakspears Triple in reserve.

As things turned out the two bottles of 1845 were more than enough, and I had a good half a glass left to drink after the meal. I had a bottle of Robinsons Old Tom put by to go with the Christmas pudding, but it seemed a shame to open this, especially as I had quite a bit of 1845 left, and anyway I thought keeping it back for the cheese course later on, might be a more sensible option.

In the end, we left our cheese and biscuits until the evening, so after finishing the 1845 and settling down to watch a bit of TV, I moved onto coffee to go with the mince pies and brandy sauce. Later in the evening I fancied another beer, but wanted something a bit lighter. Oxford Gold from Brakspears fitted the bill and was followed by my final beer of the day Beau Porter from Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery.

Whilst this was the final, it was also the best beer of the day, and a stunning example of a traditional porter. There were chocolate and coffee notes combined with a rich roast bitterness. As the brewery themselves say, the beer has "A nice balance of malty sweetness and hop bitterness." RTWB have been brewing for less than a year, but in this short time have managed to come up with some excellent beers. For me, their porter is surely the jewel in the crown, and I look forward being able to sample it on draught.

So ended Christmas day; as I said at the beginning of this post, it wasn't as beery as I'd perhaps first planned, but even so I still enjoyed some excellent beers, some fine food and above all the company of my family!

I probably won't be posting for a few days, as weather and transportation permitting, I'm off to Bamberg in the morning. Hope everyone else enjoyed their Christmas drinks as much as I did!

Friday, 24 December 2010

Meantime India Pale Ale

Just cracked open the first of my Christmas beers. Meantime India Pale Ale comes in a 750ml wine-style bottle, sealed with a wired cork. At 7.5% abv it doesn't take many prisoners, but it's one of the finest examples of the style I have tasted to date.

According to the back label "Pound after pound of Fuggles and Golding hops are needed to enable us to achieve the mighty dry hopping rates necessary of the original 19th Century IPA's to recreate this great beer style."

The beer itself is pale amber in colour and, whilst not bottle-conditioned, is lively with a loose foam head that soon collapses. The hop rate is just right for me, probably too bitter for some, but no doubt based on historical rates of hop additions. The label also advises the drinker to "Enjoy with hot food and spicy friends, or vice versa."

A large bottle, such as this is obviously meant for sharing, especially at such a high abv, but for me it's a Christmas Eve treat, and seeing as Christmas only comes once a year then why not the occasional bit of indulgence!

Welton's Smoked Porter

Earlier this week our planned CAMRA Christmas social to Otford had to be called off. The reason; bad weather, and the risk that the trains might not be running, or the possibility that the last ones back might indeed be cancelled.

Not wishing to end up stranded in Otford, a small group of us decided to meet up instead at the Humphrey Bean, JDW's Tonbridge outlet. I had some last minute shopping to attend to, so was a bit late in arriving, but when I eventually made it to the pub found it bustling and pleasantly busy, but not full to bursting point. I was pleased to see a reasonable selection of ales on offer, and settled for a pint of Smoked Porter from Welton's Brewery. This proved to be a good choice, and I remarked on this fact as I joined my companions at their table.

The beer has a strength of 5.2%, and being a porter is of course almost black in colour. I couldn't really detect that much smokiness, but it was there, subtly lurking in the background. My friends also gave it a try themselves and agreed that it was a very good beer. Smokiness is something that people either love or hate in a beer. I love it, and indeed in a few days time am off for a short break in Bamberg; the centre of "Rauchbier" production. Beers brewed there, such as Schlenkerla, have considerably more smokiness in their palate than Welton's offering, but in no way should this denigrate the attempt of this Horsham-based brewery to brew something bold and different, and help introduce UK drinkers to the delights of "smoke beer". Therefore full marks to Ray Welton and his team for coming up with this version.

I had intended to move on to the Santa's Wobble, from Hogsback Brewery, that I'd noticed earlier, but by the time I was ready to order a pint, it had run out. At 7.5% this was probably just as well, especially as I had work the following day, so I stuck with the Smoked Porter. If you come across this beer, do give it a try, although I would imagine so far as JDW outlets are concerned, it is only available locally.

I probably won't get another post in before the big day tomorrow, so would like to take this opportunity to wish one and all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Young's Special London Ale

I cracked open a bottle of Young's Special London Ale a short while ago, whilst settling down in front of the TV to watch David Suchet on the Orient Express. Excellent programme with some superb scenery, and some equally superb restored 1920's carriages.

It's a shame I can't say the same about the beer. What on earth has happened to this former classic? It seems someone has forgotten the hops. You used to be able to smell them as soon as the crown-cork was released, and when the beer was poured it was like drinking in a hop-garden! Somewhere along the line, this once excellent beer has lost its essential character.

I suspect this "dumbing down" occurred after Young's shifted their brewing operation to Bedford; throwing in their lot with Charles Wells. However, I'm still not certain why this change should have come about, but feel it's unlikely to be just down to the different water and brewing environment in Bedford. Did the company feel that the beer was just too hoppy and decide to go for a safer, more mainstream market?

I used to be a big fan of Young's beers back in the late 70's and 80's. Sadly this is no longer the case, and Special London Ale is now anything but special, so far as I am concerned!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Beers for Christmas Day

Over the past few years we've always had guests joining us for Christmas dinner, and invariably they've preferred wine to beer. I've normally felt obliged to join them, as it's not often I get the chance to enjoy a drop of fermented grape, but this year, there'll just the three of us sitting round the table. My wife Eileen doesn't really drink, whilst son Matt likes his "cooking lager". This leaves me free to enjoy a selection of whatever beers take my fancy.

I've been building up a stock of bottles over the past few weeks, which includes several bottles of Fullers 1845. I believe that this strong, full-bodied ale will be just right to accompany the roast turkey, which can sometimes be rather a dry meat. It is also important that the beer does not overwhelm the assorted vegetables and trimmings, which I prefer to the bird itself!

In reserve I have a large 750cl bottle of Meantime IPA, some Young's Special London Ale plus a bottle of Brakspear's Triple. On reflection, the first two might be a touch too bitter, so the Triple would be a better bet. I noticed that Mark Dredge was recommending, amongst a whole host of different beers, Chimay Bleu, to go with the turkey, and I know from past experience that this is a good accompaniment. I'm sure other similar strength Trappist beers would also fit the bill, but as Chimay Bleu is readily available from Waitrose, I might have to grab a few bottles next time I'm down that way.

I'm certain that most of the above named beers would also go well with the cheese course, but what about the Christmas pud? Last week, at our CAMRA Christmas Meal, we had draught Harvey's Christmas Ale as an accompaniment, and it was a good match. I've probably left it a bit late to get some bottles of this superb 8.1% barley wine in, especially as I've not been able to get over to Tunbridge Wells this weekend due to the heavy snow. This also precludes another beer that has worked for me in the past; Samuel Smiths Imperial Stout. Robinson's Old Tom might fit the bill though, and I noticed it's on offer at Sainsbury's at two bottles for £3.00.

As for a post-breakfast, mid-morning beer?, well I've got several bottles of Fullers London Porter in stock, as well as a couple of bottles of Beau Porter - the new seasonal beer from Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery. One thing's for sure, I shouldn't go thirsty this Christmas, and with a pre-New Year trip to Bamberg planned as well, there's certain to be a lot more fine beer to be drunk over the festive period.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Christmas Ale to be Hit by Tax Hike

Sitting in the cosy post-Christmas meal afterglow of the Brecknock Arms yesterday, sipping a couple of halves of Harvey's Christmas Ale, left me with the nagging thought that this excellent strong, seasonal offering is going to be one of the beers affected by the government's proposed tax hike on strong beers. As many people are aware, the people we entrust to look after our interests are planning quite large rises in tax on all beers with an abv above 7.5%.

Their purpose is to try and crack down on problem drinkers, and having already hiked the duty on "white cider" (Diamond White, Frosty Jack etc), the government have now set their sights firmly on those people who enjoy the odd can or three of "tramp juice" (Carlsberg Special Brew, or Tennents Super to you and I). What they don't realise is that people with a serious drink problem will either move onto a different drink, or find the money, somehow, from elsewhere. This is the trouble when politicians think they can micro-manage people's behaviour, and attempt to control how they spend their money.

The unfortunate effect of all this, of course, is that strong seasonal beers, such as Harvey's Christmas Ale, and a host of others, will face a significant increase in their retail price, just to stop the odd hobo getting off his face with them! Now we all know that these rich, warming and well-crafted beers are not "park bench" material, but when the powers that be interfere in a mis-guided attempt to control a problem that only affects a relatively small number of people, this is what happens.

For the record, at £2.30 per half pint, Harvey's Christmas Ale is dear enough already. I can't see the odd "knight of the road" hot-footing it down to the nearest Harvey's pub, to get trollyed at those sort of prices! Further more, it is impossible to rush such a strong and rich beer anyway, and a few halves is plenty enough for most people. Unfortunately, these superb examples of the brewers art will either be priced off the bar next year, or will be brewed to a strength that is below 7.5%; thereby losing some of their essential character!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

West Kent CAMRA Christmas Meal 2010

After five, or was it six, years of holding our annual Christmas meal at the Rose & Crown in Halsted, West Kent CAMRA broke with tradition and moved the event to the Brecknock Arms at Bells Yew Green. The decision to move the venue was partly influenced by the departure last summer of popular landlord, Bob from the Rose & Crown, but also by the desire to go somewhere else for a change.
Unfortunately, the Brecknock will probably not be hosting the event next year, as licensees Joe and Charlotte are handing the keys back to Harvey's in January, and leaving the trade altogether. This is a great shame, as the couple have put a lot of effort into running this small, Victorian local situated just outside Tunbridge Wells.

Without wishing to dwell too much on these changes, the meal itself was a great success. Twelve members in total turned up, with most of us travelling by train from Sevenoaks, Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells. Charlotte had stuck several tables together in the pub's main bar, which was decked out in suitably festive attire. There were four ales on sale in the pub; all of them from Harveys. Alongside the staple Best Bitter; Dark Mild, Old Ale and Christmas Ale were all available on hand pump, the latter being a rare, but welcoming sight at this time of the year.
Following a few pints, and after warming ourselves in front of the pub's welcoming log fire, we sat down to enjoy our meal. Most of us opted for the traditional roast turkey, complete with all the trimmings, although roast beef was also available as an alternative. After a suitable interval, we moved on to the dessert, with many of us opting for Harvey's Christmas Pud. This was the cue to sample the Christmas Ale; half pints only mind you, as at 8.1%, this rich, dark amber ale is a beer that needs to be treated with the utmost respect.

Coffee and mince pies followed, after which there was time for one last quick drink, before taking our leave of Joe and Charlotte and walking the short distance back to the station. Most of the part alighted in Tunbridge Wells, with the intention of heading up to the Grove Tavern. Myself, son Matt, plus friend Don however, decided to call it a day and stayed on the train back to Tonbridge. All three of us were just too full to attempt to drink any more beer! All in all though, it was a good afternoon, and the prelude to more over-indulgence over the festive period!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Open It! - Day Two - Löwenbräu Triumphator

So here we are on day two, or should it be three?, of "Open It! Weekend", and the next beer for me to open is another one from the Fatherland. This time it's Triumphator from Löwenbräu. I must admit this particular bottle hasn't exactly been gathering dust at the back of the cupboard. On the contrary, I only acquired it last month, when my son's friend Will, brought it back for me following a trip to Munich. Seeing as he generously bought me a couple of bottles, it seemed a good idea to open one now and write something about it!

Now to start, Löwenbräu are an industrial sized brewery; one of Munich's "Big Six" brewers. Seasoned observers though of drinking in the Bavarian capital, will know that really there are now only four breweries in operation as, not only do Paulaner brew Hacker Pschorr beers, but Löwenbräu now brew Spaeten beer bands. (Takeovers, consolidations and rationalisations, are no longer exclusively a phenomenon of the UK Brewing Industry!). That said, to the outside world, Löwenbräu are probably the best known of the Munich breweries, and whilst their core range might not be particularly challenging, they have still managed to come up trumps with Triumphator, a strong, Doppel-Bock style beer, available on draught for a limited period during March, (Starkbierzeit) but in bottle, all year round.

So how about the beer itself? After chilling overnight in the fridge, the beer is dark brown in colour, with a thin white head when poured. The nose of rich toffee and caramel notes from the dark Munich and Melanoidin malts is immediately apparent as the glass is raised to the mouth, and these intense flavours continue and linger on the tongue as the beer is drunk. The fullness of this strong beer, with its rich maltiness and the comforting warmth from its 7.6% abv strength, makes it the perfect drink for the cold weather we are experiencing at the moment.

The brewery describes it as their "dark, strong beer speciality", and state that it is "spicy and full-bodied in taste". I find it hard to disagree with their assessment, and think it proves that large breweries can, on occasion, brew some truly excellent beers. I am sure that Triumphator would be even better on draught, and it would be well worth making the journey to Munich to try it during Starkbierzeit.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Open It! - Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier

Unlike some of the more illustrious bloggers who I'm sure will be tasting some rather rare and exotic beers over the course of "Open It!" weekend, I don't profess to have a particularly well-stocked beer cellar. In actual fact, I don't even have a cellar; just a cupboard in the coolest part of our extension. When I lived in Maidstone, some 26 years ago, my Victorian terraced cottage had a large, dry cellar that would have been ideal for the storage of beer (draught, as well as bottles), but 1930's semi's were never built with such luxuries in mind, so the cool cupboard has to suffice.

I've been building up a stock of beers over the past few months, primarily to enjoy over the Yule-tide period, but there's been a few that have been hanging around for some time now, so I've dug a couple of them out to open, drink and enjoy, and then hopefully write something that makes a bit of sense.

First up is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, the last of a stash of bottles I brought back from my trip to Bamberg, last July. I was going to save it for the Festive Season , but as I've booked a return visit to this unspoilt Franconian city between Christmas and New Year, it seems a little pointless; especially as I'll be drinking plenty of this beer on draught, so here goes.

Most beer lovers will be familiar with this beer, which is a renowned world classic. The neck label on the bottle proudly proclaims "Bambergs Speczialitaet", and has a logo depicting Bamberg's famous town-all, or Rathaus, with the words, "Altstadt Bamberg - Weltkulturerbe", which I believe translates as "World Heritage Site".

Now for the beer itself. Dark brown in colour, rather than the almost black beer I remember drinking in the renowned Schlenkerla Tavern, with a dense white, rocky head, the beer has the un-mistakable aroma of smoky-bacon. The intense smokiness is evident from the first mouthful and lingers after swallowing in a very pleasant way. For me, it's a very moreish sort of beer, with tremendous depth of character from the beechwood-smoked malt used in the brewing process. Being bottled, there is a pleasant prickliness from the relatively high CO2 content, that serves to add to the character of the beer, rather than detract from it.

It's been said that Rauchbier is a style you either love or hate, and I'm certain that's true. Fortunately I love it, and I've met very few people that disagree with this view. Although we drank quite a few half litres of this beer during our stay last summer, it is definitely a beer more suited to the chills of winter, rather than the mid thirties temperatures we experienced back in July! Personally I can't wait to get back to Bamberg, later this month, and drink a lot more of it, together with the stronger Urbock which, hopefully, might still be on sale when I get there!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Greene King Abbot Reserve

After nearly a year since I sampled the bottled version of Greene King's Abbot Reserve, I finally got the chance today, to sample the draught version. Like the bottled, I am sorry to say I am not impressed. More about that in a minute.

Abbot Reserve feature's on this year's list of Christmas Ales in JDW outlets, and for the second day in a row, I found myself in our local Wetherspoon's. A fall of nearly a foot of snow, Wednesday night/Thursday morning had prevented me getting into work. Given the extreme weather conditions, I didn't even attempt to try getting the car off the drive, and a check on the National Rail Enquiries website revealed there were virtually no trains running. Although the snow abated last night, road and rail conditions were pretty much the same, which meant a further enforced day away from work.

Like the previous day, I had some shopping to get, both for ourselves and our elderly neighbours, so off I trudged, through the snow, down into Tonbridge. I had called into Wetherspoons earlier in the day for a coffee and, after the poor choice of ales on the previous day, was delighted to see the pump clip advertising the Abbot Reserve. After clearing some of the snow off the drive, getting a few Christmas cards written out and the aforementioned shopping, I finally made it back to the Humphrey Bean (our local JDW) just after 3pm.

This turned out to be a good time to call in, as there was virtually no queue at the bar. I ordered a pint of the said beer, paid just £1.85 for it, using my last CAMRA JDW voucher, and sat down to enjoy my pint. As expected, it was mid-brown in colour, with just a loose head on top. There was virtually no aroma to the beer (hops or otherwise), and taste wise I found it pretty disappointing as well. The 6.5% abv strength was quite evident, and there was a pronounced spicy pepperiness from the hops, but I found the beer totally lacking in depth. Although the spiciness was present at each mouthful, it quickly vanished once the beer was swallowed. There was certainly nothing to back up the initial tastes of the hops and the alcohol.

This, I thought is a very one-dimensional beer, and I was left wondering where were the fruitcake and toffee flavours described on the brewery's website? West Suffolk CAMRA are also shown on the website, singing the beer's praises, so either I sampled a duff cask (I don't think so, as it was fresh on this morning), or I am missing something? Again, I don't think so, as not only was the bottled version disappointing, but I have also seen other poor reviews of this beer. It's a shame really, as I know Greene King are trying hard to expand and improve their cask portfolio. But for me personally, it was even more of a shame as I had so been looking forward to sampling this beer!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Greene King Very Special India Pale Ale

Greene King's Very Special India Pale Ale has been on offer recently at Waitrose. This 7.5% beer comes in a clear glass 355ml bottle and is said to be "brewed to emulate the early india pale ales that were shipped during the 18th Century".

That's quite a reputation to live up to, especially as we don't really know what such beers actually tasted like. However, 7.5% is a good strength for such a beer and it tasted pleasant enough. Unfortunately it didn't really deliver much else; certainly nothing like what I was expecting. For a start a clear glass bottle is a bad move in my book. Brewers have not been bottling their beers in brown, or green glass bottles these past 200 years or so without good reason! Second, the beer just wasn't hoppy enough for my liking, although I have to say it did deliver in terms of juicy maltiness.

If it is still on offer this weekend, I'll buy another bottle and give it a second try. It's a beer that ought to succeed, but which may need a bit more in the way of adjustment.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

West Kent CAMRA 2010 AGM

I mentioned in a previous post that this weekend my local CAMRA branch (West Kent), was holding its Annual General Meeting. This took place at the Oak Tree in Sevenoaks, a large town-centre pub housed in an historic building that dates back several centuries. We had booked a side room that leads off from the main bar, for the meeting, as this area is generally quieter than the rest of the pub, and is free from both TV and piped music.

The Oak Tree has, in the past, offered up to five cask beers, so it was not a good sign when, on arrival, we noticed the Harvey's pump clip turned round and just two other ales on sale; Wells Bombardier and Westerham British Bulldog. I opted for a pint of the latter, which was excellent and, at only £2.40 a pint, extremely good value. The meeting was slightly late in starting, but branch chairman Iain manged to keep things in order, and business was conducted at a brisk pace. Halfway through though, my glass was empty so I sneaked of to the bar for a refill. I hadn't really noticed before just how busy the pub had become, but as I waited to get served I was joined by a friend and we both noticed that only Bombardier seemed to be available. We were even more mortified when we heard the barmaid announce that there would be no bitter on for a while, as she needed to pull another one through.

Apart from a dozen or so of us CAMRA members, the Oak Tree was primarily busy because of the England v South Africa Rugby match being shown on the three TV screens dotted throughout the pub. It was only when I fought my way through to the gents that I realised just how many people were packed into the place. Now rugby supporters are well known for their love of decent beer, so it was perhaps not surprising that supplies were running low, but fortunately the new cask had been pulled through on my return. I patiently queued and was rewarded with a pint of Bombardier for the princely sum of just £2.30! Now I have never been a huge fan of this beer, but I have to say that my pint was superb, with a wonderful aromatic hop aroma evident as soon as one placed the glass to ones lips, and a nicely-balanced citrus hop flavour to match.

I rejoined the meeting in time for the election of the new committee. I had previously agreed to stand again as BLO for Larkins, and was duly re-appointed without challenge. We had a short break in order to eat the buffet that the pub had laid on for us. Afterwards the meeting resumed to consider nominations for the 2012 Good Beer Guide.

We would probably have stayed longer in the pub had there been a wider variety of beers available. As it was the new cask of Bombardier looked as though it was going to run out soon. I couldn't help thinking that the pub's management had missed an opportunity here. Not only were there a dozen or so CAMRA members present who's presence they must surely have been expecting, given the fact that the meeting was pre-booked a couple of months previously, but also the fact that a major rugby game was being televised could not have escaped their notice. To have failed to ensure that sufficient cask beer was available was a spectacular "own goal". Having said that I will certainly give the Oak Tree another try, as I especially like its keen prices, as well as its layout and good mix of clientele.

We moved on to sample the wares of a couple of other pubs in the town. First stop was the Sennockian, scene of our visit a couple of nights previously. This time they had a couple of interesting dark ales on tap; both left over from their recent festival. Lion Stout, at 5% was good, but not as good as the 8% bottle-conditioned version I used to stock in my off-licence. The Titanic New York Wheat Porter was much better, in my opinion, despite its lower strength of 4.2%.

Some of the party wanted to move on, so we walked the short distance, back up the High Street, to the Chequers. I have long considered this 16th Century, former staging post inn, to be one of the best pubs in Sevenoaks, not only for its historic and characterful interior, but for the interesting range of beers it often has on sale. I didn't clock all the ales they had on offer, but I did pick out St Austell Tribute and Black Sheep Best Bitter as the ones to go for. We grabbed a section at the far end of the bar, furnished with plenty of comfortable chairs, and looking out over the street outside. On such a bitterly cold night it was nice to be in the cosy warmth of this ancient inn, and bask in the glow from the open log fires that were keeping the freezing outside temperatures at bay.

A few hardy souls went on to the Anchor, but the majority of us had had sufficient beer by this time, and made our way home. It was bitingly cold walking down to Sevenoaks station, and I was glad to reach the warmth of home. All in all it had been a good afternoon/early evening, with a successful AGM behind us, and another year's campaigning and socialising to look forward to.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Another Good Night at the Anchor

Every year, as part of our busy CAMRA social calender, Barry - the genial, and long-serving landlord of the Anchor in Sevenoaks, lays on a "themed meal" for us to enjoy. Last night it was an Indonesian-themed meal, which was very good, especially the chicken satay. Barry had three beers on tap for us to enjoy; Sovereign from Royal Tunbridge Wells, Copper Top - a seasonal, dark, "autumnal ale" from Old Dairy Brewery, plus that old favourite and "must-stock" beer for most local pubs - Harvey's Best. The Copper Top was especially good on a cold winter's night, such as we experienced yesterday, and went down well with the spicy food.

Prior to the meal, myself, son Matt plus friend Don had called in at the Sennockian (Sevenoak's very own JDW) where they still had a few beers left over from their recent Beer Festival. Unfortunately the Lion Stout was flagged up as "Available Soon" (I wish Spoons wouldn't do that!), but we did get the chance to sample a couple of rather unusual beers; Double Espresso from Traditional Scottish Ales and Vanilla Orchid from Tom Wood's. Both beers were brewed to a strength of 4.8%, but of the two I much preferred the Vanilla Orchid. Neither were really the sort of beers I would normally choose to drink, but sometimes it's good to experiment a bit, and at only £1.49 a pint with our CAMRA vouchers we couldn't really go wrong!

All in all it was a most enjoyable night out, and we even got into double figures (just) attendance wise for the meal! Tomorrow we're back in Sevenoaks for the branch AGM, which promises to be an interesting meeting. There's the, by now, traditional pub-crawl afterwards, and no doubt we'll be calling in at the Anchor, as well as JDW. Hopefully the Lion Stout will be on sale by then; we'll need something strong and dark to keep the cold at bay!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Saturday Night's Alright??

I must admit that these days I don't often venture out to the pub on a Saturday night. There was a time when a visit to the pub, or indeed several pubs, was the highlight of the week, and a session that was virtually un-missable. I have written before about the reasons I don't visits pubs with anywhere like the frequency I used to, (family, financial, lack of decent pubs close-by etc), but it seems I am not alone in this.

Last night my son and I, together with our friend Eric, caught the train over to Frant, in order to visit the excellent Brecknock Arms at Bells Yew Green. This unspoilt Harvey's pub has long been a favourite of mine, and it is well worth the short train journey to enjoy some excellent beer and some good company in this small, but welcoming village local.

We caught the 18.59 train, arriving at our destination some 20 minutes later. On entering, we were surprised to see that the only customers in the pub were a slightly loved-up couple, enjoying a drink in the far corner. We received a warm welcome from hosts Joe and Charlotte, and were please to see not one, but three dark ales from the Harvey's stable, on sale alongside the Best Bitter. We gave the mild a miss, as none of us are great fans of this style, opting instead for the Old Ale. It was excellent; smooth, dark and full-bodied and just the beer for a cold and slightly damp winter's evening.

Charlotte recommended we try the Lewes Castle Brown Ale next. This is a 4.8% brew that is normally only available in bottles, but she told us the brewery sometimes have some left over from the bottling run and they make this available in cask for any pubs interested in taking it. It was therefore something of a rarity to see this strong brown ale on draught. We found it similar in taste to the Old, but fuller in body, and perhaps slightly more bitter in flavour. It was definitely an interesting beer to try.

We sat at a table, opposite the bar enjoying our beer and chatting to Joe and Charlotte. The lovey-dovey couple left, but soon after one one the pub's regulars called in and sat at the bar enjoying a few pints of Old himself, and joining in the general conversation. What struck us more than anything was how quiet the pub was, especially for a Saturday night. It had been like this on our previous Saturday visit, back in September, when Eric and I had called in for a quick pint on the way back from Eastbourne at the end of our Wealdway Walk. Charlotte told us that Saturday's were always quiet at the Brecknock; in fact it was normally the quietest session of the week. She told us they usually had more people in on a Tuesday lunchtime than on a Saturday evening. The pub had been packed the night before, and they were fully expecting to be extremely busy Sunday lunchtime, when the pub is popular with diners.

This got me thinking; where were all the people who should have been packing the pub out? and what were they doing instead? Surely they weren't all sat at home watching dross like X-Factor and I'm a Celebrity, or were they? Have the nation's habits changed? Do more people now prefer sitting in the comfort of their own homes on a Saturday night, even if there is only drivel on the TV to keep them entertained? As I said at the start of this post, I don't go out enough on a Saturday to know the answer. All I can say is, whilst I may be enjoying a drink or two at home, I am not doing so in front of the TV watching rubbish!

I would be most interested to hear other people's thoughts on this matter.

Fearsome Pub Landladies

  When I first started drinking, back in the early 1970's, the battle-axe landlady who ruled her pub with a rod of iron, and tolerated no nonsense from her customers, was quite common-place, but times have changed, and matriarchal women in charge of pubs, appear to be a dying breed. 

 I'm sure there are several reasons for the decline of the lone female in charge behind the bar, but looking back to my days at primary school (early 1960's), we had quite a few elderly (or so they seemed at the time), spinsters in charge of our classes. This was perhaps hardly surprising, coming just forty years or so after the carnage of the First World War, in which the flower of British manhood was butchered in the fields of Flanders, thereby condemning a whole generation of women to eternal spinsterhood. That there should be a large number of un-married women, of advancing years, running many of the nation's pubs during the 1960's and early 70's, therefore comes as no surprise. 

 I can recount quite a few tales concerning some of these legendary matriarchs, but will confine myself to just a couple. The first relates to an elderly lady called Norah, who ran a pub called the Rose, situated in the village of Willesborough - now long absorbed into the town of Ashford. Willesborough was the place where I spent 11 happy years of my childhood, before we moved further out into the country.

I first knew the pub as a child, having been taken there by my parents and maternal grandparents, when the latter made one of their regular visits from London. The Rose was unusual in that it was built into the side of a hill. This meant it was constructed on two levels, with a public bar at the higher level, fronting the road, and a saloon-cum-games room, plus children's room, at the lower level. This was reached by descending a series of steps from the road, and also the car park. I remember having my first sip of beer, from my grandfather's glass here, and absolutely hating it, but to continue with the story I became re-acquainted with the pub as an 18 year old, back in the early 1970's.

 I had just left school and together with a couple of friends, had taken a job at a local food processing factory whilst awaiting my A-level results. The work was dull and boring, but paid reasonably well, and we were placed on permanent late shift, which ran from 2pm until 10pm. Back in those days most Kent pubs closed at 10.30pm Monday to Thursday, with an extension to 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays. The Rose was the nearest pub to the factory, and if we left as soon as the shift ended, we just had time to hot foot it along to the Rose and get a couple of quick pints in before time was called. 

Presiding behind the bar was this fearsome old lady called Norah. She appeared to run the pub single-handed, although we later learned that one of her sons helped her with the cellar work and other heavy duties. We tended to frequent the lower saloon bar on our after work visits, primarily to engage in a game or two of bar-billiards, and despite our relatively young ages, Norah seemed quite glad of our custom. One friend though recounted a tale of how Norah had once barred his father from the pub, purely because she "didn't like the look of him", and we were soon to experience this side of Norah's character for ourselves. 

One weekend myself, plus the same friend called in at the Rose, but this time we decided to patronise the public bar. We were sitting chatting and enjoying our beer, when Norah suddenly enquired if we would like to play bar billiards? We replied that we were quite happy as we were when she suddenly became quite insistent that we go downstairs and have a game. She did explain herself after a while, informing us that there were a couple of boys using the table downstairs who, in her view, had been there long enough. We were to be her reason for getting them to leave. 

The next thing we heard was Norah disappearing down the steep wooden stairs to the lower bar and telling these couple of lads "There are two boys upstairs who want to play bar billiards. You two have been playing quite long enough, so kindly finish your game and let others have a turn!" Fearing some sort of trouble we delayed going down to the lower bar as long as possible, but when we did, we still got a scowl from the departing players who had done nothing wrong apart from perhaps outstaying their welcome in the games room. 

At the end of that summer I left home to go to university. When I returned the following summer, I had a different part-time job which was nowhere near the Rose. I therefore lost touch with the pub. I believe it became a "Hooden Horse" themed pub for a while, part of a small local chain that specialised in decent ale and food, but which ran into difficulties and was eventually bought out. I have carried out several on-line searches, all of which have revealed that the Rose is no longer a pub. Mind you, without its fearsome matriarchal landlady, it wouldn't really have been the same! 

The other pub I want to mention is the Ringlestone Inn, situated high on the North Downs, between Maidstone and Ashford. I first became acquainted with the Ringlestone when I bought a house in Maidstone in the late 1970's; a move that marked my return to Kent after an absence of some six or so years. It was an unspoilt pub that served a couple of beers direct from casks kept behind the bar. I can't remember the landlord's name, but it's a couple of his predecessors I want to write about here. 

Back in the 1960's the Ringlestone was kept by two elderly sisters; both spinsters, and with a reputation for their no nonsense approach when dealing with customers. They were reputed to have kept a shotgun behind the bar, and were said to have had no qualms in pointing this weapon at anyone they didn't like the look of. For two relatively elderly women, living on their own in such an isolated place, this was probably quite a sensible thing to do, although one wonders how many times they actually produced the gun. I also wonder whether the weapon was loaded? I would like to think not, but who knows? 

However the story passed into local legend, and was quite well known, even as far as East Kent where we lived at the time. My parents, neither of whom were regular pub goers, had both heard the story, and I remember them recounting it to my sister and I. I like the tale, and mourn the passing of such eccentric characters as these two feisty women, keeping the nation's bars in order. I am therefore, pleased to report two pubs runs by elderly ladies who, whilst perhaps not quite resorting to scaring customers off with firearms, still run their pubs with an old-fashioned, no-nonsense approach. The pubs in question are the Red Lion at Snargate, and the Queen's Arms at Cowden Pound. 

Both establishments are on CAMRA's National Inventory of unspoilt "Heritage" pubs, and you can read more about them by clicking on the above links. In the meantime, I would be interested to hear any similar tales of eccentric old battle-axes, either past or present, and the pubs they ran.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Larkins Porter

I finally got my hands on some Larkins Porter last night, and boy was it good! I attended a pre-AGM CAMRA Committee meeting, held at the excellent Royal Oak in Tunbridge Wells where, amongst some other interesting offerings, my friend and I spotted a hand pump with Larkins Porter on tap.

I ought to declare an interest here, as I am CAMRA Brewery Liaison Officer for Larkins, and am a fairly regular visitor to the brewery. Even so, whenever I call round to see owner Bob Dockerty, he never seems to have any Porter on tap. Bob brews this strong, dark, tasty beer twice a year, and then allows it to matures, in cask, for a minimum of six weeks before sending it out to trade. Traditionally the first batch is not released until Bonfire Night, meaning that the beer will have been brewed back in mid-September. This brew normally lasts through until Christmas, after which Bob normally brews a second batch. Very occasionally, he will produce a third batch, although this is quite a rare occurrence, as for some reason, strong dark ales sell well in the run-up to Christmas, but not so well afterwards.

So, just over a week from the beer's launch, it was good to enjoy a few glasses of it last night. Brewed from a grist that includes plenty of chocolate and crystal malts, Larkins Porter has a rich, full mouth feel, with plenty of bitterness to match the lush sweetness of the malts. At a strength of 5.2%, it is a beer for savouring, rather than swilling. Even so, I couldn't resist having three pints of it!

Larkins wasn't the only porter I enjoyed last night. Simon Lewis, owner of and brewer at the recently opened Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery was also present at the meeting, and he brought along a bottle of his own new Porter for us to try. With an abv of 4.8%, it is similar in strength to Larkins, and also similar in colour. Tasted alongside Larkins, RTW is perhaps slightly more bitter. It was difficult to tell, as the latter was far livelier, being bottle-conditioned, but it did have an excellent aroma. It is a beer that I definitely look forward to sampling, when it appears on draught. I will also pick up a few bottles once they make an appearance in local shops.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

CAMRA from a Personal Perspective

There has been much heated debate over the last week or so regarding CAMRA, and it's definition of Real Ale. Some have argued that the definition, whilst relevant when CAMRA was founded, is too narrow, whilst others have maintained it is the organisation's Unique Selling Point. I do not wish to get into the argument, especially as the likes of Pete Brown, Tandleman and Martyn Cornell have argued the case for and against far more eruditely than I could. The only thing I wish to add is whilst cask-ale is my drink of choice, other factors such as occasion, location etc, also play a part when it comes to deciding what to drink, and ultimately it's my taste buds that decide in the end.

For my part I have been member of CAMRA since the mid-1970's. This is an unbroken run as well, as my membership number is in the 3,000's. I have seen many changes during this time, including the un-precedented rise in the number of breweries that are operating today. I have been active at local branch level for much of the past 35 years, and during this time I have made many good friends and acquaintances. It is probably the social side that has led to me remaining actively involved in branch affairs for so long, and this aspect was reinforced at the weekend when I attended the Kent Regional Meeting (KRM), at Edenbridge.

KRM's are held every two months, with each branch taking a turn at hosting the meeting. As there are nine branches in the county this is not a particularly onerous task, but even so the host branch need to come up with a suitable venue, offering a reasonable selection of beers, and also provide a buffet lunch for the attendees. Most importantly, and for obvious reasons, the venue must be easily accessible by public transport; preferably rail. This time it was my local branch's turn to do the honours, and we chose the Old Eden, in the small town of Edenbridge, close to the border with Surrey.

Edenbridge is almost as far west as one can be in the county and still be in Kent, which meant a long journey for some delegates. In the end, whilst representatives from both Ashford and Dover branches turned up, members from Canterbury, Swale and Thanet branches did not attend. The next meeting is in Thanet though, which will mean a lengthy journey for West Kent members.

All in all 18 members made it to the meeting, including five of us from West Kent Branch. Although the Old Eden is a bit of a hike from the town's main station, it proved the perfect place for the meeting. There were five cask-ales on sale; two from Westerham Brewery (British Bulldog and 1965), two from Whitstable Brewery (Native Bitter and Oyster Stout), plus every one's favourite session beer, Harvey's Best. The characterful old building was warmed by three open fires, whilst the meeting itself took place in an upstairs galleried room, reached by an open staircase so that it did not feel completely cut of from the main part of the pub.

I sampled both the Whitstable beers plus the Westerham 1965, which was stunningly good. The meeting dragged on somewhat, despite the best efforts of our branch chairman, Iain, to keep things as brief as possible. There was a lot of business to discuss though, including reports on recently held branch beer festivals, as well as plans for next year's events. What is particularly encouraging is the news that there are now 17 independent breweries in the county, with reports of at least two more in the pipeline. Five of these breweries are within our branch area, which does ask the question, how can they all survive? The answer is that they all seem to be doing ok, which is encouraging news.

As well as some decent beer, we enjoyed an excellent buffet lunch. It was good to meet up with old friends from other branches again, especially people I hadn't seen for a while. The slightly worrying thing though is that none of us are getting any younger, and this I feel is the main problem facing CAMRA. There are already reports from other regions of branches having to give up on long-standing beer festivals, and other events, due to an increasingly aged membership, and lack of new blood to replace them.

Fortunately this is not yet the case in Kent, and we received reports of very successful festivals organised by Canterbury and Maidstone branches in particular. However, although the Campaign does have quite a large number of young members on its books it needs to find ways of getting them more actively involved within their respective branches. This is not easy, as we have found in our own branch where, out of a total of 450 members, we are lucky if we get an attendance that gets into double figures at our socials. I don't know what the answer is, as we have tried all sorts of approaches in order to try and tempt people along. One thing's for sure though, and that's without an influx of more active members, CAMRA will be in danger of dying on its feet, and that's something I don't think any of us would wish to see.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Wetherspoons Re-Visited

Despite their current beer festival, I'd been avoiding our local Wetherspoons for a number of reasons. These include too many kids running around the place, too many undesirables, dirty tables and not enough staff. Earlier this evening though, whilst on my way home from the Kent CAMRA Regional Meeting at Edenbridge, I decided to give the place another chance.

After a day of not immoderate beer drinking, I was motivated primarily by the need for something to eat, at a sensible price. Wetherspoons fitted the bill, and when I called in I found the place quite quiet, with plenty of empty tables. I grabbed one and headed for the bar. A placard advertising the "Manager's Special" caught my eye; several different varieties of curry. I opted for a chicken korma, and also ordered a pint of Cotleigh Ettaler. I handed over one of my CAMRA JDW vouchers, and the bill came to a very respectable £5.49.

The beer was good, although I'm not convinced about its description as a Bavarian-style lager ale! My chicken korma was also good, and arrived accompanied by pillau rice, narn bread, plus a couple of poppadoms. It wasn't the best Indian meal I've had, but at that price I couldn't grumble, and it certainly satisfied my hunger.

As for the Wetherspoons outlet itself, most of the usual semi-permanent undesirables were conspicuous by their absence, although there were still too many unsupervised children for my liking. I won't be in a huge hurry to return, but at least it proved if you catch the place at the right time then it isn't too bad.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Adnams Old

Just a quick post about a weekend visit to Norfolk that just seemed to fly by. First, apologies to Paul Garrard for not getting in touch and arranging to meet up. There just wasn't time I'm afraid Paul, as we travelled up on Saturday morning, and returned yesterday (Sunday) afternoon.

The main reason for our visit was to see my parents, who retired up to Norfolk about 18 years ago. They probably won't thank me for saying so, but they are getting on a bit, so rarely travel down to Kent to visit us. Anyway, it was good to see them. Life in Norfolk obviously suits them, and they were both looking hale and hearty.

With only the one night stop-over, there was little time for much beer drinking. However, son Matt and myself did manage to visit the George in Dereham on Saturday night. This Good Beer Guide-listed pub was opposite our hotel, so we didn't have far to stagger come closing time. The bonus, so far as I was concerned, was finding Adnams Old Ale on tap, and apart from a pint of the company's Broadside to finish up on, I stuck on the Old all evening.

It was just the right strength, and had just the right amount of dark, roast, luscious sweetness to make it the ideal drink for an evening that was decidedly on the chilly side. It is a long time since I last enjoyed a glass of this excellent ale, and it was good to be able to sample it close to its source.

The George itself was very pleasant as well. It wasn't full to bursting point, like on our previous visit back in February, but it had a nice mix of clientele, with no noisy juke-box or piped music to disturb the conversation. Even better, the beer was served in proper, stylised Adnams glasses (other brewers and pubs, please take note). All in all it made for a most enjoyable evening; the only disappointment being not being able to repeat the experience the following night!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

British Lager - Part One

In a previous post about The Death of the English Pub, I described some of the problems facing the pub trade back in the early 1970's. These were highlighted in the book of the same title.

One subject that barely received a mention in the book, was that of British Lager. This is perhaps hardly surprising, as back then lager counted for about 2% of total beer sales. The only reference I recall was to Carlsberg and Tuborg Lagers, brewed under licence at the time by Watneys and Trumans respectively. Decrying their pitifully low strength, a reviewer from the Daily Mirror had made the comment "We think these two lagers more suitable for a maiden aunt of moderate habits than a man who uses his muscles." That comment sums up the main problem with British Lager 40 years ago; namely it was as weak as gnat's piss!

I can remember when lager as a drink first entered my consciousness. I was aged 17, and was with a group of school friends on a night out in Folkestone. With the exception of a friend of a friend, who had joined us for the evening, none of us was legally old enough to be drinking in a pub, but that didn't seem to really matter back then. I can't recall the name of the pub, and I don't think it was anything special, but it was in the centre of Folkestone, and I remember the aforementioned "friend of a friend" ordering a pint of "lager and lime". (By the way, I never got to know the real name of this character. He was referred to as "Dinky Dalton", and as he seemed a bit effeminate I didn't like to enquire further!).

At first I thought this was a soft drink, and I wondered why Mr Dalton, who was trying hard to project an image of sophistication, was drinking such a drink. I was vaguely aware from childhood of a concoction called Limeade and Lager, but this was something different). I have to say the drink looked appealing in the glass, even if it was only Harp Lager! For a start it came in its own stylized glass, and second being chilled, and with the beads of condensation running down the side of the glass, it was worth ordering one myself. Before doing so I asked Mr Dalton what the purpose of the lime was? His reply was it took the edge off the beer. I skipped on the lime, but found the beer itself totally unremarkable (perhaps it would have been better with a shot of lime in it!). This lack of any real endearing characteristics was hardly surprising as, apart from the might of the Guinness empire behind it, Harp never really had much going for it. (You could say a real triumph of style over substance!)

Harp was probably the most widely distributed British-brewed lager during the early 1970's, but it was closely followed by Heineken, which was stocked by Whitbread in most of their pubs. However, with an abv of only 3.4%, it was nothing like its continental namesake, which is brewed to a respectable strength of 5%. The story goes that when Colonel Whitbread approached Freddy Heineken when he was first looking for a continental-style beer to sell in his company's pubs. However, he was convinced that a five percent strength beer would be too strong for British drinkers, used to supping milds, bitters and light ales most of which were brewed to a strength about 3.5%. He managed to persuade Freddy and the rest of the Heineken management to allow Whitbread to brew a much weaker version of their famous beer under licence, which is how the ultra-weak Heineken came to be sold in the UK.

Like I said earlier, not only was this British-brewed lager as weak as gnat's piss, but it tasted pretty much like it as well! There is a good reason why classic European Pilsner-style lagers are brewed at around 5%; they need sufficient body not only to counter the high hopping rate, but also to allow the necessary maturation period to take place. As I write I am drinking a bottle of Pilsner Urquell; it may have lost some of it's character over the last couple of decades, but it's still a classic beer light years removed from such horrors as Harp, Whitbread-brewed Heineken, Skol etc.

Other lagers popular at this time were the aforementioned UK-brewed versions of Carlsberg and Tuborg, plus that old favourite Carling Black Label. Now I'm no fan of Carling, but it is one British lager that does seem to have stood the pace of time and is a rare survivor from 40 years or so ago. It's slightly higher strength of 4% may have helped it's longevity, as well as some clever advertising campaigns.

As the seventies unfolded, many of Britain's independent brewers decided to jump on the band waggon and started producing their own lagers. Most were instantly forgettable; I remember "lagers" such as Einhorn from Robinsons, Regal (a palindrome of lager) from Holts, Grunhalle Lager from Greenall Whitley and Brock Lager from Hall & Woodhouse to name but a few. All pretty dire, and all best forgotten! The story was that most of these ersatz lagers were brewed using an infusion mash, rather than the traditional continental decoction mash, were bittered using UK hops, and only received the minimum amount of maturation (lagering); nothing new there then, as many of today's international brands, also receive little or no proper lagering either!

Despite it's lack of taste, and total absence of any real pedigree, lager sales went through the roof during the later half of the 1970's and into the 80's. In the next part of "British Lager", I'll be looking at the rise of Premium Lagers, and the so-called international brands.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Dark Beer Night

It's definitely a dark beer night tonight. Nothing to do with Halloween; it's just that I happen to have two bottles of fine dark ales to savour this evening, and enjoy them I certainly will!

First up is Double Stout, from Hook Norton, a superb dark stout brewed to a 100 year old recipe. Poured into the glass, it is a jet black beer with a real thick creamy head. Taste-wise, it is a full-bodied beer, dry in taste, with roasted malt and chocolate flavours and just the right degree of bitterness to match. It is also bottle-conditioned as well, and drinks far stronger than its 4.8% abv suggests.

Next up is an old favourite; Fuller's London Porter. Slightly stronger at 5.4%, and not quite as dark; this is another recreation of an old recipe. Brewed using pale, crystal, brown and chocolate malts and bittered with Fuggles hops this is a stunning, silky-smooth beer with wonderful chocolate notes to the fore, and just the right degree of subtle bitterness in the background. It doesn't pour with quite the same thick, creamy head as the previous beer, and despite its extra strength, doesn't taste quite as strong as the Hook Norton stout either, but it's still a world-class beer in my book. I hope to see it on draught some time over the next few months, alongside my all time favourite Porter; that brewed by Larkins of Chiddingstone.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

More on "Top Pressure"

It seems my recent post about the Pubs of my Youth has sparked a bit of debate, especially with regard to the subject of "top pressure". Our friends in the north have commented that this system was virtually unknown in the northern heartlands, and yet it was pretty common down south. Basically it was a system designed to serve cask-conditioned beer using "top pressure" CO2, which was applied, via an adaptor, to the shive hole of the cask and then, when a tap was opened on the dispenser on the bar, used to force the beer out of the cask and into the customer's glass.

The brewers claimed that the system kept beer better, and prevented it from going off. Whilst the latter was undoubtedly true, the former was not, as the gas applied to the beer had a tendency to dissolve and make the beer overly gassy, and at times quite unpalatable. Nevertheless, during the early 1970 this system was adopted by several of the large brewing conglomerate's that had sprung up during the previous decade, and was particularly favoured by both Courage and Whitbread who owned the majority of the pubs in the part of East Kent where I grew up. To say that "top pressure" was actively encouraged by the brewers is an understatement, and it was the "norm" in most of the local pubs. But not everywhere, as I am about to relate.

Back in 1974, during the summer break from university, I popped my head around the door, for the first time, of what for a while became one of my favourite pubs in my home-town of Ashford. This was at a time when I had started to take a firm interest in Real Ale and real pubs. The pub was called the Trumpeter and, as it was a Whitbread house, I ordered a pint of Trophy. To my surprise the landlady went to a bank of antique looking hand pumps and pulled me a pint. Although my village local sold "Real" Trophy, this beer in an un-pressurised form was like gold dust, especially in Ashford itself. However, here I was in a pub which I had never been in before, drinking a pint of Whitbread Trophy that wasn't full of bubbles.

I told a friend, and fellow CAMRA member, the good news, and he hot-footed it down to the Trumpeter to see for himself. However, on my next visit to the pub I ended up being served a fizzy pint from a gas tap, fitted to the outlet of one of the other pumps. Thinking that the brewery conversion team had been in, and fearing the worst, I enquired about the means of dispense, only to be told that the real thing was still available, but was reserved for regulars only, plus "those in the know"!

The reason for this clandestine approach was that, so far as the brewery were concerned, the Trumpeter sold only pressurised Trophy. However, the locals were not at all keen on having their beer gassed up, so unbeknown to Whitbread, one hand pump had been left in working order and was still connected. I was sworn to secrecy over this matter, as was my friend when he joined me for a drink later that evening. The last thing the landlady and her regulars wanted was for the brewery to get wind of the fact that one of their pubs was serving cask beer by “non-approved” methods.

As well as serving traditional beer, the Trumpeter was an unspoilt traditional town pub. Over the course of the summer, until my return to university, I became quite a regular there and eventually ended up on first name terms with the landlady. Her name was Ethel, and in common with other legendary female licensees, ran the pub single-handed in the time honoured tradition, standing no nonsense and governing proceedings with a rod of iron. Despite this, she always had a friendly smile and a greeting for customers - with the exception of representatives from the brewery that is!

I have related the above story, in depth, to illustrate the point that "top pressure" wasn't universally welcomed by drinkers, and was even unpopular with certain licensees. It was the real "bug-bear" of CAMRA back in the early days, especially as it ruined otherwise perfectly acceptable beer.

I have scoured Google Images for pictures of the Trumpeter (demolished as part of a road-widening scheme during the 1980's), but so far without success.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Upmarket "Pong"

Although budget supermarket chain, Lidl are continuing to crank out cut-price bottles of ale from the likes of Marstons and Shepherd Neame, upmarket Waitrose are currently mid-way through an excellent promotion on bottled beers. A wide range of bottles from the likes of Brakspears, Fullers, Hook Norton and Jennings are on sale at two for £3.00, and what's even better is you can mix and match!

Some of the beers included in the offer are extremely good value when purchased in this manner. They include Fuller's 1845 and Brakspear's Triple; both premium strength beers, and both fine examples of the brewer's art. Fuller's London Porter, which is another old favourite of mine also features on the list, as does Hook Norton Double Stout. I also noticed Pilsner Urquell on sale at the same two bottles for £3.00, but this might be a different promotion.

My advice therefore is get down to Waitrose quick, whilst stocks last. The promotion runs until 9th November, but with such good bargains available, some beers could run out long before this!