Thursday 29 April 2010

CAMRA Magazines

Whilst at the recent CAMRA AGM in the Isle of Man I picked up a handful of magazines produced by various local CAMRA branches. I always make a point of picking up these publications whenever I get the chance (GBBF is normally a good place for this), as not only are they a good read, but more importantly they show what is happening on the beer and pub scene in different parts of the country.

This latest haul included such titles as Mersey Ale, Potters Bar, ShakesBeer, Beer on Tap, Pints West, Derby Drinker and of course that perennial favourite London Drinker. It's good to see what pubs are like in these different areas, what local drinkers and CAMRA members are up to and what is happening at local breweries in these places.

The overall impression that comes across from these magazines, is despite the tough trading times that many pubs find themselves in, those that are genuinely offering what their customers want are thriving. Local craft brewers are also reporting an increase in sales, and there are numerous reports of micro-breweries installing extra fermenters, or even new plant to cope with this extra demand.

The other good thing about these magazines is that they are self-funding, which is good news in itself but, more importantly, shows that breweries, pubs and clubs hold them in high esteem - otherwise they wouldn't be prepared to advertise in them. Many are full-colour publications and are produced to a very high standard. Things have obviously come a long way from the days when I was involved in producing a branch newsletter. Back then all we had at our disposal was an electric typewriter, plus Letraset for the headings. Artwork was literally "cut and paste", with scissors and Cow Gum being the order of the day.

Nowadays, with most people having access to a computer and the very professional desk-top publishing programmes that are on offer, life is a lot easier, although editors and copy-writers still have to work hard to come up with interesting and informative articles. I therefore raise my glass to all these hard-working activists up and down the land. Long may their efforts continue to publicise the often unseen work that CAMRA does at grass roots level.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Moodleys Brewery

The local brewing scene in West Kent has been transformed in recent months with the formation of three new craft-breweries. The two most recent, Tonbridge and Royal Tunbridge Wells have still to bring their products to market, although the former is due to launch this coming weekend. But the third - Moodleys, has been in production for a couple of months now, and last week local CAMRA members were party to a talk by the company's founder, plus a tasting of the brewery's beers. The venue for this event was the Anchor in Sevenoaks where the irrepressible landlord Barry Dennis had also laid on a free buffet for us.

Moodleys Brewery is owned and run by Yudhistra Moodley from farm premises, close to his home village of Rusthall, just outside Tunbridge Wells. Yudhistra has concentrated on bottled beers to start with, and the three he currently produces are all bottle-conditioned. We began our sampling with a tasting of Toad Rock Bitter which I found rather unbalanced and was my least favourite of the trio. This may be down to Yudhistra's unusual choice of hops for bittering this beer. Bramling Cross is a hop variety that is not commonly used in brewing these days, and I can fully understand why.

After the bitter, we moved on to Poundage Porter, which was a big improvement and had a really appealing aroma. Unfortunately, at only 4% abv, it didn't quite have the fullness in taste of a true porter and was lacking somewhat in body. The final beer though really hit the spot. The 4.2% Original Mild was dark, sweet and luscious, just as a strong dark mild should be. I would encourage Yudhistra to develop this beer further, as it has the potential to be a real winner.

As we tasted the various beers Yudhistra explained the philosophy behind the brewery. He is committed to using only natural ingredients and traditional brewing processes, and whilst this is to be applauded many of us felt that he has taken this a bit too far by refusing to use finings to clarify his beers. I can understand his wanting to appeal to the vegetarian/vegan market, but the latter particularly is a tiny one and vegetable derived alternatives to isinglass are readily available. The absence of finings meant that all the beers sampled that night suffered from varying amounts of yeast haze which had a detrimental effect on their taste. It is fair to say that whilst naturally cloudy beers, such as wheat beers are more widely available they are still very much a niche market. Several of us made this point to Yudhistra and stated that if he wishes to start offering his beers in cask form, it is essential that he adds finings to his beers. If he doesn't he is likely to find few landlords willing to take a beer that will take weeks to clear naturally. Rightly or wrongly, most people drink with their eyes and will send back a hazy pint, even if it tastes perfectly ok. I feel it is vital that he grasps this fact, particularly if he wants to appeal to a wider, and more mainstream audience.

That said, it was a good evening and although I feel there is still room for improvement, Yudhistra has taken his first tentative steps toward becoming a full-time brewer. He is planning to install a much larger plant (he is currently using a 10 gallon home-brew kit), and this upgrade should lead to a far more consistent product. I wish him well; not many of us are prepared to follow our passion for beer by actually branching out into brewing it full-time. I just hope he takes our comments about the finings on board!

ps. Watch this space for news about the other two breweries about to start production. It's certainly all happening here in West Kent!

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Isle of Man - CAMRA Members Weekend

I got back early on Monday evening after spending a brilliant four days on the Isle of Man. This was my first visit to the island, and I was very impressed by what I saw and experienced. The almost wall to wall sunshine certainly helped, but from the moment I stepped off the ferry in Douglas, shortly after 10pm last Wednesday evening, and walked along the brightly-lit promenade to the guest house, I knew I was going to like the place.

I spent the first two days in the company of my West Kent CAMRA colleagues, Iain and Carole, together with Kent Regional Director Kae Mendham. We travelled to Laxey, courtesy of the wonderfully eccentric Manx Electric Railway, where we spent some time admiring the impressive Laxey Wheel. We then journeyed onto Ramsey, for lunch, before returning via Old Laxey, and the atmospheric Shore Hotel - home of the island's only brew-pub, and its malty Bosun's Bitter.

The following day we joined with colleagues from Maidstone and Mid-Kent for a tour right round the island, traveling by steam train as far as Port Erin, and then on to Peel, via Castletown, by bus. The multi-roomed White House Hotel was an excellent find, although I'm told that Peel's other GBG entry, the Creek Inn is also very good. The bus journey continued with a halt at the Raven at Ballough Bridge, before continuing onto Ramsey. After a pint or two in the Trafalgar we caught the tram (Manx Electric Railway) back to Laxey for some excellent Bushy's in the Queen's Hotel before catching a bus back to Douglas.

Saturday and most of Sunday were spent at the CAMRA AGM, held in the impressive, and recently restored Villa Marina complex in Douglas. Although the last such event I attended was the 1984 AGM in Edinburgh, I found the debates and speeches far more interesting than I'd expected to. I was particularly impressed with the presentation given by the Campaign's Chief Executive, Mike Benner.

We spent both Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes at the Beer Exhibition. where there was a good selection of beers to enjoy, as well as friends and colleagues to meet up with. The highlight of the weekend though was our Gateway to Kent Guide winning the award for best local CAMRA guide for 2009! This achievement was a fitting reward for all the hard work that went in to producing the guide, copies of which can still be obtained via the West Kent CAMRA website.

So all in all then a really good break, with the added bonus of good company, nice surroundings, busy and unspoilt pubs and beer at up to £1 a pint cheaper than it is here in Kent!

Tuesday 13 April 2010

CAMRA Members Weekend & AGM 2010

I'm off to the Isle of Man in the morning, so won't be posting for a while. It's the first CAMRA AGM I've been to in over 25 years, and I'm really looking forward to it.

It's also my first trip to the Isle of Man; which again should be good. I'm planning to meet up with some old friends from Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA, and hopefully Tandleman as well. There's five of us attending from West Kent CAMRA, so all in all it should be an excellent long weekend.

Friday 9 April 2010

Cheshire Chocolate Porter

I've just drunk what has to be one of the strangest beers I've had for a long time. Cheshire Chocolate Porter, brewed by Robinsons for Marks & Spencer, has been sitting downstairs in the kitchen cupboard for a month or two now, so I thought I'd better give it a go.

I had my suspicions when I held the bottle up to the light, and found that the contents did not appear dark at all. (The bottle is a standard brown glass job, but I could see straight through the beer inside). Pouring the beer revealed a bog-standard, brown-coloured beer, which did not even remotely resemble what a porter is supposed to look like. Still, one shouldn't drink with one's eyes so on tasting the beer I have to say that it was not at all unpleasant, and reminded me, more or less straight away, of Youngs Double Chocolate Stout.

I noted from the ingredients listing on the bottle, that Natural Chocolate Flavouring is used in the recipe, which the label claims is an original, dating back to 1899. However, the label also states that the beer was created with the collaboration of renowned chocolatier, Simon Dunn - whoever he might be? (Just had a look at his web-site, and I have to say his chocolates do look absolutely divine!). The label also states that this beer is 6% abv; it doesn't drink its strength, but all in all I am well impressed. I might not rush out tomorrow and immediately buy another bottle, but next time I am in M&S I will definitely pick one up!

The morale of the story then is don't drink with your eyes (something an old drinking buddy told me a long time ago). The other important thing to remember is, never judge a book by its cover or, in this case, a beer by its appearance!

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Ticking All The Right Boxes?

I know it's sad, but over the Easter weekend I finally found time to update my Good Beer Guide 2010. By update I mean I went through the breweries section at the rear, and marked off all the beers I've sampled with a high-lighter pen. I didn't do this from memory, instead I laboriously copied the entries over from the 2009 edition. I go through this ritual every year, but not normally quite as late as this. I don't really like doing it which is why I had been putting it off, but having done so for the past 35 years it would be a shame to stop now!

Before we go any further, I must state that I am NOT a ticker, well certainly not in the established sense of the word. By this I mean that I do not go all out to tick off as many beers as I can find. Instead I just continue to record those beers I have sampled over the course of nearly 40 years drinking. Obviously more beers get added to the list each year; but beers are also dropped from the list when breweries close, or certain brews are discontinued. If I was a serious ticker I would maintain a list that is separate to the current GBG, but I can't be arsed to do this. Neither can I be bothered to count up how many cask beers I have sampled. I doubt that the figure would even approach 500*, yet I know several serious and dedicated tickers that have knocked off 5,000 beers, and one who claims to have sampled over 10,000!

Why am I telling you this? Do I wish to leave myself open to ridicule? and are my attempts to deny a penchant for ticking to be believed? The answer to these questions is a point that several CAMRA members have asked in the past, namely is it now time for the Campaign to publish a guide to the Breweries of Britain that is completely separate from the Good Beer Guide?

I think there is a compelling case for this to happen. The current GBG contains nearly 900 pages, of which almost 200 are given over to the Breweries Section. In order for the guide to remain at a reasonable thickness (and weight), the paper used is so thin and light-weight as to be almost transparent. CAMRA claims, with justification, that when choosing pubs for the Guide "It's the beer quality that counts." That is obviously true, and it is why the Campaign insists it is essential to include the Breweries Section at the back of the Guide. However, a glance through many of the pub entries will not always tell you much about the beers on sale at these outlets. "Guest Beers", is a common entry, leaving the reader none the wiser as to what might be on offer. (See sample entry above.) Even when one refers to the section at the rear, more often than not one is instructed to check the brewery's website for details of seasonal, or special beers.

Splitting the Breweries Section off into a separate publication would allow more space to be devoted to breweries, and would allow a much more detailed listing of each company's products than at present. Both the Good Beer Guide and the Guide to the Breweries of Britain could then be printed on thicker, higher quality paper, giving a much more appealing product than the current "telephone directory" style publication. I don't even think that separating the pub and brewery sections in this manner would dilute sales, as there are two completely different markets here.

The Good Beer Guide appeals, in the main, to people who travel around the country, for business or pleasure, and often a combination of both, whereas the Breweries Guide would have a particular appeal to CAMRA members, independent of whether they are dedicated tickers or not! Purchase of the Guide in its current format, by the general public, as opposed to CAMRA members, already makes up the bulk of the sales, and I am fairly confident most of these people buy the Guide for its pub listings, rather than the Breweries Section at the rear.

There is in my view a golden opportunity for CAMRA to break with tradition, do something a bit different and come up with two separate guides that will appeal to related, but still different audiences, and which by heading off down a new path will enhance, rather than detract from a format that has grown increasingly tired and repetitive over the years. I wonder whether the Campaign will be bold enough to grasp the nettle?

* 586 to be precise!

Friday 2 April 2010

The Good Friday Ramble

The turnout on this year's Good Friday Ramble was down on previous years; probably due in no small part to the weather. However, those of us brave enough to attend enjoyed a stroll that was largely rain-free, through some very pleasant Kent countryside, although it has to be said it was very wet underfoot. My boots leaked like a sieve, so I'll be surprised if I don't end up with trench foot after walking in what felt like two sponges!

Despite the forecast we were extremely lucky with the weather. The rain started just as we reached our lunchtime stop - the Bell & Jorrocks at Frittenden, and although peering out from the pub window showed that it was absolutely tipping down, by the time we left the pub the rain had virtually given over. Of course, the going was even wetter underfoot on the way back, but that wasn't going to spoil what had been an excellent day out.

The Good Friday Ramble is organised by Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA. Now in its 34th year, this annual event has become something of a tradition. Keen rambler, Dick Wilkinson has organised and led all but one of these walks, and whilst they are perhaps now slightly shorter and gentler than they were in the past, they are still very enjoyable. It is especially good to catch up with old friends, some of who we only see once a year.

When we meet up, we remark that we're all getting a little older, and that our children are now grown up, and some even have children of their own, but this doesn't deter us from enjoying the walks which have been held all over the county. We invariably start from a convenient station, and then walk three or four miles to an accommodating country pub, where we stop for a pub-lunch plus a few pints! After the lunchtime halt, we return to the meeting point, via a different, but similar length, route

This year's stop was the aforementioned Bell & Jorrocks Inn, situated in the small village of Frittenden. This unusual name dates back to the closure in the late 1960's of Frittenden's other pub, the John Jorrocks Inn. It's name was incorporated in that of the Bell. I had not been to the pub before, as this is not a part of Kent that I normally have cause to visit. I have to say that I was very impressed with what we found; a thriving village pub with a good choice of beers that included Black Sheep, Harveys and Loddon. The home-cooked food was also very good, and the steak and ale pud, accompanied by mash and vegetables was just the thing to both soak up the beer and also warm me up.

As I said earlier, the walk back to Headcorn station was largely in the dry, apart from the conditions underfoot. When we arrived back at Headcorn, a number of stalwarts disappeared into the George & Dragon. I wanted to get home though, if only to change out of my wet boots and enjoy a welcoming soak in the bath. Hopefully, things will be a little drier underfoot next year, but by then I should also have treated myself to a new (and waterproof) pair of boots!