Tuesday 27 July 2010

Beer Gardens

Last year, Tandleman wrote an excellent piece about how civilised Franconian beer gardens were, and wondered whether they could ever work successfully here in the UK? At the time of his post, I had just returned from a trip to Munich, during which we visited a number of excellent beer gardens, ranging from small, almost intimate places such as Sankt Emmerams Muehle to massive establishments, such as Hirschgarten, the biggest beer garden in the world!

I commented at the time about just how good these places were, with people of all ages, both sexes and from all walks of life mixing happily, all enjoying good beer, good company and in a lot of cases some good food. I suppose good weather also helps, and this is perhaps more assured in central Europe than in the British Isles, where Atlantic weather fronts are inclined to make their influence felt on a much more regular basis. Leaving this consideration aside for one moment though, the one thing that really stands out, from a UK point of view, is the lack of drunkenness, anti-social or rowdy behaviour. In short, like Tandleman says, these places are not only civilised, but also very pleasant places to spend some time in.

This viewpoint was further reinforced during our recent trip to Bamberg where, although the number of actual beer gardens we visited was smaller, the same observations held true. Although quite large amounts of beer were being consumed, we witnessed no incidents of drunkenness or the sort of behaviour that is all too common back here in the UK. In fact on the first Friday we were there we walked back to our apartment alongside quite a large crowd of people who, like us, had just spent a very enjoyable evening at the Wilde-Rose Keller. The crowd was good natured and well-behaved and on that evening, as on all subsequent evenings we felt completely safe walking the streets.

Contrast this to back home when I often have to think twice about walking back along Tonbridge High Street on a Friday or Saturday night, and Tonbridge is quite a civilised place compared to some towns! Personally I believe it all boils down to cultural differences in relation to drinking. In Germany, for example, beer is still the universal drink for both young and old, male and female alike. Young people are not only generally a lot more respectful of the older generation, but what is also self evident is that they do not go out at the weekend with the sole intention of getting absolutely plastered! I don't ever recall seeing on sale such vile concoctions as WKD, Smirnoff Ice or any of the other alco-pops that seem so popular with young British drinkers, but this is possibly because when visiting the country we tend to restrict our drinking to beer gardens and the more traditional types of pubs.

Which brings us back to the question again, would beer gardens work over here? We have already worked out that the weather is probably against us, but then so is the behaviour that seems to have become the norm here over the last twenty or thirty years. However, if some brave entrepreneur were to open such an establishment, and restricted what was on offer to just good, locally produced traditional beer, with no mass-produced international fizz brands (although some decent, imported German or Czech draught beer would be ok.), no spirits and definitely no alco-ops, then perhaps they would be in with a chance. The place would have to offer good food of course, with plenty of attractive young waitresses to look after the tables; although they could also offer the self-service option that is available in Germany.

Whilst on the subject of service, over the course of the last few years I've visited a number of different European countries, and have dined in many pubs, beer halls and restaurants. I''ve never had to wait long for food in any of them, unlike here in the UK, where unfortunately poor service is all too common. To achieve an acceptable level of service though, it is necessary to employ sufficient staff to cope with demand. All too often the temptation in this country (and this applies to restaurants as well as pubs), is to manage and somehow "get-by" with the bare minimum number of people. It doesn't work, so anyone thinking of opening a beer garden here in Britain needs to take this on board. Provision for inclement weather would also be an important consideration, with a suitably equipped beer hall, offering the same facilities, attached to the beer garden.

So where should these British Beer Gardens be situated? The ideal answer is somewhere with an attractive outlook, and somewhere with a reasonable size population. Having said that, the concept could work in a more rural location, especially if it is well served by public transport. In urban areas, a spot on the edge of a park, or municipal garden springs to mind as a good starter, after all there are several excellent beer gardens in Munich's Englischer Garten. Locally I can think of a couple of locations that would be just perfect for such an establishment, but I am not going to let on where I have in mind until I have investigated the possibility of developing this idea further myself!!

Saturday 24 July 2010


The only other trip out of our holiday was a train ride to the village of Buttenheim. It was a 30 minute walk across town from our holiday apartment to Bamberg railway station which may explain, in part, why we didn't make any similar trips, but anyway, Buttenheim was just three stops away by local RB train. Although the station is signed as Buttenheim, it is actually in the village of Altendorf. Buttenheim itself was a good twenty minute walk away which would have been fine under normal circumstances, but not a lot of fun in the thirty degree heat!

Never mind, the trek was well worth it, as Buttenheim is home to two reasonably sized breweries. What's more St Georgen Braeu and Loewenbraeu are right next door to each other! We couldn't miss them as we turned into Marktstr., but unfortunately noticed that the St Georgen Braeu tap was closed (Ruhetag). Loewenbraeu though, was certainly open for business. We settled ourselves at a table in front of the brewery, and were soon enjoying cool, foaming Krugs of the company's Ungespundetes Lagerbier, along with a lunchtime meal of roast chicken, potato dumpling (Kloss) and purred cabbage. I asked the waitress whether other Loewenbraeu beers were available, but she said Ungespundetes was the only they had on draught.

We were keen to sample St Georgen Braeu beers, and after having read in John Conen's excellent Bamberg and Franconia Guide, that both breweries had bierkellers on the edge of the village, we followed his directons and soon found ourselves seated in the shady St Georgen Bierkeller, overlooking the village. At the keller we were able to sample both the brewery's Helles and their Kellerbier. I had drank the latter previously, back in the UK when the beer had featured as part of one of Wetherspoons International Beer Festivals. As we sat, whiling away the afternoon in the cool shade of the bier-keller. We noticed that it was slowly starting to fill up. I can think of few better ways to spend a baking hot summer’s afternoon.

Despite having consumed several half litres of beer, under a hot sun that day, I was keen to try some of the other Loewenbraeu beers. Their keller is opposite that of St Georgen Braeu, but on approaching it, we noticed it was closed. I suppose it made sense, seeing as their brewery tap was open, whilst that of their neighbour closed, for the situation with the kellers to be reversed.

It was probably just as well the keller was closed, and as we made our way slowly back to the station, I couldn’t help thinking fancy living in a place with two breweries next to one another. Wouldn’t that be like living in paradise? Particularly as I forgot to mention that all the beers we enjoyed that day in Buttenheim retailed at just 1.80 Euros per half litre. Bliss!

Thursday 22 July 2010


Our recent visit to Franconia, the northern part of Bavaria, barely scratched the surface Once a proud and independent state, Franconia was merged into Bavaria by Napoleon following his conquest and occupation of the area during the early part of the 19th Century. The inhabitants of this region however, still take their identity seriously, and Franconian flags and emblems were evident in many places during our travels.

The reason for barely scratching the surface was that we were based in the beautiful, world heritage city of Bamberg, and with nine breweries, and a host of unspoilt pubs within the town, there was precious little incentive to venture out into the surrounding countryside. (For more details of our experiences enjoying the products of Bambergs' breweries click here). The weather also played its part in keeping us within the city limits. With temperatures in the mid to high 30's, it was too hot to travel far, and all too often the temptation was to find a shady beer garden, and then sit down with a nice cool mug (or three), of the excellent Keller Bier sold in the majority of them.

We did venture out a couple of times though, and were impressed by what we saw. The first excursion was a short bus ride out to the village of Bischberg, just outside Bamberg. We called in at the unspoilt Zur Sonne pub, which brews its own beers. It was shortly before midday, and we sat outside, just across from a group of locals. The landlord brought our beers out to us; fresh Franconian beer at its best. It was priced at just 1.80 Euros for a half litre, and after enjoying the Helles we moved onto the Zwicklbier; both were good.

The idea in coming out to Bischberg, was to call in at Kaiserdom on the way back, but that plan was thwarted by the Gastatte being closed until early evening that day. Whilst waiting for the bus back though, I was reflecting on how can such enterprises at Zur Sonne survive? The pub itself looked up to date inside, although I gather it is of some considerable antiquity. There were a fair few locals enjoying the house-brewed beer, even at that time of the morning, but I couldn't help wonder how do such places keep going? As we stood at the bus stop, we saw the landlord go driving past on his forklift truck, with what looked like a metal bin full of spent grain on the forks. He waved in greeting to us, although he had only met him the once, and we naturally returned this courtesy. I don't know what the laws are in Germany regarding taking a fork-lift on the road, but I suspect they are less strict than they are here in the UK. Obviously mein host was taking one of the left over products of the brewing process to a local farm; it may have even have been his farm for all I know.

And there perhaps lies the answer. In this part of Germany, occupations such as farming and brewing, often go hand in hand, as they have done for centuries. Franconia is fortunate in still having many such breweries in operation, but, as with a lot of good things, their numbers are slowly declining. Back in the mid-90's, I bought a copy of Graham Lees's excellent Good Beer Guide to Munich and Bavaria. In a detailed introduction to the section on Franconia, Graham describes how villages of no more than a couple of thousand people, often have two or even three breweries. Many are little more than brew pubs, but alongside the brewery the family enterprise may well include a farm, a schnapps distillery, a butchers shop or even a slaughterhouse. He stated that whilst no single part of these family enterprises is profitable on its own, together they provide a reasonable income.

Even back then though, Graham was warning that many of the marvellous breweries he was describing were in danger of disappearing. Rising costs, changing habits and tastes, EU laws, and the inevitable march towards a more uniform and homogenised society had led to the closure of over 50 Franconian breweries. He stated that "one of them may have brewed your perfect pint" and bemoaned the fact that one such operation, now closed, had come close to brewing his perfect one. Unfortunately this closure process has gathered momentum. John Conen warned in the 2003 edition of his Bamberg & Franconia Guide that over 80 breweries had closed during the pre-ceding 15 years, and although he was hopeful that the closure rate had fallen off somewhat, I found whilst researching for our trip that quite a few of the breweries mentioned in Graham Lee's guide were no longer in production. The closure of the substantial Maisel Brewery in Bamberg, a couple of years ago, is a case in point

It is not all doom and gloom though. We spent our last night in Bamberg at the excellent Greifenklau Brauereigasthof. Whilst there I picked up an English language edition of a guide to what are known as Privateur Braugasthoefe, (privately-owned breweries that provide accommodation). This informative, and well illustrated publication lists 69 such establishments, primarily in Germany, but with a few in neighboring Austria and Denmark. Most are family run, and all pride themselves on producing good beer and serving it alongside good food.

Hopefully more breweries will join this worthwhile organisation, and the 2011 edition will feature more Franconian members. In the meantime I'm already planning my next trip to this beer lovers paradise.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Bamberg - An Introduction

We arrived home from our trip to Bamberg, in the early hours of Saturday morning. After temperatures in the mid-30's all week, England felt decidedly cold. Being a glutton for punishment I ended up helping out at the SIBA South East Beer Festival, held at our local rugby club the same evening - but that's a different story!

Bamberg certainly lived up to its expectations and I hope to post a more detailed account of our trip over the next week or so, Suffice to say we enjoyed some excellent beers at prices ranging from 1.80 Euros (out in some of the surrounding villages), to 2.30 - 2.50 Euros in Bamberg itself.

It's hard to single out any one beer, or any one pub. or bier keller, but Mahrs Brau Ungespundet, Spezial Rauchbier Lager and Ambrausianum Helles were all good, as was the incomparable Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen. Particular thanks should also go to Tandleman for recommending the excellent Spezial-Keller, but we also enjoyed the nearby Wilde Rose Brau Keller, plus the bier-garten behind Greifenklau's pub-cum-brewery.

All this combined with a beautiful and unspoilt city, friendly people and Mediterranean-like weather, made for an excellent holiday. I can't wait for a return visit!

Sunday 4 July 2010

The Train Now Standing at Platform One

I wrote in a previous post that it is often easy to over-look attractions on ones own doorstep, in favour of those from further afield. After this point was confirmed, during my recent walk along part of the Wealdway, it was further reinforced during last night's CAMRA social.

Our Social Secretary had arranged a trip for us on one of the Spa Valley Railway's Real Ale and Fish & Chip Special trains. For the uninitiated, the Spa Valley Railway operates part of the former Tunbridge Wells West to Eridge route. The railway plans to open right through to Eridge later this year, but for the time being trains terminate and turn round at Groombridge, on the Kent-Sussex border. The line originally connected with Tunbridge Well's other (and now only station, Tunbridge Wells Central), and closed comparatively recently, back in 1985. The closure was forced on a British Rail management that had been starved of cash by the Thatcher administration. For the sake of a paltry couple of million, this useful diversionary line was axed and the large station site at Tunbridge Wells West sold for re-development. A massive Sainsbury's supermarket now occupies the site.

A group of rail enthusiasts saw things differently though and slowly, and it must be added with some assistance from Sainsbury's, raised sufficient funds to purchase the trackbed, along with a former engine shed at the West station, which now forms their headquarters. Twenty-five years on and the Spa Valley Railway is now a major tourist attraction, and if all goes to plan will soon be linking back up with mainline services at Eridge, on the Uckfield Line.

We were therefore glad to join the railway on their Fish & Chip Special last night, which also had the added bonus of serving a drop of the real thing. Sixteen of us boarded the 18:45 service and after being directed to our comfortable, ex-BR mainline carriage, made our way to the buffet car, Kate, to sample the liquid refreshment that was on offer. The two beers available were Larkins Traditional, plus Best Bitter from the newly opened Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery. Both of course were racked bright, and were probably slightly on the warm side, but at £2.70 a pint, coupled with a comfortable seat to watch the Kent and Sussex countryside pass by whilst enjoying the beers, this represented excellent value for money.

As we slowly steamed out of the West station, the train staff brought round our pre-ordered fish and chips, safely stored in polystyrene enclosed trays to minimise heat loss. We had just sufficient time to finish our meal when the train pulled in to Groombridge. The package gave the option of remaining on the train and enjoying two return trips back to Tunbridge Wells, or alighting at Groombridge and then waiting for the final return train at 20:25. This was the option our party went for as it allowed time to walk up to one of the best, and least spoilt pubs, in our branch area, the 16th Century Crown, that overlooks the village green.

En route we passed Groombridge's other remaining pub, the Junction Inn, which also looked a welcoming prospect, but unfortunately our itinerary didn't allow sufficient time to call in. Groombridge is unusual in that it straddles the Kent-Sussex border. The older part of the village is on a steep hill on the Medway Valley, overlooking the Green, whilst the slightly newer part is just across the river, in Sussex. The Crown is part of a row of attractive brick and tile-hung cottages that overlook the Green, with a well-worn brick path passing in front. It has a timeless feel to it that continues when one steps inside.

On a beautiful June evening though, most people were sitting on benches and tables outside, and after ordering our beer, we joined them. Harveys Best and Hepworths Pullman were the beers on offer. I stuck to the latter, which was in excellent form. Unfortunately there was only time for a couple of pints before we had to make our way back to the station where the train was waiting to transport us back to Tunbridge Wells. It is quite a stiff climb back up to the railway's terminus, forcing the steam locomotive to work hard as it pulled our train up the steep gradient.

The night was still quite young, so we made our way to the Pantiles, which is the oldest, and best known area of Tunbridge Wells. I am pleased to report that this part of town was buzzing, with crowds of people sitting out at tables outside the numerous cafes and bars along the famous Colonnade walk. We headed for a bar called the Ragged Trousers; a pleasant, single roomed establishment that, like the pavement outside, was absolutely heaving. The only drawback was that the staff had run out of glasses, so we had to settle for plastic ones (ugh!). The Larkins Traditional and Ringwood Boon Doggle though were both very good.

Our final port of call was the Sussex Arms. I have written about the Sussex in a previous post, so I won't repeat myself here. Although the pub is just round the corner from the main part of the Pantiles, tucked away down a side mews, it was quiet compared to where we had just come from. Although the Sussex is a Greene King pub, here were a couple of guest ales on, including Larkins Traditional (again) at £2.50 a pint from a cask perched up on the bar, and Bomber County, from Tom Wood. I opted for the later, which is a dark, full-bodied 4.8% bitter. Later I tried a pint of Greene Kings World Cup offering. I didn't bother making a note of the beer's name, but it was pleasant enough all the same. The bar staff seemed grateful for our patronage, especially as the pub was quiet. The beers we sampled in the Sussex were in fine fettle, so we were quite happy to linger there.

So ended a very pleasant evening that saw us visiting two of the top tourist attractions in Tunbridge Wells. As I said at the beginning of this post, it is all too easy to miss things on one's own doorstep, and once again last night's outing proved the folly of ignoring this observation.

Thursday 1 July 2010


We're off to Bamberg in just under a week. It's the place that's been on my beer-places-to-visit wish-list for as long as I can remember, but to date I've only managed a quick stop-off there whilst on a "Christmas Market" coach trip, a couple of years ago. As time was limited I only managed to visit Schlenkerla, which needless to say was superb.

Now we're finally going to be spending some time in Bamberg I'm eager to sample as many beers and visit as many pubs as possible.. I've read about other legendary breweries in the city, such as Faessla, Mahrs Brau, Klosterbraeu, Kaiserdom, Spezial etc., and am going armed with a copy of John Conen's Guide to Bamberg & Franconia. I've also downloaded some of Ron Pattison's highly informative pages, together with information from The Online Beer Guide to Bamberg & Franconia, so I've done a fair amount of groundwork.

What I'm particularly interested in though are personal recommendations from other beer enthusiasts, as to the best pubs, beer gardens and beers in Bamberg, as well as suggestions as to which are the best places to visit in the surrounding area. We are only staying a week in the city, and want to make the best use of our limited time there, so please get in touch.