Monday, 30 August 2010

Halfway to Paradise

After a week of wind and rain, Saturday dawned clear and bright. It was still a bit windy, but a least the sun was shining and, what's more, there was a beer festival to attend. I have posted before about the Halfway House at Brenchley, and its beer festival, but the day in general, and the event in particular, were both excellent so I am going to write about them both again.

Five of us set out to walk from Paddock Wood station following a by now familiar and well-trodden route, climbing up through apple orchards, with the odd plantation of pears thrown in for good measure. We were rewarded with several impressive views across the Weald towards the Greensand Ridge and the North Downs, before dropping down into Brenchley and the Halfway House.

When we arrived the festival was in full swing, and we were greeted by other local CAMRA members and friends who had either walked from a different direction, or who had travelled by bus. We grabbed a table outside in the extensive garden and then got stuck into the impressive range of beers that landlord. Richard Allen had laid on. According to the programme there were 75 beers in total, although not all were available at any given time. Even so there were plenty to choose from, and plenty to please even the most discerning of palates.

The beer had been carefully selected by Dave Aucutt of East-West Ales, and Dave joined us on our table for a while. We had an interesting discussion about SIBA, breweries and the state of the industry in general, and Dave recommended a number of beers to try. I have to take my hat off to him for one recommendation in particular; namely Highland Dark Munro, an absolutely stunning dark ale, with just the right balance of roasted malts and hop bitterness, and a worthy past Champion Beer of Scotland. Other beers that impressed me were Harvest Pale from Castle Rock, which was Champion Beer of Britain at this year's GBBF, plus Elland Nettlethrasher. I also particularly enjoyed Hawkshead Bitter and Loddon Bamboozle.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, we were lucky with the weather which stayed dry right until the time we left. There was a fantastic atmosphere about the place, with a good mix of people all enjoying the beer, the sunshine, the barbecue plus each other's company. There was something quintessentially English about the festival set in this extensive pub garden surrounded by some attractive rural scenery. For me, and I'm sure many others, it formed the perfect end to what has been a really good summer.

We left some time after seven, walking back to Paddock Wood by a slightly shorter route across an abandoned golf course. Like with the outward journey, we have walked this route several times, and each time have noticed how nature is slowly, but surely taking over what was once a carefully manicured and artificial landscape. We had the odd light shower on the way back, but nothing worth stopping and putting our rain-coats on for. A bag of chips, smothered in salt and vinegar bought in Paddock Wood, and ate on the way to the station, was just right after our walk, and formed a fitting end to what had been an excellent day out. Yet again Richard had come up trumps with a beer festival that just seems to get better each time. Long may they continue!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Hoping for an Indian Summer

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article about what a good summer it's been. Well that proved to be the kiss of death, as ever since the weather's gone steadily downhill, culminating in last weekend's heavy rain and strong winds. The only plus factor is the rain has at last managed to soak into the ground and it's no longer like concrete. This has at least allowed me to dig a trench for a small retaining wall I am planning to construct in the garden.

The weather also hasn't been that conducive to beer drinking. Those warm balmy evenings we spent sitting out in Spezial and Wilde Rose Bier Kellers back in Bamberg, now seem a distant memory, even though it was only six weeks ago. Hopefully the recent poor weather is only a temporary blip and normal service will soon be resumed.

At home, on the beer front, our local Lidl's was selling botttles of Young's Bitter for just £1.19 each. At such a bargain price I just had to grab a few bottles, and was pleasantly surprised to see that this is a bottle-conditioned beer. At 4.5% it's nothing like what I remember Young's Bitter tasting like, but it's a well-hopped, amber coloured beer that drinks well, despite there being precious little evidence of bottle-conditioning ie. virtually no sediment at the bottom of the bottle.

I also enjoyed a bottle of Hook Norton Gold the other night. I think my beloved bought it in Sainsburys; if so I will have to go and buy a few more, as it was an excellent 4.2% beer, gold in colour, as its name suggests and according to the blurb on the back of the bottle it is "a pale, delicately fruity and refreshing, moderately bitter with a spicy and noble aroma." It is also the first Hook Norton beer brewed using American Willamette hops. The above description doesn't really do it justice, but do try a bottle if you come across it

My faith in decent beer was further restored last Sunday when I called into our local JDW outlet and spotted two W.J.King & Co beers on sale. Summer Ale is an old favourite, whilst their new 5.2% IPA proved to be a fine example of the style, and everything a good IPA should be. I read that Ian Burgess, former second brewer at Harveys, together with his business partner, Nigel Lambe, have recently taken over the reins at Kings, following the decision of Bill King to sell up and retire. Bill, of course, is a member of the King family, and former director of the late lamented, and much missed, King & Barnes. We wish him well in his retirement and also wish the new owners every success with their new plans for the brewery.

On the away beer front there's the Halfway House beer festival to look forward to this coming weekend. A group of us will be walking over, as we've done on a number of occasions now. With around 75 beers to sample, all carefully chosen by Dave Aucutt from East West Ales, it promises to be an excellent festival., and if May's event was anything to go by it's likely to be a sell out.

Finally, I've booked time off for the third week in September, and sorted out the accommodation for the final stage of the Wealdway walk. This should take Eric and I from Five Ash Down, just north of Uckfield, to Eastbourne. There's some good drinking to be had along the way, including a lunchtime stop at the King's Head, East Hoathly - home of the 1648 Brewery. We're hoping the weather really will get back to what we should be expecting this time of year, and that we get an Indian Summer. After all there's nothing more miserable than trudging mile after mile through the wind and rain, even though there might be a good pub at the end of the road!

Friday, 13 August 2010

A Night on the (Pan)tiles

There has been much comment recently about the demise of the pub trade, with some commentators even suggesting that the industry is in terminal decline. Well last night in Tunbridge Wells there was precious little evidence of any drop off in trade, in fact business could be said to be booming.

I met up with some of my friends from CAMRA, for an evening billed as "Jazz on the Pantiles". For those not in the know, the Pantiles is the oldest, (and some would say poshest) part of Tunbridge Wells. It is an area of raised colonnaded walks, with some characterful old buildings around the area where the "health-giving" waters, that gave the town its name, and which made its reputation, issue forth from the ground. Every Thursday evening, throughout the summer, a jazz band performs under the small bandstand halfway along the the Pantiles. Whilst I'm not a huge fan of jazz, live music, especially when its performed out of doors on a warm summer's evening, is an obvious attraction, especially where there's the possibility of a beer or two involved as well.

Half a dozen or so of us therefore met up outside a bar called the Ragged Trouseers, a pleasant, but fairly non-descript conversion of a former shop. When my friend Don and I arrived, having travelled over from Tonbridge, the rest of the party was already waiting for us and, more importantly, had saved us some seats, under the colonnade just along from the aforementioned bar. The place was already busy, right along the colonnade towards the bandstand, but as the Ragged Trousers was serving its beer in disposable plastic glasses, we followed our friend's advice and popped along to the Duke of York instead. Here we purchased our pints (Harvey's Best for me and Doombar for Don) in proper glass glasses, which we then hung onto for the rest of the evening.

The Duke of York is a fine old traditional pub that has thankfully reverted to its original name following a spell when it was somewhat incongruously known as "Chaplins". However, as it is sited a little way back from where the main action was occurring, we rather cheekily walked back along with our pints and joined our friends outside the Ragged Trousers. We then purchased subsequent pints here, transferring the contents from the awful plastic containers into proper glass ones. (We did all have the courtesy to return them to the Duke of York though at the end of the evening!).

As I said earlier, the entire area was getting busier and busier, in fact there were so many people present that the sound of the jazz band could barely be heard. The Ragged Trousers appears to be the "in place" for affluent Tunbridge Wells youth; most of whom seemed to be university students home for the long summer break. It was a job to get served at times in the "Trousers", with people three or four deep at the bar, but it was worth it, especially for the Hop Back Summer Lightning and Larkins Traditional. The attractive young barmaids, as well as many of the female clientele, also proved an added distraction whilst waiting to be served. With so many people taking their drinks outside, I could fully understand why the pub were using disposable plastic containers, even if I detest them.

The atmosphere outside was pleasant and good natured, with everyone having a good time, chatting to their friends and enjoying their drinks. There was not the slightest hint of any trouble; the crowd remaining good natured and friendly at all times. In fact it was the closest I have come yet to the atmosphere and ambiance of a German Beer Garden, although perhaps without the continental temperatures, and it reinforced my view that this concept could still work over here. (See my recent post on Beer Gardens).

This was my second experience this summer of drinking on the Pantiles, see Train now Standing, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Unfortunately there is nowhere similar to this where I live in Tonbridge, but on the plus side, Tunbridge Wells is only a short train ride away. I will therefore probably be making a few more trips over to the "Wells" before the summer is out.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Summer 2010

Weather wise it's been a brilliant summer so far, in fact it's been the best I can recall for many a year, certainly down here in this small corner of the Kingdom. I've spent many a long evening out in my garden working on projects like extending my patio, moving my brick-built barbecue and, of course, erecting my new summer-house-cum-brewery.

Back in 2001 when my wife and I were going through the final stages of negotiating the lease on our off-licence, and were in the advanced stages of planning out our new business, I knew that the hardest thing to give up would be those long summer evenings spent pottering outdoors. I was right; running a retail business like an off-licence requires 100% commitment, and evenings are when booze shops do most of their trade. When we eventually sold the business, back in 2007, the garden was looking like a jungle, much of the house was in need of re-decoration and I was in need of a long overdue holiday. One makes these sacrifices, and looking back I would say they were worth it. We manged to sell the business for a reasonable profit, and I was able to go back to my old profession working as a Quality Controller in industry.

As you can imagine then, I appreciate my summer evenings out of doors even more these days, and although the weather's taken a bit of a nose dive over the last couple of days, there's still a fair bit of summer left. Sunny days, and long light summer evenings ought to make for good beer drinking. I haven't seen any figures yet, but I would like to hope that beer sales, especially those in pubs, are on the up. I've done my fair share of beer drinking over the past few months, most noticeably on holiday in Bamberg, but also in some delightful pubs whilst walking the Wealdway long-distance footpath back in June. There's also been quite a bit of activity on the local CAMRA front, what with the two beer festivals we've helped out at, plus my visit earlier this week to the Great British Beer Festival.

Ironically it's raining outside, not heavy rain, but enough to confine me indoors. I'm watching Gardeners World as I write, and they're showing off some stunning gardens. I've obviously got a lot more work to get mine looking anything remotely like the ones featured on the programme. Hopefully the summer will be back before long so I can continue to enjoy quite a few more long evenings outdoors before the nights start drawing in.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

GBBF 2010

I spent a most enjoyable nine hours at the Great British Beer Festival yesterday (Tuesday). The place was heaving right from the start, but we managed to grab a table and based ourselves there. The range and diversity of beers on sale was absolutely staggering, but unlike my companions I went armed with a plan of sorts. (Actually the Beer List on the GBBF website proved extremely useful, as it allows the user to construct their own list. A scan through the GBG beforehand, saved a considerable amount of time trying to decide what to go for from the programme). The plan paid off not just in terms of time saved either, as all the beers I tried were good (although some were obviously better than others!). Contrast this to my friends' rather more haphazard approach, which resulted in the odd duff beer, and the benefits of forward planning become even more apparent. (I better stop crowing as I know at least one of my companions reads this blog!).

Although I bumped into quite a few people I know, there were just so many people in the hall that it was impossible to seek out everyone. Apologies to any beer bloggers who were there that I didn't manage to catch up with. Some of the bars were extremely busy as well, and at one point I gave up trying to get close to the Bier Sans Frontieres Bar, although I did managed a few beers on a return visit, later on in the proceedings.

As well as good beer, there was some good food on sale. The pasties from the Crusty Pie Company were tasty and filling, and good value too at £2.50. Full marks too to Pipers Crisps, which were excellent. I couldn't resist grabbing some of the tasty free samples they had on the front of their stand every time I walked by (which was quite frequently), but I did buy a few bags to take home as well. The Green Thai Curry I finished on, nearly finished me with its intense heat, and my companions watched with amusement as I broke out in a sweat whilst tucking into it. (I'll go for the Red one next time!)

As for the beers sampled top marks go to Thornbridge for their excellent Kipling described as a "South Pacific Ale", but absolutely wonderful. This was closely followed by Saltaire Cascade Pale, and Marble Manchester Bitter; both fine beers, and with the latter, you could really smell the hops in the glass. Elland Beyond the Pale also hit the spot. I didn't get to sample as many dark beers as I would have liked, although Lancaster Black and Woodlands Midnight Stout weren't bad.

I had mixed feelings about BSF as although they had some absolutely stunning beers on offer, somehow I think that half the pleasure in Beer Hunting is actually travelling to the places where the beers originate, and enjoying them in their native setting. Having said that I did try the 3.8% Bernard Svetle Pivo, which I missed during my trip to Prague last winter, and also the Josef Greif Anna Festbier from Franconia. (We missed Anna Fest by a couple of weeks during our recent visit to the region.)

Unfortunately, owing to work and family commitments, Tuesday will be my one and only visit to GBBF this year. This is a great shame, as not only are there dozens more beers that I would like to sample, but also just being there is such an integral part of the whole GBBF experience. I would also like to go back armed with a large rucksack and stock up on some of the many excellent and hard to obtain bottled beers that are on sale there, although I'm not sure my bank manager would agree that this is a good idea! Another reason why several visits are a good idea, is so not to waste all the important information gathered on the initial one. (Getting acclimatised to the layout, finding where everything is etc,, as by next year you will have forgotten where everything is, and the layout will probably have changed as well!)

For those of you who are still planning your trip there, all I can say that it is an absolutely stunning festival that just seems to get better each year. Enjoy yourselves; I wish I was going with you!!!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Three Beer Festivals

I've been back from Bamberg just over two weeks now and already I've attended two local beer festivals. On top of that I'm off to the Great British Beer Festival next week, so is it a case of beer festival fatigue?

Not at all, especially with regard to the two local events, both of which were good in their own ways. The first festival was that of SIBA South East, which was held at our local rugby club - Tonbridge Juddians. I was only able to make the Saturday evening session, where I was manning the CAMRA stand, but it turned out to be an excellent evening and I bumped into quite a few people I know.

This is the 4th SIBA Festival I have been involved with; the first two were held at the Hop Farm; a large complex near Paddock Wood that boasts one of the largest groups of oast houses anywhere. Until a couple of decades ago it was known as the Whitbread Hop Farm, and was where a large proportion of the company's hops were grown. Whitbread of course are no longer involved in brewing, and apart from a couple of "show fields", hops are no longer grown commercially at the farm. Staging large scale events, such as the War & Peace Show, or hosting big names from the world of show-biz such as Elton John and Bob Dylan, is what the Hop Farm is about these days, but despite its obvious connections with the brewing industry, somehow as a venue for a beer festival it didn't quite work out. (I could have told the organisers that, having been involved with two failed CAMRA Festivals there back in the early years of the new century, but that's a different story!). Lots of beer ended up being poured down the drain, but as the beers are all supplied by SIBA members, and at their own expense, the losses probably weren't too high.

Last year the event, which is a chance for all SIBA members in the south east to show off their wares, moved to a marquee housed behind Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club; an excellent venue overlooking Tonbridge Sports Ground and, of prime importance, centrally located. This year's event built on what had been achieved the year before, and was much better publicised. What's more, entry was free and that seemed to make all the difference. By the time I arrived on the Saturday the place was really buzzing, and some of the beers had already run out. The organisers from both SIBA and the rugby club seemed pleased with the way things had gone, so hopefully we'll all be back there next year. Just so people know what they missed, there were over 100 beers on sale, from around 30 breweries. Several of these, including Flack Manor, Old Dairy, Redemption, Tonbridge and Wantsum are real newcomers on the scene, but it was good to be able to sample their beers.

Yesterday I spent the evening at another rugby club and another beer festival! This time it was the turn of Sevenoaks Rugby Club to host an event organised by Sevenoaks Lions. The Lions had hosted a similar event the previous year in the town's Stag Theatre, so it was quite a bold step for them to relocate from the town centre to a venue a bit further out.

The beer range was nowhere near as extensive as SIBA's, but did include a few old favourites such as Nethergate Augustinian and RCH Pitchfork and Old Slug Porter. There were also four beers from Whitstable brewery there, which was a bonus so far as I was concerned. The club-house was a superb venue for a beer festival, with views out across the playing fields to the wooded countryside beyond. A game of cricket was taking place and that, combined with a fine summer's evening, gave it that quintessentially English feel. The downside was there seemed to be a heck of a lot of beer left over. There had been a steady footfall throughout the early part of the evening, but it really needed a lot more people to have turned up and help drink the place dry.

I hope next year the organisers will return to the rugby club. I'm sure given more publicity, the event will be a great success.

That brings me onto the final festival of the trio, and the grand-daddy of them all. I am talking, of course, about the Great British Beer Festival which starts on Tuesday at Earl's Court. GBBF needs no introduction except to say it is a "must attend " event for all serious beer drinkers. I'll be there on at least one of the days, and hope to bump into a few familiar faces. See you there!