Sunday 26 September 2010

Luck of the Draw

As several of you will know I've recently returned from a short break completing the Wealdway walk down in deepest Sussex. As well as enjoying some pleasant and unspoilt countryside we visited some excellent pubs. However the word "excellent" could not always be applied to the beers we sampled, many of which were tired and past their best. On several occasions I seemed to end up with the last pint out of the barrel; my friend's pint was alright but mine definitely wasn't!

You could say that this was just luck of the draw, and to a large extent it was, but there is no excuse for the tired and over-aged beer we were served in a number of establishments. One such pub, all flower be-decked and in a picture post-card setting seemed far more interested in the food trade, even though it still two separate bars. Another pub, listed in the Good Beer Guide no-less, was obviously doing something wrong in the cellar, as despite changing two of the casks whilst we were there, the fresh ones didn't taste particularly fresh! We were chatting to the bar-staff and they told us how they religiously cleaned the lines every week, and also pulled clean water through in between changing casks (we saw then doing this). Something though had allowed the beer to become tired and un-interesting, and I suspect insufficient use of a hard spile was the prime cause.

It was a shame in the latter case, as the staff were obviously keen to serve up a decent pint and to do things right. My friend thought I was being a bit fussy and at one stage I was almost beginning to doubt my own judgement, but at the end of the day it's what was in the glass that counted. Back in the days when breweries maintained large tied estates teams from the brewery's cellar department would visit the company's pubs to instruct staff in how to look after beer properly and how to serve up the perfect pint. With a few exceptions this just doesn't happen nowadays. although the role played by Cask Marque in improving the condition of the nation's beer has to be applauded.

I won't go so far to say that the poor quality of much of the beer I drank spoiled the holiday, but it certainly took the shine off things. It wasn't as though the pubs in question were quiet either; most seemed to be doing a reasonable trade. It just seemed to be a combination of ineptitude or just plain lack of training that prevented me from receiving the perfect pint on a number of occasions.

I'm certain that I'm not alone in experiencing beer that isn't quite bad enough to send back, but at the same time isn't exactly an enjoyable experience either. When one is paying £3 and upwards for a pint, one expects better!

First of the Season's Old

In a Harvey's pub in Eastbourne yesterday, at the end of our Wealdway walk, my friend and I were surprised to be told by the barmaid that Harvey's Old was on sale. This rich, dark winter beer has always been one of my favourites, and its appearance on the bar each year is always a welcome sight. However, Old is not normally seen until the beginning of October, so finding it on sale a week or so earlier, was a welcome bonus.

The pub we were in was no ordinary one, but was nothing less than the Lamb; by far and away the oldest pub in Eastbourne, and Harvey's show pub to boot. I had wanted to visit this pub for as long as I can remember, but on previous trips to Eastbourne there had either been insufficient time, or other commitments had prevented me from doing so. As I mentioned earlier, the Lamb is the oldest pub in Eastbourne, with parts dating back to the late 12th Century. Inside there are two traditional bars, plus an additional seating area leading off to the side. As befits a building of this age, there are plenty of exposed old beams, all genuine, plus a couple of ancient stone fireplaces. There is also an old, brick-lined and very deep well, now covered with a thick sheet of perspex. The Lamb is situated in the old part of Eastbourne, away from the more modern developments along the seafront. It stands next to the equally ancient St Mary's church, and is well worth a visit if you are ever in the area.

As for the Harvey's Old, it was in top form and one pint was definitely not enough! I look forward to many more over the coming months.

Saturday 18 September 2010

A Day in the Darenth Valley

I've not long returned from an excellent day out walking in the picturesque Darenth Valley; a day that saw us taking in a number of pubs, as well as enjoying the Kent countryside at its early autumn best.

Five of us met at Eynsford station and then, after descending down into the village and crossing the ancient stone bridge over the crystal clear waters of the River Darenth, headed off on a circular walk of just over five miles duration. We couldn't have chosen a better day for it, as with blue skies and almost wall to wall sunshine, it was the perfect day for exploring this hidden yet scenic corner of Kent. Our walk took us to the top of the other side of the valley, before descending once more and following the Darenth along its course back towards Eynsford.

By the time we arrived back in the village we were both thirsty and hungry, so made our way to the Malt Shovel where we were able to satisfy both of these needs. Harvey's Best, Young's Gold plus the dreaded Sharp's Doom Bar were the beers on offer. I opted for the Young's; the Gold being a new one on me. This proved to be a good lunchtime pint, pale golden in colour, as its name suggests, with a good hop bite to match. The beer proved the perfect accompaniment to the steak and ale pie I'd ordered and after having eaten and drank our fill it was time to move on.

Our next port of call was the Five Bells, just along the road. This was probably the most attractive, and traditional of the pubs we visited, especially as it effectively still had two bars. There was an impressive display of pump clips above the bar, but we must have caught the pub on an off-day as there was only Young's Bitter on offer; the Harvey's having recently sold out. Still, it was good to sit in this thriving village local which was much more a drinkers' pub than the somewhat food-oriented Malt Shovel.

A number of our party departed at this point; two of them heading off on holiday to the West Country. Against my better judgement I was persuaded by my two remaining companions to visit the Shep's pub just up the road. The Castle was pleasant enough inside, having had a bit of a contemporary makeover, but the only cask ale on offer, Shep's Late Red, proved to be undrinkable. The landlady replaced the beer with Master Brew which although not off, was bland in the extreme. I was glad I'd only ordered a half, but even so I ended up giving most of it to one of my friends. I really don't know what Shep's are doing with their beers these days, but without wishing to say "told you so!", I felt vindicated in not wanting to step inside a Shep's house in the first place.

There is one more pub in Eynsford, the Plough, situated back across the river, over-looking the ancient bridge and even older ford. We had passed there earlier in the day, when setting out on our walk. The front of the pub looked given over to dining, so we tried round the side instead. The Plough has been considerably enlarged from what must have been the original building, and on the outside at least, everything appeared to have been painted grey. Inside, things seemed to be on two levels. We asked where the bar was and were told it was to our left. One of my friend spotted a hand pump dispensing the dreaded Doom Bar; I thought I'd spotted a fount dispensing Pilsner Urquell! The techno-jazz-funk muzak emanating from the speakers was very off-putting though, and probably accounted for why most of the bright young things were sitting outside, sipping their glasses of chilled white wine, with the bottles keeping cool in their ice-buckets. Despite the presence of Pilzn's finest I was out-voted by my companions who wanted to move on.

We walked back up to the station, and travelled just two stops down the line to Otford, another picturesque village that, like both Eynsford and nearby Shoreham is home to four pubs. We visited two of them. The Bull is a Chef & Brewer outlet (not my favourite chain), but the pub itself is an interesting old building, parts of which date back to Tudor times. As it was a nice day we sat out in the garden at the rear of the pub enjoying some well kept Adnams Bitter, before moving on to another of Otford's pubs.

The Crown is a genuine free house, boasting two inter-connected bars and a wealth of old beams. The pub also hosts regular live music evenings. Harvey's Best was on sale alongside a House Beer brewed by Westerham Brewery. In addition there were two guest beers; Woodfordes Wherry and Hepworths Summer Ale. I sampled the Westerham offering plus the Hepworths, both of which were very good. We sat on the small terrace at the front of the pub soaking up the mid-September sunshine whilst watching the traffic negotiating the nearby roundabout which, incidentally, must be one of the few roundabouts in the country with its own duckpond in the middle!

Eventually and somewhat reluctantly, we decided it was time to go. A short walk back to the station, followed by a train ride back to Sevenoaks, where we were able to change trains and continue with our journey home, saw the end of what had been a most enjoyable day out. The Darenth Valley isn't all that far away from London and yet it is a world apart from the bustling metropolis. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity do take the opportunity of spending a bit of time there. It is well worth it.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Beer Gardens Re-Visited

Several weeks back I wrote a piece that asked the question "Would Bavarian-style beer gardens work here in the UK?" Despite my arguing strongly in their favour, the general consensus seemed to be that the concept would not work here. The main reason against the idea seemed to be the vagaries of the British climate, which doesn't exactly guarantee wall-to-wall sunshine. Another major point against the concept though seemed to be the inability of a small, but significantly vocal section of the drinking public to behave in a decent manner after they've had a few beers. Anyone that has been to Germany and drank in the beer gardens there, will know they are civilised, family oriented places, where drunkenness and loud, lurid behaviour just isn't tolerated.

Despite all this I still believe the concept could work here, and it seems I am not alone. Not only that, but someone has had the courage to put the idea into practice. I chanced upon this brave venture whilst trolling through various Beer Blogs. On Boak & Bailey's site, which I always find an interesting and entertaining read, I came across this post about a Bavarian-style beer garden in Richmond of all places.

The place is called Stein's, not the most imaginative name I know, but check it out by clicking on this link. The beer range appears to be confined to Paulaner Helles, plus a light and a dark Weiss Bier from Erdinger, but the menu looks authentically Bavarian. Stein's has been open since 2004, so presumably it must be doing something right. The website states that there is a large ex-pat German community in the area, so this may have something to do with the garden's popularity, but it is encouraging to see that someone has made the concept work successfully over here.

With autumn fast approaching it is unlikely I'll get the chance to visit Stein's before the bad weather sets in. Come the spring though I'm determined to give the place a try, but in the meantime if anyone else gets the opportunity to pop in, then do please let me know.

Saturday 11 September 2010

All Quiet on the Beer Front

Not a lot to blog about at the moment as, apart from last Monday's CAMRA committee meeting, I haven't really been anywhere. I've been busy again on the home front, pouring the concrete foundations for a garden wall last week, and making a start on laying the blocks this weekend.

I've also been on a bit of a "save it" campaign as well, as not only does ballast, sand and cement etc. not come cheap, but I'm due a visit to the opticians tomorrow, and new spectacles definitely don't come cheap either! On top of this, in just over ten days time I'm off with my friend and walking companion Eric, to complete the last section of the Wealdway long distance footpath.

Still Lidl's came to the rescue last week, so far as beer is concerned. The store was knocking out various bottles from the Sheps and Marstons ranges for just £1.00 each. Most of you will know I am not a fan of Sheps, and Hobgoblin doesn't float my boat either. However, bottled Pedigree at a quid a time is not to be sniffed at, and the higher strength of the bottled version makes it stand head and shoulders above its draught counterpart. Needless to say I invested in quite a few bottles before the price went back up this weekend. (You have your cheap lager, Cookie, I have my cheap "pong"!)

There's a treat or two in store in the fridge though. Sainsbury's are selling bottles of Fullers Bengal Lancer at two for £3.00, so I'm looking forward to trying one of them in a minute. I've also still got a bottle of Schlenkerla Rauchbier chilling; the last of several that I brought back from Bamberg earlier in the summer.

Next weekend there's a ramble organised by our local CAMRA branch, starting from the picturesque village of Eynsford in the Darenth Valley. This will be relatively new territory for me, as whilst I know Shoreham (the neighboring village) quite well, I am not at all familiar with Eynsford and its four pubs. It therefore promises to be an interesting and fruitful day out, as well as useful training for the much longer walk the following week.

Back to the present, and Bengal Lancer is, I am happy to report, a most excellent beer, and a good interpretation by Fullers of an Indian Pale Ale. At 5.3% abv, and bottle-conditioned as well, it still has that touch of "Cooper's Orange Marmalade", which is Fuller's signature "house-style", but is none the worse for that. I may have to invest in another couple of bottles tomorrow!