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.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

A Walk in the Country

I spent a most enjoyable day out walking in the pleasant Kent countryside today, in the company of two friends and fellow CAMRA members. We walked out to a pub a little off the beaten track, and one that we don't often get the chance to visit. The pub in question was the Chafford Arms, in the small village of Fordcombe, roughly four miles from Tunbridge Wells.

It was from the latter town that we set off, shortly before midday, in the bright late October sunshine. Our walk took us up over Tunbridge Wells Common and then on into the suburb of Rusthall. From here our route took us across some undulating country, part patchwork fields and part woodland. We reached the pub around half one, having built up a bit of a thirst and also quite an appetite.

Things were somewhat different to when I last visited the Chafford. I'd walked there on that occasion, but that was back in June as part of the Wealdway Walk, and temperatures were in the low 30's. This time the weather was much more pleasant for walking, which probably explains why we made such good time in getting there.

The Chafford is unusual these days in still possessing a public bar. This was a bonus for walkers like ourselves, as it meant there was no need to remove our boots, (they weren't that muddy, but in a carpeted bar we would have felt obliged to take them off). The bar was fairly full, but most of the other diners were in the adjacent saloon, allowing us to grab a table without any difficulty. For drinks we had the choice of Larkins Traditional or Harvey's Best. My companions tried both, but I stuck to the low gravity (3.4%), but full-flavoured Larkin's; surely the ideal lunchtime pint?

We enjoyed the home-cooked food served up in the pub; my fish pie being especially tasty and filling, but the main purpose of our visit was to present landlord Paul and landlady Jackie with their Licensee's Pack informing them that the Chafford Arms has been selected for, and is in, the 2011 Good Beer Guide. The couple were obviously pleased with the pub's inclusion, something that is in my opinion, well deserved.

We took a slightly longer route back to Tunbridge Wells; arriving in Rusthall just as the heavens opened. We decided there was time for a quick farewell pint, so headed down to the Pantiles area of town. We called in at the Sussex Arms where we were pleased to see Skinner's Betty Stoggs on sale. It made a good pint to end on before catching the train back to Tonbridge and home.