Sunday 30 January 2011

Good Beer Guide 2012 Selection Meeting

Today our local CAMRA Branch held its selection meeting for the 2012 Good Beer Guide. We had deliberately chosen a pub a little off the beaten track, but one which was still readily accessible by public transport. That was the theory; unfortunately we had reckoned without Network Rail's plans for extensive engineering work this weekend, that would have turned a straight forward half hour rail journey, into an hour and a half bus and train marathon. Fortunately a group of us were able to travel over by car, whilst a few members who lived a bit closer were able to brave the rail-replacement bus service, so in the end we had a reasonable turnout of members.

The pub that was hosting our meeting was the Two Brewers in the picturesque village of Shoreham, to the north of Sevenoaks in the Darenth Valley. There are four pubs in the village, and in the past I always regarded the Two Brewers as the poor relation. How things have changed! When we entered the pub we were pleasantly surprised to see the alterations made by the couple who took over the pub some 15 months or so ago. The red-velvet, padded bench seats were gone, along with the jaded carpet and oppressive decor. Instead we were presented with a pub with a bright, modern contemporary feel, with a warm welcome from the landlord and his staff. In short we were really made to feel at home!

There were three cask beers on offer, Black Sheep Best, St Austell Tribute and Reverend James from Brains. Not stunning beers so far as some beer bloggers are concerned, but still a pretty reasonable selection in my book. Most of us went for the lunch option, prior to the meeting, and my chicken, bacon and leek pie was first class.

The meeting itself didn't kick off until 2pm and got off to a bit of a slow start. As is usually the case though, once the obvious candidates had been chosen there was quite a bit of wrangling over which other pubs should also be included. Eventually, we managed to whittle down the 40 pubs shortlisted to our allotted 22, and some two and a half hours later the meeting drew to a close.

For me though the best part of the day, apart from some good beer and food in the company of friends, was to find that the Two Brewers had been transformed into such a thriving, successful and vibrant pub!

Thursday 27 January 2011

Woodforde's Beer Review Week Pt. 2

The weather's turned cold again, so what better beer to go for on a frosty January night than a dark Winter Ale. Keeping with my Woodforde's review theme I've selected Norfolk Nog, a former champion beer of Britain. According to the back label the beer is "a smooth, reddish-black, rich and rounded Old Ale with a velvety texture." The label then goes on to say "The beer oozes dark and sweet roast malt flavours including hints of chocolate, treacle and liquorice."

That's enough of what the label says, so what do I think about the beer? Well, there was virtually no head when it was poured, but the beer itself seems reasonably lively. I wouldn't disagree with the brewer's description which probably sums the beer up as well, if not better, than I can. It's certainly been the best of the three beers I've sampled so far but, as with the Wherry, I imagine that this beer would be even better on draught. This aside, bottled Norfolk Nog is still a very good beer and, as I said earlier, is just right for a cold, late January night.

Next up is Admiral's Reserve, a 5.0% dark-amber coloured beer. Like the Nog, it poured with very little head, and taste-wise is rather sweet and malt-accented. Although I managed to pour a clear glass, the beer seems to have a slight yeastiness lurking in the background. I'm afraid this beer is rather too sweet for a Kentish lad like myself, and a touch more hops would certainly have not gone amiss! That aside, if you are someone who enjoys a malt-accented beer, then you would certainly appreciate this one.

So, as with the previous two beers, the first one gets the thumbs up, whilst the second gets the thumbs down from me. This now leaves me with just two Woodforde's beers to sample; Nelson's Revenge and the mighty Headcracker. At 7.0% though, I'll be taking it easy with the latter!

Sunday 23 January 2011

Elephant's Head Hook Green

On Sunday I took my promised walk out to complete the last of my surveys for the 2012 Good Beer Guide. It always amazes me that surveying has to be done so early in the year, but when you take into account the fact that the Guide is launched in October, in time for the Christmas book trade, then it begins to make sense.

The pub I visited was the Elephant's Head, situated in the tiny hamlet of Hook Green, close to Lamberhurst on the Kent-Sussex border. The pub is virtually impossible to reach using public transport, so the only alternative was to walk there, at least part of the way!

I set off from Tonbridge, in the company of two friends, catching the train as far as Wadhurst. From here we followed the myriad of minor roads and back lanes, through the rolling High Weald landscape of grassy fields and small tracts of woodland. Along the way we passed through the small, isolated settlement of Woods Green, eventually reaching our destination after an hour and a half's walking.

The pub was packed when we arrived, and we were lucky to get a seat, but after our walk we were glad of the chance to take the weight off our feet and enjoy a well-earned pint or two. The Elephant's Head is a Harveys tied pub which dates back to the late 15th Century, although the building has only been a pub since 1768! As befits an old building there are walls of bare sandstone and brick, a wealth of oak beams and a large open fireplace. There is a central serving area, with a modern conservatory to the rear, but we sat in a small alcoved area adjacent to the main entrance.

Harveys Best, Armada and Old Ale were the beers on offer; the Old being particularly good. Unfortunately the same could not be said of the Armada, and one friend ended up having to return his pint. It was promptly replaced with Best Bitter and so, this grip aside, we couldn't really fault the pub. Sunday lunchtime is obviously the busiest time, with the carvery proving extremely popular.

Looking around though we noticed that most of the diners were either drinking wine or soft drinks. The latter is perhaps understandable, given the fact that most of them had arrived at the pub by four-wheeled transport, but where were the beer drinkers? As I mentioned earlier, there were three cask beers on offer, and whilst two of them were fine, one definitely wasn't. When it came to asking the questions for the survey, the staff told us that they sometimes close early on Monday and Tuesday evenings, especially when there are few customers. All this points to a heavy reliance on the food rather than the drink trade, but if that is the price for the survival of rural gems, such as the Elephant's Head, then perhaps that is no bad thing!

Saturday 22 January 2011

Woodforde's Review Week Pt. One

Well it's time for my first review of some of the Woodforde's beers I've been sent to sample. First up is Sundew, a pale, golden ale, with an abv of 4.1%. It has a pleasant citrus aroma, with an equally pleasant hoppy-citrussy taste. It has a good hoppy finish, which balances the juicy maltiness from the Maris Otter barley used to brew the beer. According to the back label, the beer is named after the Sundew flower that grows locally in the Fens of East Anglia. This would be a good beer to enjoy chilled, on a hot summer's day. Like all the beers I've been sent, Sundew is bottle-conditioned. The yeast sediment was perhaps slightly loose, but I still managed to pour a clear glass of beer.

The second beer is Wherry; an old favourite in cask form. The beer poured with much more of a head than the Sundew, and is quite lively from the bottle-conditioning. It has a slight yeasty nose, perhaps because I didn't quite manage to pour a perfectly clear glass, although the yeastiness is overlaid by a zesty aroma from the hops. The beer itself tastes somewhat grainy, but this is balanced by a citrus-like hopiness. The beer is pale amber in colour, but whilst pleasant enough, has no features that really stand out.

I feel this is because beers of this strength (3.8%), don't really lend themselves to bottle-conditioning. This is not just a criticism of Woodforde's, but something I believe applies to all bottle-conditioned beers. I remain a fan of cask Wherry, but regrettably would not go out of my way to buy the bottled version.

So for the first two beers sampled, one gets the thumbs up, whilst the other perhaps the thumbs down. I look forward to moving up the gravity scale and tackling some of the stronger beers, later in the week.

Update on Lidl's

Following my recent post about our local branch of Lidl's being prosecuted for selling alcohol to underage drinkers, the case has now been dealt with by local licensing officials. The store has been allowed to keep its Liquor Licence, but on the strict understanding that they operate a "Challenge 25" policy.

The group claim that they already have a "Challenge 21" policy in place, but have been told they must apply the stricter guidelines. Tonbridge will now be the first Lidl's branch to operate "Challenge 25", but the German-owned chain has indicated that they now intend to roll this policy out across all their UK stores. The procedure is already in operation, as my 19 year old son found last night. He was asked to produce ID, which of course he was able to do, whilst paying for his beer at the checkout.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Woodforde's Norfolk Ales

Today, after two and a bit years of writing this blog, I received my first beers to review, courtesy of Woodforde's. Actually, I think it's their PR Agency I've got to thank, as they're the people who, after reading my blog, contacted me and asked if I'd like to review some of Woodforde's beers.

I must admit I'd almost forgotten about the matter, as it was a couple of months ago when the agency first contacted me, and when the beers didn't turn up in the run up to Christmas, as expected, I thought maybe they'd changed their mind. It was therefore a very pleasant surprise when a case turned up today at my place of work.

There's a total of six different beers to sample and write about, ranging from Wherry at 3.8%, through to Headcracker at 7.0%. In between there's such delights as Sundew, Norfolk Nog and Admiral's Reserve. I don't intend to crack the bottles open straight away, and when I do it will probably be a bottle or two a night. Look out though for my thoughts and observations, regarding these beers over the next few weeks.

It goes without saying, of course, that my reviews will be as objective as possible, and I will not let the fact that the beers arrived foc. influence me in any way.

Friday 14 January 2011

All Quiet on the Beer Front

A bit of a quiet time on the beer front at the moment, with not a lot happening. Mind you, January's always a dull month, and often a lean one as well, after the excesses of Christmas. We've got our Good Beer Guide Selection meeting at the end of the month, which promises to be a lively event. I've still got one more potential candidate to inspect; a real gem of a country pub. I don't want to drive there, for obvious reasons, so a friend and I are planning a walk out to it next weekend.

I've still got the beer I brought back with me from Bamberg to drink, plus a bit left over from my Christmas stache, so am unlikely to go thirsty at home! So until I've got anything more exciting to report or comment on, it's bye for now.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Final Musings about Bamberg

Despite it being the main reason for my visit, I decided to give the beer a bit of a rest during the first half of my second full day in Bamberg. Whilst I hadn't been drinking all that heavily, I was feeling a bit jaded. I don't know whether it was the bitterly cold weather, or a touch of the post-Christmas blues, but whatever the cause I thought a slight break from the booze, combined with a bit of exercise and fresh air, would do me the power of good.

I therefore decided to hike up to the Altenburg Fortress, the impressive former refuge of Bamberg's ruling Prince Bishops. The Altenburg Fortress is situated on the highest of Bamberg's seven hills, and you can read all about my visit, and see some of the photo's, by clicking onto my other blog, Paul's Beer Travels.

It was definitely a worthwhile visit, even if the walk back was a lot easier, and much quicker than the outward journey! I spent the afternoon shopping, including purchasing a mixed case of bottled beers from the famous Schlenkerla Tavern, when I arrived back in Bamberg, before heading back to my hotel. I had some packing, ahead of my departure the following day! Come late afternoon though I was definitely in the mood for a beer or three!

From my hotel, I headed across the Main-Donnau canal via the new bridge that was in the process of being built during our previous visit to the city. I made my way to Spezial, slightly surprised to find the place open as I was given to understand it was closed between Christmas and New Year. It was busy, but I managed to find a seat. This is something I really love about German pubs; the willingness of the locals to make room for newcomers. There is none of the spreading out, coats on benches, "this is my space" type attitudes that are all too common back home. The willingness of people to start chatting to strangers is another thing that really impresses me, and no doubt accounts for why pubs are still so busy and well used in the Federal Republic.

As I sat enjoying my glass of Rauchbier Lager, I was joined at the table by a group of newcomers. I soon got into conversation with one of them who turned out to be a railway worker from one of the surrounding villages. He had called into Spezial for a drop of refreshment whilst his wife went shopping in the city. He spoke no English, but my German was of sufficient standard for us to have a rudimentary conversation. He reckoned that beer was expensive in Bamberg compared to some of the villages, where it could be found for as low as 1.60 Euros a glass!

Later on I decided to give the seasonal Rauchbier Bock a try. It was dark in colour, very tasty and quite moreish, but I resisted the temptation for another. My new found friend's wife and son had arrived, and after they had consumed a quick drink the family departed, but not before the railway worker handed me over a bottle of Rauchbier as a parting gift. This was a really nice gesture and just serves to illustrate my point further about how friendly the local people are in their pubs.

On leaving Spezial I crossed the road to Faessla, another of Bamberg's famous brewery-taps, where again I managed to get a seat despite the large number of people inside. I ordered a Lagerbier to drink, plus a Wiener Schnitzel to eat. The latter seemed to take an awfully long time to arrive, which was very unusual for a German pub where service is normally extremely prompt. I mentioned this to the couple sitting next to me and their reply was that the waitress must have forgotten. They called her over, explained the situation, and a short while later my food appeared. It was worth the wait, and I switched over to the stronger and darker Zwergla.

By this time I was deep in conversation with my new found friends. It turned out they were from Essen, but were holidaying in Bamberg and actually staying at Faessla. After learning about my interest in beer, Olaf recommended the region to the east of Bamberg known as Fraenkische Schweiz (Franconian Switzerland) as a particularly good area for beer and pubs. I promised I would bear it in mind for a future visit to Germany. Before leaving Olaf and his wife treated me to a glass of Schnapps, which again illustrates the friendliness and generosity of the German people.

The following day was time for me to leave Bamberg. After a last look around I lunched at Schlenkerla where, once again, I spent much of the time conversing, in German, with someone who was a regular visitor to the pub. After some soup and a couple of Rauchbiers, it was off to the station for the train back to Nuremberg Airport and my flight home. It had been a good few days seeing Bamberg at a totally different time of year, and it was especially good to have the chance of sampling some of the seasonal beers.

As I've said before, all beer lovers should make a point of visiting this beautifully unspoilt city to experience its delightful and beery charms for themselves!

Lidl's in the Dock

It looks like our local Lidl's could be in danger of losing its alcohol license, if reports in the local press are true. According to this week's edition of the Kent & Sussex Courier (our local newspaper), the store is charged with two counts of selling alcohol to persons under the age of 18. Now the supermarket's alcohol license is up for review, and could be revoked.

This would be a great shame for many of the town's drinkers, especially those on low incomes, who enjoy picking up the odd bargain from the German company's store. I am often tempted myself by some of the bargains they have on offer from time to time, and it would be a pity if local shoppers are forced to lock elsewhere for their cheap booze.

As is usually the case, the store was caught following test purchases made during "sting " operations carried out by local Trading Standards Officers. No doubt they deliberately picked tall, mature-looking "volunteers" to carry out the test purchases in order to catch staff off-guard and not to arouse suspicion. Whilst no-one would condone under-age drinking, the use of "agent provocateurs" to entrap businesses in this fashion, really needs to be called into question.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Learning the Language!

Next Monday evening, after a lay-off over the Christmas period, it's back to my evening class where I'm learning German. The class I attend is for Level Four students, which is equivalent to GCSE "O" level. There's a small, mixed bunch of seven of us in the group, ranging from a couple of retired ladies to a young female student from Kazakhstan. In between there's a car-salesman, a middle-manager who's wife is German (he's got a definite advantage!), and of course, me!

I've actually got "O" level German, obtained during my schooldays back in the early 1970's. However, despite this and frequent trips to the Federal Republic where I always do my best to converse in German, I felt an evening course would be a good idea, especially to get some of the grammar sorted out properly.

The course is very good and a lot of fun. It's ably presided over by our tutor, Gabrielle who, whilst German herself, lives locally and is married to an Englishman. It's something to look forward to each week, especially on dark winter Monday evenings.

Of course, my main reason for attending the course is to improve my German language skills, something I feel is important given the fact I take regular holidays in the country. Another way to learn a language though is through books and tapes, or a combination of both. There are also plenty of on-line resources available to help with the process.

German at is particularly useful, and what's more it's free! There are also numerous pay-to-learn sites, most of which offer quite intensive courses, designed to get you up to speed in as quick a time as possible. For further information on one of these, click here!

Saturday 1 January 2011

First Full Day in Bamberg

Apart from the obvious places, such as Mahrs Braeu and Schlenkerla, I hadn't made any definite plans as to where else to visit during my stay in Bamberg, but as the first full day of my trip dawned cold and bright, a ride out to one of the surrounding villages seemed a good idea. My hotel was literally a stone's throw from the Central Bus Station, so after breakfast I availed myself of an all day ticket and jumped on a bus out to Memmelsdorf.

The latter is a large village, a few kilometres to the east of Bamberg. It is home to two brew-pubs, which of course was the main reason for my visit. I only really had time to visit one pub, so I chose the largest and the one with the widest range of beers. Drei Kronen was a very pleasant, solid-looking, yellow-painted establishment, with a number of rooms leading off from the central entrance hall. I entered the one straight ahead, and although all the tables were laid out for diners, the waitress was quite happy to serve me a beer. I selected the Stoeffla, which although described as a Kellerrauchbier, didn't taste all that smoky to me. It was pleasant enough though, but whilst tempted to stay for another, I needed to get back to Bamberg for my planned luchtime visit to Mahrs Braeu.

Two bus rides therefore saw me alighting in the suburb of Wunderburg, from where it was a short walk along to Mahrs. This excellent brewery tap is a firm favourite with visitors from Britain, and stepping inside it's not difficult to understand why. I made my way to the right hand room, complete with its low beamed ceilings and dark-stained wood panelled walls. There is also a traditional tiled stove, although the latter did not appear to be lit. To top this, the beer is served direct from a barrel perched behind the serving area.

On our previous visit, back in the summer, we had sat out in the small, shady beer garden, only venturing inside to use the toilets, so being able to soak up the traditional atmosphere inside the pub was a real treat. I was joined at my table by two visitors from outside the city. They spoke very little English, but I was able to converse with them in their native tongue without too much difficulty. To drink I enjoyed an Ungespundetes, plus the stronger Heller Bock (6.5%); both were in bottled form. For my lunch I had the local version of Leberkaes, which is called Fleischkaesse, with Spiegel Ei and Kartoffelsalat, and it was my enquiring about this dish that had brought me into conversation with the locals.

Before leaving the brewery I bought a selection of bottles from the brewery office and then caught the bus back into town. Later that evening I made the stiff climb up the Kaulberg to Greifenklau, which is the smallest of Bamberg's breweries.Greifenklau was the nearest brewery tap to the apartment we stayed in last summer, and on several occasions we ate there, in the shady beer garden at the rear of the pub. Unfortunately the room I chose this time turned out to be the wrong one. There were two quite noisy family groups inside, both of whom had fractious and badly behaved children with them. This was something new to me, as most German children I'd come across in the past seemed to exhibit exemplary behaviour. I therefore decided just to have the one drink there and eat somewhere else. The unfiltered Zwicklbier was very tasty though, so it was a shame to have to leave.

I made my way back down into the Altstadt and found my way through the narrow streets to Klosterbraeu. This is probably the most picturesque of Bamberg's breweries, although I have to agree with such illustrious writers as Ron Pattison and Gazza Prescott that the beers leave a lot to be desired. This aside I was hungry by now, so managed to grab myself a seat in the cosy restaurant. I ordered Schweinebraten (roast pork) with Kloss (dumpling) and Wirsing (purred cabbage). To wash my meal down I had a glass of Schwaerzla, a dark beer with an unpleasant phenolic taste, which reinforces the comments I've written above. I therefore just had the one, paid my bill and left.

On the way back I popped into Schlenkerla where I was able to sample the strong Christmas Doppelbock called Eiche. This dark 8.0% beer is brewed using malt smoked over oak wood, rather than the usual beechwood. It was very moreish, but at this strength I thought it unwise to have more than one! So ended my first full, and somewhat beery day in Bamberg.