Sunday 30 December 2012

The Old House - Classic, Basic, Unspoilt & Still Trading

On Saturday I had the pleasure of visiting, for the second time this month and the third time this year, one of only three National Inventory Pubs in Kent, and one that is just a short bus ride away from my home in Tonbridge.

The pub I am referring to is the Old House, at Ightham Common, a small settlement just off the A227, and close to the much larger village of Ightham. If ever a pub deserved the accord  "Classic, Basic and Unspoilt" then the Old House does, and what also makes the pub unusual is that it is effectively a "hobby pub", run by one of the two owning brothers, as a sideline to the family accountancy practice.

I included a write-up on the Old House in a post written back in August, so I won't bother repeating what I wrote here. Also the following link to CAMRA's National Pub Inventory website contains a much more detailed description of the pub, together with Michael Slaughter's excellent photo's of the interior, which are far better than anything my camera-phone could produce.

Anyway, on  Saturday myself plus four fellow  CAMRA members boarded the 222 Tonbridge to Borough Green service, which took us on a scenic detour through the Kent countryside, (admittedly not looking its best at this time of year). Alighting at the top of the hill leading down into Ightham Common, it was a short walk down to the pub, which can be found in Redwell Lane. The Old House is an un-pretentious looking building, dating in part from the 17th Century. Although there is no sign outside, it has the look of a pub, and stepping inside is like stepping back to what pubs were like in the early half of the last century.

We settled for the larger, and more basic, main bar on the left. Normally, at this time of year, the bar is heated by an open log fire, burning brightly in the massive ingle-nook fireplace, but being a relatively mild day, landlord Nick Boulter had not lit the fire when we arrived, although he did do so later. As usual there was an  interesting range of beer on, including Dark Star Hophead, alongside Tripple fff Comfortably Numb and, a must try beer at this time of year, Inncognito a Port Stout from plain Ales of Salisbury Plain. All the beers are gravity dispensed from casks kept in a temperature-controlled room, just behind the bar.

For a while, apart from a couple of elderly gentlemen in the smaller, and more comfortably furnished right hand bar, we were the only drinkers in the pub, but it didn't take too long before other customers started arriving. Our time in the Old House was slightly limited as, owing to the vagaries of the bus timetable, there was a bus back to Tonbridge departing just after 2pm, but then there wasn't another until 5pm. Whilst all of us would  have been quite content to remain where we were, Nick shuts up shop around 3pm. I should explain he doesn't live there, even though as I understand things this was his childhood home. The Old House is therefore a "lock-up" pub as well as a hobby one!

We still had nearly two and a half hours though to enjoy the pub and its excellent beers I started with a pint of Golden Braid, an excellent 3.7% golden ale from the often overlooked and,  at times underrated Hopdaemon Brewery. In business at Newnham, near Faversham since 2000, Hopdaemon produce a fine range of beers, most of which have a mythical theme to their names. Brewer and owner, Tony Prins, a New Zealander by birth, sometimes used to deliver his beers in person back in the days when I had my off-licence, and I have always found them to be eminently drinkable. They are available in both cask and bottled form, and the latter can often be found in local branches of Sainsburys and Waitrose. The brewery sometimes appears eclipsed by some of the newer arrivals on the scene, but Tony deserves credit for his use of  fine aroma hops in his beers and for his passioante approach to his craft.

I moved on to the Hophead for my second pint, but whilst I am a huge fan of Dark Star beers I have to say that, on this occasion, the Golden Braid definitely had the edge. Some of my companions tried the Comfortably Numb, whilst others gave the Young's Special a go. Unless there is nothing else available, the latter is a beer I tend to avoid, especially when I remember how richly, fruity and hoppy this beer used to be back in its Wandsworth heyday. When I compare it to the bland, thin apology for a beer that it has become today, then I feel sad at the demise of a former iconic beer, sacrificed on  the altar of corporate greed.

My final pint was the aforementioned Port Stout, from Plain Ales. Now I don't know too much about this brewery, although I have since discovered they turn out some excellent beers. This was the second plain ales beer I have tried recently; the other being Innocence, a 4.0% golden bitter, which I sampled on my previous visit a fortnight ago. Despite a relatively low strength of 4.8%, Inncognito proved rather a heavy beer to drink and rather than rushing it, I found myself slipping behind my companions. We were not in a race though so this didn't matter, but it was my last pint of the session.

We now had a couple of different options. The first was to walk along the lanes to Ivy Hatch, the next village, where we had learnt the somewhat food-oriented Plough is now under new ownership and keen to re-invent itself as a community local. The Plough's website was also showing the pub as stocking beers from Birling-based Kent Brewery - a company who's beers we don't often see in our area. The downside to this was a walk back in the dark to the busy main road, where bus stops are few and far between.

The other option was to catch the 14.09 bus back to Tonbridge, and then call in and sample some of the Christmas ales on sale at the Humphrey Bean; our local Wetherspoons. We were pretty evenly split on what to do, and had almost decided to split into two factions, when a look outside at the rapidly deteriorating weather made our minds up for us, and we opted for the early bus and the Christmas ales. This was a shame really, as we missed an opportunity to check out a pub we seldom, if ever, visit. On the plus side though we decided that come the spring we would arrange a return visit to the Old House, but would then go on to the aforementioned Plough followed by a visit to the Padwell Arms, at nearby Stone Street. A decade or more ago, the Padwell was West Kent CAMRA branch pub of the year, but during the intervening years has seen a succession of different owners. Again it would have been good to check how its current, relatively new licensees are getting on, but walking along unlit country roads in the dark and the rain is not a good idea, so like the Plough, the Padwell will have to wait until the New Year, and the better weather.

We said our farewells to Nick, walked the short distance back up the hill and caught the bus home. On the way we passed yet another unspoilt country inn, the Kentish Rifleman at Dunk's Green, and made a mental note to pencil in a visit there as well, along with the legendary Golding Hop in nearby Plaxtol.

The Humphrey Bean wasn't too busy when we arrived, which meant we didn't have to wait to get served. I went for the Albury Ruby,  a 4.6% warming dark winter beer, from Surrey Hills Brewery, and then followed this with a pint of Yuletide, a 4.5% dark-ruby coloured winter ale from Adnams. Although this was not an official branch social, let alone a formal branch meeting, we agreed to set up a mobile meeting/calendar group for those of us with smartphones, and to look at ways to enhance better and speedier communication of news and developments on the local pub scene. All this would be linked to our branch website and Facebook page, and would also incorporate links to Twitter for those who use this form of social media. The thinking behind all these ideas was to enable faster dissemination of information and also to enable us to meet up quickly when we receive wind of special events, unusual beers on sale etc.

It's amazing how a few beers can stimulate the thought processes, so all in all it was an enjoyable and  productive day out.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Classic, Basic & Unspoilt No.4 - The Sussex Arms, Tunbridge Wells

The pubs we have looked at so far have all been rural ones, but towns are not exempt from having basic and unspoilt hostelries, and the Sussex Arms, in Royal Tunbridge Wells, was just such a pub. It was situated just round the corner from the historic Pantiles,  and no visit to  the town was complete without popping into the "Sussex Shades" as it was known locally. The pub wasn't a classic so far as architecture was concerned, although it did date back to the 17th Century. What made the Sussex special was the unique character of the pub. This was created by landlord Dennis Lane who, with his wife Barbara, had run the pub from 1958 to 1987. They furnished it with artefact's purchased from the nearby auction rooms; the collection of chamber pots was legendary. So too were the number of locks on the front door - alleged to number 27 in total!

The Sussex was a freehouse in the true sense of the word. Along with a variety of different beers, Harvey’s PA was always available, together with XXXX Old Ale in winter. During such times, a welcoming coal fire was kept burning in the grate. One very memorable evening, our local CAMRA branch had arranged a visit to Larkins Brewery, which was then situated in nearby Rusthall. The visit had been arranged by Bob Dockerty, the head brewer and owner of Larkins. Bob had recently purchased the business from the former Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery, and was keen to make our acquaintance. We had agreed to meet up with him at the Sussex, before going on to the brewery.

Larkins Best Bitter was on sale that evening, and as we waited for Bob to arrive, Barbara provided us with bread and cheese on a "help yourselves" basis. A great slab of cheddar, plus a pile of white bread "doorsteps" was placed on the bar; the perfect accompaniment to the beer. With the fire blazing away merrily behind us, we all felt extremely reluctant to leave the pub that night. This was despite the tempting prospect of the free beer at Larkin’s Brewery!

In 1987 the Pantiles area was earmarked by the local council for what amounted to "gentrification". Other people, including myself, had a less polite word for it, but with the redevelopment work going on all around them, Dennis and Barbara decided to call it a day, and sold up in the autumn of that year. Rumours were rife at the time about how the property company, entrusted by the council to carry out the re-development, had been keen to force the Lanes out. Certainly a real pub run by, and used by real characters, did not fit into their plans. What they wanted instead for the Pantiles was an upmarket refurbishment with a rather twee, almost kitsch 18th Century England theme, of the sort that has become all too common place throughout the country.

The Sussex ended up by being completely gutted, and turned into a trendy pub aimed at the youth market. Plans for it to brew its own beer came to nothing, and eventually the pub was sold to Greene King. The area immediately surrounding the pub was opened up, and it is now no longer "tucked away" in the way it once was. That such a fine old institution, like the Sussex, was allowed to disappear in this fashion, is yet another sorry example of the way in which so-called town-planners, architects and property companies have become totally divorced from the wishes of ordinary people.

 Footnote:  to be fair to the current owners, the Sussex is now a pleasant and popular town pub that has mellowed nicely since its conversion a quarter of a century ago. It features a number of different guest ales alongside the usual Greene King offerings, and is one of three pubs in the Pantiles area of Tunbridge Wells managed by the same people. (The Duke of York and the Ragged Trousers are the other two).

The rather faded photo of the pub, is taken from "Old Pubs of Tunbridge Wells & District", by Keith Hetherington & Alun Griffiths, published by Meresborough Books in 1986. It is the only pre-conversion photo  I could find.

Sunday 23 December 2012

The Ideal Glass?

On my visit to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, back in September, I treated myself to a souvenir glass. Now I wouldn't normally indulge myself in this fashion as, according to my wife, we have more than enough beer glasses in the house - and I'm sure she's right! Consequently I rarely, if ever, hang on to glasses following beer festivals, returning said article at the end of each visit and claiming back my deposit.

What caught my eye in this case though was the size, and hence the usefulness, of the glass. The drinking vessel in question is a smooth, straight-sided cylindrical tankard, with a solid bottom and a sturdy handle. The glass is emblazoned with the legend "Pilsner Urquell" in a green-coloured script that slope upwards, above which is the seal of said company depicted  in red and gold. The great practical thing about this tankard is that it has an embossed line indicating 0.5l,  that is a full inch and a half below the rim of the glass.

It is obviously a glass designed for local consumption (we saw, and indeed drank from such vessels at the restaurant in the visitor's centre at the brewery). The Czechs like a decent sized head on their beer, hence glasses that allow sufficient space for this, AND for a full measure of beer!

For use back home it's ideal, especially for bottle-conditioned beers which have to be poured carefully and ideally in one go, so as to avoid disturbing the sediment at the bottom of the bottle. This is often less than easy, particularly with a lively beer. All too often one has to stop pouring, thereby risking disturbing the yeast, because the head has become too large and if one was to continue pouring the remainder of the beer would end up all over the floor. My new glass is therefore just the ticket. and I look forward to drinking a whole host of different beers from it over the course of the festive season.

The Batsford Pub Guides

Back in the early 1960’s, the publishers Batsford produced a series of pub guides based either on counties, or regions. They also produced one on London Pubs. So far as I am aware, the series never covered the whole country and, apart from Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire, was confined to East Anglia, London and the South East. 

I now have all six of these guides, having just acquired, the one covering the adjoining counties of Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire, courtesy of Amazon. This now joins the other five in my collection that covers East Anglia, Kent, London, Surrey and Sussex. Each guide was researched and written by a different author, in a broadly similar style, but with individual nuances, and the odd quirk, that make for an interesting and, at times, highly entertaining read. What is especially noteworthy about these guides is that the entry for each pub lists the owning brewery and, in the case of the Kent Guide, goes so far as to list the individual draught beers on sale). For those, like myself, who are interested in a bit of brewery history, this makes fascinating reading, and gives a glimpse of what drinkers in the 1960’s could expect when they stepped inside a pub.

So what were the pubs of this era like? Well, for a start the majority of them offered the choice of Public or Saloon bar in which customers could enjoy their drinks; a situation that still largely held true back when I first started frequenting pubs. As I get older and look back on what were undoubtedly simpler times, I find myself really missing the choice that a two-bar pub used to offer. A game of darts or cribbage with the locals, or a get together with the lads then the public bar was the obvious choice. Taking a girl out on a date, calling in for a bar meal or going for a drink with one’s parents, then it was definitely the saloon bar.

Heaven knows what possessed brewers and pub owners to rob us of this choice, but if it was in a mistaken move to remove class barriers and adopt a more egalitarian approach then they were grossly mistaken,  as the difference between the public and saloon bars were nothing to do with class, wealth or any similar misconceptions.  In fact it must rank as the greatest single act of vandalism perpetrated on our pubs within living memory! This point is made nicely in the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Guide: The tendency in recent years for brewers to do away with public bars and enlarge the saloon is a n idea that can have unfortunate repercussions. Often not only do the public-bar customers vanish, but the “improvements” to the saloon result in a vast room of negative character, doing nothing to please the regular customers or to attract new ones. It seems people were thinking this was a bad idea back in the 60’s, but no-one took any notice!

Anyway, I digress, but without wishing to over-generalise, pubs were pubs 50 – 60 years ago, and whilst some may have had up-market pretencions, on the whole they catered for the needs of their individual communities far better than many of today’s pubs do.

It is interesting to note who owned what back in the 60’s; the “Big Six” were just starting to emerge, but the guides show that regional breweries, many of whom would later merge with similar sized concerns, or get bought outright by the fledgling large combines, owned the majority of the nation’s pub stock, but being local/regional, were well placed to cater for local tastes and needs. For example in Sussex Tamplins, Henty & Constable, Star Brewery (Eastbourne), Friary Meux and Brickwoods owned the majority of pubs, In neighbouring Surrey,  Charrington, Courage, Friary Meux and Watneys controlled most of the pubs, with a small handful being owned by Whitbread and Youngs.  Moving into East Anglia, the Norwich breweries of Bullards and Steward & Patteson, destined later to both be swallowed up (and closed) by Watney Mann, ruled the roost throughout most of Norfolk, whilst further south, and east, it was the likes of Trumans and Lacons (Great Yarmouth) that catered for local drinkers, with a healthy scattering of Adnams in Norfolk and Greene King in Suffolk.

London is a special case, as one might expect of the capital, in that most of the major brewers were represented, and most of them also still had breweries operating in the city. Thus drinkers would have had a choice of Charrington, Courage, Ind Coope, Manns, Truman, Watneys and Whitbread, along with a scattering of national brands from the likes of Bass and Worthington.  Interestingly, Friary Meux of Guildford owned quite a few pubs in the capital, due to the merger of  Surrey based Friary with Meux of Nine Elms, London. Of course none of these companies exist as separate entities today, and none have breweries based in the capital..

Returning to my home county of Kent for a while, by far the largest brewers at the time were Fremlins of Maidstone, who offered a wide range of different beers, including a mild, several bitters of varying strength, plus old ale in winter. Next were Courage who, whilst based in London, offered a variety of different brews that also included the then legendary Directors, which was produced at the group’s brewery at Alton in Hampshire. There were also a number of smaller brewers based in the east of the county which included Mackeson (a Whitbread subsidiary since the 1920’s), Tomson & Wotton and Cobbs (both of whom were largely confined to the Isle of Thanet).

Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire make interesting reading, with both counties blessed with a number of local and several different regional breweries, most of which have now vanished. For example, whilst Courage (following their merger with Simonds of Reading) and Ind Coope were the major pub owners in the two counties, companies like Wethereds and Benskins were not far behind. One could also find pubs belonging to Flowers, Henley Brewery Co (Brakspears), Hunt Edmunds (Banbury), Morland (Abingdon) and Morrells (Oxford). A number of other breweries also get a mention, including Harmans (Uxbridge), Hook Norton, and Phipps (Northampton).

There was also one pub  company which despite owning a large number of pubs, particularly in Buckinghamshire, did not brew; the Aylesbury Brewery Company ceased brewing in 1937, but brought in beer from other breweries (primarily Ind Coope at the time the guide was written), as they considered this more economical than producing the beer themselves. This arrangement continued until 1972, when the company was acquired outright, by Ind Coope’s successors – Allied Breweries..

There is a wonderfully ironic passage in the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire guide about beer which reads as follows: The beer is Flowers, and it is all from the keg - there is no draught. For the older bitter-drinker, set in his ways and notoriously critical of his beer, this might, perhaps, be considered a drawback. But this is the tendency today, and the generation now beginning to develop a palate for beer will one day describe to their grandchildren those far-off days when the beer came in wooden casks, and needed such care before it was ready to sell.

These six guides provide a fascinating snapshot into a world of pubs and beers that has changed out of all recognition, and in some places vanished altogether. It is a world that precedes the start of my drinking career by some 10 years, but is a world I can still connect and empathise with; a world that is at times still familiar yet at other times distant.

If anyone knows of other guides in this series, apart from those mentioned above, I would be most grateful if they could  please let me know.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Christmas Beers

I know I'm rather late with this one, especially as the beers in question have been on sale for several weeks now, and known about for a few more before that as well. No matter, the other day I was thumbing through a copy of Wetherspoon's house magazine when I came to the page giving details of the so-called Christmas Ales they would be featuring over the festive season. There was also a write up on the subject by Jeff Evans, author of CAMRA's Good Bottled Beer Guide and well-respected beer writer to boot.

Jeff's article is, as one would expect, well written and well laid out. It begins with a look back to those times, as little as 30 years or so ago, when Christmas was the only time of the year one could expect to see something different on the bar apart from a brewer's mild, bitter and possibly best bitter.  He contrasts this with the situation today when, at this time of year, there is a whole plethora of so-called Christmas Ales weighing down the nation's bars Jeff picks out  a few of his favourites, and whilst he does make mention of the silly Christmas-themed puns that are all too common, as he was obviously writing a commissioned article for JDW doesn't really come down too hard on  the weak sounding names, and equally weak strength, of some of the beers,

I can certainly remember when the situation Jeff  harks back to was the norm, when Christmas Ales really were something special, rather than just a slightly reddish coloured best bitter with a silly name and equally silly pump clip. Whilst I obviously welcome the far greater availability of seasonal ales today, I do feel that the whole Christmas thing has been dumbed down and lost its meaning.

So what do I look for in a Christmas beer? Well, a decent strength to start with; ideally something around 6.0% and certainly nothing below 5.0%! I also like my Christmas ale to be dark in colour (brewers please note: ruby is NOT dark!),  full-bodied and well-hopped. Far too many of today's festive offerings are pale in colour (sometimes even golden!), low in strength and low on taste. The only thing Christmassy about them is the name on the pump clip, and all too often that is a silly pun or spoonerism with a dubious Christmas connection.

My all time seasonal favourite  is Harvey's Christmas Ale,  a beer I have written about on several past occasions, including a fairly recent post. I have also in the past, enjoyed Hook Norton's Twelve Days, another fine dark ale, not as strong as Harvey's, but still a welcome sight on a pub bar. Last night's West Kent CAMRA social in the Bedford, Tunbridge Wells, ended on a high note for me, with a glass of Old Dairy Snow Top, a dark warming 6.0% abv Winter Ale, not exclusively brewed for the Christmas period, but still much appreciated at this time of year. I managed to pick up a bottle of this excellent beer, whilst back over the Wells today. Being bottle-conditioned, it needs to stand for a day or two, but it should be ready for drinking on the big day itself, which is now just a few days away.

There will be more on my own selection of beers for Christmas a bit nearer the event itself.

Monday 17 December 2012

Classic, Basic & Unspoilt, No. 3 - The Ringlestone Inn

Unlike the first two pubs in this series, the pub I am about to describe is still trading. However, like many pubs that could once have been described as Classic, Basic & Unspoilt, this one has had to move with the times, go "up-market" and start catering for the restaurant brigade. Perhaps this is the price of survival in today's depressed pub trade? Read on and see what you think.

In 1979, after nearly six years away, first as a student in Greater Manchester and then working in London, I moved back to Kent. I set up home in Maidstone, in the west of the county, an area I was unfamiliar with having been brought up in East Kent. My new surroundings afforded plenty of opportunity to explore the local pubs, and armed with the latest CAMRA Guide to Real Ale Pubs in Kent I set off to discover what this part of the county had to offer. I soon had the good fortune to come upon the then unspoilt Ringlestone Inn. 

The Ringlestone was a classic country pub that also had a rather interesting history attached to it. It nestles high up on the North Downs, above the villages of Harrietsham and Lenham, along some rather narrow and twisting lanes. What I liked about the pub was its simplicity. With its un-plastered, bare-brick walls, stone floors, barred windows and antique furniture, together with oil lights and candles for illumination, the Ringlestone had a genuine old world feel to it. As an added attraction, the beers served were dispensed direct from the cask.

As was usual with many free-houses thirty years ago, only a limited range of ales was stocked. This meant though that they were all kept in tip-top condition. When I first became acquainted with the pub the cask beers sold were Draught Bass, Fremlins Bitter and Fremlins Tusker. The latter, in particular, was a superb drink that tasted even better by virtue of the gravity dispense. Later on the beer range was expanded, to include ales from both Everards and Tolly Cobbold, whilst at the same time Bass was discontinued. At the time the Ringlestone was privately owned by a couple who's names unfortunately escape me.

There was just the one bar which, as described above, was simply furnished. During the winter months it was heated by a log-burning stove. There was also a separate and very tiny restaurant, which was only open on Friday and Saturday evenings, and lit by candle-light. I particularly remember enjoying Christmas Dinner there one December evening, along with fellow committee members of the Maidstone and Mid- Kent branch of CAMRA. It was a truly atmospheric setting for such an occasion, made all the more memorable by the quality of both the beer and the food.

There is a story concerning the Ringlestone, which  has passed into legend. It pre-dates the time that I first knew the pub by some years. During the early 1960’s, the Ringlestone was owned and run by two women; a mother and her daughter. Given the pub’s isolated position, the pair took no chances with strangers, and kept a loaded shot-gun hidden behind the bar. According to the tale, if they did not like the look of you, the shot-gun would be produced, and you would be told in no uncertain terms that your custom was not welcome! All gripping stuff, and as a child  I remember my parents talking about an isolated pub,  run by two eccentric women who kept a loaded shot-gun behind the bar, in order to frighten off anyone they regarded as unwelcome. Mum and Dad weren't certain of the name, or exact location of this pub, but it was obviously  the Ringlestone they were talking about.

I managed to conduct some research on the subject and, according to Wikipedia, the women were called Florence (Ma) and Dora Gasking. They were indeed  mother and daughter, and they took over the pub in 1958. They acquired quite a notorious reputation, and were frequently armed with a shotgun, inspecting their clientele and requiring unwanted guests to leave. They are also said to have required a "speakeasy"-style series of secret knocks to gain entry to the pub!

One correspondent on Beer in the Evening looks back on those days: "I remember it when it was owned by "Ma" and her daughter. Back then, you often had to knock on the door to gain admittance and that was by no means a guarantee if Ma didn't like the look of you. She kept a loaded shotgun behind the bar, and would grab it quite often to deter anyone she didn't feel deserved to be in her hostelry. On one occasion, Peggy & Barclay, who were at that time owners of the nearby Blacksmiths Arms in Wormshill, told me that they visited Ma on their night off. Several youths were attempting to get in, rattling the locked door. After Ma told them to "piss off" and they continued to ask to be let in, apparently Ma said, "Barclay! Get my gun!" And sure enough, he said, she fired buckshot at the inside of the door and, not surprisingly, the lads outside decided to go home. I did not see Ma actually use the shotgun, but she did wave it around, convinced that customers were intent on robbing her, because there was no electricity and the place was quite gloomy at night, lighted only by flickering gas lamps or oil lanterns. The beer was very good, as I recall, served directly into jugs from barrels behind the bar. After Ma passed on it lost a lot of its atmosphere and really wasn't worth a visit."

In the early 1980’s the Ringlestone changed hands, and has since undergone quite dramatic changes. The small restaurant room was connected through to the main bar, but fortunately this was carried out without  spoiling the character of the pub. In late 1984 I ended up even further away from my roots when I moved to Tonbridge. The Ringlestone was now no longer a short 20 minute drive away and I have only re-visited it on a couple of occasions. Whilst it is still a pleasant enough pub, it has been expanded  in size, and like I hinted at the beginning of this article, has gone hankering after the food trade. To make matters worse the pub was bought in 2005 by Faversham Brewers, Shepherd Neame. As many of you will know I am not a fan of their beer so there is now even less incentive for me to call in at the Ringlestone. Instead I prefer to remember it as it was when I first knew it, thirty years ago.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Woodfordes Bottled Beers - Part 3

Back in early 2011 I began reviewing a case of six different beers kindly sent to me by renowned Norfolk brewers, Woodfordes. I sampled and reviewed four of them, but owing to being off the drink for most of that year, the remaining two bottles ended up tucked away at the back of the cupboard. I tried the Nelson's Revenge a couple of  months ago, but have only just got round to sampling the final, and strongest of the beers, the 7.0% Head Cracker. Here's what I thought of the beers:

Nelson's Revenge 4.5% Best Before End June 2011. Poured surprisingly clear and not excessively lively either. After this lengthy maturation period the yeast seems to have formed a firm layer at the bottom of the bottle. No off-flavours, although there is a very slight hint of acidity in the background. This may be a characteristic of the house yeast. Despite the beer being almost a year beyond its Best Before Date, it is quite crisp tasting (citrus hops according to the tasting notes) and refreshing, with some juicy malt still evident. The long maturation period seems to have done this beer some good. Not a  beer I would buy again, in bottle form, but still eminently drinkable.

Head Cracker 7.0% Best Before End Aug 2011. Amber in colour and  poured like above, with virtually no head. Again the yeast had formed a firm layer on the bottom of the bottle. Quite fruity, which isn't surprising given the strength of the beer, and again with that hint of acidity lurking in the background. I'm convinced now that it's definitely a characteristic of the house yeast. Plenty of juicy malt but for me, not enough hops. If I'm going to drink a pale ale of this strength then I like plenty of hop bitterness to counter the sweetness of the malt.

The saving grace for this bottle is the extended maturation period, which  has seen the yeast nibbling away at some of the residual malt sugars. This has reduced some of the slightly cloying sweetness, and replaced it with the aforementioned fruitiness. Again, not a beer I would buy in either bottle or cask for, but I am pleased to have tried it nonetheless.

Final Verdict I am on record as not being a huge fan of bottle-conditioning, for various reasons but  not least because of the variability of the process. I would say that in the case of the above beers, the lengthy maturation period, extended by almost 18 months in both instances, certainly added something to the beers. Whether it improved them is open to debate, as I don't know quite how they would have tasted if I had consumed them within their respective Best Before Dates. What I do know is the yeast had packed down really tight at the bottom of the bottles, leading to their being easy to pour and ending up crystal clear in the glass.

If there are any other breweries out there that would like to send me a few bottles for review, I promise not to take so long over the process next time!

Classic, Basic & Unspoilt, No. 2 - The Mounted Rifleman, Luddenham

Second in the series of Classic, Basic and Unspoilt pubs is the Mounted Rifleman at Luddenham, near Faversham. If anything this classic country pub was even more unspoilt and basic than the Black Bull at Newchurch,  and certainly much more a "parlour pub" than the latter ever was. Unfortunately, I only had the pleasure of visiting it on a couple of occasions, both during the early 1980's. 

The thing that made Mounted Rifleman so special was the fact that it didn't even have a bar! Instead each pint was brought up from the cellar, on a tray, by the landlord. The pub's single draught beer was Fremlins Bitter, drawn straight from the cask, and very nice it tasted too. Even more unusual was that the bottled beers, spirits, mixers and soft drinks were all kept in the cellar as well, almost as though the proprietor didn't want customers to actually see the drinks on offer!

Having only been to the pub twice, and those occasions are both 30 years ago, I am unable to recollect much about it. I remember entering the pub from the rear, almost as though one was walking through the landlord's garden, but I am hard pushed to write anything about the pub's interior, apart from the fact it was basic and simply furnished. I do recall learning in the mid 1980's that the landlord had dropped dead following a heart attack and registering my surprise at this bearing in mind the number of times he must have walked up and down the cellar steps of an evening. Possibly it was too much repetitive exercise that was responsible but, whatever the reason I do know that his brother took over the running of the pub for a while.

Whilst doing some research for this post I found a couple of pictures, plus a short write-up in a book titled "The Village Pub". Written by veteran beer writer, Roger Protz and illustrated with some very good photographs by Homer Sykes, the book was published in 1992, which was getting on for ten years after my visits. Unfortunately there are no shots of the public rooms, but there is a splendid one of landlord, Bob Jarrett starting his journey back up the cellar steps with a tray full of beer. (The forenamed must have been the brother of the landlord that I knew.)

I'm not certain exactly when the Mounted Rifleman closed, but like the previous pub in this series, the Black Bull at Newchurch, the closure took place some time between the publication of the 1993 and the 1999 CAMRA Guides to Kent Pubs. During this time the pub was put up for sale, and was eventually sold without a license, as a private house. This was the sad loss of yet another "national treasure", as well as a great blow to the pub's own loyal band of devotees. The Mounted Rifleman had absolutely no frills about it and and been in the same family for several generations. It was particularly sad to see it close.

The photo of the landlord ascending the cellar steps, referred to above is copyrighted by its creator, Homer Sykes. If you want to see what the pub was like back then, carry out a search on Google Images and you will find Mr Sykes website, displaying the photograph.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Keeping Out the Cold

On what must have been the coldest night of the year on Wednesday, the sight of Harvey's Christmas Ale on the bar of the Two Brewers in Hadlow was certainly a welcome one! Six of us had travelled out there by bus for a pre-arranged West Kent CAMRA branch social.

The Two Brewers is a Harvey's tied pub; one of only a handful in Kent. Since the brewery acquired it in 2005, and thankfully changed its name from the Fiddling Monkey (often referred to as the "Piddling Monkey"), the pub has seen a  succession of different licensees. Part of the problem has been the relatively small garden and car park at the pub, as the previous owners sold off much of the land at the rear for housing. However, under its new licensees, the Two Brewers now appears much more settled, and we were given a warm reception from  our hosts last night.

On sale alongside the Christmas Ale were Mild, Hadlow Bitter, Best Bitter and, my personal winter favourite, Harvey's Old Ale. Owing to the vagaries of public transport during the evening, we arrived early but also left early, but not before a few pints of Old plus a half of Christmas Ale to finish up on. The latter is definitely a desert island beer, although whether one would wish to drink it on a hot tropical island is open to debate. Last night though it was the perfect balance of a strong dark bitter-sweet ale, satisfying and warming, but obviously a beer to be treated with respect. The pub was selling it at £2.50 per half pint, which for a beer of this strength and character is good value.

Back in Tonbridge, a couple of us nipped in to the Humphrey Bean, to see what our local JDW had on offer. Resisting the temptation to try the Thornbridge Jaipur, not a good idea with work the next morning, I settled for the Adnams Gunhill. Not quite as rich as the Harvey's Old, but still a very drinkable 4.0% winter beer. My friend opted for a dark beer from Pilgrim Brewery, who's name escapes me.

Despite plenty of layers, combined with hat, scarf and gloves, it was still freezing on the walk home. However, it had certainly been worth venturing out on such a night and making the journey over to Hadlow.

The bottle label above shows the abv of Christmas Ale as being 8.1%. Harvey's have since reduced the strength slightly to 7.5%. Presumably this is to avoid the beer falling into the higher tax band, brought in as a "knee-jerk" reaction to restrict the sales of "super-strength" lagers (Carlsberg Special Brew et al.).

Tuesday 11 December 2012

A Walk in the Park

The other Sunday, son Matthew and I took a train ride up to London for a look round, and also to sample a few of the capital's beery delights. There were a few places we wanted to visit, so I mapped out a rough itinerary beforehand, which seemed to work quite well.

First stop was London Bridge, where we changed platforms and caught a more local train out to Blackheath. Neither of us had been there before, although I had driven across the top end of the heath, at Shooter's Hill, several times in the past. There was a farmer's market in full swing when we stepped outside the station, but ignoring the festive goodies that were on offer we headed straight into Blackheath village for the first port of call on our programme. This was Zero Degrees, a brew-pub with a long and impressive pedigree. We had actually walked right past the place at first, admittedly on the opposite side of the road, but with the sun in our eyes, this was perhaps excusable.

I had been wanting to visit Zero Degrees for some time, so was pleased to have finally made it. The pub wasn't quite what I'd expected, being modern, minimalist and very functional. Nevertheless we both found it very much to our taste, with pleasant knowledgeable staff and, most importantly, good and keenly priced beer. I tried  the Pilsner and the Black Lager, and enjoyed them both. My son, being a lager drinker normally, stuck to the Pilsner. Perhaps because I had enquired earlier about the pub's seasonal brew, one of the staff came over and gave us,  a  half pint taster of their current 6.5%  seasonal ale. I didn't make a note of the name, but it was obviously a Christmas beer, as the word Rudolph featured in its name. Being a yuletide ale it was spiced with cinnamon, which meant it wasn't to my taste (cinnamon is best reserved for cakes, not ale!). It was a nice gesture though, and we were sorry in a way to be leaving. However, we had a busy itinerary to get through and a long walk to our next stop.

Before moving on, a word or two about Zero Degrees' stylish and modern setup. The company brews its beers using a 9 barrel semi-automated German-built plant, housed at the rear of the pub. All the beer is delivered fresh from polythene-lined serving tanks by an air pressure system that operates without the use of any additional gas. As the beers are all unfiltered and unpasteurised, they are, in effect real ales; something which is not immediately apparent to drinkers used to seeing their beer dispensed from a traditional hand pump. As well as the aforementioned Pilsner and Black Lager, the company produces a Pale Ale and a Wheat Ale, plus seasonal brews, as appropriate.

Leaving the pub we crossed the common followed by the busy Shooters Hill Road, and made our way into Greenwich Park. Although it was a cold day the sun was shining which made for a pleasant walk. There were also some spectacular views of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, just across the Thames. The sunshine  had brought lots of people out into the park, enjoying the fresh air and a bit of exercise. After skirting the Royal Observatory, perched up on its hill, we made our way down towards the river, and our next port of call -  the Old Brewery, belonging to Meantime of Greenwich. This is housed in the precincts of the Old Royal Naval College, overlooking the Thames. I was reading in Des de Moor's excellent CAMRA Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs and Bars that Meantime are now the capital's second largest independent brewer, after Fullers. They've certainly come a long way since starting up back in 2000, and deservedly so, as founder, owner and head brewer Alastair Hook has not been afraid to plough his own furrow.

Inside the impressive Old Naval College, Meantime operate a restaurant and a bar. The former seemed a bit too modern and functional for our liking, so we made our way into the adjoining, but much smaller bar. As one would expect, there was a wide selection of Meantime beers on offer from a bank of keg taps, plus Dark Star Hophead dispensed from a traditional hand pump. I opted for the Oktoberfest, a proper, traditional Maerzen-style beer, whilst Matthew went for the London Lager.

As it was rather crowded in the bar, we decided to brave the elements and join the handful of hardy souls sitting out in the adjoining beer garden. Wrapped up against the cold it was quite pleasant being out in the fresh air, enjoying a bit of winter sunshine, but as the sun started to sink slowly behind the line of the buildings the temperature really started to drop.

It was time to  move on, this time for a spot of shopping and a bite to eat. leaving Meantime we continued down to the bank of the Thames, passing the newly restored Cutty Sark on the way. After a look at the river we then descended the spiral staircase that leads to the pedestrian tunnel under the river. Built in Victorian times the tunnel serves as a useful short cut across to the Isle of  Dogs, and for us easy access to the Docklands Light Railway at Island Gardens. A short train ride saw us alighting at Canary Wharf where Matthew assured me there was a substantial shopping complex that included one of the largest  branches of Waitrose around.

He was right; deep in the bowels below the tower blocks of Canary Wharf  there certainly is a fair-sized shopping centre, consisting of several inter-linked areas on a number of different levels. Also, it was surprisingly busy, but then when one looks at the surrounding area there are now a significant number of dwellings (ok posh apartments) in this former dockland area. We limited our purchases to a sandwich and a drink from the large Waitrose at one end of the complex, before  jumping onto the Underground into Central London.

We had one final pub to visit, a German-owned pub which trades under the name of Zeitgeist.The pub itself is signed outside as the Jolly Gardeners, its former name, and is situated a short hop from Vauxhall Station on the south bank of the Thames. It was therefore Jubilee Line to Waterloo and then one stop overground to Vauxhall. After a walk along the Albert Embankment, followed by a right turn under the railway viaduct, we arrived at our destination, glad to get out of the cold.

Unlike some German-themed establishments in London, Zeitgeist leaves aside the Bavarian cliches of Dirndl's, Lederhosen and Mass Krugs, and instead concentrates on serving a wide range of German beers (draught as well as bottled) to an appreciative clientele of expats and students, in stylish surroundings. A Bundesliga football match was being screened on the large-screen TV, but with the sound turned down it was not at all intrusive. Beer-wise we noticed taps for the likes of Loewenbraeu, Paulaner, Weihenstephan and Krombacher, but I think there were a couple more. I went for a Helles from Krombacher, whilst Matthew opted for the same from Loewenbraeu.

We up sat at one of the tall tables, enjoying the atmosphere and watching the pub start to fill. The German food selection looked good, but we didn't give in to temptation as we knew there would be a dinner waiting for us at home. Not wanting to be too late back for our grub was the deciding factor in not staying for another beer either, so after drinking up, we made our way back, on foot, to Charing Cross and the train home.

Despite my being a CAMRA member of many years standing, no cask beer was drunk on this trip This wasn't a deliberate decision, but just the way things worked out. If readers will pardon my take on a particularly over-used cliche, "sometimes it pays to DRINK outside the box"! And as for the pubs we visited, I will certainly be call back at Zeitgeist and Zero Degrees the next time I am in the area.

Sunday 9 December 2012

A Cold Wet Day in Canterbury

On Friday I took the day off work and caught the train over to the cathedral city of Canterbury with my friend Don.We had decided on Canterbury as an interesting place to visit, and to drink in, after passing through there back in the summer, en route to and from the Kent Beer Festival. I of course know the city well as it was a regular place to visit and shop in during my teenage years. Back then my  family lived in a small village, called Brook, close to Ashford, but even closer to the much larger village of Wye. Wye is first stop on the Ashford to Canterbury railway line, so my friends and I would often cycle over there, leave our bikes at the station and catch the train into Canterbury.

This visit had involved a rather longer train journey, but there is still a half-hourly service from Tonbridge, where I live, through to Canterbury; one just has to remember to board the correct portion of the train, as it divides at Ashford. We could not have picked a worse day, weather-wise for our trip though, as not only was it raining, but there was a bitingly cold north-westerly wind blowing. Still our hour long journey was in the comfort and warmth of the train, and we had high hopes that the weather would brighten up as the day wore on.

How wrong we were! Alighting at Canterbury West Station we were greeted by the same biting wind and driving rain we thought we had left behind in Tonbridge. There was only one thing for it, find a pub to shelter in and warm up again. The Westgate Inn is the smaller of the two Wetherspoons outlets in Canterbury. Situated, as its name suggests, in the shadow of the city's historic West Gate, it provided some welcome relief, and a cup of hot coffee, from the worst of the elements outside. Divided up into a series of interlinked, but almost separate drinking areas, the Westgate seemed a very pleasant old pub. Being in coffee drinking mode I didn't really pay that much attention to the beers on sale, but I did notice a fair few Christmas Ales on offer.

Leaving the warmth of the Westgate behind, we headed into the centre of Canterbury, passing through the imposing stone-built towers of the West Gate itself. We passed a number of pubs en route, including the Black Griffin and the Cricketers, before calling in at the tourist information centre to pick up a map, and some additional visitor information. Turning left, away from the High Street and towards the cathedral, brought us to a small square in front of the cathedral gate, and to the  second pub on our itinerary.

The Old Buttermarket is a Nicholson's house, an upmarket chain of historic pubs, with a good selection of ales to match. Entering the welcoming warmth of the Old Buttermarket we perused the ales on offer which, alongside Adnams Broadside, included a couple of Christmas ales specially produced for the group. Our eyes settled though on Navigation Pale Ale, a 3.9% offering from the Navigation Brewery of Nottingham. This well-hopped, straw-coloured beer was just right for the start of a session, but tempted as we were to linger in this comfortable and pleasantly decorated pub we decided to move on.

A work colleague had told me there was a Christmas Market held in Canterbury, but after trying, unsuccessfully to locate it, we gave up and sought again the warmth and sanctuary of a pub. The pub in question this time was the City Arms, in Butchery Lane, again in the shadow of the cathedral. This pub holds a particular affection for me in so much as it was the place where I attended my first ever CAMRA meeting back in the summer of 1974.

There has been a lot of changes since then, including the disappearance of the rare and historic "snob-screens". These changes though were down to a disastrous fire in 2001 that badly damaged the pub. This is ironic considering the City Arms survived the wartime bombing intact, when the properties on the opposite side of the street were destroyed. Today the City Arms remains a traditional pub with a modern feel to it. Of particular interest to the beer lover is the fact that the pub is one of three outlets owned and operated by Stoneset Inns, and serves beers from Canterbury Brewers, who are based in the Foundry, on the other side of the High Street.

We ordered a pint each of their Canterbury Haka, a pleasantly bitter 4.1% ale brewed using New Zealand hops, and grabbed ourselves a table. Also on the bar were Foundry Torpedo, a 4.5% amber ale, sampled earlier in the year at the Foundry itself, plus the 5.8% Street Light Porter. The latter was the next beer we tried, but not before we had ordered ourselves something to eat. I went for the homemade chicken and mushroom pie, whilst Don opted for the fish and chips. Both meals were tasty, well-presented and reasonably priced.

There was a pleasant buzz to the City Arms with a good mix of customers, so we were sorry when the time came to leave. We had decided to make our way past the cathedral and the historic King's School towards the St Radigund's area of the city. The wind and rain had not relented so, despite some interesting looking shops en route we didn't hang about. On the way we passed the Parrot, reputed to be the oldest pub in Canterbury, but not under that name. Although the pub looked inviting and comfortable from the outside we decided not to venture in as it is tied to Shepherd Neame. Neither of us are fans of Shep's beer; a pity really as the company own some fine traditional pubs, as was all too evident from the look of the Parrot's interior.

Instead we pressed on to the Dolphin, described by one guide as a "gastro pub". Despite this the pub was warm and welcoming and with a choice of Taylors Landlord, Hopdaemon Skrimshander alongside the dreaded Doombar, provided a welcome interlude from the conditions outside. I ordered the Landlord, whilst Dom went for the Skrimshander and I think he made the better choice. The Landlord wasn't off or anything, in fact it appeared bright and well-conditioned. To me though it just seemed a trifle on the bland side, and lacking in character; it certainly wasn't how I remember this legendary beer.

From the Dolphin, we headed back towards the city centre, stopping on the way for a look around the cathedral precincts. We had discovered earlier that these were out of bounds until 4.30pm, as they were included as part of the extortionate £9.50 entrance fee to the cathedral itself. We didn't linger too long though, and exiting through the impressive medieval gateway we headed down Burgate towards the equally ancient city walls. Our destination was the Thomas Ingoldsby, the larger of Canterbury's two JDW outlets, but also the least characterful. Converted from a former furniture store the pub is named in honour of Richard Harris Barham, who was born in 1788, at 61 Burgate, just across the road from the pub. Using the pen name Thomas Ingoldsby, he wrote "The Ingoldsby Legends", which first appeared, in 1840, in a periodical. .It is a large open plan pub, and being early Friday evening was starting to fill up with a largely student clientele,  (this was hardly surprising seeing as Canterbury has two universities). It seemed a bit early to be drinking shots and pitchers of strange coloured fruity concoctions, but then what does a bloke like me in his late 50's know about da yoof of today?

So far as beer was concerned, there was a range of so-called Christmas ales on offer, none of which appealed to me, but after a  taster, Don decided to go for a pint of JW Lees Plum Pudding (too plummy for me, but then I suppose that's the point of the beer). I opted for a local brew in the form of Wantsum 1381; a pale and well-hopped 3.8% beer, from Wantsum Brewery  who are based at Hersden, a few miles outside of Canterbury.

Time was marching on and we had one further pub to visit. The Unicorn is situated conveniently  close to the station, so provided the ideal place for a farewell drink to the city. It was heaving inside but we managed to get served and also find a vacant table. I only remember two of the beers on sale, namely Dominator - a 5.1% strong beer from Hopdaemon, plus our final selection of the evening Hooky, which appears to be the new name for Hook Norton Bitter. At just 3.5% abv,  this pale coloured beer is full of flavour, and was a good pint to finish on. We were just on our way out when we bumped into Gill and Gerry Keay, leading members of CAMRA's Canterbury branch, who were sitting the other side of the central fire place from us. We stopped for a brief chat, and to give them some feedback about the pubs we'd visited that day, before saying goodbye and completing the short walk back to the station.

There was one final place to visit though before catching the train home. Right next to Canterbury West station is The Goods Shed. Opened in 2002 and, as its name suggests, housed in former railway premises, The Goods Shed is a covered farmers market which is open daily. It also houses an onsite restaurant which makes use of the local market produce. It has evolved to include a ‘food hall’ which includes a butchers, cheese makers, fishmonger, bakers and The Beer Shop. The latter claims to offer the largest number of British bottled beers in the South East of England,  including London. Customers can buy beers to take home throughout the day or enjoy table service in the historic surroundings of the Goods Shed from 6pm onwards.

The Beer Shop is THE place for the serious beer connoisseur, with a wide range of craft beers from both Britain and around the globe. With a massive range of different styles, barrel-aged bottlings and all manner of rare and hard to get brews, this place really is beer geek paradise! The only trouble was knowing where to start. I limited my purchases to a 7.1% , Four Hop India Pale Ale and a 7.2%, London 1890 Export Stout, both from The Kernel Brewery, an outfit I have read a lot about, but not had the pleasure of sampling yet. I also bought a bottle of No.1 Connoisseur's Choice Quadrupel, from Sharp's Brewery. These should all make interesting drinking over Christmas!

Our train home was slightly delayed, but it didn't detract from an excellent day out, and after an hour's journey we arrived back to a cold, windy but by now dry Tonbridge. Ironically the next day's weather was dry and bright, but then I suppose you can't win them all.

Not much in the way of photo's I'm afraid; the weather was just too appalling for standing around outside taking pictures!