Sunday, 29 April 2012

Two Good Pubs

I've been to a couple of excellent pubs these past two days; one out in the country and one right in the centre of town. Both were completely different, but both had that certain something that many pubs seem to lack nowadays.

The pub in the country was the Spotted Dog, in the isolated hamlet of Smart's Hill, between Penshurst and Fordcombe to the North-West of Tunbridge Wells. I walked there from Leigh station, with my son Matt, on what was probably the only dry day last week; our route taking us through Penshurst Place, followed by a steep climb up to the aforementioned hamlet. For such a small, isolated settlement, Smart's Hill is particularly well served with good pubs, as besides the Spotted Dog there is also the Bottle House a mile or so up the road in the other direction.

The Spotted Dog is a white-painted, part weather-boarded 15th Century inn that clings to the side of a hill. To the rear there is a terrace which affords spectacular views across the Medway valley, whilst inside are all the usual low beamed ceilings one would expect from a building of this age. There are a number of distinct drinking areas, plus a separate dining room. Despite the sun shining outside,  a log fire was smouldering away in the large open fire place,on the day of our visit, but keen to make the most of the currently very rare fine weather we opted to sit outside on the terrace in front of the pub. It was certainly very pleasant to be able to enjoy a pint with the sun beating down on our necks!.

So far as the beer was concerned the Spotted Dog had three ales on tap that day; Black Cat Original, Larkins Traditional and Skinner's Betty Stoggs. I opted for the Black Cat, which was so good I just had to have another, leaving my plans for a pint of Larkins on hold until another occasion. It was a well-hopped, amber coloured ale served with just the right degree of coolness; it certainly slipped down a treat. The pub wasn't packed but there seemed to be plenty of people coming and going. The welcome was warm and friendly and the aforementioned Black Cat beer came with the landlords recommendation, which is always a good sign.  We didn't eat at the pub, having eaten our prepared rolls en route, but the food selection looked good and would  have complement the beer well.

The town pub was the Bedford, in Tunbridge Wells, literally a stone's throw from the town's main railway station. The pub formed a welcome refuge from the wet and wind-swept streets on an unseasonably cold Saturday lunchtime; my visit being as a member of our local CAMRA branch who had gathered there to present licensee Simon Lewis with a well deserved certificate as joint runner-up in our annual Pub of the Year competition. It was my first visit to the Bedford since Simon took over the running of the pub in July of last year, and I have to say I was well impressed.

For those not in the know, Simon is the owner of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Company, and the man responsible for bringing back brewing to the town after a lapse of 25 years. As someone with over 20 years involvement in the brewing industry Simon also managed to negotiate a new lease on the Bedford, with owners Greene King, that allows him to sell beers from his own brewery, plus a range of different guest ales, alongside GK's usual offerings of IPA and Abbot. When I called in, the pub had Dipper, Royal Best Bitter and the seasonal Helles from RTWB,  together with Gadd's No.7, Tring Colley's Dog and Milestone Lion's Pride on sale, along with the aforementioned GK beers. Bushels Cider, from Biddenden was also available on hand pump.

So what about the pub itself?  Well  inside it has a contemporary feel, with several comfortable seating areas. The walls are hung with plenty of old photo's of Tunbridge Wells, pump clips, plus display boards informing punters as to what beers are coming on and which ones they've just missed. The eight hand pumps also look pretty impressive, and it was encouraging to see them being worked at a steady pace, and not just from the demands of thirsty CAMRA members! One nice touch was the bar-staff asking customers whether they wanted a straight glass or a jug? Now I've always preferred the former, but it seems that here in the "soft south" at least, the glass with a handle is making a comeback, and what's more they are proper dimpled mugs as well!

I'm still taking things a bit easy on the beer front at the moment, but the pints of Gadd's No7 and RTW Spa Helles I had were both excellent. Most of my CAMRA colleagues departed just before 2pm in order to catch the bus over to Edenbridge, where another presentation was due to take place; the town's Old Eden Inn being the other joint runner-up in our Pub of the Year contest.

I bade them farewell,  finished my pint, before crossing the road and popping into Tunbridge Well's newly re-opened Morrisons to pick up a sandwich, plus a selection of bottled beers for drinking at home later in the week It was then a short hop back to the station and the train home. All in all it's been a most enjoyable two days back on the local pub scene.

So what was it about these two very different pubs that was so good? It wasn't just the beer, the food, the architecture, the setting, the people behind the bar or the general ambiance that made them good. It was a combination of all these factors plus, and it's a big and very important plus, both pubs are run by  people who are passionate about what they do,  people who care and people who listen to what their respective, but quite different customer groups want. These factors surely are the hallmark of a good pub!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Taste the Difference

OK, I know this post was supposed to be about the local pub scene in Tonbridge; well I am still working on it, so in the meantime here are my thoughts and observations regarding beers from the Sainsbury's "Taste the Difference"  range, which were on special offer the other week. After giving most of them a try I was quite impressed, so here is my review of the beers I sampled. (By the way I didn't  receive  any, cash incentives or any other rewards from Sainsbury's for reviewing their products, but if they'd like to send me further samples to try, then I wouldn't say no!)

Westmorland Ale at just 4.0% is brewed by Jennings, and is described as "a lovely golden amber ale with subtle hints of toffee and caramel. beautifully balanced by hoppy notes from the Fuggles, Goldings and Challenger hops." It's also got a rather attractive label, depicting sailing boats on one of the regions many lakes.  A trifle on the weak side for my liking, but still eminently drinkable, and easy to recognise as coming from the Jennings stable.

London Porter at  5.0%  is brewed by Shepherd Neame, and whilst obviously NOT brewed in the capital, takes its name from the style of beer first made famous by the City's market workers. Regular readers will know that despite them being Kent's largest independent, Shep's are not my favourite brewery,   but to their credit the Porter is an excellent beer. Back in the late 1990's the company had a draught Porter available as a seasonal beer and I'm wondering whether this bottled version is based on the same brew. The tasting notes describe it as "A rich, dark beer packed with intense  flavours of  chocolate  and spicy liquorice.", whilst the front label promises a beer that is  "Rich and aromatic with notes of chocolate. Dark and intense with a hint of spicy liquorice". I have to say I wholly agree with these descriptions, and thoroughly endorse this particularly fine beer.

Yorkshire Bitter 5.0%.  Brewed in Masham by Black Sheep, this beer is described as "a classic and beautifully balanced Yorkshire bitter combining hoppy notes with bittersweet malty undertones and a dry, refreshing finish.". The front label also highlights "Demerara sweetness with full malt body and citrus overtones." I don't have anything else to add to that, except that this is a pleasant and highly quaffable bitter, instantly recognisable as coming from Black Sheep and, yes I can detect the Demerara sugar lurking in the background.

Celebration Ale 6.0%. Another offering from Black Sheep; not a company noted for the brewing of dark ales. This 6.0% rich dark winter warmer certainly hits the mark on a cold, mid-April evening. Described as "a dark, velvety stout with a complex chocolate and spice finish. Beautifully balanced with sweet raisin notes.", it is still currently on offer at three bottles for just £5.00.

India Pale Ale 5.9%, brewed by Marstons at their brewery  in the home of IPA's, Burton-on-Trent. I'd been saving this beer until last as I thought it would be a cracker. At 5.9% it ought to be, but  I found it rather disappointing. Described on the tasting notes as a "Traditional IPA with fresh aromas of and citrus with a clean, bitter hop flavour.", this beer unfortunately doesn't quite deliver for me. On paper it's got everything that a proper IPA should have; the right colour, strength, plenty of bitterness, so why am I not enthusing about it? The beer was perfectly drinkable, but was nothing out of the ordinary, and I'm sorry to say wasn't a patch on the Fuller's Bengal Lancer IPA that I'm sitting here enjoying at the moment!

There are three other beers in the "Taste the Difference"  range, but for various reasons I gave them a miss. The first is  Scottish Craft Lager, brewed by Harviestoun and presumably based on their well-known Schiehallion brand, but at just 4.1% abv, a touch on the weak side for a decent lager. The other was the Suffolk Golden Ale, from St Peter's Brewery. I gave this one a miss as the tasting notes make clear it is a wheat beer, and I've never been a fan of wheat beers.Somehow I just can't get on with them; I can dink one, at a pinch, but one is invariably enough and after that I have to switch to a more, based on barley malt.

The final beer is Traditional Kentish Ale, a 4.5% beer brewed by Shepherd Neame. I've already made my views on Shep's quite clear, and whilst their Porter is very good, this paler offering is unlikely to be any better than their run of the mill Master Brew or Spitfire, both of which I avoid drinking.

So that sums up the current "Taste the Difference" range. From a personal point of view I am disappointed that Sainsbury's dropped the continental styles of beers that were formerly part of the range. They were all brewed by Meantime and included a Helles, a Franconian-style Dunkel, a Kolsch style beer plus, I believe, a couple of Belgian-style ales. These beers disappeared from the shelves several years ago. I'm not quite sure why, but perhaps the great British beer drinking public were just not quite ready for them  at the time. Possibly they were just that bit too esoteric and  too far outside  their comfort zone. During the last few years however,  drinkers do seem to have become  more adventurous and discerning in their choice of beer, so if Sainsbury's were to re-launch them they would probably fare much better than they did first time around.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

CAMRA - A Local Perspective

I attended my first CAMRA meeting of the year last night. It was an open business meeting, and whilst I'm no longer on the  committee, it was good to get along and find out what's been happening in the branch, and also what is planned for the future. It was good as well to meet up with old friends, many of whom I hadn't seen since before Christmas.

I'm pleased to report that the West Kent Branch is doing alright. On the campaigning side LocAle is continuing to be rolled out, with more and more pubs being signed up to this noteworthy scheme. Preference is being given to outlets serving beers from micro-breweries, rather than larger regional concerns. The branch's involvement with various beer festivals also continues to gather pace, with the SIBA South-East Beer Festival again being held at Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club in July, and the successful beer joint festival, held in conjunction with the Spa Valley Railway, (which I unfortunately missed last year), going ahead again this coming October. In addition there is the Pantiles Food & Drink Festival taking place in Tunbridge Wells next month, plus the beer tent at the Neville Cricket Ground in Tunbridge Wells, during Kent's forthcoming games there as part of the town's cricket week.

I learnt at the meeting that there are some 480 odd members in the branch,  most of whom we unfortunately don't see, but I'm sure they all do their bit by belonging to the Campaign and drinking real ale whenever they can. Of  those who do make their presence known, only a small hand full  are active which means, as in many clubs and similar organisations, the workload falls on just a few shoulders. Understandably people often have other more pressing commitments, but it would be nice to see some new faces becoming more involved in branch affairs. This particularly applies to younger members, especially as none of us are getting any younger, and there's a real danger there will be no new blood to replace committee members like myself who, for whatever reason, have decided to stand down. I'm certain we're not the only CAMRA branch facing this issue at present, and it's one that needs to be addressed before it becomes too serious a problem.

On a more positive note there are some interesting socials planned for the coming months, including several trips by bus to outlying pubs that we don't often get a chance to visit, a trip on the recently extended Spa Valley Railway across the Kent-Sussex border to Eridge with a couple of pub stops on the way, a circular pub walk in the Darenth Valley again taking in a number of pubs, an historical pub tour conducted by one of our members who is a qualified tour guide, a couple of joint socials with neighbouring branches plus, later in the year, trips further afield to both Hastings and Lewes.

This all ties in with my belief that CAMRA should be fun and not all hard campaigning. Looking at the national website I can't help thinking that there are just too many irrelevant and distracting campaigns running at the moment, ranging from National Cask Ale Week, Mild Month (a waste of time if ever there was one!), Cider and Perry Month (we're the Campaign for REAL ALE for heaven's sake!), Below Cost Alcohol Sales (nothing to do with CAMRA what retailers charge for off-sales in their own shops), Clubs Campaigning (why should we have anything to do with outlets that operate a policy of restrictive entry?) and the Take it to the Top, Full Pints Campaign (ask for a top-up if you get a short measure pint, don't get the Government involved on this or heaven only knows what we'll end up with!!).

Anyway, that's enough griping, on the whole there are far more positive things to be said about CAMRA than negative ones. On top of that I had a most enjoyable evening the other night and have some interesting observations regarding the local pub scene to report on in my next post.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Getting Back into the Groove

I'm just getting back into the swing of things with regard to beer drinking, but at the moment am still taking things slowly. There are two reasons behind this; the first is my system has become unaccustomed to alcohol over the last nine months or so and needs a bit of time to re-adjust. The second is I'm slowly weaning myself off the medication with another four weeks to go at the lowest practical dose, before I can say goodbye to the tablets. GP's really need to act more responsibly, and think of the consequences, before dishing out what after all are powerful psycho-active drugs! However, that's another story and one I don't wish to dwell on; onwards and upwards is the motto!

One thing I'm very pleased to report is that I haven't lost my taste or appreciation of good beer during the intervening period; in fact abstinence has made my enjoyment of a decent glass of beer all the more satisfying. Talk about "absence making the heart grow fonder"!  I have noticed though that beer prices have shot up, even in the supermarkets!  There are still bargains out there, but one must be prepared to look around for them.

I posted some time ago about the excellent cut price Oyster Stout from Marstons, on sale in Lidl's, and the other week I picked up some 500ml bottles of Czech Boheme 1795 (incorrectly labelled as a Pilsner!)  for 99p each in Tesco's. Last weekend the same supermarket was offering Pilsner Urquell at 3 bottles for the price of 2, and I noticed on their website such delights as Adnams Broadside, Fullers Bengal Lancer and 1845 at 4 bottles for £5.50. Our nearest Tesco though is one of their smaller stores, and doesn't stock the full range of beers; hence I was unable to pick up the White Shield which was also on the same 4 bottles for £5.50 offer.
Not to be outdone Sainsbury's also had some of their "Taste the Difference" beers on special offer over the Easter weekend. Two in particular caught my eye, so I decided to purchase them. The first was Porter, whilst the other was  Celebration Ale. I've yet to try the latter, which is a 6.0% dark beer from Black Sheep, (unusual for then to be brewing an ale of this sort). However, I have sampled the Porter which is brewed by Shepherd Neame. Many of you will know that I am not a huge fan of Sheps but to give credit where it's due their Porter is a cracking beer. I'm not sure if it's the same beer that was available on draught some 10-15 years ago, which allegedly had liquorice root added to the copper, but tasting notes for this 5.0% bottled version describes the beer as having "intense spicy liquorice flavours alongside chocolate ones". It was certainly a good example of the style.

The Easter weekend saw me enjoying a range of different beers at the mini-beer festival organised by the Nevill Bull pub at Birling - see previous post, but apart from that, and the odd pub stop on recent walks in the country side, I haven't done a lot of drinking in pubs. One beer probably more than any others that I am looking forward to sampling again is my old favourite, Harvey's Best. There are plenty of pubs around selling it, I just haven't had the opportunity to pop into one to try a pint recently.

Hopefully this will change at the weekend, especially as its my birthday. I will let you know how I get on.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Annual Good Friday Ramble

On Friday I enjoyed a very pleasant walk through the Kent countryside, which always looks splendid at this time of year, having joined friends from Maidstone and Mid-Kent CAMRA on their annual  Good Friday Ramble. I've attended quite a few of these walks, but after having missed last year's event it was particularly good to turn up to this one and meet up again with old friends and acquaintances from my former branch.

I've written before about this annual event, most of which have been led by keen rambler Dick Wilkinson. This year's walk was no exception and Dick reminded us of the fact that as we were all getting older, the walks were getting shorter. The first one, back in the mid 1970's was 14 miles in length; this year's was barely half that distance! I mentioned getting older, a fact borne out by Dick now being a grandfather with both his son and daughter, along with their various off-spring in attendance. Some of us too are starting to feel the slow advancement of the years, with the odd age-related aliment beginning to crop up

This year saw nearly two-dozen of us gathering at West Malling station; not a particularly easy place for those of us travelling from Tonbridge to get to, but after two changes of train and the best part of an hour we duly arrived at our meeting place.  The day had dawned bright and cold, after a frosty start, and most of us had wrapped up warm against the unseasonably cold weather. A week or so previous, the county was basking in temperatures in the high teens, but not so today. We were aiming for a pub called the Nevill Bull in the small village of Birling. Not only were we buoyed up by the fact that the pub regularly serves beers from the recently established Kent Brewery, but being a public holiday, and the start of the Easter break, it was also holding a mini-beer festival.

For me the opportunity to try Kent Brewery beers was an eagerly anticipated one. The company was set up in late 2010, and whilst they were waiting for planning permission, installation of equipment etc,. commenced brewing operations using the equipment at Larkins Brewery at Chiddingstone.  As former CAMRA Brewery Liaison Officer for Larkins I was particularly keen to sample their beers, especially as I had heard good things about them. Brewing at Larkins lasted longer than Kent anticipated as objections from local residents saw the company's original choice of site at Offham being rejected, but fortunately an alternative venue became available at nearby Birling. The Nevill Bull is therefore the nearest outlet to the brewery, and was the ideal place for me to sample the Kent Brewery beers for the first time.

The walk was not an arduous one, with no hills to climb and no stiles to clamber over. Fearing we would arrive at the pub ahead of opening time, Dick was forced to add an extra loop to our route in order to ensure we arrived bang on midday. As the sun was shining and it was quite warm when sheltered from the wind, most of us opted to sit outside on the patio at the rear of the pub, This was also conveniently sited for the barn, just the other side of the car park, where the majority of the festival beers were to be found. Payment for the beers was by means of tokens, with all beers priced at £3.00 a pint; £1.50 per half. The pub itself had Harvey's Best, and Taylors Landlord on sale, alongside Kent Brewery Cobnut. I started though with Spring Top 4.0%, a well-hopped, pale bitter from Ed's excellent Old Dairy Brewery, down at Rolvenden. Then, nipping into the pub to order my food, I opted for a glass of the aforementioned Cobnut.  Described, quite correctly, as a "ruby ale" this 4.2% offering was perhaps not the best introduction to Kent Brewery beers, but then  I have never been much of a fan of this style of beer. Ruby Ales tend to be synonymous with Irish "Red Ales" and always seem to me to have an overdose of crystal malt and roasted barley. This one was no exception, although it was probably amongst the more drinkable examples.

After an excellent fish pie lunch I was ready for more beer, but wanted something lighter in colour and more refreshing on the palate. Westgate Gold 4.2% from Clarks Brewery and Amarillo, a 5.0% from Crouch Vale both fitted the bill and were both in good form. To end with though I selected another Kent Brewery beer, the 5.5% Enigma. Described on their website as a black IPA, this was a style of beer I have not sampled before. Nevertheless it was a good one to finish on. Well-hopped, as one would expect, but dark and malty to balance this beer did not disappoint. My only regret was that the brewery's three regular pale ales/bitters had not been available for me to try.

Most of the party opted to stay for a few more beers at the pub. but my friend John and I left just after 3pm as we had an awkward train journey to make. For differing health reasons neither of us are drinking particularly large amounts of beer at present, so it made double sense to leave when we did. As luck would have it we arrived back in West Malling town with plenty of time to spare, so nipped into a local coffee shop for a welcome cup of tea, before catching the first of three trains that would see us home.

Once again the Good Friday Ramble had been a good day out, with an excellent choice of pub, fine weather and the chance to renew acquaintances with old friends.