Sunday 27 May 2012

The Kentish Rifleman - Dunk's Green

Friday,  like both yesterday and today, was a gloriously hot and sunny day, with not a cloud in the sky. It was the ideal day for a walk in the picturesque Kent countryside, taking in a pub stop, or two, along the way.  I've got some leave to use up, so had booked the day off work and couldn't have been more fortuitous in my choice.

I had been in contact with my friend Don who, like myself, is a keen walker, and we had decided to visit the Kentish Rifleman in the tiny hamlet of  Dunk's Green, situated between Plaxtol and West Peckham. Although Don is quite familiar with this pub, it is getting on for twenty years since my last visit, so a return there was long overdue.

We caught the bus as far as Hadlow, alighting at the far end of the village, and then followed a series of footpaths that led us slowly up towards the Greensand Ridge. We stopped on a suitably sited seat, amongst a field of cows, to eat our sandwiches and take in the view. Although conditions were slightly hazy, we could see back towards Tonbridge and across to Castle Hill on the horizon. We then turned due west, skirting the Victorian pile of Oxen Hoath House before coming across the sadly closed Artichoke pub at Hamptons. Now converted into private dwellings,  I couldn't help reflect on the loss of this fine old attractive inn. I'm not quite certain of the reasons for the pub's closure, (property prices probably) and can't remember quite when it took place, but I remember being surprised when I heard the news, as it always seemed a really popular venue.

Crossing the lane in front of  the Artichoke, we continued through cornfields, along the Greensand Way,  in a roughly north-westerly direction, eventually arriving at our destination around 1.30 pm. It wasn't a long walk, by any stretch of the imagination, but with temperatures in the mid to high twenties it was probably far enough. From the outside the pub looked little changed from how I remembered it 20 odd years ago, and indeed stepping inside not much seemed to have altered either. This, whilst welcoming, was slightly surprising as I knew the pub had suffered a serous fire back in 2007 that had caused substantial damage to this early 16th Century building.

There are still effectively two bars, with the more comfortably furnished "saloon" to the rear of the pub. After ordering our beer we walked through the latter and out into the very pleasant and secluded garden. Finding a suitably shady spot we sat down to enjoy our beer - Tolly Cobbold English Ale, sold at  £2.75 a pint. I have to say that despite its low strength of just 2.8% abv  I really enjoyed this beer. On a hot summer's day it was just what the doctor ordered, and ticked all the right boxes so far as I was concerned. The beer certainly had plenty of flavour, and was so enjoyable that we both decided to go for a second pint as well! Other beers on sale at the Rifleman  were Harvey's Best (it gets everywhere, but is still a cracking pint!), and Native, a 3.7% abv offering from Whitstable Brewery.

I wouldn't say the pub was packed, but there was a steady flow of customers, most of who were taking advantage, like ourselves, of the opportunity of some al fresco eating and drinking. We left the pub just after 3pm, when it closed for the afternoon break (not a lot of point of being  open all day around here). We headed back towards Hadlow, following a slightly different route through the delightful, and virtually hidden, Bourne Valley. What was noticeable about both the outward and return journeys, was the fact we never saw another soul on either walk, which was puzzling on such a lovely day. Perhaps it shows that even here in the over-crowded South East it is still sometimes possible to escape the crowds.

We arrived back in Hadlow shortly before five o'clock, which left time for a quick pint in the Two Brewers, one of the four pubs that now remain in the village, and one that is easily the best. The fact that the Two Brewers belongs to Harveys of Lewes is the first thing in its favour, the second being it is still a proper village local.with two bars and a variety of traditional pub games. Its biggest plus though is the quality of its beer, with Cask Marque accreditation and Good Beer Guide status reflecting this. We were spoilt for choice with Harvey's Dark Mild, Knots of May Light Mild, Hadlow Pale, Olympia and Armada on sale alongside the Best Bitter. Don opted for the 3.0% Knots of May, whilst I went for the 3.5%  Hadlow Pale. Both, I'm happy to report, were in tip-top condition.

We could have stayed for another, but as both of us had a lot of things to do come the weekend we reluctantly left the pub, wandered down to the main square and caught the bus back to Tonbridge. It had been a most enjoyable day out that was made all the more so by the glorious weather, the attractive scenery and two excellent, but very different, pubs, both of which appear to be doing well and bucking the national trend!

Sunday 20 May 2012

Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche

I'm drinking a beer that is getting on for a year past its sell by date. I bought it back in December 2010 whilst on a trip to Bamberg in what must have been one of the coldest, and snowiest, winters of recent times. The beer in question is Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche, and I picked it up, along with a host of others, in what is undoubtedly Bamberg's most famous pub, the Schlenkerla tavern. It is a Doppelbock style beer, and with an abv of 8.0% is not a beer to be taken lightly. It is perhaps slipping down rather too easily for a beer of this strength so it's just as well I've only got the one to enjoy!

Many readers will be familiar with the Rauchbier (Smoke Beer) produced by Heller-Braeu Trum, with its highly distinctive taste derived from the malt used in its production being kilned over fires of beechwood logs. This gives the beer a pronounced smoky character that some people just cannot get on with but which I find most enjoyable and even quite addictive. What makes the Eiche Doppelbock different though is that the malt  is dried over oak, rather than the usual beechwood. This imparts a totally different taste to the finished beer. I don't know if the much longer maturation period my beer has been through has mellowed the smokiness, or whether oak gives a smoother flavour anyway, but this really is a superb beer that is none the worst for being kept way beyond its best before date. Chewy toffee malt is to the fore, although the aroma still has a distinctive smokiness about it. The brewery's own tasting notes indicate that "Oak Smoke Malt has a smoother and more multi layered smoky note than the intensely aromatic Beech Smoke Malt.", and this bears out my comments above.
I did sample the beer on draught during my visit some 18 months ago, although I can't really remember what it tasted like. Despite being filtered, my bottle had thrown quite a sediment, so required careful pouring. It was definitely worth  the long wait to finally enjoy this excellent beer.

ps. I still have a couple of bottles left over from my period of abstention that are also well passed  their best before dates. Both are from Woodforde's, and both are bottle-conditioned. They were sent by the brewery's PR Company for me to review.  Regular readers will know I am not a great lover of BCA's, especially as the process seems to be so hit and miss. Hopefully these bottles may have improved, rather than deteriorated,  but I obviously won't  know until I try them.  
(The Brakspear's Triple, which I reviewed recently,  was a similar age, so perhaps the Woodforde's offerings will also be ok.)

Thursday 17 May 2012

The Pubs of Tonbridge - Part One

Well  I've been threatening for some time to post about my adopted home town of  Tonbridge, but the article seems to keep growing. You see when you've lived in a place as long as I have there's so much to write about, so many pubs I have known over the years, and so many changes that have occurred. So where to begin?  Let's start with a short description of the town, mixed in with a bit of history, then we'll look at the pubs. There's a lot to get through, so this feature will be in several parts. The first  is about the three pubs that are virtually on my doorstep.

Tonbridge is a busy market town, situated on the River Medway at the upper limit of navigation. It has a population of  some 30,300 people. Although today it is overshadowed by its larger and better known neighbour,  Tonbridge is far older than the upstart Tunbridge Wells, tracing its origin back to Saxon times when it was an important crossing point of the Medway. The Normans certainly recognised its strategic importance, as they constructed a castle, overlooking the river, soon after the conquest. The castle was enlarged and replaced by a stone-built structure during the 12th Century, when it was held for the crown by the de Clare family. Although slighted by Parliament after the Civil War, when much of the surrounding walls were dismantled and used as a source of high quality building stone, the impressive gatehouse remains largely intact, and indeed was recently re-roofed as part of the town's millennium project.

For many years the majority of the town's trade depended on waterborne traffic along the Medway, but in 1842 the town's fortunes changed with the opening of the line between London and the Channel coast, via Redhill. Today Tonbridge is an important junction on the rail network, with lines to London, Ashford, Hastings and Redhill. The town became known for printing and publishing, but both these industries have declined in recent years along with what was once Tonbridge's other mainstay - the production of cricket balls and other sports goods. Today the largest companies in the town are involved with light engineering, distribution and financial services, but the rail link to London also means that many Tonbridge residents are commuters; a fact that almost certainly has a bearing on the trade in local pubs.

One would expect an important market town like Tonbridge to have its fair share of decent hostelries, and until fairly recently this was the case. Unfortunately, in common with towns up and down the country, a substantial number of pubs have been lost during the last quarter of a century; a process that has accelerated in recent years.

I first became acquainted with the town back in 1979, when I started work as  Company Chemist for a firm involved in the Water Treatment industry. Five years later I moved to the town itself, rather than having to commute each day from Maidstone. I have now lived in the town for the best part of 30 years; far longer than I have lived anywhere else. I therefore feel more than qualified to write about Tonbridge's pubs, both past and present.

I am quite fortunate in so much that within 5 minutes walk of my home there are still three fairly decent boozers; even though they have, without exception, changed out of all recognition since I first knew them. Probably the nearest is the Cardinal's Error which, whilst a centuries old building, has only been a pub since the early 1950's. The Cardinal's started life as two adjoining 15th Century farm cottages, which were converted into today's pub in order to serve the post-war housing development that was springing up all around them. Although the pub has been knocked around a bit over the last 60 or so years, there's only so much one can do with a listed building without totally ruining it. Even though the latest alteration added  an extension to one side of the building,  the Cardinal's retains the essential feel of the two-bar pub it started life as. I visited it with my son, a couple of weeks ago and although it was a Friday night we had virtually the whole of the former public bar to ourselves - all the other punters being crowded into the other section of the pub which houses the TV (why on earth do people go to the pub to watch the tele?). The Harveys Best on sale wasn't the best pint I've drunk, but it was still quite drinkable.

The same distance in the other direction, lies the Primrose Inn. From the outside this is an attractive white-painted, typically Kentish weather boarded inn, but getting on for twenty years ago the former two bars were knocked through into one, and the serving area moved over to one side.  I first knew the Primrose back in the early 1980's when myself plus a group of  work colleagues would go there once a week for a lunchtime drink, (how we ever got any work done in the afternoon after three pints of Fremlins Bitter is beyond me, but that's another story!). Harveys Best and London Pride are the cask ales on offer here today, in what is a small, cosy and  comfortable pub, with low ceilings and a number of different alcoves.

Slightly further away is the Vauxhall Inn,  a former coaching inn situated on the edge of town on what was, until fairly recent times, the main road from London to Hastings. This is another pub that has been altered out of all recognition. When I first moved to Tonbridge my wife and I had a dog and this was a perfect place to go with said hound after she had been exercised around the adjacent fields. Back then, like many local pubs, the Vauxhall was owned by Whitbread.  It was fairly basic and perhaps a trifle run down, but it had character and a welcoming open fire in the winter.

Then the pub was sold off to a local pub company, who had a hand full of pubs scattered across West Kent. It was extended to the rear and also joined to the neighbouring, former stable block. This effectively trebled the pub in size. The original part of the building contained the bar, whilst the rear extension, plus the old stable block formed the main dining areas. The real open fires were replaced by fake, gas-fuelled "log-effect" fires and the place re-opened as a "Chimneys" restaurant.  Dogs of course were no longer welcome, so I too decided that my custom was not wanted either, and took myself elsewhere. Like the Primrose, the Vauxhall is weather boarded and over the years since its enlargement has mellowed with age. Today, unless you are in the know, you would be hard pushed to distinguish the old parts from the new.

Also today, the Vauxhall has new owners, and is now a Chef and Brewer pub. It's a pleasant enough place to go for a quiet drink, even  though prices are on the dear side. The beer range consists of London Pride plus one or two guest ales from the Chef and Brewer range (typically Adnams Bitter and Broadside,  Everards Tiger, Wells Bombardier and Young's Bitter), but the beers are spoilt by being pulled through a sparkler which the pub management are reluctant to remove - even when asked politely if they can do so. (Whatever happened to the customer always being right?). On the plus side, there is a Premier Inn adjacent to the pub, which makes this a good base for those visiting the area.

Well that sums those pubs which are nearest to me. It must be said, they are not a bad selection, even if the choice of beer is rather limited.  Next time we'll look at those a bit further afield, before venturing down into the town centre and exploring what Tonbridge has to offer on a  Friday or Saturday evening.

Monday 14 May 2012

More Beer Bargains at Lidl's

There's some bargains  to be had in Lidl's at the moment, with three different Brain's beers on sale for just £1.29 a bottle! The beers are Brains Dark, SA, and Reverend James. In my opinion this a much deal than the Marston's Fever Pitch, a 4.2% pale ale brewed in advance of the forthcoming Euro 2012 Championship, which was the offer a couple of weeks ago. Although just £1.19 a bottle, I found this beer a trifle bland, but as I still have a couple of bottles left I am willing to give it another chance.

Going back to the Brain's, this is a good range of bottles sold at bargain prices, so it's certainly worth getting down to Lidl's and grabbing a few bottles, while stocks last.

Brain's Dark, at 4.1% is a fine example of a traditional mild ale, and with CAMRA branches celebrating "Mild in May Month", this is the perfect way to be supporting this endangered style of beer.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Fuerstenberg Premium Lager

I described a couple of the Thwaites beers I bought in Morrison's recently, but what I didn't mention was the excellent "Premium Lager" from the Fuerstenberg Brewery, situated in the town of Donaueschingen in Germany's Black Forest, that was also on sale in the store. Priced at just £1.49 a bottle, this extremely pale coloured beer has a slight floral nose, and is one of the smoothest and cleanest tasting beers I've come across in a long while. By that I don't mean it's bland, just a very pleasant 5.3% abv beer that's not too challenging, but just very pleasant to drink and enjoy. I don't know if it's a permanent feature on Morrison's shelves, but with that price and quality it's well worth checking out.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

A Walk to the Dovecote

On Bank Holiday Monday I joined three friends for a  walk out to the Dovecote at Capel. We were fortunate in picking what turned out to be the best day of a wet and cold Bank Holiday weekend, and even saw the sun for a few short moments along the way.

We passed through several woods carpeted with bluebells, and it was nice to hear the birds singing in the trees. The weather, whilst still cool for the time of year, at least stayed dry and was certainly a lot warmer than it had been for most of the weekend and preceding week.

 After being cooped up in doors, decorating for two days, it was really nice to be out in the fresh air!  However,  following April's record rainfall, the ground was very wet and soggy underfoot and we were all glad we'd chosen stout walking boots to wear. At least our feet stayed dry, but I have to question the Environment Agency's assertion that we are still in a drought situation, as given the saturated nature of the ground underfoot I feel that the reservoirs and underground aquifers must surely be well on their way towards being replenished by now.

Our route was a  familiar one; up past the Victorian grandeur of Somerhill House, through the woods at the back of this stately pile, and then through the estate to Tudeley. From here we followed an undulating course that took us through more woodland, the occasional orchard and a very soggy field of rape. We arrived at the Dovecote shortly after midday, and after removing our muddy boots, made our way inside and grabbed a table.

The Dovecote doesn't have a website, so a few words first about the pub itself. It is situated in the small settlement of Capel, which lies to the south of Five Oak Green, on the back road between Colts Hill and Tudeley. From the outside it is a typical Victorian building, that has been extended at the front and the side, whilst to the rear there is a part-covered terrace, plus an extensive garden and large car-park.

Being in such a rural location the Dovecote has to have something different to offer its customers. It does this by selling a wide range of cask beers (up to six), direct from the cask together with good, home-cooked food all served in comfortable and uncluttered surroundings. On the day of our visit there were four beers on tap,  and whilst some of us were slightly disappointed not to see any local beers on sale (the Dovecote is a regular outlet for beers from Tonbridge Brewery) we were compensated by the choice of a couple of beers that we don't often get the chance to drink in this area. These beers were Brakspears Bitter and Gales HSB,  served alongside Harvey's Best and Taylors Landlord.

Most of us opted for the Brakspears to start with, and it was so good that I chose it for my second pint as well. At just 3.4% this beer manages to pack in bundles of flavour combined with that unmistakable Brakspears taste that comes from the use of the original yeast and the famous "double-drop" fermentation system. It certainly is the perfect session bitter. A couple of us were bemoaning the demise of the company's Special Bitter, but with the ordinary being so good, the absence of the Special didn't seem to matter quite so much.

The pub was starting to fill up quite rapidly, with a good mixed clientele, including a couple of groups of bikers who had ridden back from Hasting following the annual May Day Run.  What is nice about the Dovecote is there is no recorded  music or other electronic distractions to disturb the gentle art of conversation.

 We ordered our food and didn't have long to wait for it to arrive. When it came it was as good as the beer; my prawn baguette being a meal in itself, especially as it arrived accompanied by a plateful of chips as well. I was going to have Landlord for my final pint, but after a friend had pointed out how good the Harvey's was I decided to go for the more local brew instead. Apart from at the brewery it's not often one gets the chance to drink this beer straight from the cask, and I have to say it really was in tip-top form.

We left the pub some time after three, but not before having a brief chat with landlord Nick. After we'd complemented him on his beer and his food, and saying how pleased we were to see the pub so busy, he told us that they had been like that for some time. It was good to see somewhere that is bucking the trend, but just goes to prove that if you give people what they really want, namely good beer, good food with fast, friendly and efficient service in pleasant surroundings, then they will come back for more. Incidentally the beer prices ranged from £3.25 for the Brakspears through to £3.40 for the HSB, which are pretty good for the area.

Our walk back followed a slightly different route and led us through both Capel and Tudeley churchyards. There had been a heavy shower whilst we were in the pub, but the weather remained dry on our homeward route, and the sun even came out for a while. All in all it was most enjoyable day out and a good way to end what would otherwise have been a disappointing Bank Holiday weekend.

Friday 4 May 2012

Brakspear Triple III

It's a cold and slightly damp early May evening and definitely NOT the sort of weather we should be experiencing at this time of year! What better then than to crack open a bottle of Brakspear Triple III that I'd had laying around at home for ages. From memory I believe I bought it for Christmas 2010, but never got round to drinking it. By following the instructions on the label, and clicking onto the Brakspear's website, I was able to check when my individually numbered bottle was filled (4th September 2010), so it is now over a year and a half old. It is none the worse for this though, as being bottle-conditioned the beer has matured like a fine old wine.

It was very lively when poured, but not excessively so that it fobbed everywhere. Even so, and despite slow and careful pouring on my part, it formed a thick, fluffy head which meant I had to drink half of it before I could get the rest into the glass! Fortunately both halves poured perfectly clear, and I was left with a glass of  sparkling, light-mahogany coloured beer with a hoppy nose and a wonderfully complex and very satisfying taste. The notes on the label describe the beer much better than I can, viz: "Thanks to the two fermentations in the Brakspear 'Double Drop' system, this highly aromatic and satisfying strong beer delivers its rich flavour with subtlety and balance. Crystal, Black and Maris Otter pale malts provide the backbone of this outstanding rich beer. Hops are added three times to provide a good balance between bitterness and fragrance."

Whilst the head brewer adds: “This is a remarkable beer which is a challenge to brew but a pleasure to drink. It is triple hopped, triple fermented & brewed by the infamous “Double Drop” method in the brewery. A connoisseur’s beer, with a wonderfully complex flavour, aroma & bottle conditioned. Beer at its best.

That sums up this excellent beer nicely. My bottle had certainly matured well and had developed a slightly vinous edge, reminiscent of a Madeira wine.It was also a full 500ml rather than the sissy 330ml size it is sold in today!

Thursday 3 May 2012

A Taste of Lancashire

We've a new Morrison's supermarket in Tunbridge Wells. Well it's not exactly new, it's a re-opened store; the original having been closed by the company just a few years after they acquired it as part of their takeover of Safeways.

I was looking forward to an outlet stocking a different selection of beers, but when I popped in last weekend I found what was on sale a trifle disappointing. I did however, pick up a couple of beers from Blackburn based brewers Thwaites. I don't often get the chance to drink the company's beers, as apart from a few of the better known ones, such as Wainwright, Lancaster Bomber and Old Dan, one doesn't often see them on sale in this part of the country.

The two bottles I bought were unfamiliar to me; Indus IPA 4.6% and Tavern Porter 4.7%. The former
is a well-hopped, amber-coloured beer named after a former trading ship. The profile notes on the bottle read. "When Daniel Thwaites was embarking on his brewing career, the INDUS would have been voyaging to the East Indies – trading Lancashire cotton for exotic Eastern delights. Our INDUS Pale Ale celebrates ales of that period with a refreshing brew enriched with abundant hops for flavour that stays fresh and crisp to the finish."
The latter is described as a "Traditional porter, with a slightly sour taste. Full roasted flavours with a hint of smoky liquorice."

Whilst neither beer was over exciting they were still eminently drinkable, and of the two I preferred the Porter which, incidentally, was bottle-conditioned. I do have a slight soft spot for Thwaites, as when I was at Salford University, during the mid 1970's,  Thwaites beers were served in the Students' Union bar. They were brewery-conditioned, rather than cask, but they were still a vast improvement on the Scottish and Newcastle slop that had been on sale when I first arrived on campus. The company had quite a few pubs to the north of Manchester, particularly in and around Bury, and in my final year a Salford I quite frequently drank in some of these, especially as I had a couple of friends living in the area. At the time, Thwaites brewed two milds alongside their bitter, and whilst I've never been a huge fan of mild ale, I recall that the darker of these two milds was particularly good.

Thwaites were one of the first breweries I visited. Their modern brewery in the centre of Blackburn had only been operating for 8 years at the time of our visit during the mid 1970's. Whilst modern in construction, it was still a traditional tower brewery, but apart from that I don't remember much about it. There was no sampling room as such; instead we had been taken to a nearby pub by our guide in order to sample the beers, and this was before the tour!

Given the above, I was all the more interested then to read that Thwaites are planning to build a new brewery, on a green-field site, and move out of their current home (Presumably to realise the value of what must be a prime site right in the centre of Blackburn). This represents a major investment for the company, and confirms their commitment to remain in brewing. They state that the new brewery will be "state of the art", and plan to incorporate a visitor centre as part of the development. According to their website, they are still looking for a suitable site at the moment, so brewing will obviously continue in Blackburn for the time being. When the new plant does finally open I hope to pay it a visit so I can compare the new with the old and, of course, renew my acquaintance with some of Thwaites's draught beers.