Monday 30 July 2012

Spa Valley Railway Re-visited

Back in July 2010 West Kent CAMRA enjoyed a run on the Spa Valley Railway's "Fish and Chips Special". Travelling through the delightful Kent countryside, seated in comfortable old rolling stock and hauled by a vintage steam engine, we travelled down to Groombridge, on the Kent-Sussex border where, after enjoying our fish and chip supper on the train, we walked the short distance up the hill, to the historic and unspoilt, Crown Inn. Here we enjoyed a few pints of locally brewed Sussex ales. (Harveys and Hepworths), before catching the train back to Tunbridge Wells.

Two years on and the Spa Valley Railway has been extended, and now operates right down to Eridge, where it connects with Southern mainline services on the Uckfield to London Bridge line. The new extension has opened up additional possibilities for pub visits by train, so to take full advantage of this, the branch arranged a further trip on the railway. The idea was to visit the Huntsman pub, just outside the station, stay for a few pints and possibly some lunch, and then catch the train back to Groombridge, in order to re-visit the Crown. For those keen to get a bit of exercise, and also to enjoy the unspoilt scenery of this part of East Sussex, there was an option to walk from Eridge back to Groombridge whilst the remainder of the party travelled back by train.

For me this was a good opportunity to re-visit the Huntsman; a pub I had last visited back in 1985. This was shortly before the former Eridge line closed. Back then it was possible to catch a direct train from Tonbridge down to Eridge; a situation taken full advantage of by what was then Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells CAMRA Branch in order to visit the aforementioned pub. In those days the Huntsman was owned by the late lamented King and Barnes, and afforded a rare, local opportunity to enjoy their fine Horsham-brewed ales. Following the acquisition of the King & Barnes by Hall and Woodhouse, and the brewery's subsequent closure, the Huntsman now sells Badger beers. Like King and Barnes before them, Badger beers are not that widely available in West Kent either, so I was looking forward to a pint or two of Blandford's finest. I was also looking forward to seeing whether the pub had altered much in the intervening quarter century, and also to travelling there by train once again.

Before boarding the train, a bit of history, lifted direct from the Spa Valley Railway's website: The line from Tunbridge Wells West station, through Groombridge, once offered a variety of destinations: Direct to London via Oxted, Brighton via Lewes, Eastbourne via Polegate, Three Bridges via East Grinstead, Tonbridge and all the stations in between. However, by the late 1960's, many crucial lines had closed, such as the: Cuckoo Line between Eridge and Polegate, Uckfield to Lewes line, route between Groombridge, East Grinstead and Three Bridges. Your choices were by now reduced to a shuttle between Tonbridge and Eridge, with some carrying on to Uckfield.
By the early 1980's under-investment had left the five miles of line between Grove Junction (Tunbridge Wells) and Birchden Junction (north of Eridge) in need of track and signalling replacement. The track and signalling upgrade for the Tonbridge - Hastings line electrification was being planned and the removal of Grove Junction would obviously save money. Tunbridge Wells West and Groombridge station sites were obvious assets for development (as long as they did not have a railway running through them). 
Not surprisingly, British Rail decided that the line was surplus to requirements and announced its closure on 10th September 1982, with the intention of withdrawing services on 16th May 1983. Following various objections and legal proceedings, closure was postponned until 6th July 1985, when Tunbridge Wells West station was decked in black bunting, a black flag flew above the entrance and a coffin stood in the gas lit booking hall. Many people visited the line to pay their last respects. Two "Oxted" diesel units were used, to provide the shuttle service between Tunbridge Wells Central and Eridge.
However, shortly after closure, the Tunbridge Wells and Eridge Railway Preservation Society was formed with the intention of bringing the line back from the grave. Many said it couldn't be done, but events have proved them wrong! A brief history of the Society is on the history page. Twenty six later Tunbridge Wells West is again a busy railway depot, this time for the Spa Valley Railway. Passenger services run between Tunbridge Wells, Groombridge and Eridge.
It was therefore with considerable excitement that along with son Matthew, who wasn't even born the last time I travelled to Eridge by train, plus 10 other CAMRA members and friends, I boarded the 11.55 am train from Tunbridge Wells West to Eridge. Comprising just a couple of restored ex-Southern Region coaches, and hauled by a vintage British Rail tank locomotive (don't ask me what type or class, as I haven't got a clue regarding things of  that nature), we pulled away slowly down the line towards Eridge; our journey taking just 25 minutes. En-route we called at High Rocks Halt and Groombridge stations, but once we'd reached Birchden Junction we were running on rails that were parallel to Network Rail tracks. A short while later, we were pulling into Eridge station, which has been lovingly  restored by the Spa Vally Railway's many dedicated volunteers staff.

From the station it is just a couple of minutes walk to the Huntsman, and entering the pub through the front door was like stepping back in time. With bare wooden floors, and wood-panelled walls, painted in colours to match those of Eridge station's Southern Region white and green, the overall effect was bright  breezy and welcoming. There were three Hall and Woodhouse beers on hand pump; Hopping Hare, Tanglefoot and their version of K & B's Sussex Bitter (how can you have a Sussex bitter that's brewed in Dorset?). I opted for the Hopping Hare, which was a very pleasant and dangerously drinkable 4.5% golden ale. Matthew went for the Blandford-brewed Hofbraeu; a watered down 4.0% version of Munich's Royal Court Brewery's Original.

Being a warm day we opted to sit outside on the terrace in front of the pub. There is also a much larger garden to the side. The Huntsman formerly bordered onto the busy A26, but since the early 1990's, this former notorious stretch of road has been re-routed, and the pub is now a haven of peace and tranquillity. With no juke-box, piped muzak, TV or other electronic intrusions on ones' eardrums, the same applies to the inside of the pub as well. Apart from the removal of a former internal dividing wall, the place was pretty much as I remembered it from back in 1985. The nice weather seemed to have attracted a good sprinkling of customers, including a large party of walkers, but most of us had ordered our food early on in the proceedings, and therefore did not have to wait long for it to arrive. My minted-lamb wrap, with creme fraiche went down particularly well in view of the warm weather, although the pint of Tanglefoot I chose to accompany it was not quite as quaffable as the Hopping Hare.

Those of us who were walking to Groombridge, reluctantly departed, (I will not leave it so long next time before making a return visit), leaving the remainder, (roughly half of the party) to enjoy a further pint before catching their train. Our route followed the line of the railway for quite a long way, until we eventually crossed it at Forge Farm level crossing. Then with the track on our left, and the high ground of Harrison's Rocks on our right we continued our walk towards Groombridge. It was around this juncture in time that we were passed by the train carrying our friends, as it laboured up the gradient towards Groombridge. Eventually we too reached the village, arriving at the Crown Inn some 90 minutes or so after departing from the Huntsman.

I was feeling pretty thirsty by now, especially after the climb up the hill to the Crown. The pint of Harveys Best I ordered therefore slipped down a treat and, having obtained our drinks, us walkers joined the rest of the party who were ensconced at the benches and tables, outside the flower-bedecked pub, overlooking the village green. I had two pints at the Crown; they also had Young's Ordinary on sale, but the Harvey's was so good I stayed with it. The pub itself is an attractive old tile-hung building dating back to 1585. Inside there is everything one would expect from a building of this age, including low-beamed ceilings, bare-wooden floors and the obligatory inglenook fireplace to the side of the bar. Apart from our group, the pub was quite quiet, but it was mid-afternoon and I'm certain that trade would have picked up again come the evening. We did however, learn that the Crown is on the market, for reasons unknown.

We left the Crown in good time to catch what was the last Spa Valley train of the day back to Tunbridge Wells. En route to the station we passed Groombridge's other pub,  the Junction Inn. The plan had been to call in there as well, but we had dallied a bit too long at the Crown! Oh well, there's always another day I suppose. We boarded the 17.35 train, and some fifteen or so minutes later were steaming into the Tunbridge Wells's West station. For most of us the day was not quite yet over. We walked the short distance up to the Town's historic Pantiles area, and stopped off at the Ragged Trousers. As all the al fresco seating at the front of the pub was taken, we found a couple of unoccupied tables inside and made ourselves comfortable. Beer-wise there was a pleasant surprise at the bar in the form of Long Blonde: a light yet powerfully hopped,3.8%  golden ale from new Sussex brewers Long Man Brewery.

Despite the temptation to stay for more beer, Matthew and I decided to call it a day, especially as we knew there was some food waiting for us back home. We therefore said farewell to the others, some of whom looked as though they were getting settled for the evening, and made our way back to Tonbridge. This stage of our journey however, was by modern, electric train. All in all though it had been another most enjoyable day out, combining vintage steam trains, unspoilt country pubs, good beer, some attractive scenery, some gentle exercise and above all the good company of friends and fellow beer lovers.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Kent Beer Festival 2012

As mentioned in my previous post, I attended the Kent Beer Festival last Friday as planned, and am pleased to report it was a most enjoyable event. Before I go any further though I have to correct an error in that post, where I described this year's event as the 35th such festival. In actual fact it was the 38th, which is quite a record. Kent is officially the second oldest CAMRA beer festival in the country; the oldest is Cambridge by just one year! According to the programme, Kent's first beer festival  was held in a marquee in Canterbury's Dane John Gardens, back in 1975. It lasted for one day and sold out of beer early. Nowadays it takes place over a three day period, and is held in a huge cow shed at Merton Farm, on the outskirts of the city.

A free shuttle bus operates between the farm and Canterbury Bus Station, ferrying thirsty punters to the festival, and then taking them safely back into the city at the close of each session, and it was the first of the day's shuttle buses that my four friends and I boarded last Friday. We has travelled up by train from Tonbridge, and after a short walk through Canterbury's ancient streets. were eager to get to the festival and get down to some serious sampling.

After the bus had deposited us at the farm we joined the queue for glasses, tokens plus a Festival Programme listing the beers on offer. The programme reminded us that at the time of the first event in 1975, there were only two surviving breweries in Kent: Shepherd Neame and Whitbread Fremlins. Today, the county is home to over twenty-five breweries, all of which were represented at the festival, with the exception of Moodleys, which brews exclusively bottled beers. All the Kent breweries were grouped together, which made my decision to restrict my sampling solely to Kentish ales, all the more easier.

I didn't try them all of course, but instead used the festival as a chance to try those new breweries who's products I hadn't sampled before, plus a few others who were showcasing new beers. Those breweries I did try were Abigail, Black Cat, Goody Ales, Hop Fuzz, Kent Brewery, Old Dairy, Ripple Steam Brewery, Rockin' Robin, Royal TunbridgeWells and Wantsum. Beer of the festival, so far as I was concerned, but also in the opinion of the majority of the West Kent CAMRA contingent, was Black Cat Hopsmack, described in the programme as a "Golden citrus-style beer with Amarillo and Cascade hops."  That was a wholly accurate description of this excellent beer, brewed by a new brewery, based at Groombridge in our branch area. Well done to owner and brewer Marcus Howes for coming up with this real winner. Other beers that impressed included Good Heavens from Goody Ales of Herne, Black Gold (a black IPA) from Kent Brewery of Birling and 1381 from Wantsum of Hersden.

As well as Kentish beers, the festival featured ciders and perries from exclusively Kentish producers. There were, of course beers brewed by breweries from outside the county, and these included offering from such old favourites as Acorn, Batemans, Cotleigh, Dark Star, Fullers, Fyne, Marble, Surrey Hills and Triple fff to name but a few. There was also a selection of foreign beers; mainly bottled, but including a couple of draught Belgian ales that were dispensed by hand pump. To mop up the beer there was a good selection of food available, including a stall selling curry, but it was especially good to see old favourites, Melbourne Catering Co there once again, with their selection of German sausages (Bratwurst, Grillwurst and Bockwurst), plus French crepes.

The session we attended was timed between 12 noon and 4pm, but about an hour before closing time the heavens opened.and torrential rain poured down onto the festival site. Although there were one or two leaks in the roof, in the main we remained dry inside, although when it came to queueing up for the bus to take us back into Canterbury we did get a trifle wet. Fortunately I'd had the sense to wear my walking boots, and my feet at least remained dry.

Arriving back in the city we headed for Canterbury's new brew-pub, the Foundry, just off the High Street in White Horse Lane. This pleasant, open-plan pub had some four ales on hand pump, plus a number of craft-keg beers. These included a Helles, a Red Rye Beer and a Belgian-style ale. I stuck to the cask-conditioned offerings and enjoyed Foundryman's Gold and Foundry Torpedo; the latter being an extremely well-hopped amber coloured ale.

After a few beers here we all decided that we'd had enough and, seeing as we were travelling on a joint ticket, made our way back to Canterbury West station. Unfortunately there wasn't sufficient time to call in at the excellent Bottle Shop, housed in a former goods shed next to the station, but there's always another time. My visit to the Kent Festival had been a long overdue one, but from now on I'll definitely be including it in my itinerary of "must do" events.

Thursday 19 July 2012

A Busy Weekend Ahead

I've a busy weekend ahead with a varied programme of events to keep me amused. Early tomorrow morning (Friday), I'm off to Canterbury, on the train, with a group of fellow CAMRA members. We'll be visiting the Kent Beer Festival , for the lunchtime session and then heading back into Canterbury, to enjoy a few of the city's pubs in the evening. It must be over 10 years or so since I last attended this long-running (now in its 35th year) festival, held in the rural surroundings of Merton Farm, and I'm really looking forward to it. As well as beers from just about every brewery in Kent, there will also be a good selection from outside the county, plus a variety of foreign beers. For lovers of fermented apple juice, a range of traditional ciders will also be on sale, along with stalls selling hot snacks, curry and local cheeses.

The evening in Canterbury also promises to be good, as there's some excellent pubs in the city, and a return visit there on my part, is long overdue. I'm particularly keen to visit the City Arms, scene of the first ever CAMRA meeting I attended back in 1974. The pub is now owned by Canterbury Brewers, who also own the Foundry Brewpub in nearby White Horse Lane. (We may also call in there as well). Finally, as we make our way back to the station, there will be a chance to call in at the Bottle Shop, which stocks an incredible variety of bottled beers (both British and foreign) to take away, or enjoy in the historic surroundings of the adjacent Goods Shed.

Saturday sees a complete contrast, as my son Matthew will be dragging me over to the Hop Farm at Paddock Wood for the War & Peace Show; an event billed as The Largest Military Vehicle Spectacular in the World, and a show we have attended on several occasions in the past. There'll be no decent ale, of course, but I'll probably have had enough the day before, and I'll also be driving. I'll be driving later in the day as well, when Eileen and I attend a party hosted by one of her former work colleagues, over at her family's farm near East Peckham.

Hopefully, Sunday will be a day of rest and relaxation, although the hedges need cutting, and all this rain has made the weeds grow even taller!

Wednesday 18 July 2012

At Last - A Half Decent Beer From Shep's!

I'm not kidding either; Shepherd Neame, Kent's largest, and the country's oldest, brewer seem to finally have turned the clock back to the 1970's, when they still produced some pretty good beers, (their Bitter, before they re-named it Master Brew for example), and come up with a bottled ale that's both half decent, and eminently drinkable. It's also selling at a bargain price of just £1.19 for a 500ml bottle at our local Lidl's.

Cashing in on the fast approaching Olympics, London Gold Rush Ale is a  golden coloured, well-hopped  and very refreshing beer, and with an abv of just 3.8% it's a perfect drink for summer, (if it ever arrives!). Now that's praise indeed from me for a brewer who's products I normally avoid; and I must admit I would probably have done the same with this one had the colour and the price tag not caught my eye!

The beer itself has a citrussy, hoppy nose, balanced against a fruity zestiness  from the blend of malt and hops used to brew the beer..Whilst there is still a trace of that harsh, unpleasant bitterness, that so spoils the company's beers, lurking in the background,  it is at a low enough level as to be hardly noticeable, (I was probably, looking out for it subconsciously). It's never going to win any prizes, (not in my book anyway), but sold at such a knockdown price it's worth heading down to Lidl's and picking up a few bottles, just in case summer does decide to grace us with its presence!

Footnote: Lidl's often seem to feature cut-price promotions of beers from both Shep's and Marstons.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Kloster Andechs

No visit to  Munich is complete without a day out to Kloster Andechs, the monastery brewery some 40 km to the south west of the city. We have visited this legendary establishment on every previous stay in the Bavarian capital, so a fourth visit just had to be undertaken.

 For those not in the know, Kloster Andechs is situated  on top of the Holy Mountain and unlike many such breweries that claim a monastic connection, is still run by the holy fathers. It is quite easy to reach, just take S-Bahn S-5 to the the end of the line at Herrsching, from where a short bus ride will deposit you at the foot of the Heiliger Berg. Better still, providing you have plenty of time, why not enjoy the walk up through the woods to Andechs?  That way not only will you feel spiritually refreshed, but you will enjoy your beer all the more when you get there!

I must confess I have only done the outward walk once, which was on my first visit to the monastery, and that time was travelling alone. On subsequent visits I have been accompanied by my son Matthew who, like many young people of his age seems to have an aversion to exercise! On my second, and his first, trip there I did actually manage to get him to walk back down into Herrsching, but I have not managed to repeat the feat since!

On that first visit I was relying solely on Graham Lee's pioneering  Good Beer Guide to Munich and Bavaria, published by CAMRA in 1994. Graham recommended the walk, and being a keen rambler myself  I thought it sounded an excellent idea. With the aid of a basic map, obtained from the local tourist office, I managed to find my way to Andechs without too much trouble, although at one stage I was beginning to wonder just how much further ahead my destination lay! When I finally arrived I just couldn't believe how many people were there, bearing in mind I had seen very few other people on my very pleasant jaunt up through the woods. I later discovered that most of them had made the journey by bus!

It was worth the hike up to Andechs, and saving the monastery church and the souvenir shop for later on I made straight for the Braeustuerbl. I discovered that a self-service system operated, with separate queues; one for the beer, and the other for the food. Beer first and then food after (got to get the priorities right!), but on that first visit I made the mistake of ordering a Haxe (huge lump of roast pig) which was as much as I could manage and which more than negated the calories I'd burned off in walking up through the woods!. The beer was excellent though, and I tried the 5.6% Spezial Helles, the strong 7.1%  Doppelbock Dunkel, plus a special celebratory brew called Jubilaumsbier Dunkel. who's strength lay somewhere in between.

After looking round the monastery gift shop I tried to burn off a bit more of the roast pork by climbing to the top of the onion-domed monastery church. The view from the top over the surrounding wooded countryside, against the backdrop of Ammersee lake, was worth the climb, and I felt a little less guilty for my lunchtime over-indulgence. The walk back to Herrsching was a doddle, as it was all downhill, and when I arrived in the town I wandered down for a look at the lake, before catching the S-Bahn back into Munich.

On our most recent trip we were able to introduce Matt's friend Will to the delights of Andechs. Will had flown out to join us for the last two days of our holiday, and although he was fresh off the early morning flight from Gatwick, we insisted on him accompanying us on our regular pilgrimage. It was pouring hard with rain; in fact it was the only wet day of our trip, but we didn't let a drop of rain spoil our enjoyment. After Will had dumped his bags in one of the left-luggage lockers at Munich Hauptbahnhof, we caught the first available S-5 train to Herrsching where, as luck would have it, we boarded the privately run Rauner line bus that was waiting outside the station. There were a lot of school kids on board; I say kids, but they were probably all sixth formers. They too were making for Kloster Andechs and whilst we were marginally surprised to see then drinking beer later on, one must remember that the legal age for the consumption of beer and wine in Germany is only 16.

Despite it being a wet and rather miserable Monday, the Braeustueberl was packed when we arrived, so after availing ourselves of a half litre each of  Spezial Helles, grabbed a place under cover out on the terrace that overlooks the brew-house down below. A bit later on we queued up again, this time for the lunchtime special of roast pork (with crackling), plus potato salad. I must admit I was feeling a bit "porked out" from the night before, but at only 3.8 Euro's a throw this meal was too much of a bargain to miss. Resisting the temptation of the Doppelbock Dunkel, and plumping instead for some more Spezial Helles, it was soon time to leave. This time we caught an MVV bus back to Herrsching and were able to use our Partner-Tageskarte for the return journey.

We stopped off for an obligatory look at  Ammersee lake, plus a refreshing ice-cream (it had stopped raining by then), before catching the train back into Munich. Our visit proved, once again, that come rain or shine a trip out to the Holy Mountain is an experience not to be missed!

Monday 16 July 2012

SIBA South East Beer Festival Update

Last Thursday morning reports began to trickle in that, owing to flooding, the SIBA South East Beer Festival had had to be cancelled. Now we are all aware that so far this summer has been a washout, but surely for an event of this magnitude not to go ahead must have been due to something pretty serious? I later found out that all was going to plan the day before, with the beer all delivered on time, the casks all stillaged ready for tapping and spiling and the cooling system in place, leaving the organisers well pleased with their efforts. Unfortunately the vagaries of the English climate put paid to that and torrential rain overnight rain on Wednesday evening into Thursday had left parts of Tonbridge Sportsground knee deep in floodwater. The situation had not been helped by the Environment Agency opening the sluices of the Flood Barrier upstream at Leigh; a decision that sent a surge of water rushing down the Medway and right across the already saturated playing fields.

Come Thursday morning, the marquee where the beers were housed and neatly racked, was only accessible to those wearing waders, and faced with the threat of further rain, the organisers had no choice but to call off the event. Later that same day came reports that Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club were determined to salvage something from the event and were planning to hold a mini-festival in their clubhouse, featuring a much smaller selection of the 150 or so beers originally scheduled. The clubhouse is an impressive, bright and airy building raised above the surrounding playing fields as a precaution against  flooding so, unlike the adjacent marquee, at least this venue would be safe and dry!

This still meant that there would be no competition, so far as SIBA were concerned, and for those planning to attend the min-festival, a much reduced range of beers on offer. With these SIBA organised events, all the breweries concerned supply the beer foc. After all it is in their own interest, especially if one of their beers wins an award in the various classes. As the beers in this case had not been tapped and spiled, it was no problem for them to be returned to their respective breweries, once the flood waters had subsided. This way any losses would be kept to a minimum, and with TJ's Rugby Club going ahead with the small scale event, some of their costs too could also be re-couped.

I turned up, along with my friend Eric, on Saturday at TJ's clubhouse just after 1pm. The doors had only been open for an hour, but the place was already quite busy. There were four beers available on hand pump, with a further four available from the cellar room out the back. The range was scheduled to alter as the festival progressed, but there were some good choices amongst the eight that were on sale initially. I plumped for Spirit of Kent, from local brewers Westerham, and this new, 4% pale beer was a good one to begin with. Shortly after I bumped into Clive, who is our branch treasurer, and not long afterwards chairman Iain and secretary Carole also turned up. Clive had bagged a table, so we made ourselves comfortable, and got chatting to a couple who were already sitting there. It turned out they had travelled down from Stockport specially for the festival and were unaware until their arrival that the main event had been cancelled. They still seemed to be enjoying themselves, even though many of the beers they had wanted to "tick" were unavailable. Several colleagues from work also came along; their village cricket match having been cancelled due to the inclement weather.

I'm not quite certain at what time I left, but the place had filled up nicely long before. Amongst the other beers I enjoyed were Sambrooks Powerhouse Porter, Tonbridge Coppernob, Royal Tunbridge Wells Beau Porter and, beer of the festival so far as I was concerned, Dark Star Revelation. This exceedingly well-hopped 5.7% pale ale was everything one would expect from this well-respected West Sussex brewery, with the strong flavour of the American hops used really coming through.

I'm not certain how many beers were left on Sunday, but judging by the way things were going when I left early Saturday evening I reckon most, if not all of them would have sold out. I have to say full marks to all involved at Tonbridge Juddians for managing to pull something out of the bag at the last minute, and for pulling off a such a successful event out of adversity.

Footnote: For non-local readers, until very recently, Tonbridge had a history of flooding. The town is sited where the River Medway divides into a number of smaller streams and this, coupled with the low-lying surroundings, makes it vulnerable to flooding. The most devastating floods occurred in 1968, after which substantial  defences, in the form of a sluice-operated flood barrier, were constructed upstream at Leigh. The defences were severely tested in 2000, when heavy rains left much of the Sportsground, plus a few town centre car-parks, under several feet of water. Fortunately the flood barrier proved its worth, and the town was spared the deluge it received 30 years previously. 

It is not that unusual for the Sportsground to be under water in winter, but in the middle of July is unprecedented!

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Czech Mate

I've recently enjoyed a couple of very good, but very different beers from the Czech Republic. The first was Bud Premier Select from Budweiser Budvar, which I picked up ready chilled at our local Co-Op. It weighed in at an impressive 7.% % abv., so it was perhaps just as well it only comes in 33cl bottles. Brewed using only the finest Saaz aroma hops, Moravian malt and soft water drawn from the brewery's 300 metre deep artesian wells, and then given a 200 day maturation period prior to bottling, this really was an excellent beer, well-balanced and dangerous;y drinkable!

The second beer, Lobkowicz Baron, was a complete contrast, but no less good. I bought this one at a small branch of the budget supermarket chain, Norma whilst in Munich, and wish now I'd had room for a few more in my suitcase. At just 44 cents (plus deposit) a bottle, it was an absolute bargain, but more to the point a very tasty smooth, yet full-bodied dark lager to boot, with distinct chocolate notes . This 4.7% abv beer reminded me very much of the Bernard's Specialni cerny lezak that I enjoyed during my visit to Prague, back in 2009.

A bit of on line research shows that the brewery in Vysoky Chlumec in Southern Bohemia was established in 1466. In 1474 it was purchased by the Lobkowicz family , who began a long association with the brewery. It was interrupted only in 1939 when the brewery was confiscated by Nazis and the Lobkowicz family was forced to exile to Great Britain. After World War II they returned to Czechoslovakia just to see the communists take over their properties, including the brewery in 1948. In 1992 the brewery was returned to Lobkowicz family and American born William Lobkowicz took over management of the family's assets in the Czech Republic.

Lobkowicz produces its own malt from Bohemian barley, and the beers are produced in a traditional brew house with copper vessels, using aromatic Saaz hops. Fermentation takes place in open vessels, and like the Bud Premier Select, the final balance is rounded off by months spent in the lager cellars. As well as Baron dark lager, the brewery produces a blonde bock beer called Prince and a bohemian style lager called Knight.

A Munich back-street branch of a budget supermarket was an unusual place to find this gem of a Czech beer; as was our local Co-Op for the Bud Premier Select. It just shows you that good beer can sometimes turn up in the unlikeliest of places!

Monday 9 July 2012

SIBA South East Beer Festival

I haven't drunk that much English beer since my return from Bavaria the other week; I bought a fair few bottles of local stuff back with me, although it was touch and go as to whether my suitcase would be over the  weight limit for the flight home!  So apart from a few bottles of Ringwood Boon Doggle (which were excellent), that I picked up in Lidl's for the bargain price of £1.19, plus a bottle or three of Fuller's Bengal Lancer that were on promotion in Sainsbury's last week at three for £5.00, my sole sampling of English ale was an excellent pint of Thornbridge Jaipur, on sale over the weekend at our local JDW.

All that will change next weekend though, when Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club play host to the 6th SIBA South East Beer Festival, at their club headquarters overlooking Tonbridge Sports Ground. This is the fourth time that TJ's have staged this prestigious event, which just seems to get better and better each year, and I must say I'm really looking forward to it. The festival acts as a show-case for SIBA members in the South-East Region, allowing them to exhibit their beers, and also to judge them alongside those of fellow members.

According to the festival website, there are 150 different cask beers to choose from, including offerings from companies I've never heard of, let  alone had the pleasure of sampling. As is usual at such events Friday is reserved for the serious side of the festival, namely the judging. This takes place during the day, before the festival opens to the public at 5pm. There are eight categories in the draught section, plus five in the bottled, with separate awards for the best draught and the best bottled beers. That's an awful lot of beers for the judges to get through and to deliver their verdict in an un-biased and objective fashion, but I'm certain they'll manage it somehow!

If you live within travelling distance of Tonbridge, and bear in mind that the town has good rail links with London as well as many other locations in the South East, then do come along. Admission is free, and all beers are £3.00 a pint. As well as the cask ales, there will be a wide variety of bottled beers along with traditional cider. Food wise there will be various barbecued items, plus a hog-roast, and Friday night is billed as "Curry Night". There will also be a variety of  local acts playing live on Saturday.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday 4 July 2012

A Day Out With BOB

On the 4th day of our trip to Munich we had a ride out into the beautiful countryside of Upper Bavaria. Our destination was a place we had been to on our last visit, but as we thought it so picturesque, decided we'd make a return visit. The place in question was the town of Tegernsee, on the lake of the same name in the Bavarian Alps, some 30 miles south of Munich. Tegernsee is home to the Herzogliche Brauerei, and its large Braeustueberl on the shores of the lake,  is an excellent place in which to enjoy beers from this regional brewery.

So where does BOB fit into all this? Well BOB stands for Bayerische Oberlandbahn, which is a private rail company that operates train services between Munich and Tegernsee, along with a number of other destinations. We had used the BOB service before, but only from Holzkirchen, which is at the end of the S5 suburban rail line to the south of Munich. This time we wanted to travel the entire distance using the private rail company, so for the sum of 25 Euros we purchased a return ticket to Tegernsee, which also allowed us to travel anywhere within the inner area on the MVV public transport system.

We caught the 10.10 from Munich Hauptbahnhof,  taking care to travel in the correct portion of the train as it splits twice en route in order to serve two other destinations (Lenggries and Bayisschzell). An hour later we arrived at our destination having left both the city and the flat lands to the immediate south of it behind and climbed up into what are the beginning of the Bavarian Alps. As we approached we could see the lake unfolding below us. The sun was shining and the temperatures rising (it had been quite chilly when we left Munich and we wondered, unnecessarily as it turned out, whether we might have departed under-dressed).

Leaving the station we walked the short distance down into the town and over to the lake, passing the Herzogliche Brauerei on the way. Tegernsee itself is an attractive small town with many buildings constructed in typical Alpine style. With their window boxes exhibiting colourful displays of geraniums, and other flowers, the whole place looked like a picture postcard. Tegernsee is nevertheless a busy working town, as well as a popular tourist destination and its Herzogliche Braeustueberl is undoubtedly one of its most popular attractions so far as visitors are concerned. The  Braeustueberl is housed in former monastery buildings, but the ecclesiastical connection ended in 1803 when the abbey was secularised and taken over by the Bavarian Royal Family, who continued with the brewing business that was formerly conducted by the monks.

Before calling in to slake our thirst, we had a short walk down to the lake shore, pausing to some photo's of the picture-book scenery. That done we returned to the Braeustueberl which houses a centuries old vaulted beer hall. Last time we visited we sat inside, but as the weather  this time was so good, we sat outside on benches shaded by some large vaulted umbrellas. Having arrived quite early we had no difficulty in obtaining a seat, but as the morning turned into afternoon more and more of the benches and tables became occupied, as an increasing number of  visitors started to arrive. Many seemed to have either cycled (not much fun in such hilly countryside), or walked. One groups of walkers told us they had been walking in the woods overlooking the lake for the past few hours and were now looking forward to a drink and something to eat.

Speaking of drink and food we ordered ourselves a half litre glass each of  the 4.8% Tegernsee Helles to begin with, before moving on to the much fuller bodied Spezial, which weighs in at 5.6%. To eat I treated myself to a Bavarian delicacy that I had been meaning to try for a long time, namely Weisswurst. These white, anaemic-looking veal sausages arrived swimming in hot water in a covered metal dish. They certainly tasted much better than they looked, and went down well with some sweet Bavarian mustard and a Brezn or two. Once we'd finished we had a quick look around the brewery shop, and I wish now that I'd bought a few bottles of the two Bock beers produced by the company.

We re-traced our footsteps up to the station and caught the 14.57 train back towards Munich. We didn't go the whole way to begin with choosing instead to break our journey at Holzkirchen, where we alighted and walked into the centre of this small town to undertake something we had failed to achieve back in 2009. The object then had been to try the beers from the Holzkirchener Oberbraeu brewery, but unfortunately we picked a day when the principle pub inn the town, and the former brewer tap, was closed for a rest day (Ruhetag). This time around Zum Oberbraeu was well and truly open, but was understandably quite quiet mid-afternoon. We sat outside in the courtyard at the rear and ordered a Helles each. I had noted that Holzkirchener Oberbraeu were acquired a few years ago by Koenig Ludwig Brauerei (the one owned by Crown Prince Luitpold of Bavaria), but according to the company's website the Holzkirchen plant continues to operate and still produces the Oberbraeu range of beers. I was therefore slightly puzzled when our beers arrived in glasses carrying the Koenig Ludwig Brauerei logo. I asked the waiter whether the beer was the locally brewed version and he assured me that it was, but this is one of the frustrating things about drinking in Germany as there is often no indication at point of sale as to what the beer is! Most of the time the beer is just dispensed from a series of anonymous looking taps.

I found the beer rather thin tasting, so we decided just to have the one and to make our way back to the station. On the way up to Zum Oberbraeu we had noticed a pub selling beers from Klosterbrauerei Reutberg, another former monastic brewery situated some 11 km from Holzkirchen. This was another brewery who's products I was particularly keen to try, so we stopped off at Gasthof Oberland in Muenchner Strasse and were very glad that we did. The pub had a covered veranda type area, overlooking the street at the front of the building, so we parked ourselves at a table there and waited for the waitress to come and serve us. When the beer arrived, the Reutberger Export Hell (5.1%) proved to be one of the best beers of the trip, coming only second to those we sampled at Forschungsbrauerei. Despite its relatively modest strength this Helles was a full-bodied and extremely malty tasting beer, and we were left wishing we had called in there first and given Zum Oberbraeu a miss!

It was very pleasant sitting out on the veranda watching the world go by; people were starting to make their way home after finishing work with the weekend about to unfold. Tempting though it was to stay and have another glass of this excellent beer we decided we had better head back into the city, particularly as the BOB trains only operate on an hourly basis. We walked the short distance back to the station and caught the train back to the Hauptbahnhof after what had been a most enjoyable day out in the Bavarian countryside.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Munich 2012

As I said in my previous post, our recent trip to Munich was not about tracking down rare or unusual beers, but more about having a good time, chilling out and putting the last 15 months well and truely behind us. Many people will know that Munich isn't the place to go to sample world-classic beers, and the products of the city's six large scale, industrial brewers are pretty indistinguishable from one another anyway, (certainly to my taste buds). However, they are still perfectly drinkable, and what's more Munich has some great places in which to enjoy them; none more so than the city's numerous beer gardens.

In order to make the most of  these establishments, we made full use of Larry Hawthorne's excellent Beer Drinkers Guide to Munich, just as we did on our last visit to the Bavarian capital, back in 2009.  Using this guide we were able to visit some smashing beer gardens; places one would hardly know existed, were it not for this well-researched publication. Beer gardens that really stood out were as follows:

Insel Muehle. S-Bahn to Allach followed by a short bus ride brought us to this delightful, secluded beer garden situated on the banks of the fast flowing River Wuerm. Augustiner beers, a light snack of Obatza cheese with a Brezn, combined with the sound of the rushing water  of the river in the background, made the perfect start to our time in Munich.

Alter Wirt. S-Bahn to Planneg, followed again by a short bus ride, took us to the Alter Wirt. This is an up-market pub-cum-restaurant, with a small, but pleasant beer garden, again overlooking the River Wuerm, to the rear. Augustiner beers were again the order of the day, but as the self-service stand was not open at the time of our visit (early lunchtime), we decided not to eat there but instead caught the bus two additional stops to:

Kraillinger Brauerei, which isn't a brewery anymore, but a large beer garden attached to a restaurant ,which now serves beers from Herrnbraeu in Ingolstadt, to the north of Munich. It was worth the short trip there to sample Herrnbraeu beers, in particular the full-bodied and malty Dunkles.

 Hirschgarten. Munich's largest beer garden needs little introduction and, as on our previous visit, didn't disappoint. For the un-initiated the garden is situated in a former royal hunting preserve, close to the opulent Schloss Nymphenburg, and can accommodate up to 8,000 drinkers. Part of the experience of a visit here is choosing one's Mass litre glass from a rack at the side of one of the self-service food stands, rinsing it in cold water in the basin provided, and then walking round the corner to fill it up at the Ausschank with fresh, cool Augustiner Edelstoff drawn straight from a large wooden cask.
It seemed like half of Munich was there during our early evening visit, but we still managed to find a table and enjoy a couple of litres of beer to accompany our halfroast chicken and chips. Beers from Hofbraeu Tegernsee and Kaltenberg are also available, but as we were planning to visit Tegernsee the following day, we stuck with the Augustiner.

Kugler Alm. We've wanted to visit this beer garden for a long time, and finally managed it last Sunday evening. After getting the orientation of Larry's map right, the 20 minute walk from Furth S-Bahn station, through open countryside, proved well worth while. Given it was the end of a hot weekend, the place was quiet, but this large, rural beer garden, situated on the edge of a forest really ticked all the right boxes; it even had a widescreen TV showing the ill-fated England v Italy Euro 2012 quarter final match for those masochistic enough to want to watch it!  Named after its original proprietor, Franz Xaver Kugler, the man who is also credited with the "discovery" of "Radler", (lemonade shandy to you and I), Kugler Alm afforded us the only opportunity of our trip of enjoying a Mass or two of Spaten Bier.

Forschungsbrauerei. S- Bahn to Perlach. Not really a beer garden, but a brewery with a pub and small beer garden attached. We visited Forschungsbrauerei on our previous visit to Munich, on a cool and rainy Saturday afternoon, when we discovered that after 4pm the establishment only sold its beers by the litre mug. This was fine for the normal (5.2%) Pilsissimus Export, but not so good for the 7.5% St Jakobus Blonder Bock!

Both beers were excellent, and without doubt the best we sampled on the entire trip. The same was true of our recent visit, despite the fact that the Jakob family, who founded the brewery in 1930, no longer control the business. This time the sun was shining, and the temperatures were in the upper 20's. We sat outside, under a sun-shade, in the small, but neat beer garden at the front of the brewery. Forschungs have a new, lower strength Sommer Helles available, and my son gave this beer a try. I went for the Pilsissimus Export, and am pleased to report is was as good as I remember, full-bodied and well-hopped, as was, in even greater measures, its stronger stablemate St Jakobus Blonder Bock. Fortunately the latter was available this time, in half litre measures, as were the other two beers, but all were served in traditional ceramic mugs. I have mixed feelings about these vessels as whilst undoubtedly they help the beer to stay cool for longer, they don't allow the drinker to appreciate the appearance or colour of the beer. We had some homemade potato soup, complete with chunks of Wiener sausages, for lunch, and this went down very well with the beer. All in all this was an excellent way to spend a hot Sunday afternoon, as the many other visitors to Forschungs demonstrated.

We also visited several of Munich's better known watering holes, including the famous Chinesischer Turm in the Englischer Garten where, along with much of Munich, we spent a welcome few hours as a break from Saturday afternoon shopping. Augustiner Grossgaststaette in the city centre, provided us with a good meal on our last evening in the city, and no article about Munich would be complete without a reference to the world famous Hofbraehaus. Love it or loath it, (and we love it!) the Hofbraehaus with its hordes of visitors from all over the world has a terrific and infectious atmosphere. I will even venture to say that despite its location and reputation it is not too pricey; all things considered.

Also worthy of a mention is Unionsbraeu, situated in the Haidhausen district on the other side of the Isar River/ This establishment is housed in the premises of  a former brewery that was acquired by Loewenbraeu back in 1922. In 1991 the place re-opened as a brew-pub, and today brews an interesting range of beers, first of which is the unfiltered Helles. We enjoyed several glasses of this exellent beer, along with our meal in one of the pub's many rooms.

We had a cople of disappointments. First Augustiner Braeustuben; not a disappointment itself, but disappointing that we chose to visit.on an evening that followed an hour or so of torrential rain.  It seemed that with many beer gardens closed, due to the inclement weather, half of the city had the same idea. The place was absolutely heaving, and the few tables that appeared free had "reserved" notices on them, A great pity really as this place looked really good. We have nade a note to re-visit at a quieter time, (if there is one!).

Secondly, Donisl, just off Marienplatz. I ate here on my first visit to Munich, back in 2005, and we have always used the place on subsequent trips. It offered good value for money, in characterful surroundings, with the added bonus of being able to sit outside during fine weather and watch the world go by. Sadly Donisl seems to have slipped a little. It's beer, Hacker-Pschorr was the dearest we encountered during our stay, at 4.3 Euros per half litre. In contrast the Hofbraehaus was charging a mere 7.30 Euros for a full litre! The food prices have also crept up. Nevertheless, we ate at Donisl on a couple of occasions, but the second time just had the one beer there before adjourning to the Hofbraehaus for the rest of the evening.

So there we have it, a short summary of our experiences amongst the beer gardens and beer halls of Munich. In addition to this, we had a couple of  trips out; one to Tegernsee and the other to Kloster Andechs. Both are venues worthy of a separate write-up, and I'll be doing that shortly.

ps. Please excuse any spelling mistakes. For the third day in a row, Blogger's spell checker does not appear to be working.