Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Craft Comes to Kent

Craft comes to Kent, or to Tunbridge Wells to be precise. Last week on a CAMRA social in Tunbridge Wells, we finished our tour of the pubs in the Common-Mount Ephraim area of town by calling in at a fairly recently opened place called the Wells Kitchen. I had heard people talking about this establishment before, but mainly about the food. What I didn't know until the day of our visit was that the Wells Kitchen majors on keg craft beer. The building that houses the Wells Kitchen has been home to a number of other drinking emporiums in the past, including a night club and, more recently, a Yates. Certainly in this latter guise it had a reputation as something of a trouble spot, so it is encouraging to see it open in its new re-incarnation as a friendly and modern town pub.

As mentioned, the Wells Kitchen was our final port of call that evening, and after some excellent Harvey's at the Mount Edgcumbe, and some decidedly less excellent Dark Star at the Royal Wells Inn, I was looking forward to something a bit different to stimulate my somewhat jaded palate. We all know that feeling of walking into an unfamiliar pub for the first time and anxiously scanning the pumps for something either recognisable or novel, well my first experience of a craft-keg pub was just like this but several orders of magnitude even more unfamiliar than normal, The other members of our group had already identified what they were going for, and had made their purchases (Larkins Traditional), but I was glad that I had held back for the universal consent amongst my companions was that the beer was flat and lifeless.

In a way I was not surprised; it was dispensed direct from a cask kept behind the bar and whilst the cask was jacketed there was no evidence of any cooling. Sensing my hesitation, the manager asked if I would like to try a few samples. I had already spotted the pumps for the Freedom Brewery, and another that caught my eye was that from Chapel Down Vineyard. Also available, and one that had been spotted by several of my companions, was Liberty Ale from Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. Now I would quite liked to have gone for this, but t £6.00 a pint, no way! The manager explained that the high cost was due to the beer having been shipped halfway across the world and I could see his point, but the prices charged for some of the the other beers was also on the dear side, and we are talking in the main about local ones!

I tried one of the various Freedom brews on sale, their Pilsner I believe, but wasn't that impressed, so in the end settled for a glass of Chapel Down Curious Brew.  I have written a previous post about bottles of this company's beer being on sale at Waitrose, but this is the first time I had seen any of them available on draught. Curious Brew is the company's lager,and it is brewed using champagne yeast rather than normal brewer's yeast. Andy Hepworth, from the Horsham based brewery of the same name, is the man behind this brew. Chapel Down themselves are based at Tenterden, and are a wine producer with a serious (ie. extremely good), reputation.

I found the beer a touch too floral  for my liking, with a quite pronounced peachy flavour, but it was still pleasant enough. However. at £4.20 a pint it was definitely a beer to sip and savour rather than swill straight down. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to ask the manager his name, as he was called away to deal with a matter in the restaurant. This was a shame as he seemed really passionate about the beers he was selling.   He had twigged that we were from CAMRA and was apologetic about his single cask offering and the poor state it was in, but in his defence stated that there just wasn't the market for cask ale at the Wells Kitchen,  Apart from the Anchor Liberty Ale, and the Larkins, all the other draught offerings were craft lagers - Freedom, Curious Brew. plus one from Hepworths. They has tried craft-keg ales but like the cask they just hadn't proved popular, so the pub decided to major on craft lager instead.

I will definitely be calling back, as the Wells Kitchen is a welcome addition on the local pub scene. Also it is  good to see someone who is so passionate and enthusiastic about beer behind the bar.  My one gripe however, and this seems to apply to all craft establishments and is a question posed by many a beer blogger, "Why is the stuff so expensive"?

ps. The pub also stocks a wide range of bottled beers, which includes ales as well as lagers.


Tandleman said...

It is noticeable that questions are starting to be voiced about the absurd priced of craft keg. This clamour will grow I think.

Paul Bailey said...

There's no excuse for the high prices, unless it's a deliberate ploy on the part of craft keg producers to create an elitist image for their product. If this is the case one has to ask "Why?", and then ask "When will the bubble burst?"

Like you say Tandleman, questions are already being raised. People are not stupid and are perhaps starting to see through the smoke and mirrors behind the marketing of craft keg.

ChrisM said...

I don't mind paying £4+ a pint for imported beers, but something brewed down the road, keg or otherwise, shouldn't be so expensive.

Paul Bailey said...

Chris, there are certain imported beers that I am prepared to pay over the odds for, but when they are £6.00 a pint, then I draw the line. Even five pound is far too expensive, so far as I am concerned.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, will have to check it out. Although the fact the manager knew his cask was ropey but still decided to try and flog it to people who wouldn't know any better, doesn't fill me with confidence.
As someone used to Londons craft scene 6 quid a pint sounds a bargain!Although yes... why the feck is so much British craft as expensive as stuff imported from US is a remains a mystery. A good example recently, was Lovibonds brewery in Henley - brewery tap 2 yards from the brewery and yet they're selling it for the same price as those establishments down the river in London.


Paul Bailey said...

I tend to agree with your comment about the dodgy cask Anonymous Matt. If the place is unable to shift cask beer then they are better off knocking it on the head completely.

Alex Greig said...

Hi Gents!

Good to read the write up Paul and in line with being passionate I thought I'd respond a little bit!

Firstly regarding the price of craft beer - yes it is expensive. Part of this is down to the ingredients (a lot of the ingredients, hops etc are imported from the US, New Zealand etc which adds to production cost, whereas a lot of local breweries use local, or English hops. Secondly the ABV of a lot of these beers is way higher, for example the Anchor Liberty is 5.9% which has a massive impact on price due to the duty impacted upon it, which is true of many a craft beer as they tend to be stronger ABV's than cask/session bitters. They are the 2 primary reasons for the expense as well as the importing costs with US beers in particular. The perfect example of a local comparison would be Darkstar's Revelation, reguarly on at an expensive price due to the ABV.

Also - you have to look at some of these in a similar way to wine - you wouldn't scoff at paying £8 for a nice glass of Rioja and we look at our craft beers in the same way.

With regard to my Larkins, I'm more than happy to hold my hands up and admit it wasn't great. The jackets are cooled however they occasionally struggle with the room temperature. We have recently been looking at our cask sales and ways to improve them and you'll be pleased to know that we are attempting to ensure the quality of the 1 we do have on at all times and as such we will be binning the beer if it's past it's best. The hope being to ensure that the pint you do get is good at all times with the view to improving sales so I don't have to worry about shelf life so much!

In the new year we intend to move our cask into the cellar for better controls over it's quality, storage temp and life. It will also hopefully allow us to have more on hoorah!

Look forward to seeing you all soon and thank you for the feedback, I really do pay attention to these things and it helps me improve, get better and serve you all better!!


Paul Bailey said...

Thank-you Alex, for taking the time to respond to the points I raised in my post. It ia always good to get feedback.

Whilst I take on board some of your points about the price of craft beer, especially those about the imported ingredients and higher strength beers, I still think there's a hint of elitism amongst some of the producers, which I think is mis-guided. Time will tell though.

Moving your cask into the cellar is definitely a good move. Casks always look appealing when perched up behind the bar, but there's nothing to beat storage in a proper temperature controlled cellar.

I think we all enjoyed our visit to the Well's Kitchen the other week. I certainly did, and will definitely be back, but not for a while as I'm off to Prague next week to enjoy some real Bohemian lagers!

In the meantime I wish you every success, and keep up the good work.