Wednesday 28 November 2012

More Beery Delights From Waitrose

 Top end supermarket, Waitrose just seems to get better and better, with the launch of two new "own label" beers. Waitrose German Pils, is a 5.0% premium beer, produced at the Memminger Brewery, in the town of Memmingen in southern Bavaria. According to the blurb on the back of the bottle, "the beer is made using mountain water sourced from the Vilsalpsee and the Lechtaler Alps from the brewery's own well." It's a crisp, clean-tasting  lager that's right up my street, and at just £1.41 for a 500ml  bottle a real bargain as well.

Also available is Waitrose Czech Pilsner. another 5.0% beer, this time produced at the Herold Brewery at Breznice Castle in Bohemia. Brewed from locally grown  barley malted within the castle walls, and bittered with Saaz hops. The beer itself is deep golden in colour, much darker than the German version above, pleasantly hoppy and full flavoured. Again the beer is priced at just £1.41.

 I'm not certain whether these are introductory prices or not, but at the moment they are too good to be missed. It remains to be seen whether Waitrose will be adding other classic beer styles to this line up; they have been selling an "own label" Bavarian Wheat Beer for a number of years now, but it would be nice to see some Belgian beers putting in an appearance, plus of course, how about some good old-fashioned British ales?

Monday 26 November 2012

A Wet Saturday in November

As I mentioned last week, Saturday was the date set for the West Kent CAMRA Branch  AGM. It was a foul day, weather wise, so what better place to spend the afternoon than in a pub?  The pub in question was the Chequers, an unspoilt 16th Century inn on Sevenoaks High Street. Being close to the apex of the junction where London Road splits away from the High Street, the Chequers also has a back entrance, and it was in this rear part of the pub that our meeting took place.

We had a reasonable attendance of 18 members, plus  Regional Director, Kae Mendham. In view of the atrocious weather the turnout wasn't too bad, but one can't help wondering where the other 480 odd members were? All members would have been notified in advance of the meeting, either by e-mail or post, so they had no real excuse (apart from apathy) for not attending. Having said that I accept that today,  people live busy lives and often have other more pressing priorities, so perhaps we ought to be thankful for the handful that did turn up!

So what of the meeting itself, well the various branch officers presented their reports, there were elections for the various committee posts, branch accounts were presented; in short all the usual formalities that take place at Annual General Meetings. Afterwards, campaign goals were set for the coming year, and a shortlist of pubs was drawn up for possible inclusion in the 2014 Good Beer Guide. In between the proceedings we  managed a short break for solid refreshments, in the form of a buffet, supplied by the pub.

So far as liquid refreshment was concerned, there was a  good choice of beers on at the Chequer, which included Black Sheep, Harvey's, St Austell (Tribute), Tonbridge (Ebony Moon) and Westerham (Spirit of Kent). It was also good to see the pub so busy on such a wet day, although I imagine the market stalls, just outside the front door must have helped to encourage trade.From my point of view, the Chequers takes me back to how I remember town centre pubs; bustling, busy and packed with a good cross section of customers, all enjoying good beer, good food and good company. If I lived in Sevenoaks the Chequers would definitely be my pub of choice.

The meeting broke up around 5pm, and a group of us headed down to the Sennockian, Sevenoaks' Wetherspoons outlet. Unfortunately the beer range was not that inspiring, with just Old Hookey, plus Grasshopper from Westerham Brewery, to complement the usual Greene King regulars. Both the aforementioned beers were on good form though, but after a couple here those of us who aren't inhabitants of Sevenoaks decided to head back to Tonbridge. Two of us had journeyed over by train, whilst the other two remaining members had travelled by bus. We therefore decided on a slightly silly, "Top Gear"-style race to see which couple could make it to the Tonbridge Wetherspoons (Humphrey Bean) first. It went without saying that, as it was virtually door to door, the pair who had  travelled by bus won hands down!

There was a much better range of beers on in the Humphrey Bean, including two beers from Hopdaemon; a very interesting and innovative brewery which, in my mind, is often overlooked. Both Incubus and Golden Braid were on offer, with the latter being especially good. A bit later in the evening Thornbridge Jaipur made an appearance on the bar. Although welcome at the time, it was probably not a good thing in view of the amount of beer we had already consumed. I certainly regretted it the following day! However, it made a fitting end to a good day out, and even made the trudge home through the rain a bit more bearable.

Sunday 25 November 2012

A Breath of Fresh Air

 This post isn't really much to do with beer although the odd few bottles were acquired at one stage in the proceedings.

Feeling somewhat jaded this morning, and not quite with it, after a few too many glasses of Thornbridge Jaipur last night, I decided to walk down into Tonbridge to get some fresh air, clear my head and also pick up a few bits of shopping. After getting rid of a load of plastic bottles in the re-cycling bin, I headed into Waitrose; definitely my favourite supermarket and , as I found, about to get even better.

I filled my basket with a few essentials for the week ahead, but also grabbed a couple of bottles of Meantime Brewery India Pale Ale, which is on special offer at the moment. Priced at just £3.93 for a 750ml bottle, this is an offer that is just too good to miss. Having finished my shopping I headed for the check-out. I had already been given a 50p discount voucher when I entered the store, just for tasting some of their new Christmas shortbread chocolate biscuits and giving my opinion of them (very moreish), when I presented my recently acquired  "my Waitrose" card to the lady on the till. I asked her what benefit(s), if any, the card entitled me to, and was pleasantly surprised when she told me I could have a free cup of coffee in their in-store coffee shop.

I therefore enjoyed a very nice cup of coffee and, as it was lunchtime, tucked into a reduced price sandwich which I had bought earlier, along with my other purchases. Discounted craft beer, reduced-price sandwiches, 50p off my shopping bill plus a free cup of coffee. I think I'll be heading back to Waitrose next weekend for more of the same!

Waitrose are running some very good offers on beer at the moment. As well as the Meantime IPA they have such delights as Fullers Porter and St Austell Proper Job at three bottles for £5. In addition, bottles of Budvar, Dark as well as light, are just £1.50 each. I'm busy stocking up for Christmas!

Friday 23 November 2012

A Quiet Couple of Weeks

 Not a lot to report at the moment on the beer and pub front, as I've been busy sorting out other matters. Most of these things were boring, time consuming and expensive, especially having to run my car back to the garage for the second time in a week to sort out a nagging fault, but last weekend at least gave the family a chance to relax and celebrate son Matthew's 21st birthday. We spent the day round at the house of a couple of good friends, one of whom is Matthew's Godmother. Janis is also a fully trained chef and laid on a superb roast dinner in honour of the occasion.

Earlier that day I unearthed a 1991 vintage bottle of Thomas Hardy Ale that was lurking at the back of the cupboard. 1991 was the year Matthew was born, and I bought the Thomas Hardy Ale specifically to lay down and keep until he turned 21. It is an individually numbered bottle, and was brewed by the original creators of the beer, Eldridge Pope at their now sadly closed Dorchester brewery. We were going to open it round at our friends, but after we'd given some bottles of St Austell Proper Job a bit of a caning, and then moved on to some rather potent, but very quaffable, Sicilian red wine, thought we really wouldn't  be doing this 21 year old vintage ale justice. Hardy's Ale has therefore gone back in the cupboard to be opened on another suitable occasion (probably Christmas).

During the week I made a couple of forays into our local Wetherspoons, where I had some very good Exmoor Gold, (I'd forgotten just how good a beer this pioneering Golden Ale is), plus some equally enjoyable Brewster's Andromeda.

Tomorrow sees our local CAMRA Branch's AGM, which takes place this year at the Chequers in Sevenoaks. Now I'm no longer on the committee I can watch things from the sidelines, but still continue o support the branch by going along to socials and helping out with activities such as the Spa Valley Railway and SIBA Beer Festivals. It has been quite a successful year for the branch as a whole, so we are all looking forward to the coming year. It will be interesting to see what takes place at the meeting, and to learn what plans our chairman and committee have for the forthcoming year.

In a couple of week's time the round of Christmas meals and drinks will be starting in earnest. Unlike last Christmas, when I was unable to drink, I am looking forward to sampling the many beery delights that I have  been stockpiling these last few months. As well as all these bottles, I may well decide to treat myself to a mini-pin of one of my favourite winter beers - Larkins Porter. I haven't tried any of  this year's offering yet, but I'm certain it will be every bit as good as in previous years.

Well that's all for now. I've got a bit more research to carry out before I publish my final article on Tonbridge's pubs and I'm also keen to continue with the Classic, Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain theme.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Parlour Pubs

Following on from my last post concerning Rodney Wolfe Coe's list, I was reminded of a pub that would undoubtedly have featured in the "Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain" had it still been open when the list was being compiled. I only visited the pub I am about to describe once, and that was some 40 years ago; right at the start of my drinking career.

Before I reveal all I want to refer back to the Sun at Leintwardine, described by Mr Coe as "probably still the best pub in Great Britain".  Now I haven't been there, but I've read a lot about it, especially about its legendary and long serving landlady Flossie Lane who sadly passed away back in 2009. Now I know the pub has been given a new lease of life and that this has had to have come at a price (extension to the former tiny bar, serving food, laying on entertainment  etc.), and obviously accept the need for this in order for the pub to survive in the 21st Century. But prior to Flossie's death, the Sun could best be described as one of just a handful of "parlour pubs" left in Britain, and it was just such an establishment that I visited, back in the early 70's, shortly after my 18th birthday.

The Woodman’s Arms at Hassel Street, near Hastingleigh high up on the North Downs between Ashford and Canterbury, was a classic pub that has long since disappeared. I only had the pleasure of visiting it once, and having just turned eighteen did not, unfortunately, appreciate its finer points at the time.

The Woodman’s had been brought to my attention after it had featured on the local television "news magazine" programme - "Scene South East". This was back in the days of "Southern Television" when our local ITV programmes came from Southampton. This meant a distinct bias towards Hampshire, with Kent and Sussex lucky to get a mention. The only exception to this was on Friday evenings when the aforementioned programme was broadcast from the company's Dover studio.

What had caught the presenter’s eye was the fact that the Woodman’s Arms did not have a bar, which even 40 years ago was highly unusual. Instead, drinkers sat around a table in what appeared to be the licensee's front room. Having seen the pub featured, I decided to check it out for myself, at the earliest available opportunity. I therefore set off on my motorbike, one evening in June, in search of this highly unusual pub.

Hassel Street was only a few miles away from my then home village of Brook, but being tucked away amongst the maze of narrow lanes that lie at the top of the North Downs it took a bit of finding. I eventually succeeded, and found the pub located half-way down a “No- Through Road”. From what I remember, it was an unassuming, white-painted building which was considerably older inside than it looked from the outside.

According to a guide to “Kent Pubs”, published by Batsford in 1966, the Woodman’s dated back to 1698, and had three rooms. One was a side room, that doubled up as a children’s room, one was for darts whilst the third acted as the bar-parlour. It was the latter that I made my way into, and I do vaguely remember there being a darts room to the left of the entrance. As shown on the television programme, the room was plainly decorated, and simply furnished. There was a table, complete with tablecloth, in the middle of the floor, and along one of the walls, was a dresser on which were placed various bottles of wines, spirits and bottled beers, plus a selection of glasses. Pushed up against the other three walls were some hard wooden chairs, occupied by about half a dozen or so people.

As I walked in I could see no evidence of any beer pumps, so I enquired as to whether the pub sold draught beer. I was told that it did but, feeling very conscious of the lull in the conversation, decided to opt for just a half of bitter. The landlady retrieved a half-pint mug from the dresser, and disappeared down some wooden stairs to the cellar below.

To digress for a moment, according to the aforementioned “Kent Pubs”, the Woodman’s was renowned for its beer. Although it was a freehouse only one brew was stocked “so that it is always in condition”. “Come here for your Fremlins” said the guide, and you would have had the choice of Fremlins Mild, Three Star Bitter or County Ale. “Every pint or half, is drawn in the cellar, seven steps down and seven steps up, which stays at 50 degrees summer and winter.” The landlord had been told, when he first came to the pub, by a retired publican friend that, “The secret of keeping ale and beer was to order it in advance so that it can lay for two weeks before you tap it.” These days, pubs seldom lay their beer down for more than two days before tapping and serving it!

The recommendation given above would have been lost on me back then, as I didn’t know that much about beer. However, the beer stocked at the time was almost certainly cask Whitbread Trophy from the former Fremlins Brewery in Faversham. When the landlady returned with my drink, I made some half-hearted attempts at conversation, but  felt increasingly awkward and out of place. I had only recently reached the legal drinking age and was a somewhat shy and slightly introspected youth, lacking in social skills and not able to mix well with different age groups.  Most of the clientele seemed to know each other, and whilst they were not unfriendly, I quickly decided that one swift half was enough. This was a great shame as this turned out  to be my only visit to the Woodman’s. Not long afterwards I went off to university, and apart from short visits to see my parents, during vacation time, never returned to live at home on a permanent basis.

I am not certain exactly when, or indeed why the pub closed, but one possible clue to its demise is again given in “Kent Pubs”. The landlord of the Woodman’s worked as a postman in the mornings, which suggests that his main income came from delivering letters rather than serving pints. This indicates that the pub may not have been viable on its own, and given its isolated position, it is perhaps easy to see why. I cannot help thinking though, that had the Woodman’s managed to hang on for a few more years, then people like Mr Rodney Coe may have helped to put it on the map.

Sunday 11 November 2012

The Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain

Back in June a letter appeared in  CAMRA's "What's Brewing" newspaper, written by one Rodney Wolfe-Coe. Mr Coe informed the readership that after 36 years membership. he was resigning from CAMRA  His principle reason for doing this was the campaign's "dash for obedience to the gods of electronic communication,"  a subject in which he had no knowledge and even less interest. He claimed that the heritage and tradition which CAMRA used to stand for had been swept away in the rush to embrace modern technology, and that even the Branch Events page in "What's Brewing" was guilty of this, as often there were no addresses to which members could write to and few proper phone numbers – "just more electronic wizardry" 

Whilst accepting he may have a point, it is particularly sad to see such a long serving and distinguished member leave in this fashion. I say distinguished because Rodney Wolfe Coe was probably instrumental in establishing CAMRA's National Inventory of Unspoilt Pubs, albeit in his own somewhat maverick fashion. It is obviously an area close to his heart, as he ended his letter by stating that for the past 19 years his principle interest had been the National Inventory. 

To elaborate further, back in the late 90's, reports began circulating amongst some of my friends about a list of unspoilt, classic pubs. Entitled “The Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain” the document purported to be the UK’s definitive list of such pubs. Ir was was even mentioned in the newsletter of the Brewery History Society,  an organisation of which I was a member at the time. The person responsible for compiling this list was none other than the aforementioned Mr Coe, someone who's name was not totally unfamiliar to me. This is because it had been mentioned in the  acknowledgements to the 1984 edition of Real Ale Pubs in Kent, where special thanks had been given to Rodney Coe "whose unstinting devotion to the promotion of Real Ale had led him to visit every licensed premises in the  County of Kent.".  This had  proved invaluable to the compilers of the guide, particularly in those areas of the county where CAMRA activists were thin on the ground.

I had never met Mr Coe, and still haven't, but it was evident that the list was compiled with the help of a number of people whom I refer to as the "CAMRA Railway Fraternity". A good friend of mine is a member of this group, and several colleagues of his assisted Rodney Coe with his researches.  I was perhaps a little envious of them. Being railwaymen, of some years standing, they all qualified for free or reduced rate rail travel; something that enabled them to visit pubs in the far-flung corners of the kingdom at minimal cost. It would cost me a small fortune to visit such places myself, hence my envy. However, it was through the aforementioned friend that I eventually obtained a copy of Rodney Coe's list, and for that I am grateful. 

I came across my copy of this list last week, whilst sorting through some old papers. It is in the form of a simple folded A5 sheet  and its full title is "The Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain - 5th Edition",  published in 1998. There are just 21 pubs listed; an earlier edition, published in 1994,  that I managed to track down online totalled 32. It is worth reproducing part of the introductory text to this noteworthy publication:

"This is not just another list of the Classic British Pubs. Many existing lists rely totally on other people's findings. This list is different in that the compiler has personally visited over 140 pubs that possibly warranted inclusion in a definitive list.

Apart from the obvious criteria of being Classic, Basic and Unspoilt, all the pubs in this list normally sell Real Ale (there are an estimated half-dozen others which do not sell Real Ale and for which, regrettably, no place can be found in this publication). Many of the 140+ visited have been "Improved" or found to be just not worthy of the description -  Classic, Basic and Unspoilt. Sadly, many others considered for listing have closed since "inspections" began in May 1993.

The compiler therefore feels that this could be regarded as the definitive list of  "The  Classic, Basic and Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain". Others may disagree - especially with the star ratings."

So what of the pubs themselves: 
(apologies for the wonkey columns; Blogger wouldn't allow me to align them properly)

Derbyshire                    ELTON                                   Duke of York
East Riding of               SKERNE                                 Eagle
East Sussex                  HERSTMONCEUX                Welcome Stranger
Gloucestershire             CHELTENHAM                     Bath Tavern
Gwynedd                     BETHESDA                            Douglas Arms
Kent                             SNARGATE                            Red Lion
Oxfordshire                  STEVENTON                         North Star
                                    STOKE TALMAGE                Red Lion
Powys                          HAY-ON-WYE                      Three Tuns
Walsall                          BLOXWICH                          Turf Tavern

Herefordshire               KINGTON                              Olde Tavern
Leicestershire               MEDBOURNE                        Horse & Trumpet
Oxfordshire                  STOKE LYNE                        Peyton Arms

Camarthenshire             LLANDOVERY                      Red Lion
Gloucestershire             AMPNEY ST PETER              Red Lion
Northumberland           NETHERTON                         Star
Pembrokeshire             PONTFAEN                            Dyffryn Arms

Devon                          LUPPIT                                   Luppit
Kent                             COWDEN POUND                Queens Arms
Shropshire                    HALFWAY HOUSE               Seven Stars

Herefordshire               LEINTWARDINE                   Sun

                        and, thus, probably still the best pub in Great Britain.
Fourteen years on and I wonder how many of these pubs are still trading? I regret to sat I have only visited two of them - the Queen's Arms at Cowden Pound and the Red Lion at Snargate. Both of these pubs are in Kent, with the Queen's Arms probably only a dozen miles from where I live. Unfortunately it only has limited opening hours, given the advanced years and recent bout of poor health Elsie, is long serving licensee. One doubts for is survival, especially in its present form, when Elsie finally decides to cal it a day.

The Red Lion, on the other hand, probably has a more assured future as Kate, the daughter of long serving landlady Doris, has taken over the day to day running of the pub, together with her partner.. Furthermore, unlike the Queen's Arms, which is owned by Admiral Taverns, the Red Lion is a free house.

News of the other pubs on the list would of course be most welcome, as would thoughts on how classic, basic or unspoilt these pubs still are.


In 1997 CAMRA published, for the first time, its own list of Classic Pubs. The list appeared in that year's Good Beer Guide, and was a complete listing of all the pubs on the campaign's inventory of national treasures. Titled "Pubs to Save - CAMRA's National Inventory of starred pubs, historic gems which must be preserved."

Thursday 8 November 2012

The Covent Garden Beer Exhibition 1975

Boak and Bailey have recently been running a highly entertaining and informative series of posts on their excellent blog about the early days of CAMRA, which have included articles about the legendary Becky's Dive Bar, the Great Air Pressure Schism, How CAMRA got its name, and  The origins of the term "Real Ale.

However, with no disrespect to these two fine and highly regarded bloggers, I believe most of the information used in their researches must have come via other sources, simply because, as far as I am aware, neither Boak or Bailey are old enough to have experienced these places and events personally! I on the other hand, whilst not quite in on the action from the very start, do remember the controversy surrounding Truman’s Tap Bitter, because of the air pressure system ("County Air Pump"), used to dispense it. I can also recall a couple of memorable visits to Becky's Dive Bar in the mid 1970's. My most memorable experience though from those early days of  CAMRA was my visit to the Campaign's first major beer festival.

This pioneering event was actually billed as a “beer exhibition”, rather than a beer festival. It was called the Covent Garden Beer Exhibition, and  took place during September 1975. It was held in the old Flower Market in London's Covent Garden, and was the first beer festival I ever attended. The Flower Market was empty at the time, following the relocation of London's main Fruit and Vegetable market to Nine Elms. The recently vacated historic buildings were under the threat of demolition; indeed, the whole of the Covent Garden area had been earmarked for redevelopment. Fortunately this threat was averted,  thanks, in no small part to the efforts of the Covent Garden Community Association. This organisation played a key role in securing the venue on CAMRA's behalf, and it must be said that the success of the exhibition went a long way in persuading the relevant authorities that this historic site was worth preserving. One only has to take a trip to Covent Garden today, to see just how popular the area is with shoppers and tourists.

The Covent Garden Beer Exhibition was not the first such event organised by CAMRA; that honour belongs to the Cambridge Branch who ran a pioneering festival in 1974. However, the Beer Exhibition, held at Covent Garden, by far exceeded the expectations of its organisers, and set the seal of approval on subsequent events. These, of course, culminated in the hugely successful, annual Great British Beer Festival. I have since discovered that the Covent Garden Exhibition attracted over 40,000 people in total, one of whom was me!

To return to the story; I attended the Exhibition with a group of friends for one of the lunchtime sessions. We had to queue to get in, but the numbers of people present were not so great as to make things uncomfortable inside the hall. It was certainly an eye-opener, so far as I was concerned. I had never seen so many beers on sale in one place. They were all dispensed by gravity, direct from casks, stillaged on the old flower stalls, although I remember that Samuel Smiths had fitted special "cask pumps" to their casks. These were miniature hand pumps, whose purpose was to ensure the beer was dispensed with the tight creamy head that Yorkshiremen are so fanatical about!

It is difficult now to recall exactly which beers I sampled, but I do remember enjoying beers from the now sadly defunct Yorkshire Clubs Brewery. All the beers I tried that day were new to me, and it was very encouraging to be in the company of so many like-minded people, all enjoying decent ale in pleasant, if somewhat basic surroundings.

My companions and I enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to attend the following evening. When we arrived though, we found the queue stretching right round the building, and were told that we stood virtually no chance of getting in. Reluctantly, we adjourned to the nearby Marquis of Anglesea, and spent the evening enjoying the Youngs beers on sale there. (At the time the Marquis was one of only a handful of pubs in Central London belonging to this once renowned Wandsworth Brewery.)

Halfway through the evening, one of our party nipped out to see if the crowd situation at the exhibition had improved. He returned to advise us that, if anything, things had got worse. By this time we were well stuck into the Youngs, so we decided to stay put.  Looking back this was a great pity, as I would have liked to have attended a further session, and tried a few more different ales. Oh well, at least I can say I was there and, as proof, I still have my souvenir glass which clearly states “CAMRA Covent Garden Beer Exhibition” - a valuable and much treasured memento of this pioneering event!

 There are some excellent colour photographs of the event, taken by David A.L. Davies, on the Redbubble website,  I have not reproduced them on this post, as they are copyright.


Tuesday 6 November 2012

Time to Ditch the Good Beer Guide?

 I know I’m a month or so behind with this one, but better late than never, as they say. The beginning of last month (October) saw the launch of the 40th edition of CAMRA’s best selling Good Beer Guide. I haven’t rushed out and bought my copy, and unlike previous years, I’m not sure that I’ll bother. (Actually I didn’t buy the 2012 edition either, but that was due to other reasons).  

Prior to 2012 I have every edition of the guide stretching back to 1974, when the Good Beer Guide first made its appearance as a properly published book. Previously, it had taken the form of a hand-produced, photo-copied list that I believe appeared the year before, and possibly the year prior to that as well. A slice of history, one could argue, and mildly interesting as well as entertaining to look back through occasionally, but apart from that just more books taking up valuable space on the shelf!  At the time though I eagerly awaited the publication of each of these guides, but things change, people change,  pubs have changed and the whole world has moved on. What I am saying, in effect is that for me, at least, the Good Beer Guide has lost its appeal and dare I say I find it an increasing irrelevance in today’s digital world.
And yet, there are still publicans who would give their hind teeth for an entry in the guide. Each year there are CAMRA branches involved in heated debates as to which pubs to put in and which to leave out. Some of these meetings become extremely passionate and feelings can sometimes run very high when certain members’ favourite pubs don’t quite make the grade, even though perhaps on balance it may have been a more worthy, and deserving entry. That is if  branch politics, impassioned debate or just sheer bloody mindedness hadn’t conspired to prevent its selection.

I have been a member of CAMRA since the mid 1970’s and have attended more of these selection meetings than I care to remember. In fact I would rather forget most of them. These days I really can’t be bothered with the whole debacle of such gatherings, and fail to understand why people get so uptight about the whole thing. Come on chaps, lighten up; life's too short to obsess over such issues.(You won't be seeing me at the next branch GBG selection meeting!)
The unique selling point (USP) of the guide when it first launched, was that it was a guide to pubs selling un-pressurised, cask conditioned beer. In the eyes of its originators, and those members of CAMRA and the public at large who bought it (I obviously include myself amongst these), it was a guide to GOOD BEER, and hence it was titled as such. Looking back to those early pioneering days with the wisdom of hindsight, plus the benefit of knowledge about beer gained over the last four decades, one has to question was it really a Good Beer Guide, or just as I suggested earlier, a  guide to REAL ALE, as defined by CAMRA at the time, but now universally adopted as the description for this type of beer? I  feel now it was the latter, but in no way wish to detract from its obvious, and at the time, ground-breaking campaigning role. However, pubs selling real ale (as defined by CAMRA), were few on the ground back in 1974, and many must have been selected on the mere fact that they sold the stuff, rather than the quality of what was coming out of the pumps! As time marched on, and the campaign started to capture the imagination of the public at large and appeal to a wider audience, quality rightly became more important until we have today’s situation where it SHOULD be the over-riding consideration, above all else for an entry in the guide.

The other USP of course, is the Breweries Section at the back of the guide. I used to find  this more useful than the individual pub entries, but now, as the number of breweries has grown exponentially, and the number of different beer styles breweries produce has also increased significantly, there is less and less space in the guide to do each brewery justice. Too often, apart from regular beers, the guide will just say “For seasonal beers, see website”, and that is precisely what I tend to do nowadays! I’m also certain that many others do the same. A website can give far more information than the guide can ever hope to show, and therein lies the rub. The Breweries Section has become less and less relevant; the pub information is only of real interest to me if I am contemplating visiting a different area, or region of the country (I already know what’s worth visiting and what’s best avoided locally). Even then, if it’s a visit of more than a couple of days, I will buy a local guide, especially as these tend to list all real ale outlets and there’s usually sufficient information in the write up for each entry for one to get a feel as to which pubs are worthy of a visit and which aren't.

In short, some online research followed, where deemed necessary,  by the purchase of a local guide and the GBG suddenly becomes both redundant and irrelevant. So why do people continue to buy it each year, why does it regularly make the best sellers list and why do CAMRA branches devote an inordinately large amount of time surveying and selecting entries for it?  Why do publicans sell their own mothers in order to be included in it?
I’m not sure I can answer those questions. Presumably the guide is doing something right or are all those purchasers just buying it annually because, like me, they have a set going back to when it first started out?  Alternatively, is it just something wives and girlfriends buy for their significant others as a stocking filler at Christmas?, or is that me being overtly sexist and patronising?

Despite the annual boost to CAMRA’s coffers, is it now time to ditch the Good Beer Guide? or are we going to let it carry on for another 40 years, during which time it will undoubtedly wither on the vine before dying a slow and lingering death.Should it keep going for another decade until it celebrates its half-century and then be killed off?

The comments and thoughts of fellow bloggers and other correspondents on these questions, would be gratefully appreciated.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Some Old Ale at Last!

I finally managed to track down the elusive Harvey's Old last night, and am pleased to report it was in fine fettle. In fact it was so good and slipped down so well, that I had four pints of it! The outlet at which I enjoyed this excellent winter drink was the Brecknock Arms, a small, unspoilt Harvey's pub situated in the tiny village of Bells Yew Green. This settlement is just five minutes walk away from Frant railway station, itself only one stop away from Tunbridge Wells.

My son Matthew and I caught the 18.32 service from Tonbridge, and although we had to change at Tunbridge Wells were at the Brecknock just before 7pm, where we met up with our friend Eric who had caught an earlier train over. It is the best part of two years since I last set foot in the place, and the pub has changed hands since then. Now, following a period of uncertainty over its future, I am glad to say the pub is thriving once more. There was a good mix of regulars when we walked in some, like ourselves just off the London train, and although the place gradually emptied as the night wore on, it was good to see it busy.

As well as the Old Ale, there were three other Harvey's beers on sale; Hadlow Bitter, Best Bitter, plus the seasonal Bonfire Boy. The latter makes an appearance every year, around this time, and  is a full-bodied Amber Ale brewed to a strength of 5.8 % abv. Roasted malts are used  in the recipe to give a slightly burnt taste with a hint of smoke.  We had some food to go with our beer; nothing fancy but good solid, value for money pub-grub. It was a good evening, but finishing with a half of Bonfire Boy probably proved my downfall. as I had somewhat of a thick head this morning!.

We will definitely be making a return visit in the not too distant future.

Thursday 1 November 2012

The Pubs of Tonbridge Part 3

I had hoped to conclude my mini-series on the pubs of Tonbridge with this article, but after having written about the remaining pubs in the town, I realised the piece was too long; (we don't want people getting bored, or worse still falling asleep!). The sensible thing therefore was to split it in two. This first section deals with the pubs south of the main railway line and along the High Street, up as far as the River Medway. The second, and still to be published section, continues in a northerly direction along the High Street, petering out in the beer desert that is now north Tonbridge.

 We finished last time at the Forester's Arms which effectively is the last pub in the southern half of the town. Continuing back down Quarry Hill towards the town centre and over the bridge in front of the station,  one comes to Mojo's, an imposing pub set back slightly from the road that forms the station approach. Mojo's started life as the South Eastern, which took its name from the railway company that originally built the line from London to the coast. Back then the line ran through to Tonbridge, via Redhill, and whilst this line is still an important secondary route, the main line today is the more direct route via Sevenoaks, which opened later on during the 19th Century. That's enough about railways for now, suffice to day that up until comparatively recent times, the South Eastern was a basic, down to earth,  two-bar town boozer.

All that changed in the late 1980's, when the pub was acquired by Colm Powell, the characterful Irishman whom we met in the previous series. Colm knocked the bars through into one, re-sited the bar counter and re-named the pub, the Station House. It carried on in this vein until Colm's unfortunate falling out with Enterprise Inns. Then after a period of closure, followed by further alterations, the pub re-opened as Mojo's, with large french-style windows at the front that open up and fold back in summer, creating a continental, cafe-style effect. Like the Station House before, Mojo's is popular with younger people, but nevertheless serves some acceptable pints of Harvey's Best and Sharps Doombar. It also has some high tables towards the rear of the pub, which are good to sit up at with friends,whilst enjoying ones pint.

Turning right out of Mojo's, and then following Barden Road back along its course parallel with the railway, one eventually comes to Cromer Street. Turn left here and then on the corner of the junction with Nelson Avenue, one reaches the Nelson Arms, a now rare example of a back-street local. Formerly a Courage house, the Nelson is now owned by Shepherd Neame. It is very much a locals' pub, but the clientele seem friendly enough, as do the staff behind the bar. Shep's Spitfire, plus seasonal beer are the offerings here.

Re-tracing ones footsteps back towards the High Street leads one to the Humphrey Bean, Tonbridge's JD Wetherspoon outlet. Transformed into a pub from the former town Crown Post Office, the "Bean" is not one of  the company's better or most imaginative conversions. The smaller section at the front is where the post office counters once were, but the much larger section to the rear was formerly the sorting office, and still maintains its shed-like appearance. To be fair, it is bright and airy, with plenty of tables, and includes a raised area on the left-hand side. This section leads through to an attractive land well laid out garden, which looks out across the River Medway to Tonbridge's imposing 13th Century castle. It is certainly large enough to easily avoid the depressing, and at times rather objectionable, groups of drinkers who seem to spend all day in the place, courtesy of the taxpayer!

Beer-wise, the Bean offers the usual JWD selection of Ruddles Bitter, Oakham JHB and Greene King Abbot, together with a varying range of guest ales. Quite often these are from local breweries such as Westerham, Weltons and Hog's Back, although some of Adnams less well-known beers such as Ghost Ship, Lighthouse and Gun Hill quite often  feature as well. The downside is the usual JDW thing: never enough staff behind the bar; pump clips showing beers that aren't yet available and, as mentioned above, some of the clientele. The pub does seem to have improved quite dramatically over the past year or so. It has been spruced up with new furniture and a long overdue total refurbishment of the toilets. Let's hope the local intelligentsia will keep it that way!

Across the road and virtually opposite the Humphrey Bean, is the Castle Gold Bar. Formerly owned by Courage and known as the Castle Hotel, this imposing red-brick building overlooks the river, but unfortunately is on the wrong bank for the outside terrace area to catch the sun. The Castle has definitely seen better times, having undergone a number of re-fits over the last twenty years. After a period as a  J and D Bernard  Alehouse which, to my mind, worked well, the pub was given a much more contemporary feel with leather sofa's and a rather minimalist look. This seemed rather incongruous for a  late-Victorian building and certainly was never in keeping with the heritage and history of the pub.

I was obviously not the only person who felt this way and consequently, despite the best efforts of a succession of owners, the Gold Bar has always seemed to struggle; certainly it lives permanently in the shadow of the Humphrey Bean just across the road, and is often virtually empty. Harvey's Best, served from an anonymous hand pump, is the solitary cask ale offering. Apart from that, there's not a lot more I can say about the Castle, except that it deserves a better fate than its current one, and that it's somewhere with a lot of potential. Given a sympathetic owner (not a greedy, grasping, penny-pinching pub company!) there's plenty of scope for a go-ahead entrepreneur to capitalise on its river frontage, central location and attractive  facade.

Crossing the river, and turning first right into Lyons Crescent, brings one to the Wharf. Again this is another establishment that has definitely seen better days. It started life as a Beefeater Restaurant, (remember them?), having been converted from a former riverside wharf building. A period as a Hogshead Alehouse then followed, and before the opening of the Humphrey Bean, this establishment was definitely the best bet in Tonbridge for a pint of something out of the ordinary. As well as a number of ales on hand pump, the Hogshead served several more from cooled, jacketed casks kept behind the bar.

This set-up seemed to work well, so it came as something of a shock when, like the aforementioned Castle, the pub was given a contemporary make-over which never seemed to work, and was totally out of keeping with the character of the building. It really makes me wonder where thee so-called interior designers are coming from. Andy Warhol meets Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen! These days the Wharf, as the pub is now called, is struggling to find its identity. It serves a strange range of cask ales, including Hancocks - a former Bass-Welsh brand, that has no connection or empathy with Kent; its one saving grace being it is cheap! It advertises cut-price lunches which look good value, although not having eaten there (I don't work in the town),  I cannot comment on them personally.

We will conclude this section on the town centre for now, and will conclude at a later, and not too distant date.