Monday 30 December 2013

Refugees From The Flood

Our local Wetherspoons in Tonbridge, the Humphrey Bean, has been closed since early evening on Christmas Eve. I reported a couple of posts ago about how Tonbridge had been affected by flooding; well it now appears that having escaped river water in the pub itself, the Bean has been badly affected due to water in the basement.

At its peak there was around six feet of water in the cellar, and this had a disastrous effect on the pub’s power supply and electrical systems. When I walked past on Boxing Day morning, there were four vans belonging to UK Power Networks parked outside, and a group of workers peering down a hole dug in the pavement. A post on the Bean’s Facebook site stated the pub is likely to be closed until at least the New Year. For management and staff this will not have been a good Christmas, with their busiest period of trading completely wiped out.

No doubt Wetherspoons will be doing everything in their power to get the pub up and running again as soon as possible, but in the meantime how have the Bean’s regulars been coping? The short answer is I don’t know, and whilst I obviously feel sorry for the pensioners and other customers on low incomes who enjoy a drink there, the small but vociferous contingent who spend the entire day in there, courtesy of the tax payer, will get no sympathy from me.

Local ale enthusiasts will also have suffered, and so will those like myself, who like to pop in for a mid-morning coffee, when not at work, or by way of an occasional treat like to grab a breakfast. Last night my son Matthew indicated that he fancied a Wetherspoon’s breakfast, seeing as he had the day off work today, so as the weather was once again foul, we decided to jump in the car and drive over to Tunbridge Wells to indulge ourselves with a full English in the opulent surroundings of the Opera House; the town’s imposing JDW outlet.

For those unfamiliar with the area, the Opera House is exactly that, a theatre where operas were once performed on a regular basis. The Tunbridge Wells Opera House was completed in 1902 to designs by architect John Briggs, and when opened had a capacity of 1,100.  The worthy citizens of Royal Tunbridge Wells didn’t turn out to be quite as highbrow as one might imagine, because in 1931 the building was purchased by Union Cinemas and turned into a cinema!

After bomb damage during the Second World War, which set fire to the inside of the Opera House, the building underwent extensive renovation before re-opening in 1949. It was later turned into a bingo hall in the 1960s, after threats to demolish it, and in 1966, the building was granted Grade II listed status. In 1996, the Opera House was purchased by J D Wetherspoon and was turned into one of their most prestigious outlets. Since then, the pub has occasionally hosted proper staged opera performances, and a sign inside the pub informs visitors that these are now held on an annual basis. It is therefore nice to see the building being used for its original purpose from time to time.

Matthew and I arrived at the Opera House shortly before 10.30am. The place was fairly busy, but there were still quite a few empty tables, especially up on the former “stage area”. We grabbed one down in what would have been the stalls and then went and ordered our breakfasts. We didn’t have long to wait before they were brought over to us, but in the meantime I had time to admire the opulent surroundings of the place and observe just how much of the original fittings are still in place. For example, the circle, dress circle and the various boxes are intact, although off limits to customers for obvious health and safety reasons. That such a fine old Edwardian building should have survived is a testament to both the original builders and today’s custodians in the form of JDW. I have included a few photos of the interior, but the camera on my phone doesn’t really do justice to the building.

Beer-wise, the Opera House had three Dark Star beers alongside British Bulldog from Westerham. Of particular interest was the Opera House Porter; a beer brewed exclusively for the pub by Turner’s Brewery, who are based down at Ringmer in Sussex. There were a few other beers on at the far end of the bar, although I didn’t manage to see what they were. It was too early to start drinking and besides, I was driving anyway.

All in all our visit made a pleasant change, and was probably a good way of passing the time, given the awful weather outside. Nice though it was, I will still be thankful when the Humphrey Bean in Tonbridge re-opens, as I really don’t  want to travel to the next town just to get a breakfast, a coffee or a pint of something a bit different!

Sunday 29 December 2013

No Longer Welcome

Over Christmas I was reminded of one of the very first blog posts I wrote. The post was written back in 2008, and was on the subject of dogs in pubs. The catalyst which jogged my memory was us looking after a chocolate Labrador, belonging to Eileen’s niece, for a few days between Christmas and New Year.  On a couple of occasions, when the weather was fine, I took said Labrador, whose name is Ellie by the way, for a walk.

We live on the edge of town and once you get beyond the busy mini-bypass there are some nice walks. Sunday was a particularly fine and bright day, (a welcome change after all the wind and rain we’ve had), so I walked Ellie right up to Somerhill; a large Victorian pile that was formerly the manor house for the area of south Tonbridge where we live, but is now a fee-paying school. As is often the case with such grandiose houses, Somerhill is surrounded by parkland and is set high up on a ridge, overlooking an ornamental lake. It is quite a climb up to the house, and despite the cool temperatures, both me and Ellie were quite warm by the time we reached the top.

The views from just below the house are quite spectacular, sweeping right across the town and away to the Greensand ridge in the distance. I kept thinking the spot would be an ideal place for a watering hole, in fact had this been somewhere like Bavaria, then I’m pretty certain some enterprising soul would have opened a bar-cum-restaurant. Not in England though, especially where there is a school in the vicinity, but on the way back I couldn’t get the thought of a thirst quenching pint of bitter, and a nice cosy pub, out of my mind.

There is what used to be a fine old pub back down the hill, on the edge of the estate; in fact I believe at one time it was something to do with the “big house”. Nowadays the Vauxhall Inn is run by Chef & Brewer, and being much more of an eatery than the old alehouse it once was, dogs are not allowed inside. A great pity as it would have been the perfect way to end our walk. Instead, Ellie and I had to walk forlornly past and make do with a cup of tea at home instead.

Of course, the Vauxhall is not alone in banning dogs. In the mistaken name of hygiene and ‘elf ‘n safety, we have denied admittance to man’s best friend from hundreds, if not thousands, of pubs up and down the country.The whole episode got me thinking about just what a crazy country we now live in, where all sorts of absurd rules and regulations govern our every day lives.

A dozen or so years ago we had a dog of our own, and probably six or more years prior to her passing I used to take her into the Vauxhall. Back then it was traditional old pub and, as it had several separate bars, potential conflicts between diners and those just wanting a convivial drink, (with or without a canine companion), just weren’t an issue. Oh that this were the case today – separate bars catering for the different needs of disparate groups of people.

 We certainly have lost a lot in the rush to create a homogenised society, and when one combines all this with all the rules and regulations we have to put up with today it really makes me yearn for the past. Things were a lot simpler back then and people just got on with their lives without interference from petty bureaucrats and the all pervading influence of the “nanny state”. At least I am old enough to remember such times, which is more than can said of today’s generation.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Golden Pints 2013

This is my first crack at Golden Pints. In the past I have tended to shy away from such list making, but this year after sitting down and thinking about which beers I could place in the individual categories, and sketching out a few ideas, I got carried away and actually quite enjoyed the whole thing in the end. So for what it’s worth, here are my Golden Pints:

Best UK Cask BeerNo arguments here; without question the winner is Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter. Forget extreme, hophead type beers for a moment and focus instead on this superb marriage of malt and hops which really ticks all the right boxes, and is a “must stock” brand for pubs throughout East Sussex and West Kent. Sensibly proportioned at 4.0%, the juicy malt flavours from the Maris-Otter barley, are nicely off-set by an earthy-peppery bitterness from locally grown traditional hop varieties. In my opinion, you would have to travel far to find a more satisfying and enjoyable local beer.

If I’m permitted to include an award for runner up, this would have to go to the superb American Pale Ale, from Dark Star; a beer which made alfresco drinking so enjoyable last summer, but which also is becoming a much more common sight in pubs in this part of the country.

Best UK Keg Beer Nothing really springs to mind here, as I seldom drink keg. Not that I’m averse to a drop or two of “craft”; it’s just I can count on one hand the number of outlets that stock it locally. Also, on the odd occasion I’m in London, I tend to stick to cask; such is the choice there.

If I had to nominate a beer it would be the Alpha State Orange Zest IPA, which I sampled a week or so before Christmas at Fuggles, Tunbridge Wells. (See below). I don’t know much about the beer apart from it being a stunning, zesty IPA, brewed with Belgian yeast. This imparted a distinctive taste which reminded me of a “Saison-style” beer from the Foundry Brewery, which I enjoyed at the Green Hop Festival, held in the Canterbury, back in September. (That particular beer was also brewed using Belgian yeast).

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer – For overall availability, my award goes to Fuller’s 1845; a stunningly complex, full-bodied ale, which not only shows off the brewer’s skill to maximum effect, but also proves that when they put their minds to it, large breweries can produce some truly top-quality beers.

For runner up, I would nominate Meantime Greenwich Smoked Bock Beer. An excellent beer, brewed by Alistair Hook and his team exclusively for M&S, which shows that UK brewers, can successfully produce Rauchbier to rival that of Bamberg.

Best Overseas Draught BeerForschungs – St. Jacobus Blonder Bock 7.5%. It’s well worth taking the S-Bahn from Munich city centre, out to the suburb of Perlach in order to enjoy this superb, malt-packed bock beer, brewed in the functional-looking brewery, attached to the equally Unitarian pub. A beer which manages to cram in an incredible amount of flavour from both barley and hops and which, despite its high strength, is still dangerously drinkable.

Best Collaboration BrewNo award, as I’m not aware of having sampled any collaboration brews, although I may have done so unwittingly.

Best Overall Beer – There can never be any one best overall beer, because choosing and enjoying a beer is very much something which varies according to location, occasion, availability, time of year and a whole host of other factors, all of which make the appreciation of good beer so enjoyable.

Best Branding, or Label - Ramsgate Brewery. Distinctive, modern, stylish and eye-catching, especially the bottle labels and the brewery publicity material. (See below, for further details on the brewery.)

Best UK Brewery- Ramsgate Brewery. Established in 2002 by Eddie Gadd, who is still at the helm as both proprietor and head-brewer. Ramsgate turn out a variety of stunning beers, in both cask and bottle. Most are brewed in a typically Kentish style, but with a modern and up to date twist. We don’t get to see them that often here in the west of the county, but when they do make an appearance, they don’t hang around for long!

The runners up place must go to Harvey’s, who not only produce some superb all year round beers, but also turn out a stunning range of seasonal beers including personal favourites like Tom Paine, Southdown Harvest Ale, Star of Eastbourne, Bonfire Boy and  the superlative Christmas Ale.

Best Overseas Brewery – A tricky one, especially as there are just so many excellent foreign breweries to choose from, but after a lot of thought I am going to award joint first place to two Bavarian breweries; one from the south of the state (Ayinger-bräu), and the other from the north, in the area known as Franconia, (Mahrs Bräu).

Ayinger-bräu are based in the village of Aying, to the south east of Munich. The brewery produce an extensive range of truly excellent beers, and no visit to Munich is complete without making the short train journey out to Aying to sample the beers “at source”, in the brewery tap.

When most people think of Bamberg, they think of Rauchbier and Schlenkerla, the city’s most distinctive and best known producer of “smoke beer”. Mahrs Bräu, do not have a Rauchbier in their portfolio, but what they do instead is brew a stunning range of wonderful, flavoursome beers, the best known of which is their Ungespundet, a 5.2% unfiltered Kellerbier.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013 Burning Sky, set up by former Dark Star brewer, Mark Tranter. I’ve only tried a couple of their beers so far, but each one has been absolutely stunning, and a real reflection on the skill of the brewer.

Best Pub/Bar of the YearBedford, Tunbridge Wells. Up to 10 cask beers on tap, the vast majority from local Kent and Sussex independents, served in stylish surroundings and now also offering food. What not to like about Tunbridge Wells’ premier alehouse.

Runner up would be the Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald. Six immaculately kept and served local cask ales, Kentish cider, craft lager and excellent food. All served in a lovingly restored village local where  dogs are still welcome and there is a lovely warming log fire in winter.

Best Pub/Bar Opening 2013Fuggles Beer Café, Tunbridge Wells. A really welcome addition to the local drinking scene, and somewhere which has brought the “craft beer” experience to Tunbridge Wells. For both cask and craft beer enthusiasts there are four casks and ten craft kegs (with an emphasis on Belgian beers) on tap, in a pleasant, functional and somewhat minimalist setting.

Best Beer Festival of the Year – Without a shadow of doubt Annafest, held each July just outside the small Franconian town of Forchheim, wins this award hands down. Think Oktoberfest, but without all the hype, high costs and tourist parties. Annafest combines some serious drinking with fun events such as fairground attractions and live music, all in an attractive woodland setting. Also think strong (5.7% abv), well-hopped Franconian beer, full of taste and character, and served in litre measures only. Not for the faint hearted, but a fantastic atmosphere which every serious beer lover should experience at least once in a lifetime.

The runner up is the Canterbury Food & Drink Festival, which took place over the last weekend in September in the city’s Dane John Gardens. The festival featured “Green-Hopped” beers from all the brewers who participated in the Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight, and sitting out in Dane John Gardens, soaking up the late September sunshine along with more than a few Green Hop beers, whilst listening to some of the live bands playing there, reminded me that life doesn’t get much better than this!

Next year I’m aiming to do some of the more esoteric home-grown-beer festivals, in particular the London Craft Beer Festival, which I unfortunately missed earlier this year. I’m also reliably informed that the Egham and Chappel festivals are well worth attending. Finally, there’s a possibility of a visit to the grand-daddy of all beer festivals – Munich’s Oktoberfest, so watch this space!

Best Supermarket of the YearWaitrose. An excellent range, encompassing the best of the beers produced by the established family and larger brewers’, alongside more local examples. Mixed in with this are some quality foreign beers, including several well-known classics. Good promotions too, make Waitrose the runaway winner in this category, so far as I am concerned.

Best Independent Retailer of the Year – Definitely the Bottle Shop, housed in the Goods Shed, just along from Canterbury West station. Offering the largest number of British bottled beers in the South East, alongside an expanding range of foreign beers, both to take away and to enjoy on the premises. The only trouble is Canterbury is at the opposite end of the county from where I live, so a visit to the Bottle Shop isn’t exactly a spur of the moment event.

Best On-Line Retailer of the Year – I haven’t used any. The trouble with buying beer on-line is the high costs associated with shipping heavy objects, like bottled beer, around the country. There is also the risk of damage in transit.

Best Beer Magazine – Since the sad demise of Beers of the World several years ago, the vacuum has been ably filled by CAMRA’s BEER Magazine. Published quarterly, after a slightly shaky start, the magazine has gone from strength to strength. Sent out to all CAMRA members as part of their membership fee.  I believe the magazine is also available to the general public, on a subscription basis.

Best Beer Book Craft Beer World, by Mark Dredge. I have just received a copy for Christmas, and have had trouble putting it down. As one might expect, the information and layout is presented in an attractive and up to date style, with text and illustrations imposed on top of colour-washed and water-marked pages, but what really comes across is Mark’s passion for these beers, and you just know he has tasted and enjoyed every one of them. There are quite a few I recognise and none I would disagree with, although I obviously have a long way to go before sampling them all. A most welcome addition to my collection of beer books.

Best Beer Blog There are several  blogs I always click on, including Boak & Bailey, Pub Curmudgeon, Pete Brown and, of course, Tandleman, but my award for the best beer blog, this year, is shared jointly by Ron Patterson’s Shut up about Barclay Perkins and Adrian Tierney-Jones’ Called to the Bar.

Best Beer App. - OK, not exactly an App, although one can access it on a Smartphone, but CAMRA’s Whatpub website is rapidly becoming the site of choice for finding a decent boozer. Constantly being refreshed, Whatpub is undoubtedly the most up to date pub data-base in the country.

The most annoying App has to be Untappd, first because it can be very addictive and time consuming. (At the end of the day it’s just a glorified electronic “ticking device”). Secondly because it not only needs an internet connection, but also a GPS signal and then relies on another App called Four Square in order to function correctly. It is also an American based App, so understandably it has a strong North American bias.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer Well I don’t “Tweet” and thereby am certainly not a “Twat”! Nothing to add here then,  apart from saying how sorry I was to learn of Simon’s untimely passing, earlier this year. I always enjoyed logging on to his “Reluctant Scooper” blog and reading about his various drinking experiences. A sad loss indeed.

Best Brewery Website There are too many really excellent and professional brewery websites for me to single out any one specific site for this award.

Best Food & Beer Pairing of the Year – If Garrett Oliver can write a 360 page book on the subject of pairing beer with food (see The Brewmaster’s Table), then it’s rather a tall order to come up with a single food/beer match. However, if I had to choose one combination it would be sausages and mash with onion gravy, accompanied by a pint of a fairly full-bodied, English bitter. Harvey’s Best springs to mind, butt he obvious proviso is the sausages should be good quality, preferably from a local butcher.

A proper steak and ale, or steak and kidney pie also goes well with a decent bitter. Again the pie should be a proper one, made with short-crust pastry, which must enclose the meat and the rest of the filling. A meat stew, served in an earthenware dish with a puff-pastry lid on top is NOT a proper pie so far as I am concerned!

Finally, special mention should be made of the goulash with bread dumplings I enjoyed at U Fleku in Prague, earlier this month. The rich, dark, malt-led house lager was the perfect accompaniment to this classic Central European dish, proving there are many excellent beer and food pairings to be found all over the world.

Friday 27 December 2013

A Kentish Christmas

I went for quality this Christmas rather than quantity; a conscious decision prompted by stocking up a month or two in advance with a variety of different bottles, as opposed to picking up a polypin from one of our many local breweries. My Christmas stash has been added to with various Christmas gifts from friends and family, (how well people seem to know me), so there’s no danger of running out of beer until well into the New Year.

Christmas Eve was quite subdued with just the one Pilsner Urquell, followed by a bottle of London Porter from Fullers. I didn’t start on the beer until fairly late in the day, as I was half expecting to have to drive to Sevenoaks to collect No. 1 son from work. Like the rest of the South East we’ve had some appalling weather in the run up to Christmas with storm force winds and torrential rain in the early hours of Christmas Eve morning. Fortunately there were no tiles missing off the roof the next morning and the fence panels all seemed intact as well, but I still ended up having to drive Matthew over to Sevenoaks as there were no trains running (a landslip, I believe).

Weaving my way around a number of fallen trees, I deposited him close to his workplace in Sevenoaks and then set off to drive into work myself. The roads were barely passable in places, with several inches of water running off across the carriage-way from the adjacent fields. In nearly eight years of working out at Chiddingstone Causeway I have never witnessed such bad conditions on the roads, or so much water!

Fortunately we finished at midday, so giving the offer of drinks at the local pub a miss, I set off for home. Luckily some of the waters had subsided, but driving conditions were still quite tricky and I was glad to reach home in one piece. It was then I received a phone call from my wife who had gone down to our local Sainsbury’s for some last minute shopping, only to find the waters starting to rise and flood the car park. I drove down and found her cursing at having ruined a pair of boots, but apart from that there was no real harm done.

Which is more than I can say for central Tonbridge, as throughout the afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve the waters in the Medway kept rising until the river burst its banks. Quite a few shops and businesses were flooded, including the Humphrey Bean, our local Wetherspoons. It could have been a lot worse, had it not been for the Flood Barrier an extensive earth embankment and set of sluice gates, downstream at Leigh, which is designed to hold back thousands of gallons of floodwater and then release it at a controlled rate. We live on a hill, so were unaffected, but my heart goes out to all those poor souls whose Christmas was ruined by the worst storm in over a decade.

The above events meant a fairly subdued Christmas Eve, but none of us minded as we were all quite tired, and  glad of the opportunity to take it easy and put our feet up. Christmas day was different of course, but even so it wasn’t until sitting down to Christmas dinner, just after 2pm, that I cracked open my first beer. Meantime Raspberry Wheat Beer, 5.0%, did what it said on the bottle and acted as the perfect aperitif, the slight tartness from the raspberries, and the wheat, serving to stimulate the palate, if that all doesn’t sound too pretentious.

Fuller’s 1845 was the perfect accompaniment to our roast turkey dinner, the combination of full-bodied malt and peppery, earthy hops complimented the meat and vegetables perfectly, as this 6.3% abv beer has done in previous years. When you know something works as well as this, why change it?  There may well be beers which will equally compliment the Christmas pudding, mince pies and brandy sauce that followed, but if there are I am not aware of them. Some decent coffee did the trick instead, and that was it for a while as we decided to leave the cheese and biscuits until later.

I wanted a palate cleanser after that little lot, and whilst a Pilsner Urquell would have fitted the bill, I wanted to keep a bottle or two back of this beer. Instead I opted for Brakspear’s Bitter 3.4%.  I can’t think of another beer which packs in so much flavour at such a modest strength. The beer formed the perfect late afternoon pick-me-up, after a large Christmas dinner and a surfeit of Christmas pudding and mince pies.

When we eventually felt like tackling the cheeses, much later in the evening, I again found the perfect beer to go with them in the form of Sharp’s Quadrapel Ale 10%.  This bottle from the brewery’s “Connoisseurs Choice” range was a 2011 vintage, being left over from last year’s Christmas stash. The extended maturation hadn’t harmed the beer, and it poured clear and well-conditioned, with a deep ruby colour, an alcoholic fruity aroma and a full, rich bitter-sweet taste. It was definitely a beer to savour, and it went really well with some strong, well-matured cheddar, plus a bit of Stilton. Full marks to head brewer, Stuart Howe for coming up with this one.

Boxing Day dawned clear and bright, so after breakfast I decided to don my coat and hat and head down into Tonbridge to see how the town had coped with the effects of the flooding. After a day and a half indoors, it was nice to get out in the fresh air. It was doubly nice to see the sun and to feel its welcoming warmth which, even at this time of year, was still discernible. The town hadn’t fared as badly as I thought, although certain car parks were still under water, and there were plenty of people about. Like me, I suspect they were taking the opportunity of walking off a little of the previous day’s excesses and just generally blowing a few cobwebs away.

Later in the day, around mid-afternoon, we sat down to some cold meats (turkey and ham), bubble and squeak plus a selection of pickles. I wasn’t quite sure which beer to choose to go with the food, so I plumped again for a bottle of 1845. Like on the previous day, this proved to be a wise choice; the strength and body of the beer standing up well against some extremely hot pickled onions and some pretty strong piccalilli.

I only had one further beer on Boxing Day, but it was large one and a strong one too. Meantime India Pale Ale 7.4% in a 750ml champagne-style bottle was just right for an evening’s leisurely drinking, being full-bodied with lots of chewy malt, expertly balanced with oodles of Fuggles and Golding hops. A tremendous beer which, despite its high strength, doesn’t taste at all cloying or too sweet.

So that’s the first three days of Christmas over, but I don’t return to work until the 2nd January, which means that, including today, there are still six more days to go. I do need to get out of the house though, apart from just going shopping (like we did today); otherwise I’ll end up suffering from “cabin fever”! I did have some plans for the garden, but in view of the weather, and the absolutely saturated nature of the ground, they will have to be put on hold. The extreme damp conditions underfoot also rule out a walk to a nice country pub, although a trip by bus could be on the cards. It would be good to check up on some of our local pubs to find out what sort of Christmas they’ve been having, and what, if any, interesting beers they’ve got on.

Whatever the weather though, may I take this opportunity of saying that I hope everyone reading this has had a good Christmas, and to wish people all the best for the coming year.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Odd One Out?

An unlikely candidate for a source of hard to get bottled beers has emerged over the past couple of years in the form of the Oddbins chain of wine merchants. The group has been through some pretty turbulent times recently, and at one stage it even looked as it might have gone under. At its height the group operated 158 stores, but this has now been whittled down to just 37 outlets, one of which is in Tunbridge Wells, just up the hill from the station.

I called in the other evening, ostensibly to pick up a few bottles of Old Dairy Snow Top, the brewery’s excellent winter warmer. Unfortunately they had sold out, despite having just had a new delivery, but I was still able to peruse the fine selection of unusual bottles which line the shelves, and select something else to tickle my taste buds. As well as other Old Dairy beers, there are offerings from the likes of Celt Experience, Redchurch, Rocky Head, East London Brewery, London Fields, Moncada and Windsor & Eton.

I was on my way to a CAMRA social, so didn’t want too much extra weight to carry. In the end I picked up a Celt Experience Dark Age (Mild) 4.0%, a Shoreditch Blonde 4.5% from Redchurch Brewery plus a Rocky Head Pale Ale at 6.5%, and shall enjoy getting stuck into them over the Christmas period. In the meantime, why not take a look on the company’s website for details of their special offer, mixed cases of “Local Beers”.

Saturday 21 December 2013

A Slow Start to Christmas

This year’s West Kent CAMRA pre-Christmas social on Friday evening was a bit of a damp squib, certainly when compared to last year. Attendance at that event was well into double figures, whereas this year we didn’t even make a half dozen! A combination of members being away, illness (always a problem at this time of year), and people having to work late, all contributed to the low attendance, but those of us who did brave what became an increasingly windy evening, still had a good time.

For a variety of reasons I was late getting over to Tunbridge Wells myself, and then by the time I’d walked up to the pub hosting the event, the Royal Oak on Prospect Road, it was well after 9pm. I had expected the place to be packed, but instead there was plenty of room, and I found just three members sitting at a table to the rear of the pub. Two others had departed earlier, due to feeling under the weather, so after selecting my pint, the excellent American Pale Ale from Dark Star, I settled down to join them.

After the usual introductory pleasantries, I got stuck into the beer and joined in with the conversation. This touched on many topics; none of them Christmas related, with the most interesting being the thorny issue of Scottish independence. I don’t normally post about political issues on this blog, but as this is one which crosses party boundaries (apart from the SNP, of course); I feel it might be worthy of a small mention. The consensus of our small group was that if the Scots wish to vote for independence and a break up of the Union then so be it. We went further in agreeing that if the referendum was held in England, and asked English voters if they would like to break away from Scotland, the result would be a resounding YES!

Well that’s managed to alienate my Scottish readers, but nothing personal, as we also agreed that most Scots are too canny to be let themselves be swayed by Oily Al’s case for an independent Scotland, that would still keep the Pound Stirling as its currency and rely on the rest of the United kingdom for its defence.

Interesting times lie ahead for sure, but let’s get back to a subject both the English and the Scots can agree on, namely that of good beer. Alongside the Dark Star last night, the Oak also had Larkin’s Traditional, Harvey’s Sussex plus a rather strange choice in that of Cottage Porter. Now I’ve never been much of a fan of Cottage; a company who rank as one of the most prolific “badge-brewers”, churning out dozens of identi-kit beers every year, so I gave their Porter a miss. I’m glad I did as one of my friends had tried a pint before I arrived, and described it as thin and lacking in body. I also fancied something a bit stronger than Larkin’s Traditional. At just 3.4% abv, this beer may well be the ideal lunchtime pint but I wanted something a little stronger. My decision though to stick with the APA was thwarted when the cask ran out, so Harvey’s it had to be.

Harvey’s Sussex Best is always a reliable pint and last night proved no exception. I only had the one pint though, as two of our party left at around 10.30pm in order to catch their bus. My remaining companion and I decided a walk down the hill to the Bedford would be in order. I needed to head that way anyway, in order to catch the train home, whilst Tony I think just fancied going  for something a bit different.

The pub was heaving when we arrived, but we still managed to get a seat. The beer range wasn't quite as extensive as it usually is, but there was still a selection on which would put a lot of pubs to shame. Tony opted for Hog’s Back TEA, whilst I went for Pig & Porter Red Spider Rye (5.5%).  As its name suggests this beer is red in colour and is brewed using a portion of rye malt in the grist. It was also an intensely hopped beer. Pig & Porter brew using the kit and the premises of the former Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Co, which closed at the end of last year. They are a small scale brewing and event catering business, set up by a couple of friends to provide beer and food for the worthy citizens of Kent and East Sussex.

We only had the one beer at the Bedford, as I had no wish to miss the last train home. It wasn’t a bad end to the evening, but it was spoiled by one thing which I hope the management of the Bedford will take note of, if they happen to read this blog. THE MUSIC WAS TOO LOUD!! I don’t like having to shout to make myself heard above the din emanating from the pub’s sound system. It was exactly the same last year when we held our pre-Christmas social at the Bedford, and all who attended were in agreement over this. Contrary to the belief of some in the pub trade, loud music does NOT create “atmosphere” in a pub. It may give the impression that everyone is having a good time, but believe you me not being able to converse properly with one’s fellow drinkers is likely to drive decent trade away and attract the wrong type of clientele.

Footnote to the Bedford management:
I really like your pub and what you are doing in supporting local brewers. I also like your new policy of serving food, even though I haven’t tried any of it yet (very remiss of me, I know!). However, I do not enjoy having my ear drums blasted out, and having to shout in order to make myself heard whilst drinking in your pub, so please TURN THE VOLUME DOWN!

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Getting in the Christmas Spirit

 We don’t do Christmas Ales properly in this country. I was prompted to write this post, after reading similar sentiments on the “One More Won’t Kill You – Beer Blog”. It really is the case that with one or two notable exceptions, we just can’t turn out anything decent for the festive season.

I have posted on this subject on at least two previous occasions, and I have to say that over the years my feelings on this matter haven’t improved; in fact if anything they’ve got worse! I haven’t seen this year’s selection from JDW yet, and have been unable to find it online either, but normally it acts as a good yardstick to the type of Christmas Ales the breweries are putting out.

More often than not many Christmas Ales turn out to be bog standard, uninspiring, malt-led, brownish bitters in the 4.0 – 5.0% strength bracket, with a daft Christmas sounding name. Name wise, there have been some awful puns in previous years, check out the Pump Clip Parade website for details of some of the worse ones, but I can also recall some pale beers in the past, masquerading under the Christmas banner.

So what do I look for in a Christmas beer? Well, a decent strength to start with; ideally something around 6.0% and certainly nothing below 5.0%! I also like my Christmas ale to be dark in colour (preferably darker than ruby), full-bodied and well-hopped. Other countries manage to deliver on this front, in particular Belgium with many breweries putting out seasonal stunners, whilst over in Bavaria many brewers produce strong, seasonal Weihnachtsbier, named after "Weihnachten" the German word for Christmas. These normally run in at anywhere between 6 and 8% abv, not quite as strong as the Belgian offerings, many of which get into double figures, but they are all good, full-bodied beers designed to keep out the cold.
Perhaps that’s the problem here in the UK, as we don’t get really cold winters, or if we do then the cold snap normally doesn’t last that long. Consequently, few beers come near the sorts of strengths common on the Continent, although Harvey’s Christmas Ale hits the spot for me at 7.5%. (It used to be 8.1%, but the brewery reduced its strength to bring it in just under the, high strength bracket, recently introduced as a knee-jerk reaction in response to super-strength lagers such as Carlsberg Special Brew, or Tennents Super.)

Harvey’s Christmas Ale was on sale at the Windmill last Sunday, and I enjoyed a glass of it at the end of my Christmas meal. It’s a perfectly balanced strong dark bitter-sweet ale, satisfying and warming, but obviously a beer to be treated with respect but, as I alluded to earlier, it’s rare to find a beer this strong in Britain, especially on draught.

I will of course be keeping an eye out to see what Wetherspoons come up with, but I’m not going to hold my breath. So far as my own selection of beers for Christmas is concerned, at the moment I haven’t actually got anything with the word “Christmas” in the name, but I have got quite a few strong bottles tucked away. Most are Belgian, including a whole case of St Bernardus Abt 12 (10%), but I’ve also got one or two surprises from the UK, including a bottle of Sharps Quadrapel (10%), left over from last Christmas and the Ampleforth Abbey Dubbel I mentioned in a previous post.

There is still time of course, for me to acquire the odd bottle or three of genuine Christmas ales, so if anyone would care to recommend some of the more readily available brands, then please let me know.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Countdown to Christmas

It’s been a weekend of unrepentant gluttony and over-indulgence, with two Christmas meals to get stuck into, but fortunately with a day off in between them both. Friday evening saw my wife and I attending my company’s Christmas party, whilst today (Sunday) it was West Kent CAMRA’s Christmas meal. The events were quite contrasting, but both were equally enjoyable in their own way.

Friday’s party was held at the Little Brown Jug, the local pub in the village where my firm is based. The Jug is a Greene King pub, leased out to a local chain called Whiting & Hammond, who run around half a dozen pubs in West Kent and East Sussex. It has a good reputation for food, even though the beer offerings are of less appeal to the typical beer enthusiast. In complete contrast, today’s meal was held at what has become one of the best pubs in the area, serving a wide range of locally brewed ales, in tastefully renovated surroundings, along with an equally good range of home-cooked food.

Around 50 of us attended Friday’s event, but the Jug is a pub which has been greatly extended over the years, and thus had no trouble in accommodating not just our group, but several others as well. The food, the service and the presentation were faultless, and even the beer, in the form of Larkins Traditional, was ok, but half-way through the meal I switched to wine anyway, so the limited beer selection did not pose a problem. Food wise I went for a non-traditional option in the form of fish stew and lobster bisque, which was excellent. (One can definitely have too much turkey at Christmas!). The wine, in the form of a full-bodied Spanish red, was also very good; too good in fact as my aching head testified the following morning!

Sunday’s meal took place at the Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald, and was a complete contrast with six cask ales on offer. Four of them were local, plus two from further a field, and all were very reasonably priced. With the exception of the Larkins Traditional, which was replaced later on, I worked my way up through the gravities, starting with Dark Star Darkness and ending up on the superb 7.5% Christmas Ale from Harvey’s. In between I had Fife & Drum, a 3.8% golden ale from Musket Brewery, one of Kent’s newest micros, Trade Winds from Cairngorm Brewery and East Street Cream from RCH.
Food wise I again went for the non-traditional option, this time choosing the tasty and well-presented pork saltimbocca with potato rosti and creamed spinach. There were 16 of us in total, a number which filled the dining area at the far end of the pub virtually to capacity. All in all it was an excellent do; in fact one of the most enjoyable and best attended Christmas meals the branch has hosted over the years.

So after an indulgent weekend it’s back to work until Christmas Eve when the festivities, this time, kick off at home. My thanks go out to the management and staff at both the Little Brown Jug and the Windmill for looking after us so well over the last couple of days.

Saturday 14 December 2013

A Day at the Wells

The drinking scene in West Kent really seems to be looking up, and nowhere is this more the case than in Tunbridge Wells. Drinkers in the town are now almost spoilt for choice, with the recent opening of Fuggles Beer Café being the icing on the cake. I was in the town last Sunday, getting some of my Christmas shopping done, but also taking the time to check out a couple of the best local drinking establishments.
 First on the list was the Beer Seller; a recently opened speciality beer shop, situated on Mount Ephraim, a few doors away from the ever popular Sankey’s. A work colleague had recommended this place to me, and whilst the shop was a bit spartan inside, I was not disappointed by what I found. The Beer Seller does exactly what the name above the door says: it sells beer and nothing else. Bottled beers, rather than draught, with the majority coming from Belgium. There are also quite a few home-grown examples, alongside a few from North America and Germany. I treated myself to a small selection towards my Christmas stockpile - Rochefort 6, De Koninck and Silly Saison, all from Belgium, plus English speciality, Ampleforth Abbey Beer, a 7.0% Dubbel style beer from Little Valley Brewery of West Yorkshire, and made a promise to return, before heading down the hill back towards the town centre.

Fuggles was my next port of call as after buying some beer in bottles, I wanted some to drink there and then. The place was pleasantly busy without being totally crowded out. Alex the manager recognised me from my previous visit and, as on that occasion,, there were four cask ales on tap, plus ten keg ones. I opted for a tasting bat (three thirds of a pint) of the cask beers to start with, my selections being Burning Sky - Plateau, Harbour - Amber and Redwillow - Heartless Chocolate Stout. All three were good but I have to say the 3.5%  Plateau was outstanding. This is understandable as Burning Sky has been set up by former Dark Star brewer, Mark Tranter.

Afterwards I moved onto the Beavertown - Gamma Ray APA, a beer that I had seen on sale in bottled form, at the Beer Seller, a short while before. It was a tasty and well-hopped beer, not quite as good as the Plateau, but still eminently drinkable. I was surprised to see it looking quite cloudy, in the glass, thereby shattering my delusions that all keg beers are filtered! Before I left, Alex offered me a taste of the Alpha State Orange Zest IPA, a stunning, zesty IPA, brewed with Belgian yeast, which imparts a distinct taste to the beer.

Regrettably, or perhaps sensibly, I had to leave. There was only an hour remaining before the shops shut for the day, so I took my leave of Alex and Fuggles and headed for the shops. Purchases complete for the day I made my way back down towards the station, before calling in on the way to Tunbridge Wells’s premier alehouse, the Bedford. There were around 10 cask ales on tap, and like at Fuggles I decided to go for a tasting bat. The ones I chose were Isfield - Bitter, Langham - American Pale Ale and Late Knights - Old Red Eyes. All were good, but the one that really stood out was the Langham APA.

I met four friends in the pub; not all at once, but enough to extend my stay quite a bit longer than I intended. I had a couple more halves, but I can’t remember what they were. All in all it was a fruitful visit to Tunbridge Wells, both on the shopping and the beer sampling front. It’s just a shame there is nothing quite like these places in Tonbridge.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Iconic Brand to Ironic Bland

What does it take for a beer to change from being an “iconic brand” to an “ironic bland”? The transformation of a once great beer, full of flavour, character and highly sought after, into a pale shadow of its former self. A pastiche if you like?

The answer, in a lot of cases, seems to be an increase in the popularity, and availability of the beer. When this occurs there is often a temptation, on the part of the brand owners, to cut corners’ to rush things in order to keep up with demand. In addition there is often a temptation to “cash in” on the success of the brand, so much so that in many instances it is a case of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”. However, despite numerous examples of this in the past, no lessons ever appear to be drawn.

This “selling of one’s soul”, does not appear to happen in other industries. Take fashion for instance. There is no evidence of iconic brands such as Versace, Gucci, Armani etc becoming devalued. If there was, then this would surely spell the end of these famous fashion houses, and yet in the world of brewing there are countless beers that were also regarded as  iconic brands, some even attracting cult followings which bordered on messianic. Many have disappeared completely, or are mere shadows of what they once were, so is this the ultimate price of success?

 Draught Bass is probably the beer which has suffered most in this respect. Once the yardstick against which other beers were measured, this iconic and world famous Burton Pale Ale, has suffered the indignation of no longer being brewed in the traditional Burton Union Sets. The brewery where it was once brewed has long been demolished. Its parent company is no longer involved in brewing, and the brand’s new owners have contracted out the production of this once great beer to a rival company!

Ruddles County, is another beer which has probably suffered an even worse fate than that of Draught Bass. Reduced in strength over the years, and shunted around a succession of different breweries as the brand changed hands between various national, and even international conglomerates, this beer is nothing like the rich, full-bodied, generously hopped ale I remember drinking back in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s.  A beer that was eagerly sought after by CAMRA devotees during the early days of the campaign, and one of the favourites of the “real ale revolution”, is now just another bland and emasculated Greene King brand. The Suffolk brewers have reduced the strength of the beer to just 4.3%, and changed the recipe in the process. Why then pretend that this is the same legendary beer that once came out of Rutland?

A similar iconic brand, of which I have personal experience, is Boddingtons Bitter. Back in 1973, upon hearing I’d been offered a place at Salford University, a school friend who knew a lot more about beer than I did at the time, told me to look out for Boddingtons. Once there, the beer took a bit of tracking down. The student union bar was jointly tied to Allied Breweries and Scottish & Newcastle, and most of the pubs surrounding the university sold only big brewery products, or were tied to Greenall Whitley (grotty Greenalls!) whose beers were, if anything, even worse!

My first experience of Boddingtons then came several weeks into my first term at Salford. A short distance to the south-west of the campus was a high-rise estate. There were several newly-built characterless pubs serving the estate, one of which belonged to Boddingtons. One night, mindful of what my school friend might say on my return to Kent, I decided to grab the bull by the horns and call in at this pub in order to sample some Boddingtons myself.

At first it seemed most of the customers were drinking lager so pale was the colour of the beer, but after ordering a pint of bitter, dispensed via a metered-electric pump, complete with bar-mounted glass cylinder, I realised this was the real thing. I had never seen a straw-coloured bitter before; nor had I tasted one that was so intensely bitter. However, I found it very much to my taste and over the next few months and years of my stay in Salford, made a point of seeking out Boddingtons pubs wherever possible.

The growing popularity of Boddingtons bitter during this time, led to expansion of the company’s Strangeways Brewery, and the expansion of the brand into the local free trade. For the time being at least, Boddingtons bitter remained a brand confined to Greater Manchester and the north-west, but things were to change quite dramatically over the coming decades. Before these changes took place though, rumblings of disquiet began to circulate amongst Boddingtons drinkers that the beer was losing some of its character. It was becoming less hoppy, and increasingly blander. Certainly when it was compared with Manchester rivals Joseph Holt & Co, whose beer was correctly described at the time as “uncompromisingly bitter”, Boddingtons increasingly failed to deliver.

This “dumbing down” of an iconic drink was happening as my time in Greater Manchester was coming to an end, and I was heading back south; initially to London and then shortly after back to Kent. It didn’t go un-noticed with me that Boddingtons had started to cut back on their range of beers, dropping one of the two milds they produced, along with their seasonal Strong Ale. The company also went on a mini-takeover spree, buying out, and later closing nearby neighbours Oldham Ales, followed by Liverpool’s most famous brewery – Higsons. Then in 1989 Boddingtons did the unthinkable by deciding to exit from brewing altogether and become purely a pub-owning company.

The Strangeways Brewery was bought by Whitbread, along with the brands, and Whitbread wasted no time into turning Boddingtons bitter into a national brand. Marketed as the “Cream of Manchester”, Boddingtons bitter spread like a plague across the land, but by now the brand had become so de-based that for me, and I’m sure many other beer lovers, it became a beer to avoid rather than embrace. Whitbread even went so far as to launch a “smooth-flow” version which must have been even worse, although I wasn’t foolhardy enough to try it!

So a once extremely good, iconic local beer became just another lacklustre national brand. I have already mentioned Draught Bass and Ruddles County as examples of the dumbing down, and indeed out and out bastardisation of a couple of once iconic beers, but this process continues un-abated within the brewing industry.

Seasoned observers will point to another iconic beer which appears to be suffering the same fate. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord was the stuff of legends. This classic Yorkshire brew started life as a bottled pale ale, and at one time was only available in draught (cask) form at one pub; the Hare & Hounds at Lane Ends, high in the hills over-looking the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge. I know this because back when I was a student, a group of us hired a mini-bus for the express purpose of visiting this pub, just so we could sample draught Landlord. The unspoilt pub, the scenery and the excellent beer were well worth the long drive over the Pennines from Salford and not long after, waking up to the fact they had a sure-fire winner on their hands, Taylor’s began increasing the availability of Landlord.

I can’t remember when exactly it started appearing in the free trade in this part of the country, but it must have been a couple of decades at least after my visit to the Hare & Hounds. The beer was a regular guest, and a favourite with customers, at our off-licence, between 2001 and 2006, and I always remember how lively this beer was when tapped and spiled. In recent years though, Landlord has definitely lost a lot of its complexity. It is still a very good beer, but I do feel the rush to make it much more widely available has resulted in a distinct loss of character, and that yet another iconic beer is heading in the same direction as some of the others I have mentioned.

Perhaps the journey from iconic brand to ironic bland is an inevitable one, and perhaps also the analogy with the fashion industry was not quite so far off the mark as I first thought. Leaving aside issues of cheapening the brand for one moment, the world of fashion has to be the ultimate example of style triumphing over substance. Isn’t this the same as what’s been happening in the world of beer?

Thursday 5 December 2013

A Few Days In Prague

Earlier this week my family and I returned from a four day mini-break in Prague. This was my wife Eileen’s first visit to the Czech capital, son Matthew’s second and my fourth, so it proved to be an interesting combination of expectations and experiences. Being a family holiday, beer hunting wasn’t exactly on top of the agenda, but even so there was still a reasonable amount of beer drinking involved. The prime reason for our visit was to experience some of Prague’s Christmas Markets, which commence trading at the beginning of December, and we were not disappointed with what we found and enjoyed. On top of that I can safely say all three of us thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Czech capital, and will undoubtedly be returning again in the not too distant future.

Rather than writing a blow-by-blow account of the beers we enjoyed, and the pubs and bars where we drank them, instead I want to relate my impressions of the general drinking scene in Prague, along with how I see the market developing out there. The thing that sticks out above all others in the Bohemian capital is the widespread availability of unfiltered beer (Nefiltrované pivo). Even the big boys are in on this now, and we found unfiltered Staropramen 12˚ on sale in the restaurant attached to our hotel, and unfiltered Gambrinus 11˚ at the Hard Rock Café (Eileen's choice for lunch, and treat! ) just along from Prague’s Old Town Square.

The top Nefiltrované pivo, so far as I was concerned, was Unetické pivo 12˚, from Únětický Pivovar, a recently revived brewery in the village of Unetice which is almost a suburb of Prague. The original brewery ceased brewing in 1949, but re-started again in 2011 in the old premises, but using  new brewing kit. This wonderfully tasty and bitter, pale lager was on sale at Na Slamiku, a real, traditional Czech local, situated right opposite our hotel, and the pub itself combined, with the Unetické pivo 12˚, turned out to be the perfect combination and the find of the trip.

We ate and drank at Na Slamiku on two of the four evenings we were in Prague, finding the atmosphere of this unspoilt local pub reminded us of what pubs were like back in the UK during their 1970's heyday. The freshly cooked, value for money food served was the perfect match for the excellent beer, and with indoor smoking permitted, as in many Czech pubs, Eileen was a very happy bunny. What amazed us was the way the pub was run by just three people; a husband and wife,  plus a cook. On our first visit on Friday night, the place was heaving, and we were lucky to get a seat. During this time, the husband and wife team were kept very busy transporting plates weighed down with good wholesome dishes, and foaming mugs of beer, to the various tables. This they did with a  cheery smile for us, and some friendly banter for the locals.

I said earlier that beer hunting was not the main objective of the holiday, and it wasn't,  but  nevertheless I was determined to try and track down some, what for me, are some of the best  "mainstream" beers the Czech Republic's has to offer. Bernard of Humpolec, in eastern Bohemia, brew some fantastic beers, full of character, with a rich maltiness, balanced by a good hop bitterness.

We had spent the morning of our last full day in Prague at the colourful Christmas Market, in the city's Old Town Square. After a surfeit of hot honey wine, roast chestnuts, fried potatoes with bacon and a sweet, sugared-pastry dish cooked on large wooden rollers, I decided a beer was definitely in order. We had walked down towards the Charles Bridge in order for Eileen to buy a hat she had spotted in a shop a couple of day's previously, so after her purchase was complete a quick glance at Ewan Rail's CAMRA Good Beer Guide to Prague showed that Café Duende was close by, and what's more it was described as one of the best places in Prague to enjoy Bernard beers on draught.

Imagine my disappointment then on arriving, finding the place only half-lit and being told it wouldn't be opening until 4pm. The CAMRA  Guide had indicated otherwise, but as this was published back in 2007 it is now obviously becoming out of date. How about a new edition, CAMRA? As compensation, I brought a few bottles of Bernard beer, back with me - Svetly Lezak (pale), Jantarovy Lezak (amber) and Cerny Lezak (dark). Like their draught counterparts, they are unpasteurised, and I will enjoy drinking them over the fast approaching festive season.

I did promise not to relate a blow-by-blow account of our drinking, but no trip to Prague, and therefore no description of a visit, would be complete without a mention of U Fleku - reputed to be the oldest brew-pub in the world, and the Czech capital's most famous drinking establishment. We visited U Fleku on our second day in Prague, but it had not been our original choice of somewhere to eat. The beer hall at U Medviku (at the Little Bears), was packed out when we arrived, and there was no room to squeeze even the three of us in. The Little Bears ended up as Matthew's favourite Prague pub on our last visit, and I must admit the standard of food and drink there was really high.

Disappointed, we made our way through the maze of side streets to U Fleku, where despite its obvious popularity, there was space for us inside the first beer hall on the left. Despite its reputation as a "tourist trap", I have to report the service and the food were very good, whilst the rich, black, house-brewed lager was excellent.  When I first tried this beer, back in 1984, on my very first visit to Prague, I wasn't that keen on it, but I put that down to my taste-buds not being sufficiently matured at the time. When Matthew and I visited last year, I noticed  a slight lactic taste lurking in the background which, whilst not unpleasant, should probably not have been there, but may have been down to the house yeast. This time around, the lactic character had disappeared; the result an excellent full-bodied and very malty dark lager which was worth every Kc paid.

So there we have it, whilst U Fleku carries on in its timeless, traditional fashion, the beer scene in the rest of Prague is evolving fast. On our visit last year I sampled a well-hoped, 6.3% IPA at the Klasterni Brewery attached to the Strahov Monastery, and I also brought a bottle of the excellent 8.0% Pardubicky Porter back with me (I brought two bottles this time!). What with this, and the increasing availability of both unfiltered and unpasteurised beer (tankovna), the Czech capital remains an exciting place for the beer hunter.