Saturday, 20 July 2013


Beer festivals are like buses, you wait ages for one to come along and then three arrive at once! OK, not quite all at once, but one after another, and this time of year always seems a particularly busy one for celebrating the fruits and delights of the brewers’ art.

Last weekend saw the highly successful SIBA South East Region Beer Festival, which I’ve already reported on here. This weekend sees the similarly- sized Kent Beer Festival, one of the longest running events of this nature in the country; in fact the Kent Beer Festival is the second oldest CAMRA festival in Britain. The first one took place in 1975, so next year, 2014, will be the event’s 40th anniversary. After a gap of several years, I attended last year’s festival and, after thoroughly enjoying myself, made a commitment to go along this year. Unfortunately the event immediately precedes another beer festival; one which takes place abroad, and one which I have wanted to attend for quite some time. 
The event I am referring to is known as Annafest, and is held every July in the small Franconian town of Forchheim, in northern Bavaria. The event is primarily a folk festival, held over a 10 day period to celebrate St Anna’s day (July 26th). St Anna (Anne in English), was the mother of the Virgin Mary, and Bavaria being a staunchly Catholic country celebrates such events in style, and with the help of more than a few beers of course! We’re not actually flying out until Monday morning (22nd), so in theory I could have joined my friends at Canterbury yesterday for the first day of the Kent Festival, but with going away there were a lot of loose ends to tie up at work, but shopping and packing to do today, (not much fun with a hangover!), so I reluctantly decided that Canterbury would have been one festival just too many.

So what of Annafest? Well, not having been before I’m not quite sure what to expect. The festival takes place on a site occupying a wooded hillside, just on the edge of Forchheim. The “Kellerwald”, as the area is known, has 23 Bierkellers (beer gardens really), most of which only open for Annafest, although a small number are open all year. There are also fairground rides and attractions, plus six stages featuring a wide range of different musical acts, (quite what sort of acts remains to be seen). About nine or ten local breweries supply the beer, including the four breweries based in Forchheim itself, with many of them brewing a special “Annafest Bier”.

The event opened today (Saturday 20th), with a parade through Forchheim, followed by the ceremonial tapping of the first cask by the Bürgermeister, (town Mayor), but hopefully there will still be some beer left by the time we arrive late Monday afternoon. We’re renting an apartment in the centre of Forchheim, so shouldn’t have far to travel, and anyway a shuttle bus runs between the bus station and the Kellerwald. Whilst there, we’ll obviously be visiting the town centre taps of the four Forchheim breweries, as well as exploring a bit further a field. Forchheim is roughly halfway between Nuremberg, (where we’re flying in to) and Bamberg. We’ve visited Bamberg before. Not only is this beautiful city home to eight breweries and famed for its “Raucbier” (smoke beer), it also contains some smashing pubs. A return visit will definitely be on the cards.

I’ve got two books for guidance: John Conen’s excellent Guide to Bamberg & Franconia, plus Ron Pattinson’s Trip! (South), which covers a much wider area of southern Germany. I’ve also got the Annafest App for my Smartphone, which gives details of the various Bierkellers, opening times, beers sold, availability of food, music or music free etc. It also has a plan of the Kellerwald showing the location of the various Kellers, names, times and venues for the various music acts, plus general information about the event.

All in all it promises to be an excellent event, especially as the weather looks set to remain fine, for the first half of the week at least. Tandleman, who has been to Annafest before, gave me a few words of advice. “Take plenty of insect repellent”, he said. When I asked why, he reminded me that warm summer nights and forested areas are a bad combination when it comes to attracting biting insects. Thanks for the tip Peter, my “Jungle Formula” insect repellent is already packed.

Friday, 19 July 2013

A Few Random Beery Thoughts

Does anyone know who brews the Firestone Walker American Independence Pale Ale, currently on sale in Wetherspoons outlets? Actually, what I probably should ask is which UK brewery is brewing this 5% beer under licence, as I doubt very much that it's all being imported from across the pond.

Anyway, it was by far the best beer I had last night in our local JDW in Tonbridge, unlike the much vaunted Robinsons Trooper which distinctly underwhelmed. I enjoyed Robinsons ales during my time in Greater Manchester, back in th mid 1970's, but every time I've tried a pint of their beer down here, it's always disappointed. Perhaps Robinson's beers just don't travel, although going back to the Iron Maiden inspired Trooper, Curmudgeon also found it underwhelming, and that was on its home patch in Stockport!

Also disappointing were the two  bottled IPA's from Traditional Scottish Ales which I picked up cheap in Lidl's a week ago. Both Rok and Ben Nevis are just 4.0%, and both fail totally to deliver. Weak and insipid with that nasty "woody" after-taste which to me is normally a sign of yeast infection. There is a brewery not a million miles from here which seems to suffer from the same problem, yet amazingly keeps going. Perhaps some people actually like this in a beer, but I'm not one of them, and I'm glad now that I didn't return to the store, as I was threatening to, and buy some more. I've still got a bottle of Wild Stout, from the same company, to try, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

I also came across some beers with this "woodiness" back in April, whilst in Norwich for the CAMRA Members Weekend. I won't name and shame, as this was three months ago, and the brewery concerned might well have cleaned up its act, but selling beers in this sort of condition, doesn't do anyone any favours, and tarnishes the micro-brewing industry with a largely unwarranted name for producing beers that are hit and miss.

I've got a few more beers to try over the weekend, which I hope will be somewhat better. In the meantime, who is brewing Firestone Walker American Independence Pale Ale?

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

SIBA South East Festival Overview

This year’s SIBA South East Regional Beer Festival, was probably the most successful  to date. Held over last weekend, from Friday to Sunday evening, and hosted by Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club, the festival featured around 150 cask ales alongside a range of bottled beers, all brewed by SIBA members based in the south east region. This is a large area, stretching from Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in the west, to Kent in the east, but also taking in Berkshire and London as well.

As I mentioned in a previous post, as well as giving the general public the opportunity of trying a wide range of beers, many of which they rarely see, there is also a serious side to the event. Prior to opening its doors last Friday evening, some intensive tasting and judging of different beers (eight styles for draught and six for bottled) took place, with awards for Bronze, Silver and Gold in each category. Those interested in the final results can see which breweries won what by clicking here, but the overall winner, ie. the beer judged to be the best from the winner of each category, was Hopspur, from Redemption Brewing Company based in North London.

By the time I’d made my way down to the festival on Friday evening, shortly after 9pm, this beer had already sold out. As is often the case at festivals, the strongest beer on sale, Chocolate Vanilla Stout from Canterbury Brewers – a 9.6% stunner, was also in danger of running out, and by the time I’d worked my way up to sampling it had indeed disappeared.

Apart from the obvious skill which had gone into brewing this beer, one other reason for its popularity may have been due to all beers being sold at the same price (£3.60 a pint). In such situations, those interested in oblivion rather than enjoyment will view such beers as “more bang for their buck” and so without any thought or reverence to the craft of the brewer concerned will go straight for the strongest beers on offer. On the other hand though, uniform pricing kept things simple for the bar staff, especially as a token system was in place, and for beer geeks, who really wanted to try this beer, it was available at a bargain price.

The majority of the staff were volunteers from Tonbridge Juddians (TJ’s). Each year the beers are all racked in a large marquee adjacent to the clubhouse; a convenient arrangement as the tent is hired for the club’s end of season ball, and then kept up for a further week to accommodate the beer festival. Last year though the unseasonably wet summer really put a spanner in the works, and the tent, together with the majority of the already racked beer, ended up under several feet of water and the event had to be cancelled,

There were no such concerns this year, and with wall to wall sunshine the weather was, if anything, a trifle too hot. Despite near record breaking temperatures, the cooling system employed on the beer ensured things in the main stayed cool, and the beer remained in good condition.  (It appears not everyone was satisfied though, as we did notice one gripe from a Twitter user claiming the beer was lacking in condition – something I would, by and large, strongly refute).

As well as Friday evening, I also put in appearances on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Our local West Kent CAMRA branch had a small stand there, publicising our forthcoming festival with Spa Valley Railway in October and of course promoting CAMRA’s aims and achievements in general. I didn’t stay right until the end on Sunday, but imagine most of the beer would have run out. .

All in all it was a jolly good event and, as several of our members pointed out, we are extremely lucky to have an event of this magnitude, offering 150 different beers, right on our doorstep. Long may this continue, and here’s to next year’s festival!

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Traditional Scottish Ales at Lidl's

I picked up these three bottles of beer in Lidl's last night. They're brewed by TSA - Traditional Scottish Ales, and were selling for the bargain price of just £1.29 each. The beers concerned are Ben Nevis and Rok, both described as India Pale Ales, plus Wild Oat Stout.

 I  won't get the chance to sample them this weekend, as I'm committed to attending the SIBA South East Regional Festival. This will probably mean that by the time I do get round to trying them, Lidl's will  have sold out, but I'll let people know what I think when I do crack them open. However, at such a low price, I'm tempted to take a punt and buy a few more anyway.

Friday, 12 July 2013

SIBA South East Beer Festival 2013

This weekend sees Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club once again hosting the SIBA South East Regional Beer Festival. After the debacle of last year, when the event had to be cancelled due to flooding, the weather over the next few days looks set to be sunny and warm, just the weather for a spot of beer drinking. The gates open at 5pm this evening, and I am planning to go along a little later to see what's on offer.

Actually, having downloaded the beer list, I already know there's around 150 beers on offer supplied by SIBA members from all over the South East. The festival has a serious side of course, in so much that prior to opening to the general public, beers are judged by a panel of experts and awards are given for Bronze, Silver and Gold over a number of different categories and styles of beer. Having just looked on the SIBA website, there are eight different categories for draught (almost exclusively cask) ales, plus six for bottled beers. Several members of our CAMRA branch committee will have been involved with the judging, so it will be interesting to see what they come up with.

I've made a short-list of beers I want to try, and as well as this evening, I also hope to be going along tomorrow. As well as all this beer there are all the other things one would expect at a festival, including food and live entertainment. Coupled with that is the parkland setting of the festival itself, housed in a marquee attached to TJ's clubhouse. If you are in the area and fancy trying something a bit different on the beer front, get yourselves along to Tonbridge Juddians. Full festival information, together with a list of all the beers, can be found here.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Shepherd Neame India Pale Ale - Limited Edition

Regular readers of this blog will know I am no fan of Shepherd Neame, despite them being by far and away the largest brewery in Kent, and owning some iconic pubs. Ironic considering I was once a huge devotee of the company's beers; particularly their bitter, but this was back in the day when it was just plain "bitter" and not  a beer with a fancy title such as "Master Brew".

Sometime between the late 1980's and early 1990's, Shepherd Neame beers underwent a dramatic change in both taste and character. Gone was the well-balanced traditional Kentish ale with a lovely flowery hoppiness, which generations of local drinkers had cut their teeth on, and in its place was a beer with a harsh, stewed bitterness and a nasty metallic taste . This was combined with a change in character of the beers, which became thin-tasting, lacking in body, with an unpleasant and very dry aftertaste. Rumour has it the changes were due to the brewery "cleaning-up" its yeast, changing from a multi-strain variety to a single-strain one, thereby losing a lot of individuality and character along the way.

I don't know how true this story is, but try as I might I just can't get used to what Shepherd Neame beers taste like these days, and therefore tend to avoid them. However, towards the end of last year I was intrigued by a post on Mark Dredge's Pencil & Spoon site in which he reviewed two limited edition beers from Shep's, both of which were based on historical recipes from the company's archives. One of these beers was a Double Stout, whilst the other was an India Pale Ale. Being brews from a bygone era, both beers were on the strong side, but intrigued as I was,and despite my best efforts, I never managed to track these rarities down.

Until last weekend that is. Whilst browsing the shelves of Tesco's huge superstore in Sevenoaks, I came across a single bottle of  Shepherd Neame India Pale Ale.. There was no price or descriptive label on the shelf, so this must definitely have been an end of line. I eagerly snapped it up and am now enjoying a lightly chilled glass of it.

I have to day it's rather good. In fact I'd go further and say it's excellent and if the bog-standard Shepherd Neame beers tasted anything remotely like this one, then I would have no hesitation of drinking in their pubs.The only slight drawback with this particular offering is that because it's based on an historic recipe, it's a rather strong 6.1% abv beer that, whilst good for a beer to enjoy and savour, definitely isn't one to have a session on. However, I'm very glad I managed to find it, and am pleased to report that despite its strength it really reminds me of how good Shepherd Neame beers used to taste back in the day when I first started drinking. Now all I need to do is to track down that Double Stout!

The blurb on the back label reads as follows: "An historic brew which conjures up images of high seas and faraway places. An IPA encapsulates centuries of brewing tradition, a quintessentially strong and hoppy beer with a bold, stirring character. Our India Pale Ale delivers this magnificently; pale in colour and generously bittered with locally grown Fuggles hops.
The high hop rate in this brew originally protected the beer during its arduous journey across the continents. The same Kentish hop notes can now be enjoyed for their own sake in this original recipe from Britain's oldest brewer."

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Disappointment on the Beer Front

It was very disappointing on the beer front the other night; doubly so after the excellent choice of top quality beers we had enjoyed a couple of days previously.  I had turned up to the third meeting of the organising committee of the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, held at the normally reliable Royal Oak in Tunbridge Wells, looking forward to something pale, hoppy and refreshing. Instead I was confronted by three brown beers - Harvey’s Best, Mighty Oak – English Oak and Tonbridge Copper Knob; all perfectly good beers in their own right, but not what I was looking for at the time.

One could argue that drinkers are spoilt for choice these days, and in certain pubs we are. However, many pubs continue to offer just one or two “safe” options – (Harvey’s Best, London Pride or Greene King IPA in this area), but at least with those type of pub one knows there what will be on offer. When one is relying on a pub which is normally renowned for sourcing something out of the ordinary, then it comes as something of a disappointment when it doesn't come up with the goods.

It wasn’t just the Royal Oak that failed to deliver last Tuesday. When the meeting had finished, a couple of us called in at the Bedford on our way back to the station. There were around eight beers on sale, but again despite lots of apparent choice, I didn’t really see anything that grabbed my attention. In the end I opted for Clarence & Fredericks Best Bitter, which was a very disappointing pint to finish on, reminding me of a pint of home brew, back in the bad old days. My friend fared rather better with the same brewery’s mild.

So what of the beers back at the Royal Oak? Tonbridge Copper Knob is a fairly dry, fruity 3.8% beer, copper in colour, as its name suggests. English Oak, on the other hand, was a full 1.0% higher in strength, and was fruity in character with caramel malt being the main characteristic.

OK, perhaps we shouldn’t have expected too much on a quiet Tuesday evening and I’m being more than a little churlish here, but with the preponderance of pale golden ales available these days, it was odd to find nothing apart from malt-driven brown ales.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Bargain Beer at Lidl's

From time to time supermarket chain, Lidl run cut-price promotions on certain bottled English beers. The offers are either from Shepherd Neame or Marstons, but given my antipathy towards Shep's it's only beers from the latter group which interest me. Earlier this week our local branch of Lidl, in Tonbridge, was selling two different Jennings beers at the bargain price of just 99p per 500ml bottle. The beers in question were Jennings Bitter or Cocker Hoop, and it was the latter brew which took my fancy, as I rate it as by far the best beer to come out of the Jennings stable. Golden in colour and with just the right balance between juicy malt and resinous bitterness, this 4.2% beer really hits the spot so far as I'm concerned.

At such a bargain price, both beers were selling like hot cakes. I picked up an eight-bottle case yesterday, but when I returned earlier this evening, both beers had completely sold out. I'm not surprised, but if you're quick, it might still be worth checking your local branch of Lidl to see if there's any left on the shelves.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A Day in the Kent Countryside

I have written on at least two previous occasions about the CAMRA National Inventory listed Old House, at Ightham Common. Sometimes described as a “hobby pub” in so much it is only open during the evenings and at weekends, as owner Nick Boulter has a full time job elsewhere, it should more accurately, and more kindly, be described as a labour of love. It is always a wonderful experience to visit this marvellously unspoilt pub, not least because one is assured of being able to sample some excellent beer there.

So it was that last Saturday, a group of nine local CAMRA members and friends boarded the 222 bus outside Tonbridge station, to make the short journey up to Ightham Common. En route we passed through some unbelievably pretty places, including the large village of Plaxtol. This area was once known for paper making, and this industry is celebrated in the name of one of Plaxtol’s two pubs, the Papermaker’s Arms. However, we were leaving the delights of Plaxtol for another day, and another outing, and after our bus had climbed the steep escarpment of the Greensand Ridge, and deposited us just outside Ightham village, we made the short walk down along Redwell Lane, reaching the Old House just after 11.30.

Apart from regular customer and local CAMRA member Clive, we were Nick’s first customers; in fact he had nipped outside for a crafty cigarette before opening. He ushered us in and after we’d had the chance to peruse the beers on offer, suggested to keep things simple we hold a “whip” whereby each of us put a tenner into a kitty, and he would then take the drinks money from that, as and when required. This seemed a good idea, so we all chipped in and then proceeded to order our drinks. I started with Dark Star Hophead, a bit of a no-brainer really. It was pale, cool, refreshing and wonderfully hoppy, and I was tempted to go for another had it not been for  my attention being caught by a beer from the Bristol Beer Factory, called Seven. Now beers from this company are something of a rarity in rural Kent, in fact I haven’t come across them outside of London, so I made this  my second pint of the day, and was glad that I did. Not quite as overtly hoppy as the Dark Star, Seven was nonetheless an extremely good pint. Several of my companions thought so as well.

Before going any further, a word or two as to the intended format of the day. The 222 bus service runs back and forth between Tonbridge and Borough Green. It is operated by the same driver, which means that it runs once every two hours in each direction, with a three hour gap mid-afternoon to give the driver a break and the chance for some lunch. The idea was we would catch the 14.09 return service to Tonbridge, but would break our journey at the small hamlet of Dunks Green, home to the Kentish Rifleman, another excellent country pub which we don’t get to visit all that often. We could then spend the next three hours there, catching the 17.19 service back to Tonbridge or, mid afternoon, we could walk across country to the somewhat up-market Chaser Inn at Shipbourne, and then pick up the same bus there a few minutes later.

Either option meant a problem with food; apart from nuts and crisps, the Old House doesn’t do food, and we knew that the kitchen at the Rifleman closed at 2.30pm. We didn’t think the kitchen staff would fancy a rush, last minute scranble for food, so the sensible option was to bring a packed lunch. Nick had no problem with us eating our rolls inside the pub, but as it was such a nice day, several of us went and sat outside, enjoying the sun which has been sadly missing for much of the summer so far.

Alongside the Dark Star and the BBF beers, were Wickwar Coopers Ale, Mauldons Black Adder and Young’s Ordinary.  Dismissing the latter as no longer worthy of consideration since its move to Bedford, I gave both the Wickwar and the Mauldons a try before leaving, The pub had become quite crowded by the time of our departure; not just with ourselves, but a healthy sprinkling of regulars, plus a group from Croydon and Sutton CAMRA branch, It was also reported that a mini-bus load of SPBW (Society for the Preservation of Beer from the Wood) would be calling in as well. (We spotted them in their bus, en route to the Old House, whilst waiting for ours.) We departed shortly before 2pm, thanking Nick for his hospitality and his great beer, and were waiting at the stop in time for the onward bus to our next destination.

As I mentioned earlier, Dunk’s Green is nothing more than a hamlet, but it is fortunate in still having its own pub, and a pretty fine one too. Dating in part from the 16th Century, the Kentish Rifleman survived a serious fire back in 2007, which necessitated some major restoration work, especially to the roof. Looking at the pub today it’s difficult to imagine just how bad the damage was at the time. The front entrance leads straight into the main bar, which is long and low. Leading off from this is another long and quite narrow room, which is slightly more upmarket, and is mainly used by diners. At the rear of the pub is an attractive and secluded garden, and this is to where most of us gravitated; all that is except Eric and I who stopped to chat to a couple of characters sitting at the bar.

The Rifleman had four beers on offer – the low strength Tolly Cobbold English Ale, Whitstable Native, Harvey’s Best and Westerham 1965. The first two beers were on sale at £3.00 a pint, whilst the latter two were more expensive, at £3.50. This price differential reflects the wholesale prices charged by the respective breweries, as both Harvey’s and Westerham are well-known in the trade for charging higher rates for their beers. I sampled the Native and the 1965 and am pleased to report both were in tip-top condition.

Eric and I joined the others in the garden for our second pint; after all it was a shame to be stuck indoors on so pleasant a day. It was from here that the majority of the group decided that a cross-country walk to Shipbourne would be a good idea, as not only would it gives us some exercise, but it would also give us a bit of break from the beer. It was the perfect summer’s afternoon for a walk, most of which was across fields and through the odd copse. Eventually we could see the tower of Shipbourne church beckoning in the distance across the grassy expanse of the common.

I can’t remember the last time I’d set foot in the Chaser, but I wouldn’t mind betting it was a quarter of a century ago. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a somewhat up-market sort of place; nothing too stuck-up mind, just rather expensive. The pub is part of a small chain called Whiting &Hammond. The chain runs seven pubs in total, most of which are leased from Greene King. One of these is the Little Brown Jug at Chiddingstone Causeway, which is five minutes walk away from where I work.  My company uses the Jug for entertaining customers; leaving do’s and staff drinks each Christmas Eve, so I know the sort of package the group offers. It is a good package, and the food is especially recommended, with generous portions and some imaginative dishes, but of a normal lunchtime I tend to steer clear, if only so as to keep a clear head for the afternoon.

 As well as Greene King beers the Jug regularly stocks Larkin’s beer brewed just down the road, but like most local pubs the Larkin’s on tap is the 3.4% Traditional Ale. Now for a lunchtime pint this is a very good session beer that packs in lots of taste for its low strength, but it’s not often one sees any of the other beers that the brewery produces. I was especially pleasing therefore to walk into the Chaser and see Larkin’s Best Bitter on sale. At a much more respectable 4.4% abv, the Best is packed full of chewy-toffee, juicy-malt flavours which are perfectly complemented by the WGV and Bramling Cross hops grown on the brewery’s own farm.  In fact, so good was the beer that I didn’t mind paying the rather steep £3.80 a pint price tag.

We sat out in the garden at the side of the pub, which is just in front of the church, enjoying the beer and making those who had remained at the Rifleman jealous by posting text-messages telling them what they were missing!  We joined up with them just before 5.30pm, despite their having primed the bus driver not to stop for us! Back in Tonbridge, most of the party, being gluttons for punishment decided to call in at the local Wetherspoons. Myself and a colleague decided that discretion was the better part of valour and that we’d had more than enough ale for one day. Not only that but Spoons would have been somewhat of an anti-climax after three such excellent pubs, so we stayed on the bus for a couple more stops before walking back to our respective homes.