Saturday 31 August 2013

Roppelt's Keller

On the Saturday of our recent holiday in Franconia, we decided that a visit to a country Keller or two would be a good idea, and a nice way of spending the afternoon. As it happened we only had time to visit the one Keller, due to a late start. My son, like many lads of the same age (early 20’s), is not particularly good at getting up in the morning. He’s ok when he absolutely has to get up on time, like when he’s going to work, but on days off, and particularly on holiday, trying to prise him out of his pit is like pulling teeth!  I feel this is a real shame, especially on holiday when there’s so much to see and do, but this particular Saturday he was even more stubborn than usual about getting out of bed.

In the end I left him lying there and took a short walk into Forchheim town centre, (literally just around the corner from our apartment). I bought some cigarettes for my wife, plus a present or two for myself, and then called in at the local tourist information centre, handily situated in the town hall. Here I was able to pick up a handful of timetables for the local bus routes in Forchheim, as I had it in my mind that we would head out into the countryside to the west of the town and visit a Keller or two.
The previous afternoon we had met a group of English beer enthusiasts in the garden of Café Abseits in Bamberg. Comparing notes, as beer hunters invariably do, the group told us about the Kreuzberg Keller complex situated near the village of Schnaid, and strongly recommended a visit there. I had also read about this group of Kellers in Jon Conen’s Guide to Bamberg & Franconia. Jon recommended taking a bus from Forchheim, alighting at the small village of Stiebarlimbach where a brewery called Roppelt is situated, visiting their Keller first before walking up through the woods to the Kreuzberg Kellers. After spending time here, one then walks a further kilometre or so to the village of Schnaid, in order to pick up the return bus to Forchheim.

This plan would have worked fine, if No. 1 son had been up several hours earlier, but although he was ready by the time I returned from my errands, we still had some further shopping to do, primarily items we wanted to take home with us (beer for me, copious quantities of crisps for Matthew, plus various goodies for our respective work colleagues), before we could go off beer-hunting. This was unfortunate, but we were unable to leave our purchases until the following day, as this was a Sunday, and all shops in Bavaria are closed on the Lord’s Day. We were also unable to leave this task until the Monday either, as that was the day of our departure. Consequently, by the time we had finished it was well passed midday, leaving just the afternoon in which to cram our visit into. The timetable showed that unlike during the week, the last bus back left Stiebarlimbach at just before 4pm. Our visit would have to be confined to just the one Keller, and Roppelt's seemed the obvious choice.

The bus arrived on schedule; we boarded and purchased a return ticket each. The journey took us in a northerly direction out of Forchheim, before turning west, crossing the River Regnitz and then heading off in a north-westerly direction. The bus climbed steadily up towards the Steigerwald, and took us through a succession of unbelievably pretty villages. This really was rural Franconia at its very best. Eventually we reached our destination, the tiny village of Stiebarlimbach. Our driver told us that the return bus would depart from the same stop, which was directly opposite Bräuerei Roppelt, quite a substantial looking affair and obviously THE major source of employment in the village.

Two other people got off the bus at the same time as us. I’d read that the Keller was sited behind the brewery and as this couple seemed to be heading in that direction, we followed them through the brewery yard, before turning off left, passed a pond along the edge of a field and up into the woods. As we drew nearer, we noticed a fair-sized car park, and then a group of yellow painted buildings. A short distance beyond the buildings were numerous wooden tables and benches, most sited under the trees for protection from the fierce afternoon sun. There were quite a few drinkers sat at these tables, most with stoneware half-litre Krug mugs in front of them. We soon discovered that one of the buildings was the Ausschank, where the beer was dispensed, whilst the other was the Küche, or kitchen, where the more solid nourishment was served. We found an empty table and then I wandered over to the Ausschank to grab us each a nice cold beer. Roppelts Kellerbier was the beer on sale, a tasty and well-hopped brew, and at just €1.90 a go, was the bargain of the day. A bit later on I went and ordered us some food to go with the excellent beer; sausages with Sauerkraut and Landbrot (dark rye bread) were the perfect accompaniment to the beer.

The Keller became quite busy as the afternoon wore on and the temperature continued to climb. We managed to put away three mugs each of this tasty country beer before deciding it was time to make a move. After all we did not want to end up stranded in the middle of nowhere, even though there was an excellent Keller there. Before we left, I noticed a path leading further up into the woods. People were heading off in that direction from time to time, so I assumed it was the path leading up to the Kreuzberg.  I made a mental note that if we ever returned we would visit mid-week, arrive much earlier and make a whole day of visiting the other Kellers as well!

We arrived back at the bus stop in good time, passing back through the brewery yard en route. It was a stiflingly hot afternoon, but we didn’t wait in the bus shelter, as there were a couple of slightly disreputable looking blokes in there, but instead stood in the shade round the side. After a wait of less than 10 minutes a bus appeared. “Is this ours?” my son asked. “No”, I replied confidently, noting that the destination shown on the front of the bus was Willersdorf, the village at the end of the route. “This bus will return shortly after turning round at the end of the route”, I said, but as we watched it depart an awful thought struck me that perhaps we should still have got on. This thought was reinforced by the bus being more or less on time, and was confirmed when I looked at the timetable, displayed inside the bus shelter, showing the same time for arrival and  departure in  Stiebarlimbach. It dawned on me that the last section of the bus route was circular, rather than linear, which meant, to our horror, that the bus would not be returning for us and we were stranded!

In the normal run of things this would not have been too much of a problem. We are both fairly fit and quite capable of walking a fair distance when necessary. However, with the sun beating down on us quite mercilessly, and temperatures in the mid 30’s, a long walk was not something either of us relished. I was mindful of a story which had been in the news back home, shortly before we left, where a couple of would-be SAS recruits had collapsed and died from heat exhaustion following an exercise in the Brecon Beacons during a spell of hot weather. Obviously we would not be pushing ourselves to those sorts of extremes, but I was still concerned that we both only had a small bottle of water each and that neither of us had hats. I blame my wife and son for this omission; both had regularly taken the mickey out of the bush hat I wear at home whilst in the garden, to the point of refusing to go out with me if I am wearing it. I was now cursing the lack of suitable headgear!

I have had a dose of sunstroke before, and it was not an experience I would care to repeat, but our options were somewhat limited in this respect. My plan, such as it was, was to walk to the much larger village of Schlammersdorf, which we had passed through on our outward journey. I knew there was a pub there attached to the local brewery, and I was certain we could get details there about taxis which could take us to one of the nearest stations, (either Eggolsheim or Hirschaid). I had been watching our general direction of travel on the outward journey, so I knew roughly which direction we need to proceed in, but I was still kicking myself for not having purchased the local map I had been looking at that morning in a newsagent in Forchheim.

We set off out of the village, and soon came to a T-junction. We turned right and set off up a hill. It was certainly hot and I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my decision to walk. Matthew was moaning, so when we eventually came to a shady, wooded area I decided to do something I hadn’t done since my student days, namely thumb a lift! There wasn’t that much traffic passing along this quiet country road, but our luck must have been in that day, as the second car to come along stopped to give us a lift. Our “saviour” was a young jobbing builder and, after I had explained our predicament as best as my German would allow, he offered to drive us to the station nearest to his home. This turned out to be Hirschaid, which was absolutely fine so far as we were concerned, as we could get a train back to Forchheim from there.

The journey probably only took about 20 minutes, but it saved us from what would have been an exhausting walk in the crippling heat. During the drive I chatted to our driver, mainly about where we were from and that we had come over for Annafest. He pointed out the brewery in Schlammersdorf, as we passed through, and also the one in Hirschaid as we arrived in the small town. Our driver dropped us off right at the station, and refused all attempts by us to give him some cash for his kindness. He did say though to look out for him at Annafest the following day and buy him a drink then. 

From Hirschaid, after a short wait, we were able to catch a train back to Forchheim, and arrived back at our apartment hot, but none the worse for our adventure. On the walk back from the station, Matthew swears he saw a bus being driven by the same driver who was in charge on our outward journey, and that the driver had waved at him. I replied it was a pity he hadn’t been driving the return bus, as he would certainly have beckoned us on board if he had seen us waiting at the stop in Stiebarlimbach.

 As for our rescuer, I distinctly heard him say he would be at Greiff Keller on the Sunday, and I think he said he would be there at 7 o’clock. We looked out for him earlier, and were intending to return later for a further look. However, it was around that time that the storm blew up, the sirens started to sound and the authorities closed the festival for the evening, following the severe weather warning. So unfortunately we never got to thank this chap personally in the way we would have liked. If, by some remote chance, he ever gets to read this blog, please accept our sincere thanks for saving us from a long and gruelling walk, and please get in touch so we can meet up and buy you a drink on our next visit to Franconia.

Another Success Story

Back in June I posted about the successful opening of the Windmill at Weald, describing how new owners had rescued this run-down Greene King pub from almost certain closure, completely renovated the place and turned the pub into a thriving village local selling a wide range of locally brewed ales, and offering a selection of excellent home-cooked food. A real success story, if you like. Now I am pleased to report another success; this time concerning a town pub rather than a rural one.

High Brooms is a suburb of Tunbridge Wells. I’m not certain how it acquired its rather grandiose title, but it’s not the grandest of places. Although nearer to Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms is the intermediate station on the railway between Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, and has developed into a popular domicile for commuters, given the slightly lower property prices, compared to its near neighbours, and the good, semi-fast rail connection to London.

 The High Brooms Hotel was built back in 1899, and is a substantial three storey detached brick built property. It stands in a prominent position looking back down the hill towards the station. I don’t know when the building ceased to be a hotel, but it must have been quite some time before I first knew it. That was back in the mid 1980’s, when I worked a short distance away from the pub, and would sometimes call in for a pint at lunchtimes. It was owned then by Beards of Lewes. Beards were a pub-owning, former brewery that had ceased brewing in the late 1950’s, supposedly because of a yeast infection, but more likely because their brewery premises in Star Lane, Lewes were rather cramped and in need of updating. The company entered into an agreement with Harvey’s, whereby they would purchase beer from their Lewes neighbours and sell it under their own name. I distinctly remember drinking Beards Sussex Best Bitter during the early 80’s, and seeing the same range of bottles which Harvey’s produce with Beards labels on them.

 I’m not sure exactly when this practice ceased, but during the mid-1980’s, Beards branched out into wholesaling, and operated out of premises in nearby Hailsham. This operation was eventually floated off and became “The Beer Seller”. We all know what happened to them, but Beards continued to operate their pubs in much the same way as before.  Then in 1998, the company sold their 40 or so pubs to Greene King, in a move which shocked local drinkers. Rumour has it that it also shocked Harvey’s, who had always been under the impression they would get “first refusal” on Beards, should the company ever come up for sale!

After a short period of adjustment, Greene King quietly set about restyling the pubs as their own and removing Harvey’s beers from their new acquisitions, much to the annoyance of local drinkers. The disappearance of Harvey’s from the High Brooms Tavern, as it was now called, coupled with the fact I was no longer working in the area, meant my visits to the pub became few and far between. I know the pub continued to thrive as a community local under landlord Roy Gibb, and acquired a bit of a name for itself because of the large amount of bric-a-brac and other assorted memorabilia on display there. It was also home to various darts and pool teams, plus the local ukulele club!

Roy retired in July last year and the pub closed. It did obviously not fit in with Greene King’s plans for their tied estate so they put the High Brooms Tavern up for sale. Although the company did leave things open for the building to continue as a pub, there was a real threat it would be bought by a developer and converted to alternative use, or even demolished. (The pub occupies quite a prominent site, just a short hop from the station). A local campaign was set up, with backing from West Kent CAMRA, to try and save the pub and to try and get it re-opened. Fortunately local residents Peter Whitaker and his son Greg, bought the pub in March this year, and then spent the next four months carrying out an extensive renovation plus a complete refit of this 19th Century building.

The result, when the pub re-opened last month, is a bright and airy pub, which retains much of the original layout, but with sensitive restoration of some of the building’s best features. The pub has been renamed the “Brick Works” in memory of this once thriving local industry. The remains of a substantial quarry where clay for making bricks was once extracted, can be seen a couple of streets away. (The quarry now houses a small industrial estate). There is a door way in the pub which has been bricked-up using old bricks from the local works, which are stamped with the words “Tunbridge Wells”.

We held a well-attended branch social at the pub, earlier in the week, and were all impressed with the way the pub has been renovated. We were also pleased to see the pub well-used by a mainly young clientele, with the darts and pool area particularly well-patronised. Beer-wise there was Greene King IPA and Golden Hen on sale, alongside the regular’s old favourite, Harvey’s Best!

The beers were all in good form, and it was encouraging to see the pub thriving once more, after having a new lease of life breathed into it. Not all closed pubs though are lucky enough to be bought by sympathetic new owners, but meanwhile the residents of High Brooms, and visitors from further afield, have cause to raise their glasses and be thankful to Peter and Greg Whitaker.

Ps. there is even more good news about another formerly closed pub, also in High Brooms, and this time it’s Greene King who are the heroes, rather than the villains of the peace. I will postpone reporting on the pub until I have had the chance to visit it myself.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Drinking in Germany

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I visit Germany on a fairly regular basis. In fact I have holidayed there for seven out of the past nine years, and have travelled there on business on three further occasions. The holidays have all been taken in Bavaria, the most southerly and also the largest state in the Federal Republic, whilst the business trips have been to Cologne (Köln), capital of the Rhineland area. Germany, of course, is one of the world’s great beer drinking nations, and a desire to become more familiar with the many and varied beers of this country has been the prime motivator for my visits here. Germany also offers much else besides beer, and lovers of history, architecture, art and spectacular scenery will find much to interest them and keep them occupied throughout their visit. 

For first time visitors though, particularly those like me who are primarily interested in beer, German customs and drinking practices can at times seem a little strange, especially as they tend to vary not just from region to region, but also within the various regions themselves. With this in mind I have written this guide to point people in the right direction, and to help them avoid some of the basic mistakes I made on my first visits to the country. For example, there is nothing more frustrating than sitting at an empty table in a beer garden, waiting to be served, and then finding you are in the “self-service” area! Equally, it is often confusing knowing which beers are on sale in a particular bar or pub. You may have a rough idea, particularly if you’ve a guide book with you, but knowing exactly what is on offer, and attempting to find out, can at times be a little taxing..

One of the oddities about drinking in Germany, compared to the UK, is the almost complete absence of point of sale material. The only things of this nature that I have seen are “pub umbrellas”, signs outside pubs and bars and, of course, beer mats. There are normally plenty of the latter, especially as the waitresses will often use them to mark how many beers have been ordered by a particular table, and thus how many need to be paid for at the end of the session. “Table service” is very much the norm in most pubs and bars, i.e. you sit at a table and wait for the waiter or waitress to bring your drinks over to you. There is none of the standing at the bar, waiting to be served, that applies in the UK, so perhaps there is little or no need for items such as pump clips or garishly illuminated founts informing punters which beers are on sale.

The lack of point of sale material can often be a confusing situation for the beer enthusiast, but fortunately the Speisekarte or menu will normally list what variety and type of beer is on sale. Then, even if your German is rudimentary, or even non-existent, you can at least point to the beer of your choice. Most German bars will normally offer a variety of different types of beer even if, as is usually the case, they are all produced by the same brewery.  The menu will usually distinguish which are draught (vom Fass) and which are bottled (Flasche), but there will normally be a greater variety of the latter available compared to the draught beers.
The selection will normally include a pale (Helles) lager-style beer, and nearly always a dark, malty (Dunkles) beer as well. This is particularly the case in Bavaria. Pilsner-style beers are almost universal in the north of Germany, but not so common (certainly not on draught), in the south of the country. Depending on the time of year, there will often be a seasonal beer on sale. Varieties include:
Märzen - a rich, full-bodied, reddish-brown, bottom-fermented beer, with an abv of around 5.5%. The name comes from the German word for March., which was when, in pre- refrigeration days, the last batches of beer were brewed before the heat of summer made brewing impossible. 

Bock - a strong bottom-fermented malty beer, with an abv of between 6 and 8 percent. Sometimes dark amber in colour, but it can also be quite pale, as with the Maibocks, which are available in springtime (April-May).  

Doppelbock - stronger than a Bock, with an abv of anything from 6.5 to 10 percent, or even stronger. In Munich and the surrounding area Doppelbocks are traditionally served during March – the so-called Starkbierzeit (literally,strong beer time).

Weissbier or Weizenbier – top-fermented wheat beers, brewed from a grist of 50% wheat and 50% barely malts. Copper-coloured, and characteristically fruity, wheat beers come as either filtered (Kristall) or cloudy and unfiltered (mit Hefe - "with yeast"). The latter version is by far the most popular. Unfiltered Zwicklbier is also quite common these days, sometimes known as Urtyp. Whilst many of these seasonal beers are available on draught at the appropriate time of year, they may still be found at other times in bottled form.   

In addition there are regional specialities such as Kellerbier, and sometimes Rauchbier in Franconia; top-fermented beers such as Kölsch in Cologne, and Alt in Düsseldorf. One thing’s for sure; you won’t run out of different varieties of beer to try.

One point worth bearing in mind though is that many bottled beers are exactly the same brew as their draught counterparts; the only difference being the container which they are stored in and dispensed from. We witnessed this on our recent trip to Franconia where, in a local pub in Forchheim, the cask on the counter ran out towards the end of the evening, so rather than broach a fresh one so close to “time” the barman informed us it would be bottled beer only for the remainder of the session. A sensible approach I think, especially when one considers the logistics of both keeping the beer cool as well as fresh.

Speaking of waitress/waiter service, this is THE one aspect I find most frustrating about drinking in Germany. Even more frustrating than waiting to be served, especially if one has a king-sized thirst on, is that of waiting to pay at the end of a session. This can be a nightmare if one has a train or bus to catch, and then finding the waitress has inexplicably disappeared. I have learnt from experience to always offer to pay the bill once the final drinks are brought over, rather than wait until I am ready to leave, The phrases “Gleich zahlen, bitte”, or “Sofort zahlen, bitte.”, (Please may I pay now?), have come in handy on several occasions, and saved us missing travel connections, hanging around with empty glasses and wanting to leave, etc.

Of course, none of these practices are exclusive to Germany, but apply in equal measure in many other European countries. I have come across similar practices in France, Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic. Does this make us Brits unique in paying, and often drinking at the bar? Well of course not, the USA and Canada are both similar to the UK, but I don’t know about other former colonies, or places settled by us Anglo Saxons. (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India etc). I also remember paying at the bar at an Irish-themed pub in Kyoto, Japan recently. (No, I wasn’t drinking Guinness, but opted instead for some of the rather good Japanese craft beers that were on sale there.)

However, not all establishments in Germany are table service. Most beer gardens (Kellers in Franconia), will offer a self-service option (Selbstbenienung). This is true of the large Munich beer gardens as well as some of the smaller, more rural, “tucked-away” Kellers one finds in Franconia. There are normally two separate serving hatches in these establishments; the Ausschank, where you queue up for your beer, and the Küche, or kitchen where a range of both hot and cold food is served. You enter first through a turnstile then, assuming you are eating, as well as drinking, you grab a tray, get your beer first, and then load up you tray with whichever food takes your fancy. In Bavaria, food choices will normally include a roast pork dish of some description, sausages (naturally!), roast chicken, meat loaf (in the form of Leberkaas), or a selection of salads. The larger beer gardens will normally charge a refundable deposit or Pfand, on your glass, but this practice is less common in the smaller, rural Kellers. Once you have selected your comestibles and your beer, you pay for your purchases at a separate turnstile, as you pass out of the serving areas.

The other really good thing about beer gardens is that many allow customers to bring their own food along, so long as they purchase their drinks from the Ausschank. This is an excellent idea, and one often sees whole families, especially at weekends, turn up with a picnic basket of pre-prepared cold food. Some even bring their own tablecloths along!

Finally, a word about drinking vessels and the various measures you may encounter. Half litre (500ml) glass mugs (with a handle), are probably the most common vessels, but even these can vary considerably from tall thin, cylindrical mugs, to short, squat ones. In Franconia, (the northern part of Bavaria), stoneware, ceramic mugs take the place of glass vessels. These have the advantage of keeping the beer cool for longer, but to me they detract from the visual pleasure of drinking as well as not being able to see the colour of the beer, nor indeed how much one has drunk! In Munich, and the southern part of Bavaria, the litre glass or Maß is common, and although these large vessels can be great fun to drink out of, they are both heavy and a little unwieldy. Contrast the Maß with the small, tall, cylindrical, straight-sided glasses, common in the Rhineland (both in Cologne and Dusseldorf), which contain either just 20 or 30cl of beer and you'll get some idea of just what a diverse country Germany is when it comes to beer drinking.

Armed with these facts you won’t go thirsty or hungry when you visit Germany, and like us you will hopefully find the whole drinking experience far more enjoyable when you know a bit more as to what is going on.

Saturday 24 August 2013

A "Quiet" Drink at Dartford Working Men's Club

This post was supposed to be about last weekend’s visit to Dartford Working Men’s Club (DWMC), and to a large extent it is, but before detailing the excellent range of beers on sale there, I want to pick up on a fairly recent post by Curmudgeon, titled “Pint Size”. The post was about poorly behaved children in pubs, but many readers seemed to take it as being “anti-child”, rather than “anti-badly behaved child”. It attracted a large number of comments and also a fair amount of criticism, from a coalition of “yummy mummies”, and so-called “progressive thinkers” (trendy liberal types), with people accusing the writer of living in the past and being a miserable old git. Now, having witnessed at first hand the disruption these badly-behaved little treasures/little horrors and their parents can cause, I fully sympathise with Curmudgeon’s view that children have their places, but a pub isn’t one of them.

For pub, also read club, as our visit to DWMC last Saturday was certainly marred, although not completely spoiled by a group of uncaring parents/carers letting one of their “little darlings/out of control brats” run riot, seemingly not bothered by the effect their off-spring was having on the rest of the drinkers in the club. Before going any further, I’m not exactly sure where the law stands with regard to children in clubs. Clubs are after all, private establishments with entry restricted to members and their guests, so the restrictions which apply to children in pubs may not be appropriate for clubs. 

From the beer lover’s point of view, DWMC is well worth a visit as it is a former CAMRA Club of the Year Winner. Beer-wise it is easy to see why the club won this award. I’m not quite certain how many different ales were on tap when we called in, but those I noticed, which were the ones we tried, were in tip-top form. The bar staff were knowledgeable and friendly and offered tastings to those of us who were unfamiliar with a particular brew. I enjoyed both the 3.9% Art Nouveau from Art Brew, plus Magic Rock’s Rapture, a 4.6% Red Hop Ale. A couple of my companions also enjoyed Shepherd Neame’s retro-style India Pale Ale, which I wrote about here, but I wasn’t aware the brewery had made it available on draught.

No complaints with the beer then, but before we go any further I have a confession to make. I don’t like clubs; never have and from what I am still seeing, I never will. To me they are a quintessential Northern thing, full of ex-miners and brass band members totally out of place down here in the “soft south”. Like glorified airport departure lounges, superficially comfortable but completely lacking atmosphere, character and soul! Give me a pub any day!

To return to the main point of the post,  last weekend’s visit was marred by an obnoxious brat charging up and down between the tables, screeching at the top of his voice, whilst his chav-like parents/ carers (not much caring going on there!), carried on with their socialising/swigging lager and alco-pops out of bottles. Ironically, just behind where we were sitting, there was prominent notice displayed on the wall asking parents to keep their children under control. The notice went on to warn that failure to comply with this request would result in the said offenders being asked to leave the club, and may even lead to their being barred.

Well we saw precious evidence of this perfectly reasonable ruling being enforced. In fact we saw none at all! My friends and I were guests in the club and as such felt it inappropriate to complain about what was going on. Instead we were hoping that other members present might say something, but so far as we noticed, not a word was said. When I say “guests” I mean it in the loosest sense of the word, as upon our arrival, and subsequent ringing of the doorbell, we were let straight in without being asked to sign the guest book, show our CAMRA membership cards or any other from of identification/qualification that should, if rules were to be followed correctly, permit us entry. We are obviously unfamiliar with the way DWMC operates, but if it allows unrestricted admission to complete strangers like us, presumably they are not unduly strict with any other Tom, Dick or Harry who wants to wander in off the streets for a cut-price pint! I would therefore question as to whether the group causing all the hassle were even members or not?

Before going any further I would like to say that it is not the child’s fault for behaving in this way. Children need to let off steam, especially if they are hyped up on a diet of junk food and fizzy drinks. Letting this “little darling” run round the local park would have been a more sensible, and productive way, to spend a Saturday afternoon. It would also have allowed those of us present in the club to enjoy our drinks in peace. However, when dealing with selfish and basically ignorant people who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, and who seem totally oblivious to the effect their behaviour might have on others, what does one expect?

Finally, I am surprised as to how the club manages to shift all this cask ale and keep in tip top condition. I say this because apart from ourselves, I didn’t really notice anyone else drinking the real ales. In fact, whilst at the bar, a group of three blokes, probably ten or so years older than me, were ordering pints of Foster’s Top! I really do despair at times at the taste (or lack of it) of the great British public!

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Festival Fatigue

As someone who is known for enjoying a pint, I often find work colleagues and acquaintances informing me of forthcoming beer festivals. This is especially true at this time of year where, with the Bank Holiday weekend fast approaching, the world and his wife appear to be running a  festival.

I always thank these people politely for their information but when, as is nearly always the case, I give a negative response to the question “I expect you will be going?” the look of disappointed astonishment on their faces never ceases to amaze me. These well-meaning people believe that because I am a beer lover I will automatically attended every local pub, club or village fete beer festival in existence! I try to tell them there are so many going on these days and, that even if I wanted to go to them all, I have neither the time or the finances to do so, but it’s almost as if they think it’s my duty to go along and try every beer on sale, especially where it’s a pub or organisation close to their hearts.

Well, I’m afraid it isn’t, and I think many local CAMRA members are starting to feel the same. I call this “festival fatigue” and whilst I know beer lovers should be welcoming this explosion of interest in decent ale, beer festivals are now becoming so common place there’s a danger they will start to lose their “novelty value” and people will lose interest in them anyway. 

As for me, I’m definitely “festivaled out” if there is such a word. So far this year I have attended beer festivals at Dover (Winter Ales), Angel Fest at Tonbridge Angels Football Ground, Orpington Liberal Club, Tonbridge Juddians twice, (their own festival in February and the massive SIBA South East event in July), Annafest in Forchheim, Germany and most recently the Great British Beer Festival at London Olympia. I’ve also been heavily involved in the preparation for the forthcoming festival our local West Kent CAMRA branch is holding in October, in conjunction with the Spa Valley Railway – a heritage rail line running between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge in Sussex. 

I felt this “festival fatigue” at GBBF last week, and whilst there remains a possibility I might go along to the festival at the Half Way House, Brenchley at some stage over the Bank Holiday, this will be more to be sociable and meet up with friends than a desire to “tick off” a few more beers!  As hinted in my recent post about GBBF, I find the socialising aspect of beer festivals to have a far greater appeal than trying yet another half dozen or so golden ales, all of which tend to taste pretty much the same after one has had a few. This was why Annafest was so good; it wasn’t about sampling as many different beers as possible, but instead just chilling out in the open air, soaking up the atmosphere, wandering around seeing what was going on and just generally having a good time. Sure, there were around a dozen breweries supplying beer, and over the three separate days that we visited Annafest, we managed to sample eight of them, but that wasn’t the main object of the festival.

So what, if anything, is the way forward? Well nothing really at the moment so far as CAMRA is concerned. GBBF now operates to a tried and trusted formula, and apart from a bit of tweaking here and there (more seating would be an improvement!), the campaign’s flagship festival can probably continue along similar lines as present. One worst of caution though, the average age of the volunteers who give up their spare time to run CAMRA festivals is not getting any younger, and  unless more younger members step up to the plate, there will come a time when there just won’t be the manpower available to run events like GBBF.
Pub beer festivals too should be encouraged, and there’s probably not a lot that needs changing here. Not only do these events bring extra trade to the pub, but hopefully they might encourage some of the pub’s regulars to try something different from Fosters or Carling and introduce them to the delights of proper beer!  Again, a note of caution, I would like to see a bit more communication between pubs in order to avoid beer festivals clashing. For example, there are at least four such events that I know of taking place locally over the coming Bank Holiday weekend. I appreciate this is a popular time to pick, but with so many going on there’s a danger attendances will be diluted across the board, and the individual impact each one might have had will be lessened. 

As for me, I’ve already made my views on the subject clear, and I’m sure I’m not alone suffering from “festival fatigue” . Perhaps the way forward is that adopted by the recent London Craft Beer Festival – staged last weekend.  The format was slightly different to a CAMRA festival, and of course not all the beers would have been CAMRA approved so far as storage and dispense is concerned. That doesn’t matter to me, as what these beers actually taste like is far more important than side issues such as dispense. The event took place from 16th to 18th August at Oval Space in London’s Bethnal Green. According to the website, there were around 20 breweries taking part, not all of them from London, and even including legendary overseas brewers such as Mikkeller and To Øl, both from Copenhagen and Brouweij De Molen from the Netherlands. Home-grown talent included Dark Star, Kernel, Camden Town, Magic Rock and Redemption, and I’m sure that amongst this line up there would have been some real stunners.
According to the organisers, the £35.00 ticket price included:
  • ENTRY TO THE EVENT - all the breweries, the food market and the terraces for the session
  • LOTS OF GREAT BEER – a beer from every stand (You’ll get a token for a third of a pint (189ml) from every brewer stand – that’s over 5 pints of great beer!)
  • LOVE / KNOWLEDGE / EXPERIENCE - Access to the brewers, brewery teams, beers from around the world, different types of beer
  • FREE GLASS - A London Craft Beer Festival branded glass
  • AWESOME FESTIVAL PROGRAMME - with tasting notes and information on each brewery
  • HOURS OF FUN5 hours of enjoying great beer, great music and our lovely terraces
  • *Food is not included in ticket price, be sure to bring a bit of cash for our amazing food market (cards also accepted
  • *If you power through the five pints more beer will be available to buy
  • THE BOTTLE BANK – There will be a selection of the Breweries best bottled beers to purchase from Oval Space to take away. 
I am kicking myself a bit for not having noticed this event. If I’d known further in advance then I would definitely have gone and may even have given GBBF a miss!  I haven’t seen anything on the blogosphere about the London Craft Beer Festival, so if anyone did manage to get along I would like to hear what were their impressions  of the event.

Monday 19 August 2013

Caveman Brewery


Last Saturday, along with a handful of other West Kent CAMRA members, I had cause to visit north Kent. Now this is not a part of the county which I’d normally entertain going to, but we were on a mission to present a certificate for “Beer of the Festival” to the Caveman Brewery of Swanscombe. The festival in question was last year’s Spa Valley Rail and Ale Festival, and the beer concerned was Caveman’s first brew, Citra.

Caveman Brewery is housed in the cellar of the George and Dragon, a Victorian town pub, which is just a stone’s throw from Swanscombe station. Swanscombe itself is a small town on the Thames Estuary, a few miles to the east of Dartford. Until recent times it was a centre of the cement industry, but this has gradually declined and the whole area now seems somewhat down at heel. This is despite the presence nearby of the Bluewater Shopping Centre, one of the largest in Europe.

Still it was beer and not shops that we were after, and where better than the George and Dragon as it has just been voted Pub of the Year for the West Kent area. This is quite an achievement for a pub which, until recently, had seen better times, but 18 months ago it was acquired by licensees Bob and Bron Veal, who set about transforming the place to create a bright and airy drinking environment. They still have plenty of work to do, especially to the pub’s exterior, but according to Bron the main priority was to get the inside of the pub up to a suitable standard, so they could start trading. Apparently the George and Dragon had a bad reputation under its previous owners (Admiral Taverns), and suffered from druggies and other undesirables. Bron told us many of them were dissuaded from renewing their custom by the pub’s policy of concentrating on micro-breweries beers, including the pub’s own, with Chapel Down’s Curious Brew from Tenterden, to cater for lager drinkers instead of multi-national global brands such as Fosters, Stella et al.(Sounds like a good idea to me!)

The policy has obviously worked as today the George and Dragon is a friendly and welcoming community pub, offering a wide selection of quality cask ales alongside Kernel Centennial and Whitstable Oyster Stout on keg, some excellent genuinely home-cooked food – which we partook of ourselves, and hosting all sorts of events, including live music and fund-raising activities. As mentioned earlier, the pub is also home to the Caveman Brewery, and we were fortunate to have been given a guided tour by James Hayward, brewer and one of the two partners behind the operation, (Nick Byram is the other one).

We descended the slightly tricky and steep stairs down into the extensive cellar, or “cave”, beneath the pub. Here the partners have managed to shoe-horn in a full-mash brewing plant, together with four fermenters, plus have fitted out a separate cold room for storage of both their beer, plus casks ready stillaged for serving in the pub upstairs. It is quite an achievement, especially as draining, extraction and a hoist all had to be installed as well. It is even more of an achievement when one learns that both partners have full-time jobs in addition to running the brewery!

So what of our visit? Well the pub had enjoyed a  busy Friday night prior to our visit, and the barman, whose name I forget now, was busy pulling through a couple more beers when we arrived. I started off with Moor Top Pale Ale from Buxton Brewery, a very pale and well-hopped 3.8% beer which was just the thing after a lengthy train journey. I followed it with a couple of Caveman brews – Palaeolithic Pale Ale, another 3.8% beer flavoured with Cascade hops, before moving onto the much stronger 5.9% Megalithic. I preferred this to the Palaeolithic, and found it the perfect accompaniment to my steak and ale pie, served up in a gargantuan portion with new potatoes and seasonal vegetables. Just the thing for a hungry imbiber!

We left the George and Dragon around 3pm, to make the short train journey to Dartford, where we planned to visit the town’s Working Men’s Club. The club itself  is worthy of a separate post, so I won’t say anymore here apart from that a visit to both these establishments makes the journey to this very run down and neglected part of the Garden of England well worthwhile.

Friday 16 August 2013

Thursday at GBBF 2013

I must admit I didn’t enjoy this year’s Great British Beer Festival as much as I thought I would. I attended the festival on the Thursday, instead of my normal Friday, along with a number of friends from my local CAMRA Branch. I was determined not to go making unfavourable comparisons between GBBF and the brilliant Annafest which I’d visited three weeks previously, as the two festivals are completely different events. However, despite my best intentions, my mind kept harking back to sitting out in the cool, shady woodland setting of the Kellerwald and contrasting it with the packed, noisy hall at Olympia. 

To be fair, I don’t think the location where we chose to base ourselves on Thursday helped. I appreciate my friends’ over-riding concern to grab a table, as it gets very uncomfortable being on one’s feet all day at Olympia, but right at the rear of the hall, facing back towards the stage was not a good idea, as events were to prove as the day wore on. Lacking the natural lighting of the main part of the hall was one thing, but not being able to hold a proper conversation due to the reverberation from the sound system was quite another. The music acts weren’t too bad, but the interminable CAMRA auctions, which took place during every interlude, really did grate, as the acoustics, or lack of them, in that part of the hall meant we were bombarded by a wall of distorted noise, rather than a proper indication of what was actually taking place on stage.

Later in the afternoon I wandered upstairs to look for Fred Waltman, an American beer enthusiast who runs and maintains the Online Beer Guide to Bamberg & Franconia. Fred had emailed to say he was visiting GBBF and would be upstairs, but I must admit I left it a little later than originally planned to go and look for him. Despite carefully perusing table after table of drinkers on the upstairs gallery, I failed to spot anyone with a Franconian Beer Guide hat. Equally I failed to make out any American accents amongst the myriad of drinkers, so gave up on my quest. What I did notice though was that although the rear mezzanine section, where we based ourselves last year, had been blocked off, there was still plenty of space up on the gallery and, had we gone upstairs when we first arrived, we would almost certainly have found ourselves a table! It was light and airy up on the gallery, and a nice temperature too, with the ducting for the air-conditioning blowing out refreshingly cool air just above people’s heads. Contrast this to the artificially lit section we were sitting in downstairs and you can perhaps understand my frustration.

That’s probably more than enough moaning, especially as where we chose to sit was our own decision and nothing to do with the festival organisers. So how was the festival? Good, I would say, but not, in my book, as good as last year’s. Again, this is nothing to do with the festival organisers, or all the hard-working volunteers who give up their spare time to run this well-respected and long established event. Instead this assessment on my part is entirely due what I can only describe as “festival fatigue” on my part. I intend to write about this, at greater length, in a future post but for now let’s just say I was bored!

Anyway, what about the beer, which after all is the raison d’etre of the Great British Beer Festival?  Well there were getting on for 800 of them, so there was something for everyone. The only problem was deciding which ones to go for out of such a lengthy list. I initially picked a provisional short-list of 65 beers which took my fancy, and then highlighted 15 that were definite “must try” beers. The list was flexible though and was designed so that there were many “second choices” I could opt for, should I find a particular bar too crowded or if I happened to find myself at a bar where one of my “must try” beers wasn’t available.
The other part of my plan was to start off with a few light and refreshing Golden Ales, before moving onto some higher strength IPA’s. Eventually I would finish up with a few Porters, Stouts, plus the odd esoteric, or rare beer.

Of course it didn’t quite all go to plan, and I ended up trying a few porters and stouts somewhat earlier in the proceedings than I intended, although I did switch back to IPA’s towards the end. I made a conscious decision not to go for any foreign beers as not only were there just too many to choose from, but also the majority were far too strong, with a number of the American offerings weighing in at 10% plus! Most, if not all, of the foreign beers were sold at a premium price, which is entirely understandable given the time and effort involved in sourcing and importing them.  For me though, part of their appeal is drinking and enjoying them in their home country of origin. I am pleased to day I have achieved this aim for most of the German beers that were on sale, as well as quite a few of the Belgian ones. The next stop has to be the United States, and I am working on a visit to that country, for sometime next year.

So, did any of the beers I tried really stand out? Happily several of them did, with Dissolution IPA, from Kirkstall Brewery, my beer of the festival. This really was an excellent example of a “new wave” IPA. Not too strong at 5.0%, but a beer which really delivered in terms of both taste and appeal. My runner up was Triple Chocoholic from Saltaire; a completely different beer, but one which really managed to deliver the chocolate without being too cloyingly sweet. Also worthy of a mention were Art Brew – Monkey IPA, Ascot – Anastasia’s Exile Stout, Moor - Revival and Purple Moose Glaslyn Ale.

We left the festival shortly after 9pm. It had been a long day; I hadn’t drunk too much, but I was still feeling very dehydrated by the time we departed, (this was despite drinking water wherever possible in between beers). I didn’t manage to meet up with Fred, but I did manage to bump into Peter Alexander, aka Tandleman, and that, more than anything, helped reinforce my belief that the social aspect of GBBF is every bit as important and enjoyable as the appreciation of the beer!

Tuesday 13 August 2013

GBBF 2013

CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), kicked off at midday today with the Trade Session. The festival then opened its doors to the general public at 5pm. I stopped going to the Trade Session a few years ago, not just because tickets had become a lot harder to obtain, but also because the session itself had turned into a glorified “publican’s outing”. Ok, I know it’s all about involving the trade, both on the brewing as well as the pub side, but it really wasn’t my cup of tea (no offence to friends in the brewery and pub trades!). Also, like I said, the tickets became much more difficult to get hold of, primarily because CAMRA tightened up on who could obtain them, effectively restricting their availability to those genuinely involved in the brewing and licensed trades. Even so, I know several people not connected with the trade who will have been there this afternoon! They will have been passed tickets from friendly landlords who for whatever reason are unable to attend so, despite all their efforts, CAMRA have not put an end to this practice completely.

 I used to fall into the trade category,  having run my own off-licence business for the best part of six years, but even then I normally gave my tickets away to friends or customers, and  instead  would pitch up as a normal punter on the Friday lunchtime/afternoon session. Like I said, the trade session in many cases had degenerated into little more than a pub outing-cum-piss-up. CAMRA of course, will disagree with this assessment, but I stand by it and besides, when one goes along as an ordinary member of the public, there are usually far more pretty girls brightening up the place. (A much more attractive sight than a load of red-faced publicans!)

This year I shall be going along on Thursday, rather than my usual Friday; the reason being is our CAMRA  branch has a  presentation this coming Saturday to the Caveman Brewery, as their Citra was voted “Beer of the Festival” at last year’s Spa Valley Railway Rail and Ale event. The brewery is currently housed in the cellar of the George & Dragon pub, at Swanscombe, near Dartford, and as the presentation could turn out to be quite a boozy affair, I want to have a day off from the beer in between this event and GBBF.

So far as GBBF is concerned, I’m a lot more enthusiastic, and even a little excited, about the event than I was a couple of weeks ago, when I’d just returned from Annafest. Back then the prospect of sitting in a hall full of people, surrounded by nearly 800 beers, compared to being out in the open air, under the shade of leafy beech woods, enjoying a Maβ or two of tasty Franconian Kellerbier, just didn’t compare. But now, having browsed through the vast selection of beers on offer and made a few selections, I’m much more receptive to the idea.

There’ll be a handful of  West Kent CAMRA members travelling up to Olympia on Thursday. My plan of action is to start with a few golden ales, to wet my whistle, before moving on to some stronger, and hopefully hoppier, IPA’s. I will then finish with a few stouts and porters, including amongst these one or two of the more esoteric ales. I will leave foreign beers alone, apart from seeing if I can buy a few bottles of Westvleteren beers to take away. The abbey of Sint Sixtus, at Westvleteren, is the smallest and most traditional of the Trappist breweries and its beers, considered by many as world classics, are extremely hard to come by. Hopefully there will still be a few bottles left, and a visit to Bieres sans Frontieres will also give me a chance to catch up with fellow beer blogger, Peter Alexander aka, Tandleman.

Finally, I plan to visit the CAMRA shop, to treat myself to a copy of the recently published “Britain’s Best Heritage Pubs”, by Geoff Brandwood. All in all it promises to be a good day.

Friday 9 August 2013

A Personal View of Annafest

As most followers of this blog will have gathered by now, my son and I have recently returned from a week’s holiday in Franconia (the northern part of Bavaria). We based ourselves in the picturesque town of Forchheim; a place of some 20,000 souls, situated roughly halfway between Bamberg and Nuremberg in the valley of the River Regnitz. Forchheim’s main claim to fame, apart from its four breweries, is Annafest, a ten day long beer festival which I have already written about here. This post describes our own personal experiences of the event.

We attended Annafest on three separate days (Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday), with breaks in between visits to allow ourselves to recover. By recover, I don’t mean we got so drunk, or were left with king-size hangovers, that we were unable to function the following day,  but with litre (Maß) mugs the only measures the beer was served in, (unless one wanted a wheat beer that is), it was quite easy to over-indulge, albeit unintentionally! What’s more, the beer on sale was the Annafestbier, which weighs in with an abv of around 5.7%, or more! The day’s in-between did afford a break though from the festivities and allowed us to explore other parts of the area. This was as much a part of our holiday as visiting Annafest itself.

On each visit we travelled the short distance from the town centre by shuttle bus, alighting at the fairground at the bottom of the Kellerwald. Depending on the day and the time, the buses were sometimes more crowded than at others, although it was a bit disconcerting to be amongst a bus load of school kids heading up to the Kellerwald; disconcerting until one realises that 16 years is the minimum legal age for the consumption of beer in Germany! Possibly a lot of these youngsters were heading up for the funfair and associated amusements, rather than the more serious business of visiting the Kellers, but it’s nice to report that Annafest is very much a family-oriented event with something to keep all age groups amused.

On each occasion we visited three different Kellers, which meant three litres or nearly six pints each over the course of the day. We paced ourselves though and took our time, savouring the tasty, potent beer, served with one notable exception, in tall, ceramic stoneware mugs.  For the record we visited the following Kellers: Tuesday -Stäffalakeller (Wolfshöher), Schlöslakeller (Hebendanz) and Loẅenbräukeller (Loẅenbräu – Buttenheim); Thursday – Greiffkeller (Greiff), Eichhornkeller (Eichhorn) and Weiß-Tauben-Keller (Rittmayer-Hallendorf); Sunday – Hoffmannskeller (Monschof-Kulmbach), Nederkeller (Neder) and Nürnberger-Tor-Keller (Wolfshöher).

Of the beers drunk, Hebendanz and Neder (both Forchheim brewers), stood out above the rest, although the beers from the town’s other two breweries, Eichhorn and Greiff were also very palatable. The beer from Kulmbach giant, Monschof, was different from the other local beers in that instead of the darker, Kellerbier common in Franconia; it was a golden, Helles-style beer, served in a glass Maß, rather than the stoneware ones used by virtually all the other breweries.

The beer I was least impressed with was Wolfshöher, a regional concern  with expansionist designa, based in the village of the same name, near Neunkirchen. The company has an unduly large presence at the Kellarwald, due to its takeover, and closure of Forchheim’s fifth and largest brewery, Bräuhaus Forchheim. The brewery buildings, now standing empty and forlorn, were only a stone’s throw from our rented holiday apartment, but there was some sign that work was taking place on the site, to convert part of the brewery into residential accommodation.

There was plenty of food available to help soak up all of this beer. Most, if not all Kellers offered various cooked meals, ranging from sausages and potato dumplings to the usual knuckles of pork and roast chickens. There were also various food stalls grouped along the paths between the various Kellers, offering a variety of snacks, both savoury and sweet. This, interspersed with the live music at some of the Kellers, and the fairground attractions at the bottom of the hill, combined to produce a fantastic atmosphere.

On the last day we also went along to the Winterbauerkeller (St Georgen Bräu), but they had stopped serving for a while when we arrived. This was sometime around 7pm, and the wind had really started to blow up and a storm was threatened. Shortly after, sirens began to sound and we were told the festival would be closing for the evening, due to an adverse weather report received from the town authorities. Once back in Forchheim we found out the reason for the authority’s caution. Several years ago, during similar stormy conditions, a branch had blown off one of the trees and fallen on a girl, crushing her to death. They were taking no chances with something similar happening again, and with the Kelarwald on high ground, covered with acres of mature trees; one could quite understand the reasons behind their decision. It was a bit of an anti-climax and not quite how we would have wished our last evening at Annafest to end, but we managed to get a meal, plus more beer back in the town, so at least we didn’t go hungry (or thirsty!).

Actually, managing to get a drink plus an evening meal in Forchheim proved a lot harder than one would think. The trouble is most pubs and restaurants close early whilst Annafest is on, with some not bothering to open at all. Everyone in the town it seems wants a piece of the action up on the Kellerwald. The landlord of our rented holiday apartment had warned us about this on our first evening in the town, but we did manage to find a few places open. Pride of place must go to Gasthaus “Schwanne”, an impressive-looking, stone-built pub overlooking Forchheim’s Paradeplatz, and with a small beer garden at the front (beers from St Georgen Bräu and Pottensteiner), and also Gasthaus Fäßler, a cosy pub-cum-restaurant on the opposite side of the square, (Wolfshöher beer, but good food and very busy). One pub, Brauerei Neder, was also open, and we popped in there a couple of times for a nightcap, plus a chat with the friendly locals.

To sum up, Annafest is very much an event which involves the whole town, plus quite a bit of the surrounding area. On those days when we didn’t attend, we couldn’t help noticing the full trains depositing expectant drinkers at the town’s station, and the crowded buses transporting them up to the Kellerwald.  As I said earlier, the festival appeals to all ages, and it was good to see young people enjoying themselves, quaffing the beer and all without any signs of trouble.The party of English beer enthusiasts that we bumped into in Bamberg, were also very impressed with the event, saying how much better it was than Oktoberfest, and how much cheaper too. A Maß of Festbier cost €7.40; I don’t know how much the same measure of beer will be at Oktoberfest this year, but I wouldn’t mind betting it will be approaching the €10 mark. Obviously Oktoberfest is internationally renowned and attracts people from all over the world. Annafest is by nature much more a local’s festival, but it is none the worse for that. We are certainly glad we made the effort to get along to it, and I thoroughly recommend the event to followers of this blog.

Ps. some of the locals in Brauerei Neder were complaining about the beer price up on the Kellerwald.  Mind you, with the pub charging just €1.90 per half litre, (almost half what one was paying at Annafest),  they did have a point!