Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Best Laid Plans??

It’s often said that the best laid plans go astray, and this certainly proved to be the case on our visit to London on Saturday. Mind you, the plans we had weren’t exactly set in stone, and when they did begin to go awry, a bit of quick thinking helped save the day on a couple of occasions.

It was my son Matthew’s idea to have a day in the big city. Saturday made sense as my wife was also visiting the capital, in conjunction with a group of her girly friends. They were going to the theatre; we were doing something far more decadent, namely visiting a few choice pubs, and hopefully enjoying a few good beers.

In order to experience something slightly different, Matthew had requested we travel up not via our usual direct Tonbridge – London Bridge – Charing Cross route, but by means of the Sevenoaks – Blackfriars route instead. I agreed to this suggestion, even though the journey would take twice as long as usual. So after changing trains at Sevenoaks, and a pleasant journey along the scenic Darenth Valley, we had the dubious delights of Bickley, Beckenham, Catford and Elephant & Castle to view, out of the carriage window, before finally arriving at an enhanced, and considerably enhanced Blackfriars station.

As I said earlier, we didn’t have any firm plans, apart from heading north up to Finchley Road and Hampstead, in order to see where my parents originated from, and where I spent the first three years of my life. I did however, want to take in a few “craft beer bars”, rather than sticking to tried and trusted favourites like the Market Porter and the Harp. Exiting the ultra modern station and heading in a northerly direction, brought the wedge-shaped Blackfriar pub into view, and I couldn’t resist the temptation of popping in for an inside view of this wonderfully eccentric, art-nouveau pub. Now part of the Nicholson’s chain, the Blackfriar had several interesting looking ales on sale, as part of the company’s current “beer festival” promotion. The Truman’s US Pale caught my eye, but as it was only just after 11am, I decided a half would be more appropriate for that time of the morning.  Matthew, of course, stuck to his lager – Carlsberg or Carling; I can’t remember which, and I don’t suppose he can either!

The pub was virtually empty, so we had the pick of the tables and chose one towards the back of the pub, admiring the bronze relief carvings of the monks, along with the ornate marble pillars and arches. Our peaceful contemplation of this late Victorian masterpiece was not to last, as not long after we had sat down, what can only be described as a “tidal wave” of yummy-mummies, accompanied by compliant “dadsies”, pushed their way into the pub, along with various buggies, infants strapped in shoulder slings, alongside the walking and slightly older “little darlings”, and proceeded to grab all the remaining tables and chairs, marooning us in a sea of pushy parenting hell!

This was our cue to leave, and we were both glad that we’d opted for pints rather than halves. I rather half-heartedly thought about asking what the occasion was, but thought better of it in our rush to escape the mayhem and get out into the open air. The pub seemed a strange choice of venue for a child’s birthday party, and besides it was rather too early in the day for that sort of celebration. Relieved to have escaped, we walked up towards Fleet Street, as Matt wanted to re-visit the Cheshire Cheese. I also fancied some bargain-priced Sam Smiths in the timeless surroundings of this classic old pub.

It was not to be; the Cheese was well and truly shut. Whether it opened later, say at midday, was a mystery, as there were no opening hours displayed outside the pub – surely a strange omission for a place that is a popular, “must visit” tourist destination?

After two (OK, one and a half), failed attempts at traditional, it was time for some “craft”, and where better than to put his to the test than the Euston Tap, a short train ride and walk away? Now I’m slightly ashamed to say that I’ve never been to the “Tap”. I’ve obviously read  quite a bit about it, and I’d also checked up beforehand on the place, using Des de Moor’s excellent London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars”, a copy of which was in my rucksack. I therefore knew the pub was on the small side, and that it is popular with beer connoisseurs from far and wide.

Its popularity was not in doubt when we stepped inside, a situation made worse by groups of people hogging the bar. Their presence made it difficult to see exactly what was on tap, and although there were chalk boards, behind the bar, advertising what was available, my eyesight is such these days that in the dim light it was nigh impossible to read them. Now we could have stayed, pushed our way through to the bar and enquired further about the beers from the bar staff, but the very fact these ignoramuses were blocking the way, coupled with the fact that Matt had taken an instant dislike to the place, prompted us to about turn and leave. The “Tap” may serve great beer, but I have to say it had all the atmosphere of a hospital waiting room. Nevertheless I am prepared to give the place another try, next time I am in the area.

With Euston station, and the Northern line a stone’s throw away, we were able to jump on a tube and make our way towards Hampstead. It was raining when we arrived in this fashionable (and expensive) part of town, which put paid to my plan of walking across the Heath to the Spaniards Inn. Instead we headed for another old favourite of mine, the unspoilt Holly Bush, now owned by Fuller’s. The Bush seemed larger than I remember, although I understand it had been extended in recent times to incorporate some rooms which were not part of the original pub. I have to say though, that whoever carried out the work has made an extremely good job of it, and it was nigh on impossible to tell which parts were original (apart from the bar that is!), and which were not.

After purchasing our drinks, we opted for the large room behind the bar, away from the open fireplace which was giving out rather too much heat for the mild weather. I chose Wild River, Fuller’s American-style pale ale, whilst Matt went for Frontier, the brewery’s new “craft” lager. I had a taste of this beer and found it full-bodied and rather good. My Wild River was also equally enjoyable.

It had stopped raining by the time we left the Holly Bush, but time was marching on. A walk across the Heath was now out of the question, so instead we made our way down Hampstead High Street to Hampstead station. After a quick one stop journey to Finchley Road and Frognal, for a look at my grandmother’s old house, it was back on the train, destination Stratford. We had a bit of shopping to do, and the large Westfield Shopping Centre at Stratford seemed ideal for this. The centre is also home to a brew-pub called Tap East, which I believe has a connection with the same people who run Utobeer and the Rake at Southwark’s Borough Market.

Unfortunately after boarding the train, we became aware that due to engineering works on the London Overground, trains would be terminating at Highbury and Islington – an area of London I am totally unfamiliar with. Upon reaching said station, we took the decision to jump on a southbound train in order to alight at Wapping. We were feeling hungry by now, and a quick look through Des’s guide had revealed that the Town of Ramsgate, a well-known riverside pub on Wapping High Street, served food of the pub-grub variety, as well as a reasonable selection of beer.

After initially turning the wrong way out of Wapping Underground station, we eventually found our way to the Town of Ramsgate. The CAMRA guide was right, and it turned out to be a very pleasant pub; long and narrow in its layout, with a terraced area at the rear overlooking the River Thames. The beer range was fairly standard, apart from the Wye Valley HPA, which turned out to be a good choice; pale and fruity, with a good hop bite. Also good was the homemade chicken and leek pie, served with new potatoes and seasonal vegetables. As we sat there enjoying our meal, we noticed the barman setting out a long table, opposite where we were sitting. I asked him if they were expecting a crowd in later, and he told us that the pub is on several tourist circuits, and they receive quite a lot of pre-booked trade from coach companies. The pub’s history and riverside location appeals to foreign visitors especially, and there is obviously a good trade to be had from this attraction.

Suitably fed and watered, we headed off, by tube, to Canary Wharf, where we able to do the shopping we had wanted to do earlier. Then it was a very cramped and crowded underground journey back to London Bridge for our last port of call, the Rake at Borough market. I had a slightly ulterior motive for calling in here as according to the Rake’s Facebook page Oktoberfest beers were on offer at two pints for the price of one, providing one used a phone App called appropriately enough "I Love Free Beer". Unfortunately after ordering the beer I couldn’t get the wretched App to work, despite having connected to the pub’s free Wi-Fi network. (I later found out it was due to a glitch with the GPS system on my phone). We therefore had no choice but to cough up £13.20 for our two pints of Löwenbräu Oktoberfest, which is definitely the most I have paid for a pint of beer outside of Scandinavia.

The beer was good, but not that good, but I wasn’t going to let a glitch with a phone App spoil the end of our day out. Even so, we decided to make that the last beer of the day, especially as I received a text from my wife saying she was on the train home herself. Looking back we probably spent more time travelling than we spent in the pub, but at least we got to see some different parts of London and had some enjoyable beers as well.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Stocking up for Christmas

I’ve been quietly taking advantage of various supermarket offers in order to stock up on beers for Christmas. Yes I know it’s still two months away at present, but as usual I want to make sure I’ve something decent to drink in the house over the festive period.

First and foremost of these offers is the one running in Waitrose, which I think will probably be ending soon. Beers from several well-known brewers are available at four for £6.00, and as Fuller’s are included in this offer, I’ve stocked up on London Porter, Bengal Lancer and 1845. The latter is a particularly good bargain at this price, especially as it is an excellent  beer to accompany one’s Christmas dinner.

I will, of course, be keeping an eye out for offers from the other supermarkets, but I will also be using our planned trip to Prague, in early December to bring back a few Czech specials to supplement my Christmas stock.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Full Steam Ahead

The excesses of the weekend’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival are gradually fading, and my aching body is slowly recovering. When I say “excesses” I am referring to the sheer physical hard work of getting all the beer racked up, tapping and spiling it and then, once it had reached tip-top condition, serving it to the hordes of thirsty punters. I am not referring to having consumed too much of  the stuff myself, as there just wasn’t time to indulge in more than a few glasses, as it was so busy behind the various bars. Obviously this can only be described as a good thing, and both West Kent CAMRA, and all the volunteers from our Spa Valley Railway hosts, can pat themselves on the back following a job well-done.

So despite upping the beer order by 50% on what we had last year, we still sold out, and had it not been for a handful of gallant suppliers, who came forward at the last minute and replenished some of our stocks, there would have been precious little beer left for Sunday’s festival goers to enjoy! 

The festival opened on Friday 18th, but owing to work and other commitments I wasn’t able to attend until the Saturday. I had asked to work further down the line, either at Groombridge or Eridge stations, where there were additional bars set up to provide beer to thirsty visitors travelling up and down the line between the latter station and Tunbridge Wells West. The majority of the sixty or so beers were housed in the historic engine shed at Tunbridge Wells West, which acts as the Spa Valley’s headquarters. Six were positioned at Groombridge, in a marquee just along from the booking office, whilst a further four were at the far end of the line, in the waiting room, on Spa Valley’s platform, at Eridge station  - a facility they share with national rail operator, Southern Trains. In addition, four more beers were stillaged in “Kate”, the railways award-winning and lovingly restored dining car.

I ended up at Groombridge, where I joined two other CAMRA colleagues. It was a funny sort of day as we had spells of frantic activity coinciding with the arrival of a train, followed by periods of relative calm. The latter at least enabled me to sample all six of the beers we had on sale, namely Sambrook’s Wandle; King’s Brighton Blonde; Westerham Freedom Ale; Portobello Star; Ramsgate Gadd’s No.3 and Arundel Trident. We also had a plastic cask of Bushel’s Cider, from Biddenden.  Hot food, in the form of chicken curry, lasagne and macaroni cheese, was available at the station, along with cups of tea, coffee, sandwiches and cake at the railway’s refreshment kiosk on the platform. 

As I said, things got a bit frantic at times, but as the day wore on, and the punters started to tail off, so did the beer. By about 7pm we had virtually sold out, although there were a couple of pints of Trident left. It was just as well there was precious little beer left, as no-one had thought to provide lighting inside the marquee. Fortunately one of my colleagues had come equipped with a battery-operated LED light, which at least enabled us to see what we were doing, and to ensure we took the correct tokens and gave the right “change”.

With the beer virtually all gone, and having to fumble around in the dark, we took the decision to close the bar, secure the tent and get the boxes of glasses and other paraphernalia out onto the platform, ready to load onto the 8pm train back to Tunbridge Wells. Unbeknown to us, the down train had suffered a breakdown shortly after leaving Tunbridge Wells. Before going any further, I ought to explain that the festival was also billed as “The Autumn Diesel Gala”, and  because of this the railway had four different diesel locomotives in operation. These ranged from a moderately sized shunter to a large former Inter-City loco. No doubt railway buffs would have described them better, but as I really don’t know the difference between the various types of engine, these descriptions will have to suffice.

Call me old fashioned, but on a preserved railway I much prefer to see steam haulage in operation. Steam locomotives have heart and soul; qualities that seem lacking in their diesel counterparts. The former are also more reliable, once they are in steam and up and running. This proved the case on Saturday evening, and although we were kept informed by the station master, it was approaching 9pm when our train finally arrived to ferry us back to Tunbridge Wells.

In the meantime, things had been equally manic in the engine shed. By the time we arrived back, the stillages were looking very depleted, with around two thirds of the beers totally sold out, and the remaining casks steeply stooped, indicating they would not be lasting long come the morning. It was here that our gallant saviours in the form of Tonbridge Brewery, plus Sankey’s Bar, stepped up to the plate and provided us with some replacement stocks of beer which were hastily racked and spiled, ready for tapping the next day. What was extremely frustrating from my own, admittedly selfish, point of view was that having been down at Groombridge all day, by the time I’d returned to Tunbridge Wells, most of the “interesting” beers I had been keen to try had completely sold out! The four beers stillaged in “Kate” had also been drunk dry.

The following morning I was back at the Engine Shed, a little later than the previous day, but not that much.  Along with a couple of friends, I was dispatched down to Groombridge to collect a cask of Kent Brewery Zingibeer, which was needed for the dining car, and then on down to  Eridge to pick up the remaining boxes of empty glasses. This was my first visit to Eridge during the festival, and I can now see why increasing the number of beers here for next year could be difficult. Due to the confines of the narrow island platform, there is barely sufficient room for the four cask stillage in waiting room, and finding an alternative and secure home for the beer might prove tricky.

After collecting the full cask from Groombridge, and carefully placing it on the stillage in “Kate”, it was back up the line to Tunbridge Wells. I decided to stay on the train and help out with serving the beer. The only one available was another cask of Zingibeer that had been racked up and tapped the night before. Fortunately it had dropped bright and was in good condition. We had somehow ended up with four casks of this slightly unusual, but quite refreshing Kent Brewery beer. It had been part of the emergency supplies obtained the night before, and had arrived courtesy of Sankey’s, in Tunbridge Wells. Despite it being the only beer available on the train it nevertheless proved pretty popular, and my colleague and I were kept quite busy dispensing glasses of it as we travelled up and down the line. The busiest times were just after departing from the stations, when the train had picked up a fresh load of thirsty passengers. It was a bit of a challenge serving beer from our makeshift stillage in a moving buffet car, but the biggest challenge was when I had to tap and spile the other cask whilst the train was in motion. With the help of a couple of bar towels, and a drip-tray on the floor, I managed this task without spilling a drop.

Another couple of volunteers took over from us, mid-afternoon, and I returned to t he train shed to help out behind the bar and enjoy what was left of the beers. A local rock band were keeping the crowd entertained, but we still had our work cut out behind the bar, keeping everyone served. One by one the casks started to run dry, until by just after 5pm, there was no beer left and we were down to two mini-pins; one of cider and the other of perry. Eventually these too were exhausted, and the crowds slowly began to drift away.

That was that and the end of the festival for another year. It is too early to say what we will do next year, but whatever happens the beer order will need to be significantly increased.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Meantime Greenwich Smoked Bock Beer

Brewed exclusively for Marks & Spencer by Meantime Brewing Co, Alastair Hook and his team have put their own slant on this strong, smoked, bock-style beer. According to the label, “This beer is brewed using smoked and Munich malts to create the perfect balance of smokiness and malt sweetness, and is inspired by the strong Bock beers of Bavaria.” It weighs in at 6.0%, but drinks below this strength, which could be dangerous!

I left mine in the fridge a shade too long, which tended to mask the aromas and flavours somewhat, but once it had warmed up a bit, and the smokiness and sweet maltiness, were released, it improved no end, and was enjoyable right to the last drop. Not as intensely smoky as world classic, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier from Bamberg, but probably smokier than the Spezial Lagerbier from the same city.

This is definitely a very good beer, and one I will be stocking up on, especially as it’s priced at just £2.29 a bottle.

Monday 14 October 2013

At Last a Decent Pub for Tonbridge?

For many years now Tonbridge has been crying out for a really good pub, or at least South Tonbridge has  Those of you who have read my Four- Part Series on Tonbridge Pubs will know what I am talking about. The town centre has Wetherspoons, in the guise of the Humphrey Bean which, whilst not qualifying as a cosy intimate local where one could meet up with friends for a quiet drink, does offer a good variety of different ales (as well as other drinks), of the sort that are seldom seen elsewhere in the locality. Close by are the Chequers and the Man of Kent, both locals' pubs with the former dating back to the Middle Ages, and the latter probably to early Victorian times. Both are full of character and decent enough boozers, but both are somewhat restrictive in their choice of ale. (London Pride at the Chequers and Harvey’s plus Tonbridge Brewery at the Man of Kent).

A bit further on from these three establishments, past Tonbridge School, at the start of Shipbourne Road, is the George & Dragon. The pub is again, quite an old building, but one which has been modernised internally and altered quite considerably in recent years. Slightly more adventurous in its choice of beer than the Chequers and the Man of Kent, the George & Dragon still restricts itself to “safe” beers in the form of Wells Bombardier and Harvey’s (nothing wrong with Harvey’s, but it would be nice to see some of their seasonal beers appearing in the free trade from time to time).

So that’s the central Tonbridge catered for, and to a certain extent the beginning of the northern part of the town, but what about south Tonbridge, which is the area of the town where I live? Well last Saturday I met up with my friend and old walking partner, Eric down at the Punch and Judy in St Stephen’s Street. It was Eric’s suggestion we meet there, which suited both of us as it is just five minutes walk for Eric, and fifteen for me. Eric had also been feeding through some good reports about the pub, so I was keen to find out for myself just exactly how good the pub has become.

I arrived shortly after five o’clock; rather early for me to start drinking but Eric was keen not to be home too late, (I’m not sure why!). The pub was heaving and for a moment I thought that my friend had stood me up, but he had been sitting around the corner of the main bar and had spotted me coming in. As I made my way through the crowd, I struggled to see what was on the pub’s four hand pumps. I knew the pub stocked Harvey’s, and alongside their distinctive pump clip, I spotted a beer from Tonbridge Brewery, one from Otter, plus an unknown beer at the far end.

Eric was just about ready for another pint so I got a round in; Otter Amber for me plus Havercake Ale for Eric, this being a new 4.7% beer from Timothy Taylor. The Otter was nice and bitter, and slipped down well, but I was intrigued by the Havercake Ale, so come the next round I opted for this instead.  In the dim-light of the pub it was difficult to judge the true colour of the beer, but it had that distinctive, Timothy Taylor taste. It was so good, that I ended up drinking a further three pints!

So much for the beer, but what about the pub itself? Well after numerous changes of licensee in recent years, things have hopefully settled down with a new couple in charge behind the bar. Garry and his partner Stevie, have run bars between them in places as diverse as Brighton and Spain. What is unusual about this couple is that it is Stevie who puts in the hard work down in the cellar, leaving Garry to do the work upstairs. During a lull in proceedings, Eric introduced me to Stevie. She enthused about her passion for cask beer, and told us how much she enjoyed cellar-work, ensuring that the beer in the Punch & Judy is always served up in tip-top condition. It was refreshing to hear someone so young talking in this manner and someone so keen to share her passion for decent beer. Whilst on the subject of beer, the cask ales at the Punch are all keenly priced, with the Harvey’s and Tonbridge regulars costing just  £3.20 a pint, and the guests £3.50. Northern readers will no doubt baulk at these prices, but for this part of the South East they are very reasonable indeed!

The fact that the pub was as crowded as it was, so early on a Saturday night is testament to the hard work the couple have put in since taking over behind the bar of the Punch. As well as good beer, home-cooked meals are now being served and we were also introduced to the chef, who was being kept busy running up and down the stairs bringing customers their meals. Other attractions of the pub are regular live music evenings and a Wednesday night quiz. There is also a small garden at the rear, although given the deterioration in the weather following the onset of autumn that will not be seeing much use now until spring.

There was a good mix of people in the pub, some of whom I recognised as customers from my old off-licence, and whilst not all of them were drinking the ale, I noticed that many were. This all bodes well for the future of the pub. After a long period of uncertainty, it is good to see the Punch thriving, and I only hope that I am witnessing the re-birth of the pub, rather than yet another false dawn. I will certainly be keeping an eye on the place, and will be popping in whenever I get the chance. It would be nice, after all these years without a pub that I could really call my own, to have a proper local I can drink in once again.

Friday 11 October 2013

Winds of Change in Germany?

Unlike many European countries these days, Germany does not have a consumers’ organisation which looks after the interests of beer drinkers. This is astonishing for a country where beer is not only such an important drink, but also a vital part of the national psyche.

Here in the UK, the rights of beer drinkers are of course looked after by CAMRA, and following the obvious success of the campaign, similar organisations have sprung up in other parts of Europe. For example, the Netherlands has PINT, Belgium, has XYTHOS, Norway has NORØL and even a small country like Ireland now has its own consumer organisation in the form of Beoir representing the interests of its beer drinkers. So why hasn’t Germany?

The situation is partly historic; Germany was not united as a single nation under one flag until 1871, relatively late compared to most other European nation states. Before that it was a motley collection of independent states ranging from powerful Kingdoms such as Bavaria and Prussia, to much smaller principalities and city states. Then, just 75 years later, the country was again divided, this time into the two unequal halves of East and West Germany for over 40 years, following the end of the Second World War. Even today, the country has a strong federal structure, with the various states which make up the country having a fair degree of autonomy from central government. This situation has led to the market remaining very local, with few, until fairly recently that is, national players.

A federal structure consisting of large, complex and often highly diverse states has led to a highly localised German beer market which is inherently conservative in nature. The existence of the Reinheitsgebot hasn’t helped either. Described as the oldest provision still enforced to protect the consumer, Germany’s famous “Beer Purity Law” is almost 500 years old, having been enacted in 1516 by Duke William I V of Bavaria. Although designed to ensure consumers were only sold beer brewed from malted barley, hops, water and yeast, in more recent times the Reinheitsgebot  has stifled experimentation by preventing other adjuncts and flavourings from being added to the beer.

Bavaria insisted on its application throughout Germany as a precondition of German unification in 1871, to prevent competition from beers brewed elsewhere with a wider range of ingredients. The move encountered strong resistance from brewers outside Bavaria. In the decades that followed unification, the Reinheitsgebot led to the extinction of many brewing traditions and local specialities, and the disappearance of dozens of non- compliant beers by restricting the ingredients allowed in beer. Brews such as North German spiced beer, cherry beer and Leipziger Gose completely vanished, and the German beer market became dominated by pilsener style beers. Only a few regional beer varieties, such as Kölner Kölsch or Düsseldorfer Altbier, survived its implementation.

Although there are of course, notable exceptions and centres of brewing excellence, many German breweries seem content to churn out variations on the same trio of Helles, Dunkles and Weiss Bier. This particularly applies to the new generation of brew-pubs which has sprung up in recent years. Part of the problem is that many of the larger brewers in particular seem to think that hop extract is the same as whole flower or pelleted hops. The original proponents of the Reinheitsgebot would not have recognised the syrupy gloop that is hop extract, and to claim that this material meets the strictures of the “Beer Purity Law” really is pushing the envelope. No one would question the technical ability of most German brewers, but the use of hop extracts really does remove much of the character from a beer, that would have been present had whole or pelleted hops been used instead. If you want to know what I am talking about, think back to Whitbread during the 1980’s. All their breweries, even the older, more traditional ones such as Fremlins, Flowers and Nimmo’s used hop extract; I remember being shown a tin of the stuff on a trip round the Fremlins brewery in Faversham, and thinking what were the company doing using this stuff?

Sticking with the same argument, if hop extract is ok under the Reinheitsgebot, then why not malt extract as well? You know what I am talking about here; that brown, sticky, syrup-like, almost resinous material which forms the basis of most home-brew kits, and produces beers that are appallingly bad. No self respecting brewer would dream of using this stuff, and yet many of them in the Federal Republic are quite happy to use hop extract!

There are encouraging signs that things are slowly changing, and that consumers in one of the world’s leading brewing nations are waking up to the fact there is a whole new world of beer beyond Germany and are increasingly keen to see some of these beers being produced on home turf. Because I am continuing my language studies, I receive various online German news items and updates, many of them beer-related. They all point to a growing awareness of craft beer, and of the many and varied beer styles available elsewhere. All this points to an exciting future for German drinkers, and means that beer hunters will soon have many new and interesting beers to seek out when they visit the Federal Republic.

Before ending, I need to return to the Reinheitsgebot for a moment, and pin my colours to the mast. So far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with Bavarian beers. I have enjoyed numerous holidays in this colourful and picturesque region of Germany, and love both the place and its beers. Even in the capital Munich, the products of the city’s large, industrial breweries are still pretty good, and when they are enjoyed in the setting of one of the city’s many beer gardens, they take on a quality all of their own. Having said that, beers from Munich’s two smaller breweries – Augustinerbräu and Hofbräu (both independently owned), stand head and shoulders above those of their larger neighbours, such as Paulaner, Spaten and Löwenbräu, (all now owned by multi-national corporations). Müncheners think so too, and it is no surprise that it is the latter conglomerates who are the most ardent users of hop extract in their beers.

I’ve also enjoyed excellent beer in Regensburg and, of course, that jewel in the brewing crown, Bamberg.  The area of Franconia surrounding Bamberg contains the greatest density of breweries per square kilometre of anywhere in the world, with most towns and villages boasting at least one brewery. It is also home to some of the world’s finest beers – all brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, but using quality ingredients and time-honoured methods. (This just shows it can be done!).  Many of these beers have a very limited distribution, meaning a trip to this unspoilt region of Germany is necessary to track them down and enjoy them in their native surroundings.

I am more than happy to do this (time and money not withstanding), and it seems that many visitors to Franconia, along with those lucky enough to abide there, feel the same. I have physical evidence of this in the form of a weighty tome I purchased on my recent visit to Forchheim. A 672 page, handsomely-illustrated, full-colour publication entitled FRANKENS BRAUEREIEN (und Brauereigästatten), gives details of all Franconia’s 230 odd breweries and forms an invaluable guide to anyone wishing to sample the beery delights of this rural region. The same two authors have also produced a sister guide to the region’s Bierkellers and Biergärten.

The existence of these guides proves that in Franconia at least, consumers as well as beer connoisseurs are starting to take much more of an interest in local beers. If this can happen in a very conservative area like Franconia, there is now every chance that similar guides to other parts of Germany will also prove successful. I have another publication, this time available in English as well as German, which is a guide to privately-owned brewery guest houses. Titled “Gerne Gast in Privaten Braugasthöfen und Hotels”. There are 69 establishments listed; all members of “The Private Brewing Inns and Hotels Association”. They are scattered throughout Germany, but with an obvious bias towards the southern half of the country, and there are even a handful of entries from Austria, Denmark and Switzerland.

Unlike the Franconian Brewery guide, which is produced by a couple of obvious beer enthusiasts, the latter publication is a trade one. However, whilst the emphasis is more on the hotel and restaurant side of things, there is still a strong beer thread running through the guide, especially as all the outlets featured brew their own beer on the premises, or very close by.

With guides, such as these, now readily available, and a growing appreciation of Germany’s rich brewing heritage, it hopefully won’t be too long before a Teutonic equivalent of CAMRA arrives on the scene. Then Germany can take it rightful place as a fully paid up member of the European Beer Consumers Union.

Wednesday 9 October 2013

And the Winner Is?

Well, after starting out with 156 beers back in January, the Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt is over for another year. At the end of last week, Batemans’ B Bock was announced as the winner and Thwaites Crafty Dan as runner up. Both beers will get six month’s listing in selected Sainsbury’s stores, with the winner appearing in 300 outlets and the runner up in 150.

As reported a few weeks ago, I purchased some of the beers which had made it through to the final “head to head” part of the contest. There were 20 beers in total; five from each region - Scotland & Northern Ireland; North; West and East, (I don’t know why there wasn’t a “South” region?). I ended up buying eight of them, and whilst I would have liked to have bought a few more, there were some I just didn’t fancy and others I never actually got round to buying. This was mainly because the “head to head” contest only lasted for three weeks. What follows is a review of the ones I did try, listed in the order in which I drank them.

Hawskhead Windermere Pale 4.0%. A slightly stronger version of the brewery’s best selling cask beer; golden in colour, with a real hoppy nose and character from the Citra hops used in the beer. The label also states that three traditional English hop varieties are used as well.

Verdict – A thirst quenching bitter beer, which is an interesting twist on an established favourite.

William’s Bros. Hipsway 5.0%. A golden coloured lager, flavoured with New Zealand and Slovenian hops (varieties not stated), with added, freshly pressed strawberries.  
Verdict – The strawberries are certainly evident in the background and work well against the “bite” from the hops. An interesting beer, which would be fine for drinking on a hot summer’s afternoon, but apart from that slightly gimmicky and not sufficiently different to make it stand out from the crowd.

Maxim. American Pride India Pale Ale 5.2%. Quite pale in colour, with a good hop aroma, nice mouth feel and just the right amount of bitterness.  
Verdict - A good, all round and well-balanced IPA. Definitely one I wouldn’t mind drinking again.

Harbour Brewing Co. India Pale Ale 5.2%. Amber in colour, with a nice hoppy aroma. Excellent hop flavour, with citrus and spicy flavours from the American hops used.  
Verdict - Another well-balanced and refreshing IPA, which again is well worth re-visiting.

Ridgeway. Querkus 5.8%. Interesting porter, brewed using peat-smoked malt, which is then cold-matured over chunks of old French oak wine barrels (hence the name).
Verdict – Definitely the most interesting beer so far; velvety smooth with a subtle underlying smokiness which emphasises the beer’s slightly oily feel.

Gower Brewery. Gower Gold 4.5%. As its name suggests, burnished gold in colour with lovely citrus aromas from the Cascade hops used.
Verdict – refreshing, well-hopped and eminently drinkable.

Harbour Brewing Co. Porter No. 6.8%. Excellent full-bodied porter with a rich juicy sweetness and roasted coffee flavours from the dark malts used. 
Verdict – Very drinkable, despite its strength. Another winner in my book.

Batemans. B Bock Beer 6.0%. Billed as a Bavarian-style strong ale, this one certainly hits the mark. Dark-brown, very malty, nicely balanced and dangerously drinkable. 
Verdict – Lincolnshire’s slant on a Doppelbock turns out to be a real winner. An excellent beer and my all-round favourite out of the eight Great British Beer Hunt beers sampled. Strangely enough, as reported above, it turned out to be the overall winner!

Batemans also won the contest last year, with their coffee-flavoured, Mocha Beer, which went on to appear in a number of different outlets. The win, and the excellent beer certainly helped to raise the company's profile. It will therefore be interesting to see what the effect of this year's win will have.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Canterbury Food & Drink Festival


Last December I wrote about a visit a friend and I made to the cathedral city of Canterbury. In a post entitled “A Cold Wet Day in Canterbury”, I described how on a bleak, early December day, we had wandered from pub to pub trying to find refuge from the cold, wet and windy conditions outside. Nine months on and I found myself back in the city, this time under far more clement weather conditions, in order to visit the “Canterbury Food & Drink Festival”, which was also hosting the launch of “Kent Green Hop Fortnight”.

I like Canterbury, and during my formative years was a frequent visitor to the city. Back then my family lived in East Kent; initially just outside Ashford, and then, whilst I was between the ages of 14 and 19, in a small village called Brook. My parents liked to shop in Canterbury, and as a child I enjoyed visiting a store called Barrett’s, which had an excellent toy department. Later, as a teenager, my friends and I would cycle over to nearby Wye, from where we could leave our bikes at the railway station, and catch the train for the short journey (three stops), to Canterbury. We would do bit of shopping, have a bite to eat in one of the many cafés, and then go and cheer on the local Speedway team, Canterbury Crusaders. By the time I was in my late teens, Canterbury was a good place to visit for rock concerts or theatrical performances. Being a university city there was a thriving cultural scene; something that was definitely missing in Ashford.  40 years on and Canterbury is home to two universities; the original 1960's University of Kent having been joined in more recent times by Canterbury Christ Church University. The large student population, combined with the obvious tourist appeal of Canterbury, continues to contribute to the vibrancy and appeal of the city, and a visit there is still something to look forward to.

Canterbury is towards the opposite end of the county from where I now live, but is still quite easily reached by train, with a journey time of just over an hour from Tonbridge. Last Friday three of us jumped on the train for what was the opening day of the Food & Drink Festival. It was also the first day that the Green Hopped Beers, produced by the majority of Kent’s brewers, were all on sale together in one location. The event was held in the city’s Dane John Gardens, an attractive park laid out just below the ramparts of Canterbury’s ancient city walls. This was the first time I had been back to Dane John in over 30 years; not in fact since the Kent Beer Festival had moved from this city centre location to its current home at Merton Farm. 

As I stated earlier, it was a bright sunny day when we arrived in Canterbury; sunglasses weather in fact, but there was still a bit of a chilly easterly wind blowing, which kept the temperatures down slightly. Still, this was only to be expected at this time of the year, and the main thing was the weather stayed dry all day. After a stroll up through the pedestrianised High Street, and a short walk along the city wall, we arrived to find Dane John Gardens already packed with visitors, not all there, of course, to sample the Green Hopped Ales (although many undoubtedly were), but people keen to try some of the tempting offerings from the huge array of produce stalls which ringed the periphery, as well as the centre of the park. These ranged from things like local cheeses, seafood, home-baked pies, preserves, hand-made chocolates, to more exotic offerings such as venison burgers. There were stalls offering more substantial, “meal-size” portions of things like curry (both Indian and Thai), plus paella (I partook of the latter, and very tasty and filling it was too!). There were also several stalls selling locally produced Kentish cider, fruit juices and even things like flavoured vodkas and other liqueurs.

My friends and I though were primarily there for the Green Hopped Beers, and these were housed in a marquee at the far end of the gardens. Like at most CAMRA festivals, the beers were served direct from the cask, by an army of volunteers drawn mainly from the various brewers whose wares were on offer. I believe I am correct in stating there was a beer from every Kentish brewer that had produced one. Some breweries had produced two or three, and Old Dairy had actually brewed five different types!

I didn’t try them all; nor did I try one from every brewer, but I did sample quite a decent cross range of different brews, some obviously better than others, but none that were too astringent or otherwise unbalanced. Prior to our visit most of us had downloaded the online beer list, which came with accompanying tasting notes, plus details of which hop variety was used for each particular brew. I’m not going to be geeky and start listing them here, but if you really want to know (and many of these beers will still be available over the next week or so in local pubs), you can find out by clicking on the following link. 

We spent a very pleasant afternoon sitting in front of the bandstand, soaking up the autumn sunshine whilst listening to a couple of the live acts which made up the varied schedule of musical entertainment at the festival. We made regular forays to the beer tent, and also to some of the food stalls, slowly working our way through some of the goodies on offer. My favourite beer was Gadd’s Green Hop Ale from Ramsgate Brewery, followed by Green Hop No. 2 from Old Dairy, Green Hop Silver Star from Goachers and Green Hop Best from Larkins. Also worthy of a mention was East Kent Belgian from Canterbury Brewers, a Belgian-style pale ale, hopped with East Kent Goldings and brewed with Belgian yeast. The latter ingredient certainly gave a distinct Belgian flavour to the beer and married well with the local hops. It was the first cask to sell out, so it must have proved popular with punters. 

We departed some time before 5 o’clock. The sun had disappeared behind the trees by then, and it was starting to get chilly, so we headed into the city and the warmth of a couple of pubs. The Buttermarket, opposite the imposing cathedral gate, gave us the chance to sample a beer from the newly resurrected Truman’s Brewery (US Pale 4.6%), whilst later on the Foundry Brewpub, (home of Canterbury Brewers), gave us the chance to try another Green Hop Ale, plus the company’s excellent Street Light Porter.

Many of the Facebook and Twitter feeds over the weekend confirmed the success of the Food & Drink Festival, and that of the Green Hopped Beers. By Sunday, many of them  had run out. For me this proved to be an excellent festival and one I will definitely want to revisit next year. I am sure most of my friends will want to do the same as well.