Monday, 3 February 2014

Dark & Delicious Winter Beers at the Cooper's Arms

It’s probably a good job I don’t live within walking distance of the Cooper’s Arms in Crowborough, as I’d probably be in there every night. Not only would my waistline be even more expansive than it already is, but my bank balance would also be looking rather unhealthy. I say this because the unspoilt Cooper’s, in its tucked away location, right on the edge of Crowborough, is definitely my sort of pub.

I first became acquainted with the Cooper’s over 20 years ago, when I was taken there for lunch by the owner of a printing company who used to look after the print requirements of the company I worked for at the time. The pub was Brian’s local, and straight away I could see why he liked the place. Back then it was a Charington’s tied house which served a very acceptable pint of Draught Bass, and also a very good lunch!

Fast forward to 2007 and several changes of job later, I returned to the Cooper’s Arms in the company of a group of local CAMRA members, to find it too had undergone several changes. After a number of changes of ownership, which included a spell under Greene King, the pub had become a thriving free-house. At the time of our visit the Cooper’s was holding a mini-beer festival celebrating that most threatened of native beer-styles, mild. It must have been a goods festival, as my recollections of that visit are somewhat hazy, but three years later I returned to the pub for a third time, again with friends from West Kent CAMRA. On that occasion we were on our way home from a visit to the1648 Brewing Company, who are based in the Sussex Wealden village of East Hoathly, just behind the King’s Head pub. Our journey had involved several changes of bus, so we decided to break the return trip up a bit with a stopover in Crowborough, and a visit to the Cooper’s Arms.

It’s a long walk down to the pub from the centre of Crowborough; in fact it’s one of those walks where you keep thinking the pub is just around the next corner, or just over the brow of the hill. We found the same on Saturday, when seven of us made the 20 minute bus trip from Tunbridge Wells, in order to attend the Cooper’s Dark and Delicious Winter Beer Festival. Crowborough is the highest town in South East England, and has a reputation for being cold and windy. This was certainly the case on this occasion, although we were rewarded with some sunshine; a welcome sight after the torrential downpours of recent weeks. The route down to the pub takes one past some large and very posh looking houses, many of which have splendid views out towards the High Weald. The terrain dips sharply as one turns into the side road where the pub is situated, and here the views of the edge of Ashdown Forest are quite spectacular.

The pub itself is an attractive late Victorian building perched on the side of the hill. It is constructed out of brick and local stone, with a terrace at the front. Internally there is one long and quite narrow bar, which opens up at both ends. There are rooms leading off at either end as well; one of which functions as the pub’s dining room. There was plenty of room when we arrived at the pub, shortly before 12.30pm, but that was soon to change. We had been invited along by members of North Sussex CAMRA, into whose branch area the pub falls. They would be arriving slightly later by bus, along with a contingent from the adjoining East and Mid-Surrey branch. Luckily for us this meant we were able to grab the best seats, and also order our food before the rush.

So what Dark and Delicious Winter beers were on sale? Well there were twelve in total, all dispensed from several banks of hand pumps dotted along the bar. With the exception of the pale, citrus-flavoured 3.8% Jarl, from Fyne Ales, all the beers were dark, ranging from milds and porters, to stouts and old ales, plus a barley wine. There was also a brown Abbey-style beer from Steenbrugge in Belgium, which was dispensed from a keg tap.

I didn’t try them all, and neither did I have pints of all those that I did try, but I did indulge myself with a few pints of the beers I was especially interested in. The ones which really stood out were Dark Monro, a 4.0% chocolate and coffee flavoured dark mild from Highland Brewery. (Their 5.0% Oat Stout was also very good). “Rhatas”, a rich dark bitter from Black Dog Brewery of Melmerby, North Yorkshire, was very enjoyable, but the star of the show, as far as I was concerned, was the award-winning 1872 Porter from Elland Brewery in West Yorkshire. Despite its 6.5% strength, this definitely was a beer to be drunk, and enjoyed by the pint!

The pub had one further surprise in store, a cask of Dark Star Critical Mass; a 7.5% winter ale which is brewed just once a year. The Cooper’s landlord had a cask of this strong and robust dark ale, which was brewed back in 2012, maturing in his cellar. Given the high strength of this beer to start with and lengthy maturation period it had been through, I wisely plumped for a half pint. It was certainly interesting, shall we say; slightly vinous in character with a taste which reminded me of the Galloway’s Cough Linctus I had been dosed up with as a kid. Not unpleasant, but definitely a beer to be sipped, rather than swigged!

The aforementioned bus party turned up about 20 minutes after our arrival. Their mode of transport was a vintage red London Transport Route-Master, double-deck bus, complete with its front destination board showing Putney Common. The pub, of course, was expecting them, although as they all started filing in I had my doubts there would be enough room for them. I needn’t have worried, as the Tardis-like pub managed to accommodate them all. I had taken the precaution of ordering another pint, as well as my lunch, the moment I saw the bus drive past the pub window, but the landlord and his two helpers behind the bar coped admirably with the thirsty arrivals, and soon everyone had a beer and found a place, either seated or standing, and people were mingling and chatting affably.

The Cooper’s is a “quiet pub”, in respect of no recorded music or fruit machines, but in the room at the left, closest to the entrance, it had provided a large screen TV for those wanting to watch the opening games of the Six Nations Rugby Tournament. I was quite content, for my part, to sit and enjoy my home-made burger and chips, together with the excellent beer. Later, I enjoyed mingling amongst some of the newcomers, and swapping information about beer and pubs as CAMRA members are wont to do.

We left the pub just after 4pm, for the long walk back up the hill into Crowborough. The festival was still in full swing when we departed, but we thanked the landlord and his staff for their excellent beer and food and for their hard work in looking after us all. We called in at two other pubs on the way back to Tunbridge Wells; possibly not the wisest of decisions considering the amount of strong beer we had already drunk! I won’t say anything more at this stage, but both were good and both were heaving. It seems that at least some pubs in this part of the country are doing things right!


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