Monday 31 March 2014

The European Beer Bloggers Conference 2014

I’ve just booked my place for the European Beer Bloggers Conference which is taking place in Dublin, Ireland on the 27th and 28th of June. This will be the first EBBC outside the UK. Ireland is in the beginning of a craft beer boom with new breweries popping up every year, so this is an exciting time to be visiting the country.

Whilst this is the fourth such event to be held, it will be a first for me and I have to say I’m really looking forward to it. Actually, it will be one of two firsts; as my attendance at the conference will mark my first visit not just to Dublin, but to the Irish Republic.

So what exactly takes place at the EBBC, and is it like many of my friends will say, just an excuse for a piss-up? Well although I haven’t been to one of these events before, I think I can safely say there will be more than a few pints drunk over the course of the conference. But looking at the agenda there’s also some serious, but still fun-sounding, stuff to do. For a start, it's a good opportunity to meet and befriend like minded people; people who you may already talk to regularly via social media, or even your own blog. Even better though is the chance to spend some time with them, enjoying a few beers together in a great pub in an unfamiliar town, exchanging information and generally getting to know people better.

The Beer Bloggers Conference therefore promises to be a festival of great beer, good food, great pubs, and the chance to make useful contacts and new friends. The conference seminars should also be useful, and will help to improve your blog and increase the number of hits it gets.

For those thinking of attending, and for those who are just plain nosey, here’s the agenda. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014
7:00 PM          Optional Pub Crawl of Dublin departing from the conference venue and led by beer blogger Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale

Friday, June 27, 2014
12:30 PM        Registration and Expo
2:00 PM          Conference Opening
2:10 PM          History of Beer in Ireland
3:10 PM          Welcome to the World of Irish Beer
4:10 PM          Panel of Irish Craft Brewers
5:10 PM          Break
6:30 PM          Dinner, Brewery Tour, and Tasting at St. James Gate hosted by Guinness & Smithwicks

Saturday, June 28, 2014
10:00 AM        Social Media Best Practices
11:00 AM        Keg versus Cask versus Bottle versus Can
12:30 PM        Lunch hosted by Pilsner Urquell
2:00 PM          Search Engine Optimization for Your Beer Blog
3:00 PM          Video on Your Beer Blog
4:00 PM          Conference Content – coming soon
6:30 PM          Dinner provided by Franciscan Well Brewery with keynote speaker Shane Long
9:00PM           Evening Party with Carlow Brewing Company

Sunday, June 29, 2014
10:00 AM        Post-Conference Excursion (details t.b.a)

Dinner at the Guinness Brewery in St. James' Gate should be really exciting. The brewery is steeped with history and the opportunity to have a dinner there should be an unforgettable experience. The pre-conference pub-crawl also looks good.

If you’re a blogger and are thinking of coming, then you need to act quickly. If you register before the 31st of March (today), then you pay a discounted registration fee of €95.00. Depending on the numbers booking, you may qualify for a refund on this fee as Molson Coors, who are one of the event sponsors, are offering €95 stipends to the first sixty Citizen Beer Bloggers who register for the conference. To receive the stipend, you must qualify as an active beer blogger and actually attend the conference. Funds will be disbursed at the conference. In addition you are also required to write two blog posts about the conference, which shouldn’t be hard.

Obviously there are travel and hotel costs involved as well to attend the conference, but these can be reduced by booking flights and accommodation in advance.  Hopefully I might see some of you there.

Thursday 27 March 2014

Enjoying Beer in Berlin

It’s been a fortnight since my son and I returned from Berlin, and during that time things have been rather hectic, to say the least, on both the home and the work front. Consequently I’ve only just found the time to sit down and write about our experiences of the local beer and pub scene there.

Beer wise the brewing scene in Berlin is dominated by the large BKS Group (Berliner Kindl Schultheiss), who are part of the Radeberger Gruppe (formerly Dr Oetker). BKS brew the following brands: Berliner; Berliner Bürgerbräu; Berliner Kindl; Potsdamer and Schultheiss.

The city also boasts around 17 brew-pubs, although some of these belong to the same owner, even though they may brew on multiple sites. Like much of northern Germany, Pilsner-style beers dominate, although that old East German favourite Schwarzbier (Black Beer) is also fairly common, on both draught and in bottle. In addition, beers from other parts of Germany, such as Baden-Württemburg, Bavaria, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and Thuringia, are quite widely available. Visitors used to the normally quite localised nature of the German beer market, will therefore be surprises, as we were, to be able to drink Altbier from Düsseldorf, or Kölsch from Cologne, alongside some of the more local Pilsners.

So what about the places to drink all these beers? As stated in my previous post about Berlin the city certainly has some superb pubs and bars and with the aid of a guidebook called “Around Berlin in 80 Beers”, written by Peter Sutcliffe, we found some great places to both drink and eat in. Here’s my summary of the ones we enjoyed the most, divided up into various categories.

Historic Pubs
 There are two contenders here for Berlin’s oldest and hence, most historic pub: zur Letzten Instanz and zum Nußbaum.

zur Letzten Instanz dates from 1621, and qualifies as the oldest pub in Berlin, by virtue of zum Nußbaum being a reconstruction. Although the latter was actually older, the original pub was destroyed in 1943, during an air raid, and was originally situated in the Alt Coln area of the city, across the River Spree, from the current one.

Both are excellent pubs though in their own right. Tucked away, opposite a church, in a quiet area of the city, zur Letzten Instanz was practically empty when we called in mid-afternoon.  The pub is an attractive white-painted building with green-painted shutters either side of the doors and windows. Internally there are three inter-connected, wood-panelled rooms leading away from the bar; each on a slightly lower level than the preceding one. The last room has a cast-iron spiral staircase leading up to what appears to be staff accommodation above. There were lots of “Reserviert” signs on the tables, indicating the staff were expecting a good crowd in later on. Pubs being packed during the evening, and finding it difficult to get a table, seemed to be a recurring feature of Berlin. Schultheiss  Pils was the beer of choice here.

We visited zum Nußbaum on our last morning in Berlin (well we had to didn’t we?). It’s a lovely cosy, low-ceilinged little pub, with lots of dark wooden panelling, and it’s difficult to believe this reconstruction only dates from 1986. There are three tiny inter-connected rooms, and like zur Letzten Instanz, there were only a handful of other people in the pub when we called in for a glass of Berliner Jubiläums Pils and a Bratwurst. Situated in the restored Nikolaiviertel of former East Berlin, just a short hop from the hustle and bustle of Alexanderplatz, it’s hard to believe you are in the same city!

Pubs in Railway Arches
Again two contenders and both are contrasting. One all shiny and new Alkopole Bierbar is a bustling stand-up-to-drink boozer’s bar underneath Alexanderplatz station. The other, Tiergartenquelle is on the edge of the sprawling Tiergarten; Berlin’s answer to London’s Hyde Park.

Alkopole Bierbar is all pine and polished pine, and caters primarily for punters popping in for a quick drink before catching their train home, whereas Tiergartenquelle has a much older feel about it, and attracts an obviously more fixed, and less transient clientele. Given its situation on the edge of parkland, the pub has a much more relaxed feel about it, and inside there are lots of faded posters, alcoves and a slightly Bohemian clientele. The beer range here is supplied by Lemke, who operate a large brew-pub at the Hackescher Markt in the city centre. I sampled the saison, an almost orange-coloured Kupfer bier, whilst Matthew enjoyed the Brauhaus Lemke Pils.

With Alkopole Bierbar, I particularly liked the “walk up to the bar, order, and pay as soon as you are served” approach. This was much more like an English pub, with none of this table service, waiting for the waiter to appear with the bill, which is characteristic of most German pubs. We had a Radeburger Pilsner each here, our last beer in Berlin before catching the train to the airport.

Modern Bars
There was just one contender here, the sprawling, ultra-modern Mommseneck am Potsdamer Platz, (Haus der 100 Bierre), at Potsdamer Platz. I’ve been in a similar themed establishment in Cologne before, but that was considerably smaller than this huge sprawling modern, glass-fronted pub. Most of the 100 or so beers are in bottled form only, but Mommseneck still offers 10 on draught. I enjoyed an excellent draught Köstritzer Schwarbier; Matthew was rather more conservative in opting for a Warsteiner Pils.

Esoteric/Off-Beat Pubs
The incomparable and hugely popular Dicke Wirtin, a short bus ride away from our hotel, fits the bill here. There was no room at the inn when we first called in on the Tuesday and on our last night in Berlin things seemed to be going the same way. However, there were a couple of vacant tables outside and as they were beneath a canopy and it was relatively mild evening, we grabbed one of them. We were glad we did as the food was excellent; as was the beer. Pilsner for Matthew and Mönschof Kellerbier from Kulmbach for me, served in an earthenware mug.

Inside, there were a number of inter-connected rooms, with live jazz music playing in one. The walls were covered with all sorts of brewery advertisements; mirrors, enamelled plaques, just the sort of thing to get a breweriana enthusiast hot under the collar. Dicke Wirtin is a real West Berlin institution which has always been popular with students and which proudly proclaims it has always welcomed artists, authors, actors and other like-minded people.

Brew Pubs
There are around 17 of these; all relatively recent in origin, with several located under railway arches or at railway stations. We visited four, the largest of which was sprawling and modern Brauhaus Mitte opposite Alexanderplatz station, and a train-spotters’ paradise being level with the tracks (Pilsner here).The smallest, and the best, was the tiny Marcus Bräu on the other side of the tracks and close to the city’s  Hackescher Markt. The lemony, citrus-tasting beer in this tiny brewpub was excellent, and the décor and general layout were also very good. This was a pub we would have liked to return to, had we the time.

Also worthy of a mention is Lindenbräu, which occupies part of the futuristic Sony Centre, at Potsdamer Platz. We sat outside here towards the end of our first afternoon in Berlin, enjoying a beer whilst watching the world go by. My unfiltered Naturtrüb Bier was excellent, whilst Matthew enjoyed his slightly more conventional, filtered Pils.

Bavarian-Style Beerhalls
We visited two of these; one run by Augustiner of Munich, and the other by Weihenstephan of Freising. Both are slightly upmarket, with Augustiner the larger of the two. Both are situated in former East Berlin and both are fairly recent and welcome additions to the city's drinking scene.

We visited Augustiner am Gendemenmarkt on our first night in Berlin (Saturday), and such is its popularity we were lucky to get a seat. We arrived shortly before 6pm, and after taking our seats were surprised to hear a bell being run, followed by people clapping. This turned out to be the nightly tapping of the Holzfass (wooden cask), containing Augustiner’s excellent Edelstoff. We ended up having several glasses to wash down our roast pork and potato dumpling; pure Munich in the heart of Berlin! The Gendemenmarkt from which the pub takes its name, is an attractive area of the city, and was somewhere we mean to return and explore further during daylight hours. As is often the case, the best laid plans tend to go astray, and we never got the chance to re-visit.

Weihenstephaner is to the north of its Bavarian counterpart, in the Hackescher Markt area of the city. It is smaller and more intimate than Augustiner’s outlet, although it does have a separate cellar bar. The latter was hosting what appeared to be a work’s function on the evening when we called in, but we managed to find a table upstairs without any problem. I tried the brewery’s Dunkel as well as their Pilsner; both were good but I resisted the temptation to try their Korbinian; a strong (7.4%) dark Doppelbock beer, available in bottled form only. The food was also very good, consisting of Bavarian dishes, such as Schnitzels, Schweinhaxe and other such hearty delights.

Best Pub for Beer, Food & Ambience
Sophie’n Eck, is a real gem of a pub, in former East Berlin. Triangular shaped, but with a Tardis-like interior; just as well given its popularity. Fortunately we arrived fairly early in the evening, and managed to get a table without too much trouble, but later on the staff were struggling to find space for people.

Sophie’n Eck underwent an extensive renovation in 1986, towards the end of the DDR regime, and is now a tasteful, if slightly up-market interpretation of a traditional Berlin Kneipe. Situated in a rapidly gentrifying area just behind the Hackeschermarkt, the pub is unusual in offering Sion Kölsch, from Cologne alongside Schlösser Alt from nearby Düsseldorf. Neither is served in the small, but correct, 20cl cylindrical glasses normally associated with these beers, but by the half litre! Good food as well, just a shame about the group of noisy American students! Still, you can’t have everything.

Finally, special mention should be made of Gasthaus Lentz, almost opposite Charlottenburg S-Bahn Station, and the closest pub to our hotel. A real friendly place, where, despite being heaving, the waitress went out of her way to find us a space and help us with the menu.  Kloster Andechs Spezial  Helles hit the spot beer wise and went well with our grilled pork steaks. Top marks for this excellent local’s pub-cum-restaurant; a real find in an unexpected location.

This completes my round-up of the best of Berlin’s pubs and bars which, whilst seemingly extensive, probably only scratches the surface of the city’s rich beer drinking heritage. Still, the chance to explore this heritage further offers a good excuse to re-visit the German capital.

For an overview of Berlin's must-see sights, and other non-beery attractions, visit my other blog - Paul' Beer Travels.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Trouble Finishing

It’s very rare that I find a beer that I struggle to finish. However, I seem to have met my match in Schwarzer ABT (Black Abbot), a bottled beer that I picked up on my recent visit to Berlin. Before going any further, I want to add that I’m not talking here about beer that is stale, sour or generally off; but beer that’s fresh and in good condition, but which for one reason or another is just plain undrinkable.

I normally try and bring a few bottles back with me from my trips abroad, and wherever possible I look for obscure or hard to get examples. On this trip though, my plans were thrown into disarray as I found that Bier-Spezialitäten-Laden, the speciality beer shop where I was going to obtain the bulk of my purchases, had closed. I’m certain there must have been other speciality beer shops in a city the size of Berlin, but without an Internet connection I had no way of finding one,. I therefore had to put plan B into action, and start looking in the local shops.

The supermarket opposite our hotel stocked only brands from Berlin’s mega brewing group, BKS or big name beers such as Paulaner or Warsteiner, but East Berlin’s largest department store, Galeria Kaufhaus, situated on Alexanderplatz, came to the rescue, and I was able to purchase a reasonable selection there.

I must admit I didn’t look too closely at the rather functional-looking label of Neuzeller Klosterbräu Schwarzer Abt, or I would have spotted that the beer is only 3.9%  in strength. I also didn’t notice the inclusion of invert sugar on the list of ingredients. Not exactly Reinheitsgebot, but let’s not forget we are talking about a beer brewed in former East Germany, (the DDR), where the Purity Law was not enforced, and the use of sugar in brewing was permitted.

So what did the beer actually taste like? Well it poured jet black with a nice firm contrasting white head, and there’s some chocolate notes in the aroma, but the overall impression of that first taste was one of over-powering sweetness. There was some chocolate and roast flavours in the background, but they were completely swamped by the sickly sweet taste from the invert sugar! I persevered, and eventually consumed around two thirds of the bottle. After that I gave up, as the experience was more akin to drinking Coca Cola than beer!

Schwarzer Abt is brewed by the Neuzelle Kloster Brewery, based in the town of Neuzelle, in the eastern state of Brandenburg, close to the Polish border. It is best known for its Neuzeller "Anti-Aging-Bier" which, in addition to the four usual main brewing ingredients, adds spirulina and flavonoids in order to, supposedly, increase health and longevity, This unorthodox approach to brewing has brought the company into conflict with the German Beer Brewers' Association, most noticeably in 2004, when the brewery was ordered to cease production of their product "Schwarzer Abt" or face a substantial fine. This was because the drink contained added sugar syrup it was in conflict with the Beer Purity Law. The brewery had been brewing the dark beer with sugar syrup in East Germany, which had been allowed under the DDR’s permissive brewing laws. The brewery had not explicitly labelled it as beer, but as "A Specialty Made from Schwarzbier, With Invert Sugar Syrup Added Afterward." In 2003, the brewery changed the labelling to simply read "Schwarzbier." In 2005, a German court upheld the brewery's challenge to purity laws and allowed the brewery to add sugar syrup to "Schwarzer Abt" and label it as beer, ending the 10 year legal battle.

Be that as it may, I would rather the court had dismissed the brewery’s challenge and insisted the beer was brewed to the strictures of the Purity Law, with the sugar omitted, but then looking on the brewery’s website it seems Neuzeller Klosterbräu also brew Cherry, Ginger and Apple-flavoured beer. There must be market for these concoctions, even if it is fairly localised, so who am I to criticise? Next time though, I will definitely pay a bit more attention to what it says on the label!

Thursday 20 March 2014

Some Inconvenient Truths on Packaging

Back in January I wrote a post about long-established West Country brewer, Cotleigh, in which I mentioned I had been given five different bottles of Cotleigh beer, as a Christmas present, by a work colleague. Well the other day I finished off the last one and, as promised, here are my thoughts on each particular beer. The beers are reviewed in the order I drank them, and there's no logic or plan behind this; it was just whatever took my fancy at the time.

Cotleigh Tawny Owl 3.8% - A refreshing and well-balanced copper coloured bitter, with a slight, but not unpleasant, tartness. Packs in plenty of taste for its low gravity, with a good hop bite which blends in well with the juicy sweetness from the malt.

Cotleigh Buzzard, Dark Ale 4.8% - A very good dark ale, dark brown in colour, rather than jet black. The beer has a chocolate and slightly nutty flavour, combined with a smooth bitter finish. Unfortunately the beer is bottle-conditioned and despite chilling for an hour or so before opening, it was way too lively, and I ended up with a glass full of foam. This was in spite of slow and careful pouring on my part. This experience serves to remind me of the problems with BCA’s. The process adds nothing to the beer, and if anything takes something away. Because I had to pour the beer in several stages, I inevitably ended up with a cloudy glass, and was not best amused.
Cotleigh Golden Seahawk 4.2% Like its name suggests, a gold coloured ale with a fruity taste, against a background of malt and honey. Presented in a clear glass bottle, to show off its golden colour, the packaging has unfortunately allowed a stale-cardboard taste to develop in the background. Is this the dreaded light-struck “skunked” effect, caused by the beer being packaged in clear glass? When will brewers stop doing this?

Cotleigh Peregrine Porter 5.0% - Bottle-conditioned, and don’t I know it! I could only pour half a pint, and even then the foam kept rising, over-flowing the rim of the glass and running all down the side. Taste-wise, very bitter with a lactic taste lurking in the background. Possibly an infection? The long creamy and mellow finish, promised on the label just isn’t there. A shame really as I was really looking forward to this beer.

Cotleigh Barn Owl 4.5% - A dark copper-coloured ale, with a background of toffee and nuts from the Crystal and Chocolate malts used in the grist. The beer has a pleasant bitter finish from the Fuggles, Goldings and Northdown hops. Barn Owl is one of Cotleigh’s original beers. I am not normally a fan of dark-coloured bitters, but this brew is particularly good and rather more-ish. 

So the verdict is Tawny and Barn Owl come out tops, and guess what? They're NOT bottle-conditioned! The review speaks volumes for the deleterious effect bottle-conditioning had on the Old Buzzard and the Peregrine Porter; both of which were far too lively to be poured in one (or even two!) goes. Furthermore the Porter appeared to have picked up an infection; certainly the lactic taste I noticed didn't fit in with the "creamy and mellow finish", promised on the label. As for the Golden Seahawk, packaging this beer in a clear glass bottle did it no favours whatsoever, with a define stale-cardboard flavour completely spoiling the brewer's efforts.

Surely it's time to admit that we just don't do Bottle-Conditioned beers properly in this country, and for CAMRA to get off  its high horse about them. As for packaging beers in clear glass, well brewers really should know better. I suspect most of them do, but those who really care about how their carefully crafted product ends up tasting in the consumer's glass, need to take a much stronger stance against the morons in the marketing department, with their carefully staged photo-shoots, who seem to believe in the triumph of style over substance, rather than in the true merits of their product.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Springtime in Berlin

I returned late on Friday night from a most enjoyable six day visit to Berlin. It was my first time in the German capital and I was really impressed with what I found. I was accompanied by my son Matthew, and as this was his first visit to somewhere in Germany apart from Bavaria, I think he was more than a little confused by what he found as well.

Whilst Matthew was primarily there for the beer, I was more interested in the culture and history of a city that has witnessed so many momentous and often tragic events over the years. I will be writing about our experiences in greater depth, later on, but for now I just want to say Berlin is a city that everyone should visit.  For over 40 years, it was a city divided into two, by a crazy ideological, and physical, wall right down the middle, and even now,  nearly a quarter of a century after re-unification it still feels like a city of two halves. With its troubled 20th Century past well and truly behind it, Berlin is a city which is busily reinventing itself, and today it is a bustling and vibrant place which is proving increasingly popular with tourists.

Beer-wise, with Berlin’s surviving breweries now all merged into one large group (BKS), brewing a variety of mainly Pilsner style beers under the names of their former owners, the city on the surface might appear to have little to offer the drinker in search of variety. However, following re-unification and the restoration of Berlin as Germany’s capital, the city has seen a huge influx of people from other parts of the country; each bringing with them a preference for the beers of their former home states. This means that beers from Bavaria are quite common, as are brews from other nearer states, such as Saxony and Thuringia. In addition, Berlin now boasts nearly 20 brew-pubs, and whilst some of these brew a bog-standard range of Pilsner, Scharzbier and Weissbier, there are several pillars of excellence.
Of perhaps greater importance than the beer itself, are the places in which it is served and drunk, and Berlin certainly has some superb pubs and bars where beer is enjoyed in a pleasant and convivial atmosphere. We found some great places to both drink and eat in, and we were aided in this by a guidebook called “Around Berlin in 80 Beers”. Researched and written by Peter Sutcliffe who in his time has studied and worked in Germany, and who now has a second home in Berlin, this excellent book is produced by Cogan & Mater Ltd, a small independent publisher based in Cambridge. The company have also published similar themed guides to Amsterdam, Bruges, Brussels and London, so it will not surprise readers to learn that the knowledgeable and highly experienced beer writer Tim Webb, and equally experienced beer tour organiser, Chris Pollard (aka. Podge), are the guiding hands behind this outfit.

During our six days in the city, we visited nearly a quarter of the 80 outlets listed in the guide, and all were good. Amongst them was a sprinkling of brew pubs, café-style bars, basic boozers and unspoilt corner locals; in short something to please all tastes and preferences. Hopefully this short synopsis has whetted your appetites for more, and to this end I will be describing some of these places, along with the beers they served, in greater detail over the next week or so. 

Friday 7 March 2014

Craft at Wetherspoon

Wetherspoons are certainly going town over “Craft” at the moment. I picked up a 14 page leaflet this morning at our local JDW, extolling the virtues of a number of different “craft drinks”. As well as world beers in both bottles and cans, the leaflet features three of the country’s best known cask ales, and also devotes a section to gins and other classic drinks, such as Pimms and Moet & Chandon Champagne.

A bit of a strange mixture, but with their “International Real-Ale Festival” kicking off in 20 days time, I suppose they’re trying to ensure all bases are covered. Flicking through their House Magazine over breakfast earlier, I noticed there will again be some interesting collaborations with foreign brewers for the festival. There’s also an interesting section on the three canned American “craft beers” from Sixpoint Brewery which they launched on Wednesday.

Whilst on the subject of “international”, I’m off to Berlin in the morning for a short break. This will be my first visit to the German capital, and I’ll be reporting my findings on the beer front on my return. In the meantime why not pop into Spoons and see what you think of the new “craft cans”.

The Bree Louise

The other week I visited one of London’s best known real ale pubs for the first time. Tucked away down a side street alongside Euston station, the Bree Louise offers one of the widest ranges of cask beers and traditional ciders in the capital, but the pub has not been without its share of controversy since opening in its present guise. I have read many reports about the place; the majority of them quite critical in particular with regard to the quality of the beer. Because of this there was no way the Bree Louise was ever going to be a destination pub, as far as I was concerned, but when I found myself in the Euston area in need of a pint and a bite to eat I thought I’d call in to see what all the fuss was about.

I was in London for a concert given by the lovely and multi-talented, singer-songwriter, NerinaPallot; more about Nerina and the concert later. The concert was taking place at Old St Pancras Church, a small, historic working church, just behind St Pancras station. I wanted both some solid and liquid refreshment before the gig and after scanning various websites and pub guides and weeding out the pretentious and the over-priced, I settled on the Bree Louise.

I managed to leave work early, catching a direct train from the small village where I work, to London Bridge. After a short tube journey I arrived at Euston just after 5pm, and had little trouble locating the Bree Louise. There were quite a few people sitting on the covered benches outside the pub, which had me wondering whether or not there would be room inside, but I needn’t have worried, as whilst the pub was quite busy it was in no way bursting at the seams. I spotted a small table, claimed it by dumping my bag and my coat on the chair and made my way to the bar, somewhat perplexed as to which of the 17 or so beers to go for.

I had noticed the majority were on gravity, kept in several racks of casks behind the bar, in the right hand section of the bar. Noticing that several casks were stooped at a fairly steep angle, and thus approaching empty, I decided to give this part of the pub a miss, so instead I moved across to the bar on the left, where the beers are on hand pump. The friendly and helpful barmaid offered me a couple of tasters, and in the end I plumped for a pint of Stod Fold Gold. As its name implies, this was a golden ale, 3.8% in strength, with a nice bitter finish. I later discovered the brewery are based in Halifax, West Yorkshire. It hit the spot, and I retired to my table and had a good look round at my surroundings.

“A bit dated”, would be my summing up of the décor. Covering the walls with umpteen pump clips seems very 80’s, if not even older, but what was worse was the location of my table. Being close to the ladies loo, my nostrils were assaulted by a strong smell of disinfectant every time the door was opened. Not pleasant at all, although it could have been worse I suppose! There was no chance of moving elsewhere, as the pub was starting to fill up quite rapidly. In addition I planned on eating and so needed to remain seated.

Perusing the menu, the pies sounded quite appealing, even though cooked meat and gravy contained in an earthenware dish and topped with a layer of puff-pastry, does NOT constitute a pie in my book! Upon ordering, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that as a CAMRA member I was entitled to a £2.00 discount. This was in addition to the 50p a pint reduction I had already taken advantage of. Before my pie arrived I ordered another pint; this time opting for another Yorkshire beer, the 4.0% Pennine Real Blonde. Imagine my disappointment at seeing it being poured from one of the casks, despite there being a hand pump advertising its presence!

My worst fears were confirmed when it was placed in front of me, totally lifeless and flat as the proverbial witch’s tit! It wasn’t off, but with virtually zero condition, it wasn’t particularly enjoyable either. Without the 50p CAMRA discount, this beer would have cost me £4.10 a pint; a high price to pay for such a lacklustre drink. My chicken, ham and leek pie was OK and although it was rather on the salty side it filled me up and left me ready to face the world and make my way to the concert venue.

As mentioned earlier, the concert was held at St Pancras Old Church; a beautiful old working church behind the vast modern extension to the rear of St Pancras station. With seating for just 120 people, it provided a cosy and intimate setting for Nerina Pallot to entertain and captivate us with her inimitable and faultlessly performed, self-penned compositions. Nerina is probably best known for her 2005 hit, “Everybody’s Gone to War”, and the video which accompanied the song. This featured an overly realistic and slightly disturbing food fight, staged in an American supermarket, but Nerina has received quite a lot of airplay for her more restrained compositions as well. Alone on stage, in front of the altar in the candle-lit church, playing either piano or acoustic guitar, she enthralled us, putting on a performance to remember for a long time to come.

The concert, of course, was my main reason for being in town that night, but the following day I couldn’t help reflecting on the Bree Louise. I can see why it provokes such strong feelings, and I can especially see why fellow bloggers, such as Tandleman have come out against the place. Having been there now, I don’t think I would go back. I’ve always been more than a little suspicious of “beer exhibition” type pubs, as not only is too much choice not always a good thing, but too much choice inevitably means the pub is over-stocked, and the slow moving lines will therefore be way past their best.

On the plus side the place was convivial, with friendly, knowledgeable and attractive barmaids. It was convenient to where I wanted to be, bustling and with a good atmosphere. The food was filling and good value for money, but that’s where the good points start to be out-weighed by the bad ones. I can live with the dated décor, but toilets which open straight into the bar area are a definite no-no, so far as I am concerned. Even more of a no-no is flat, poorly-kept beer which is totally lacking in condition. Insult is added to injury when the beer is sold at a premium (over the top!), price. Gravity dispense beer is fine when it involves storing and dispensing the beer in a temperature controlled room; as is the case with the Halfway House and the Old House, back in my neck of the woods. Having several racks of casks on show behind the bar of a busy city centre pub is not a good idea, even though it might look all rustic and twee.

The pub obviously has its legions of devotees, as witnessed by the number of customers who had crowded in by the time I left, so it must be doing something right. For me though, the place just doesn't click, so no, I won’t be going back!

Tuesday 4 March 2014

There's Beer in Them Thar Hills!

The Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is only an hour or so’s drive away from where I live in West Kent and yet, like so many things on one’s own doorstep, it is somewhere I am not at all familiar with. Granted I know a couple of towns which lie in the middle of the area (Dorking and Godalming), but it’s a part of the south-east which I haven’t really spent time getting to know.
My interest in this hitherto (for me) ignored area was re-kindled last Saturday by a coach trip to Tillingbourne Brewery, organised by West Kent CAMRA. The main purpose of our visit was to present Tillingbourne with a certificate which marked their 3.3 % brew, The Source being voted “Beer of the Festival” at last October’s Spa Valley Real Ale and Diesel Gala. The trip was also a way of thanking branch members who gave up their time to man the various bars and generally help out at what was an extremely busy and successful festival.

A party of 22 of us set off to make the relatively short journey to the brewery, which is housed in a converted barn on a farm, high in the hills of the Greensand Ridge, above the village of Shere. Our transport for the day was a comfortable 25-seat mini-coach, belonging to STS Travel of Marden.

We arrived at Tillingbourne at around midday, after our driver had negotiated the narrow and, in places, steep track leading down to the farm. The 1st of March is officially the first day of spring, and the sun was certainly shining as we disembarked from the coach. We were greeted by Lee, one of the two partners in the brewery, who took us inside and gave us a short tour of the plant.

The Brewery has a 17 barrel capacity (68 firkins). The barn it is housed in belongs to Old Scotland Farm, which is part of the Duke of Northumberland's Albury Estate. The brewery takes its name from the short river (just 11 miles long) which starts as a spring on Leith Hill and meanders through the heart of the Surrey Hills towards the River Wey. The brewing equipment was formerly owned by Surrey Hills Brewery, who also had a lease on the farm premises, but when they upped sticks in July 2011 and moved to larger premises just north of Dorking, the Old Scotland Farm set-up was put up for sale, and was acquired by its current owners, Steve Dodd  and Lee Nicholls. Steve looks after the brewing side, whilst Lee handles the sales and marketing. He also makes all the deliveries!
The two were old school friends and once the purchase had been completed in September 2011, the pair started on the major task of cleaning, decorating and upgrading the Brewery. On the 19th November 2011, the first Tillingbourne brew was finally underway, with their first regular beer, the 4.2% Falls Gold, proving a winner right from the word go.

It was a refreshing glass of Falls Gold that we were offered, as we looked over the brewing plant. Steve was in the process of watching the copper come to the boil, having previously pumped over the sparged wort from the mash-tun. Tillingbourne relies on steam to heat it brewing vessels, and Lee explained that steam gives a much more even, and less fierce heat than that obtained from electric heating elements, or a direct fired gas burner beneath the copper.

I have to say, the Falls Gold was absolutely superb; well-conditioned, crystal clear and burnished gold in colour, with a thirst quenching hoppy bite, it really hit the spot after our journey over, and I had no hesitation in accepting a refill when it was offered. After our tour, we moved out to the yard to enjoy our ale in the sunshine, and chat to Lee whilst Steve got on with the brewing. We sampled two other beers that lunchtime; the darker Bouncing Bomb, named in honour of inventor Sir Barnes Wallis who lived nearby, and then to finish up on, the 4.8% Hop Troll, which is a mega-hopped India Pale Ale. Lee told us all sorts of statistics regarding the number of outlets supplies, amounts brewed etc, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to recall exactly what he said. What I do remember though, is with just the two of them involved, and Steve working on a part-time basis at present (he still has a regular day job), they are trying to keep distribution as local as possible. They do have plans though to extend the barn, to house some additional fermenters, which should keep the pressure off and allow for some controlled expansion.

We left the brewery just after 2pm, but not before our branch chairman Iain had presented Steve and Lee with their well-deserved certificate. Ironically I still haven’t tasted The Source, as the cask ran out on the first night of our festival and there was none left in stock at the brewery. Before descending towards the A246 on our return journey, we were rewarded with a spectacular view right across the Surrey countryside, towards London. We could see the tower blocks of the city sparkling in the sunshine on the distant horizon, and could even see the arch of Wembley stadium!

We stopped for a late, but pre-booked lunch at the King William IV at West Horsley. This rather upmarket pub is a former stomping ground of our chairman, and it proved a good place to stop for some more solid refreshment as well. We were ushered into the dining room at the rear of the pub, and sat down at two long tables, but not before partaking of some beer. Surrey Hills Shere Drop was my choice, although several others gave the Courage Directors a try. The beer went well with my steak and kidney pudding, so much so that I grabbed a further pint before we left.

There was one further stop before arriving back in Tonbridge; namely the Carpenters Arms at Limpsfield Chart. This large village pub is one of two outlets belonging to the nearby Westerham Brewery, and not surprisingly there were five Westerham beers on tap. I opted for the Hop Rocket IPA, which as its name suggests is a well-hopped,  mid-gravity IPA.

We only stayed for the one, as our driver was keen to get back, and several members also had evening engagements to attend. It was an excellent day out, with good beer, good pubs and the chance to appreciate some stunning scenery in a part of the country many of us don’t often get the chance to visit.