Saturday 31 May 2014

Festival Fever

With spring rapidly giving way to summer, the trend for pubs to hold their own beer festivals continues un-abated. This weekend sees beer festivals at several local pubs, thereby cleverly avoiding last weeks long Bank Holiday weekend. In addition, our local football team, Tonbridge Angels are again running Angelfest, a weekend of beer, cider and live music, at their Longmead Stadium ground.

This highly successful event is now in its third year, but unfortunately I will have to give both this festival, plus the pub ones a miss, as I am off  to Norfolk for a long weekend. Still it’s not doom and gloom by a long way, as it’s a family get-together with my eldest sister over from her home in the United States.

It’s several years since I last saw her, so it will be good to meet up again. No doubt too we’ll get to visit a local pub or two, and sample some local ale. In the meantime, good luck to anyone (pub, club or other organisation), holding a beer festival this weekend.

For local readers, this weekend’s beer festivals are:

Angelfest – Longmead Stadium, Tonbridge
The Beacon – Tea Garden Lane, Rusthall, Tunbridge Wells
Little Brown Jug, Chiddingstone Causeway (opp. Penshurst station)

Apologies to any other local pub, club or other organisation that I haven’t mentioned, who are also running a beer festival this weekend.

Monday 26 May 2014

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Four of an Occasional Series - Ruddles of Rutland

For those of us old enough to remember, Ruddles were one of the early “darlings” of the CAMRA-inspired “Real Ale Revolution”.  During the mid to late 1970’s, their premium beer, Ruddles County, achieved “cult status” amongst real ale drinkers, and rightly so for this full-bodied and heavily-hopped ale was once a yardstick against which other beers were judged.

Now “Ruddles” is just another lacklustre Greene King brand, acquired by the Suffolk giant following a series of take-overs and sell-offs during the 1990’s. Why did things go so disastrously wrong for the Rutland-based company, and what caused their spectacular fall from grace? This article, whilst not providing all the answers, describes how I first became familiar with Ruddles beers and gives some pointers as to why the company lost both its way, and eventually its very existence.

The first time I ever sampled Ruddles was in the legendary Becky's Dive Bar, close to London Bridge Station. The year was 1974 and I was on a crawl of London pubs with an old school friend. Acting as our guide was a copy of the first Guide to Real Ale in London published by CAMRA and the Dive Bar was the fourth pub on our itinerary. I still remember walking down the carpeted stairs leading down to the dimly lit basement bar. The stairs were so rickety that they had an unnatural springiness to them, and once inside our nostrils were met with the mixed odour of dampness and tom cats! Undeterred though, we scanned the bar in order to see what beers were on offer.

According to my friend's guide, Becky's had Thwaites Bitter all the way from Blackburn, on sale, but on enquiring we were told that this particular beer was no longer on sale but they had Ruddles County instead. We opted for a pint each of this revered brew and waited in eager anticipation as our drinks were dispensed from a one of the casks perched up on the bar counter. However, even in the dingy light of the bar the beer looked cloudy. I was somewhat more fortunate than my companion in so much that I chose the first of the two pints dispensed from the cask; mine may well have been cloudy but at least it didn't contain an inch or two of sediment! Despite its cloudy appearance the beer still tasted superb and was certainly a revelation to my young and relatively inexperienced taste-buds (I was 19 at the time). My friend managed  to drink most of his pint but in view of the amount of solid matter in his glass we wisely decided it was  time to move on to our next port of call.

It was to be sometime before I next had the pleasure of sampling Ruddles County, or at least Ruddles County on draught. I say that because not long after our crawl, the company started selling their beers in both canned and bottled form through supermarkets, so for Christmas that year I persuaded my father to get in a good supply of this excellent beer.

I spent most of the next three years as a student living in Greater Manchester, so apart from vacations, plus occasional trips back to Kent, I was busy sampling such delights as Robinsons, Boddingtons, Marstons and Holts (to name but a few). It was therefore some time before I next had the pleasure of enjoying Ruddles in cask-conditioned form, but I have a feeling that my next pint of Ruddles County was enjoyed at either the Anglesea Arms in London's South Kensington, or the Shires Bar at St Pancras Station. Both outlets were pioneers in their own way, although as the Anglesea was a couple of years at least ahead of the Shires in this respect, it is most likely it was there that I next drank Ruddles.

I eventually moved back to the South East, initially to London and then to Kent, but the availability of Ruddles in the area was not that extensive. In the meantime the company had sold off all but one of its tied thirty or so tied houses in order to concentrate on the free trade and sales to supermarkets. Not long after my return, Ruddles entered into a supply deal with Grand Metropolitan (the owners of Watneys), which saw Ruddles County being sold in a substantial number of Watney pubs. As I was living in Maidstone at the time, a part of the country where there were no Watney pubs whatsoever, this deal had no effect so far as I was concerned. More to the point, it was unlikely that I would have ventured into a Watneys pub anyway. I was also somewhat suspicious of the fact that Watneys were storing the beer in converted kegs - having scrapped all their casks when they converted to keg beer during the late 1960's.

In 1986 Grand Metropolitan went a stage further and acquired outright control of Ruddles. Seasoned observers of the trade were not surprised at this turn of events, for having committed a large proportion of their trade to Grand Met, Ruddles were hardly in a position to refuse an outright takeover. It is open to question whether or not Grand Met would have pulled the plug on Ruddles, had they refused, but certainly the Rutland based company now had no pubs of its own to fall back on.

Ruddles chairman, Tony Ruddle was pleased with the deal though and was widely reported at the time as saying that his company's beers were now available to a much wider audience. However, this increased availability was at the expense of many of Watney's local beers, particularly in London and the South East, and when Grand Mets other subsidiary - the London brewers Truman were merged with Watneys into one brewing division, the former's excellent beers also began disappearing in favour of Ruddles. This was a great shame, as the Truman range of cask beers had been launched in a blaze of publicity some five years earlier, and represented a strong commitment to cask beer from a company which had completely abandoned it during the previous decade.

In the February of 1988, just over a year after the Grand Met takeover, I received a phone call from Nigel, an old friend from Maidstone CAMRA, asking if I would like to accompany him on an all expenses paid trip round Ruddles brewery. The only snag was that the trip was scheduled for the following day!  By this time I was living in Tonbridge and working in nearby Tunbridge Wells, but an opportunity like this was too good to miss so I persuaded my boss to allow me the day off, and arranged to meet my friend on the train at Tonbridge the next morning.

On the journey up to London, he was able to fill me in on more of the details as to what the trip was about, why it was free and the reason for it being arranged at such short notice. The people behind the trip were a PR agency handling the launch, on behalf of Grand Met of a new Best Bitter for Ruddles. They had decided to invite along members of CAMRA such as Nigel and I who were involved in the editing or production of Branch Newsletters.

I had edited Maidstone Branch's "Draught Copy" for some four years and had recently been involved in the production of a newsmagazine entitled "Inn View" on behalf of Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells CAMRA Branch. Nigel had stepped into my shoes with regard to "Draught Copy" so we both qualified in that respect. All we had to do was obtain receipts for our train journey and the PR agency would re-imburse us.

On the train from Kings Cross we met up with another CAMRA member who performed a similar function to ourselves for the Brighton and Southdowns Branch. Our instructions were to alight at Peterborough in order, I thought, to catch a local train to Oakham, close to where Ruddles brewery is situated. However, PR companies aren’t slow when it comes to throwing other people’s money about, and instead a fleet of taxis had been laid on to convey us the not inconsiderable distance to Oakham and the brewery. After some initial confusion as to who was footing the bill we set off, and after an uneventful journey through the East Midlands countryside, which looked particularly drab during February, we were deposited at the imposing, but attractive Ruddles brewery in the village of Langham - just outside Oakham.

We were led straight to the hospitality centre, situated in converted cellars beneath the brewery, where we were offered our first taste of the new Best Bitter and introduced to the brewery chairman, Tony Ruddle. Following a brief introductory chat, which gave us the opportunity to enjoy the new beer, the philosophy behind the launch of the beer was explained. It was intended as a replacement for the old Rutland Bitter, known universally as "Ruddles Blue". The company had decided to go for a stronger beer, with a gravity of 1037, to be called Ruddles Best Bitter. This move would have been fine providing Ruddles had retained the old "Blue", for although this was a relatively weak beer with a gravity of only 1032, it was full of flavour, very refreshing and was an excellent "quaffing bitter".

We were then given a guided tour of the brewery, conducted by a member of the brewing staff. The brewhouse had been extensively modernised - the new parent company having invested substantially in the plant. To their credit, Grand Met had given Ruddles a free hand in the design of the plant which, although modern, was still designed on traditional lines. The copper may have been constructed of stainless steel but it was still a copper. Equally, the sparkling new mash tuns were traditionally designed mash tuns, rather than the more modern Lauter tuns favoured by most European brewers. Ruddles had also been allowed to retain control over the purchase of the raw materials used to brew the beers and, very unusually, they were still using whole hop cones, rather than the hop pellets favoured by many modern brewers.

When the tour was over, we were taken back to the hospitality centre, where a substantial spread of food had been laid on for our benefit. Tony Ruddle acted as "mine host" over lunch, the beer flowing freely from jugs which were replenished as soon as they became empty. The food was excellent, consisting of such local delicacies as Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Red Leicester and Stilton Cheeses, with chunks of freshly baked crusty bread to soak up the beer. The beer too was very good, but I couldn't help feeling that it lacked something. I personally thought it a shame that a unique beer such as the 1032 Rutland Bitter had been replaced by yet another, bog-standard 1037 bitter. Besides, a gravity of this strength is not worthy of the name "Best" anyway!

This aside the brewery chairman answered all our questions; some of which were more difficult and probing than others. He had no qualms about the Grand Met takeover; so far as he was concerned it meant a much wider availability of his beers, and if other beers were being elbowed off the bar then it was because they were not as good as Ruddles. With regard to the loss of the "Blue" he felt that the new beer would appeal to a wider market.

The time for us to depart came all too soon; the fleet of taxis having turned up to whisk us back to Peterborough. Before leaving though, we were each presented with a bag containing a boxed, glass tankard, plus a sweatshirt both emblazoned with the new motif for Ruddles Best Bitter. The return journey was uneventful, although most of us were of the same opinion regarding the new beer. Stopping off in London, en route for Charing Cross, Nigel and I, plus Rob Wells from Reigate and Redhill branch opted for a couple of pints in the Nags Head, Covent Garden; one of the few central London pubs belonging to McMullens of Hertford. Here we enjoyed some excellent Country Bitter and A.K. Mild before making our way home to Kent.


Ruddles have had a troubled history over the last few decades in the hands of a succession of big brewers. In 1991, as a means of circumventing the government’s Beer Orders 1989 legislation, Grand Met entered into a "pubs for breweries" deal with Courage, whereby control of Grand Met’s breweries passed to Courage in exchange for the latter’s pubs. These were to be administered by a joint company known as "Inntrepeneur Estates".

The outcome of the deal was that the Ruddles brewery rapidly became "surplus to requirements". It was eventually sold to Dutch Lager brewers Grolsch for a sum reputed to be well in excess of £30m. The deal at least secured the future of the Langham site although Tony Ruddle opted for retirement, thus severing the last links with the family after whom the brewery took its name.

Grolsch struggled to make their purchase a success, as despite a multi-million pound marketing campaign, sales of Ruddles beers continued to decline. Just five years after Grolsch acquired the company, the value of the brewery and its brands had dropped to £4.8m, and in it was sold to Morlands of Abingdon. . By this time production at Langham had fallen to just 100,000 barrels a year from a total output capacity of 300,000 barrels. Morlands moved production to Abingdon only for that site to be closed by Greene King when they took over Morlands in 2000.

These days, of course, Ruddles County and Best Bitter are just two of a number of Greene King brands. Both are nothing like the original beers, and whilst they still have their devotees, neither are beers I would go out of my way to drink. Ruddles Best Bitter has had the indignity of becoming Wetherspoon’s “budget brand” bitter, and can be found on sale in most JDW outlets.  
All this is very sad and, somewhat ironically the difficulty in reproducing elsewhere the taste of the beers has led to the premier beer being jocularly referred to as "Ruddles Counterfeit". Perhaps this is appropriate as the local Langham well water was said to give the beer a unique character and quality which enhanced the brewery's reputation..
Rutland bitter is one of only three UK beers to have achieved Protected Geographical Indication Status;  following an application by Ruddles. Since Morlands closed the Langham brewery Greene King, the current owners of the brands, cannot take advantage of the registration. However in 2010 former Ruddles head brewer Tony Davis revived Rutland Bitter, as a beer brewed in Rutland, at his Grainstore Brewery, based in Oakham. He later followed it with a beer called Ten-Fifty - the gravity of the original Ruddle's County.

Late Spring Bank Holiday 2014

The Late Spring Bank Holiday has seen beer festivals a plenty taking place in this small corner of Kent, despite the weather trying to put a dampener on things. The majority of the events were pub festivals, and I managed to get along to a couple on Saturday. The first festival was at the ever popular Halfway House, just outside Brenchley; whilst the second was a smaller, but by no means less interesting festival, held at the Royal Oak in Tunbridge Wells.

We were a bit late getting to the Halfway House. Our original plan had been to walk over from Paddock Wood, but torrential downpours on Saturday morning had put paid to that; instead we caught the bus from Tunbridge Wells. Rather than getting off at the Halfway House though, we alighted a couple of stops earlier, as we had another pub to visit; namely the Hop Bine at Petteridge.

Our reason for calling in at this cosy Hall & Woodhouse pub (still showing its King & Barnes livery), was to say goodbye to long-serving licensees, Mike and Bea Winser, who are retiring after 26 years at the Hop Bine. In these days of pubs changing hands on a regular basis and with licensees coming and going, two and a half decades running the same pub is a real achievement, but in Mike and Bea’s case a highly successful one based on hard work, discipline and the right touch – both behind the bar and in the kitchen.

We had been hoping to have lunch at the Hop Bine, but with the couple due to leave the pub next weekend, operations are being run down, Bea has taken a well-deserved rest from kitchen duties, and the pub has stopped serving food. A great shame, as in her time Bea served up some fantastic food. The beer though, acted by way of compensation; Badger First Gold and Tanglefoot. I stuck with the weaker First Gold, as I knew we had a long day ahead of us.

After saying our farewells, and wishing Mike and Bea all the best in their retirement, we set off for the Halfway House. We had a choice of either walking back up to the top of the lane and catching the bus, or of walking the whole way across the fields. The heavy rain outside made my mind up plus that of a companion, but the other two members of our group decided that having walked earlier from Pembury, they would complete the journey on foot, despite the weather, so we went our separate ways with a view to meeting up at the Halfway House.

There were five other local CAMRA members and friends waiting for us when we arrived at the pub, so after ordering a glass of Goody Ales Dark Mild, I grabbed a beer list and went and joined my companions. The rain had put the dampeners on what was going on outside, although Richard, the licensee of the Halfway, has had some very handy outside shelters constructed, enabling customers to carry on their al fresco drinking in the dry.

The programme stated there were 60 Local and National Real Ales on offer; all at just £3.20 a pint. I know the beer list stated "National Real Ales", but even so I was surprised by the inclusion of the likes of  Ruddles Best, Young’s Bitter and Greene King Abbot in the line-up. However, there were also plenty of interesting local ales from both Kent and Sussex. For me, Goody Ales proved the highlight of the festival, with all four of their beers in fine form. Also well represented were old favourites Rother Valley, Westerham and Old Dairy, along with Kings and Welton’s – both from Horsham in West Sussex.

My consumption was somewhat curtailed though by the several pints of Badger consumed earlier, and by late afternoon most of my companions were feeling the same way. We decided to go for the penultimate bus back to Tunbridge Wells, but not before a member of our party had presented landlord Richard with a certificate as , West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year Runner-Up 2013. The Halfway House has won the award outright for the previous four years, but recently there has been some strong competition from a couple of relative newcomers. Even so, the result was very close, and I’m certain Richard will do everything in his power to try and reclaim his crown for next year’s award.

Our bus dropped us in Tunbridge Wells, close to the Royal Oak, which just so happened to be holding its own Beer and Music Festival. The pub was packed, although we did manage to secure a table. With a line-up of interesting and unusual beers on the bar, the temptation was to stay. Switching to halves I enjoyed Otley No.3, Great Orme Welsh Black and an interesting smoked stout called “Dirty Stop Out” from Tiny Rebel Brewery. There was some good live music being played at the rear of the pub at a volume which still allowed conversation to take place where we were sitting at the front. Other pubs please take note!

That was me done for the day; pleasantly refreshed, but not overly so! More beer festivals are taking place next weekend, and such events will no doubt continue throughout the summer.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Three (b) - Shepherd Neame of Faversham - The Story Brought Up-to-Date

In the 15 years or so since the previous post was first written, Shepherd Neame beers haven’t got any better as far as I am concerned; they are thin in body, harsh in taste and definitely not enjoyable! This view is shared by most of my friends and acquaintances; the upshot being that most of us tend to avoid Shep’s pubs whenever possible.

This is a shame, as the brewery have some excellent pubs and have invested heavily over the years in improving and refurbishing their tied estate. Recently though there have been reports of pubs changing tenants on a rather too frequent basis, coupled with rumblings of discontent amongst a number of Shepherd Neame’s tenants. A glance on the company’s website shows they currently have 24 pub tenancies up for grabs, but for a company of that size this number may not be unusual. However, if the reports are true the news is bad for the pub, bad for those tenants who were unable to make a go of the place and ultimately bad for the brewery itself.

Shep’s have also closed quite a few pubs in recent years, especially in those towns or villages where they are well represented. Some of these closures can be attributed to the buying spree the brewery embarked on back in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, when some of the larger breweries such as Ind Coope or Courage were busy selling off pubs themselves. What may have seemed like a good investment at the time by Shep’s has, in some cases, proved to be the opposite, leaving the brewery little choice but to dispose of the pub. Also, the pubs acquired back then may have been sold as a block by Messrs Courage and Ind Coope, with bad pubs included along with the good, so again one cannot blame Shep’s totally with regard to these subsequent disposals.

One charge which can be made against the brewery though, is its abandonment of its heritage, because today Shepherd Neame are much more a lager brewery than one producing traditional Kentish ales. Take a look at their portfolio for a minute, because as well as Hürlimann – a Swiss lager which the company have brewed under licence since 1968, Shepherd Neame now brew the following additional brands of international lagers under licence: Asahi, Holsten, Kingfisher, Oranjeboom and Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Go into any Shepherd Neame pub and you are far more likely to see people drinking lager rather than cask. This makes me very wary about ordering a pint of Master Brew, or one of the seasonal beers, as I wonder whether they are being sold in sufficient quantity to ensue an adequate turn over, and therefore freshness and indeed general drinkability.

Another charge against them must be for their cringe-worthy advertising campaign for Spitfire Ale. It may have won awards within the advertising industry, (not really an achievement to be proud of!), but to my mind it’s infantile, patronising and darn right insulting. Surely some 70 years after the ending of WWII it’s time to bury once and for all the “We won the war, let’s bash the Hun” nonsense? One would have liked to think that these sorts of juvenile adverts for beer went out with likes of “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label”; “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”; and all the other juvenile dross which graced our TV screens during the 1980’s.

To end on a positive note, for some years now, Shep’s have had their own pilot brewery which not only turns out one-off special brews, but has recently started turning out versions of old Shepherd Neame beers, from recipes found in the brewery archives. These latter beers are available in bottle form only, and brown bottles at that, rather than the clear ones normally favoured by the brewery with their associated risk of being “light struck”. I have only tried a couple, the India Pale Ale and Double Stout. Both have been very good, proving that Shep’s still can brew a decent pint, when they put their minds to it!

Sunday 18 May 2014

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Three (a) of an Occasional Series - Shepherd Neame of Faversham

Welcome to this article about Shepherd Neame; the third in this occasional series looking back at some of Britain’s family brewers. As the article is quite lengthy, I have divided it into two parts. The first part is the original article, which I wrote around 15 years ago. The second brings things up to date and looks at where Shepherd Neame are today, and what they represent to today’s generation of drinkers

Shepherd Neame are Britain's oldest brewers, having brewed continuously on the same site since the year 1698. They are also Kent's sole survivor amongst the established independent brewery companies and, since the sad demise of Fremlins, are now regarded as the county's premier brewers. The company is known affectionately amongst Kentish drinkers as "Shep's", and that is how I shall refer to the brewery and their beers throughout this article.

Over the years I have had something of a love-hate relationship with Shepherd Neame. During the 1970’s and 1980’s it was very much a love relationship, and although I would not quite describe my relationship with the company today as one of hate, their beers certainly do not count amongst my favourites- for reasons I will explain later.

I first became aware of Shep's during my time in the lower sixth form at Ashford Grammar School. Rock music was my first love, followed closely by chasing after the opposite sex; but thanks to the influence of two close friends, I learnt to appreciate a pint of beer and started to enjoy visiting different pubs. The majority of the pubs in Ashford at the time belonged to either Courage or Whitbread, and these were the pubs which my friends and I tended to frequent. There were, however, a small number belonging to Shepherd Neame, but we tended to avoid Shep's pubs because the company's beers were widely regarded as "tasting like vinegar".

Just exactly how this reputation had come about I am uncertain. I am also unsure whether or not it was ever justified. What I do believe is that this reputation, amongst some of my sixth form colleagues, had been acquired directly from their fathers, and that they were merely reflecting the prejudices of an older generation. Sadly though, myself and most of my friends went along with these misconceptions, even to the point of turning our noses up on those occasions when were offered a perfectly acceptable pint of Shep's.

Looking back I am convinced that it was our immature taste buds that were at fault, as they were unable to cope with Shep's extremely well-hopped and distinctive beers. It was this that we were confusing this with vinegar. I am supported in this view by a comment in Michael Dunn's excellent book "Local Brew" in which he describes the company's Master Brew Bitter as "an exceedingly well-hopped, dry and clean-tasting bitter with a very distinctive flavour - so much so that there are many Kentish drinkers who will not drink it, presumably because its magnificent bitter, hoppy tang contrasts with the blander bitters in other local pubs".

I stated earlier that most of my friends avoided Shep's pubs, but I did have one very good friend who not only liked the company's beers, but who was also prepared to stick his neck out and publicly proclaim his liking for Shepherd Neame. That he did this, despite the ridicule and condemnation of his peers, says a lot for his character, but in the end he was vindicated, as we shall shortly see.

In the months between leaving school and going off to university, my friend and I spent many a summer evening visiting country pubs by motorcycle.We also spent many a happy hour in the my friend's local, the Royal Oak, Mersham. However, I am sorry to say that on most of my visits there I drank Newcastle Brown Ale in preference to Shep's. By virtue of a trading agreement, this legendary Geordie beer was sold in Shepherd Neame pubs, but in half-pint bottles only. At a time when a pint of Shep's bitter cost all of 12p, a half pint bottle of Newcastle Brown cost 12.5p, making it twice as expensive.

This did not deter me though, and indeed I went gaily off to university believing that "Newcy Brown" was THE beer of the north! However during my first few weeks at Salford University I was told by a number of older and undoubtedly wiser, students that Newcastle Brown Ale was "chemical beer" which sent people round the bend. I was even told that there was a ward in the Newcastle Royal Infirmary populated solely by Newcastle Brown Ale addicts! Leaving aside the fanciful nature of these stories, I started to become seriously interested in Real Ale, developing a liking for the likes of Boddingtons, Robinsons and Marstons, to name but a few.

When I returned to Kent, at the end of my first year away, I decided that Shepherd Neame was the sort of company I ought to be supporting, rather than deriding. One of my other friends, who incidentally was instrumental in my joining CAMRA, had also come to the same conclusion, after having been one of the company's sternest critics. Consequently the Rose at Kennington, and the Golden Ball, just outside the same suburb of Ashford became favourite watering holes, as did the Castle and Victoria pubs in the town itself. When I renewed my acquaintance with my other friend, the Royal Oak at Mersham found itself back in favour, as did the Walnut Tree at Aldington.  I acquired a liking for Shep's which until the early 1990’s never failed. Back then, when it is on top form, Shepherd Neame Master Brew Bitter was one of the country's finest and most distinctive beers.

Apart from visits home during the university vacations, it was to be several years before I had the opportunity to sample Shep's again. After spending four years in Manchester, I moved to Norbury in South London. This was a poor area for pubs, with the notable exception of the Pied Bull on Streatham High Road. This splendid Youngs pub was worth the twenty minutes walk, but there were times when I fancied a change. A browse through “Real Beer in London showed that there was a Shepherd Neame pub close to Selhurst Park station - a short train ride away. The pub in question was called the Two Brewers, and whilst it was nothing to write home about architecturally, it offered a friendly welcome, and also served a good pint of Shep's.

I often travelled there, by train, usually on a Saturday evening, including one memorable December 30th, when the entire pub nearly got snowed in! After 18 months of living in London I moved to Maidstone, where I had purchased my first house. Thus after an absence of nearly six years, I had returned to live in Kent. There was a Shep's pub within spitting distance of my new home, plus a further 8 pubs belonging to the brewery in Maidstone itself. The Dog & Gun, being the nearest, quickly became my local, as well as being  one of my favourites, but I also remember some good sessions spent in the Dragoon, the Greyhound, the Railway Bell, the Rifle Volunteer and the Wheelers Arms. I had become actively involved with the local branch of CAMRA, and it was in the company of various branch members, as well as at branch meetings, that I became acquainted with the aforementioned pubs.

It was around this time that I developed a liking for Shep's Mild, a beer which, at the time, was still widely available in cask-conditioned form. During the early 1980's, Shep's introduced a new, premium strength bitter called Invicta. The beer was intended as a replacement for their Best Bitter, a beer which was not a lot stronger than Master Brew, and which was also not all that widely available. Unfortunately, Invicta suffered from the same limited distribution as Best Bitter, and was withdrawn after only a couple of years. This was a great shame, as not only was it a fine beer in its own right, but it also fitted in well with the brewery’s range of products. Not long afterwards, the mild was also withdrawn in cask-conditioned form. To be fair to Shep's, sales of mild had been declining for some years, although it must be said that the beer was still very popular in East Kent.

So far as the bitter was concerned, the all time, absolute best pint of Shep's available locally (or indeed anywhere) was to be had at the Dog & Bear, Lenham. This picturesque village is roughly halfway between Maidstone and Ashford, and the Dog & Bear is a splendid old, former coaching inn overlooking the village square. At the time I am referring to, the pub was presided over by a very dour, yet characterful landlord known universally as "Squirrel". I never did discover his real name, but no matter, Squirrel's Master Brew Bitter was unsurpassed. Squirrel’s domain was the saloon bar of the Dog & Bear, whilst his wife, Joyce, presided over the public bar. The bars were even signed accordingly as "Squirrels Bar" and “Joyce’s Bar”.

Although not revealing his name, "Squirrel" did divulge his secret of keeping and serving such an excellent pint of Shep's. However, this knowledge was not disseminated to me, but rather to a fellow CAMRA member, who not only lived locally but who had been using the Dog & Bear for many years. What Squirrel did was quite simply to order sufficient beer in advance to enable casks to be kept in his cellar for a minimum of two weeks, before tapping them. The result was an absolute explosion of hoppiness, combined with an extremely well conditioned and matured pint. It certainly ranks as being amongst the finest beer I have ever tasted.

Squirrel unfortunately, was something of a dying breed, but a generation or so ago, the fact that beer needs to condition properly, in the cask, for the requisite length of time was well understood. A remark made in "Kent Pubs", (written by one D.B. Tubbs and published in 1966), attributed to Mr Bob Harvey, landlord of the now sadly closed, Woodman’s Arms, at Hassel Street, near Wye, sums this up nicely. "The secret of keeping beer and ale, my lad, is to order it in advance so it can lay for two weeks before you tap it". If only modern landlords would adopt this practice, the beer drinker’s lot would be a much happier (and hoppier) one!

Between the years 1980 and 1984, I visited upwards of a hundred Shepherd Neame pubs as a result of the brewery's popular "Passport Scheme". However, what started as an enjoyable jaunt round some of the company's more attractive pubs, developed into something of an obsession. The trouble was that each year’s scheme was more complex than the year before’s and this, coupled with the increase in size of the company's tied estate, led to the passport scheme becoming more and more arduous.

For the uninitiated, the idea behind the scheme was to first obtain a "passport" from a Shep's pub, and then to visit as many other Shep's pubs as possible in order to get one's passport "stamped". Prizes, ranging from ties and T-shirts, through to sweat shirts and tankards were awarded, depending on the number of stamps obtained.

Each pub was issued with its own unique rubber stamp and landlords were only supposed to stamp those passports presented to them, and technically only those belonging to people who were actually drinking the company's beer. Many a busy publican though was tempted to hand over his stamp, to a visiting party of passport participants, with the cry of "You'll have to stamp them yourselves." This invariably led to a certain amount of cheating, as people ended up getting passports belonging to friends who weren't even present, stamped. One landlord famously declined to have anything to do with the scheme, and refused point blank to stamp anyone's passport at all!

Another year saw the brewery issuing stickers, but here again landlords often handed out whole strips of them at a time, which led to people going around with "swaps" in their pockets. I can remember almost cleaning up one night, when my friend and I bumped into a group of fellow passport participants from London. The amount of stickers we exchanged that evening saved us a trip into the capital, and saved the participants from London several trips into Kent.

Towards the end of my involvement with the scheme, my friends and I had adopted an approach which involved us targeting a town, or indeed a whole group of towns with military precision, with the aid of local A-Z maps. We took it in turns to drive as, for obvious reasons, the driver was not allowed to drink. However, economic as well as the time factor, necessitated us just having a half in each pub visited, before rushing on to the next.

This was when I started to become increasingly disillusioned with the scheme, as it became more and more of a chore and less and less a pleasure. It must be said though that despite taking me to some pretty horrendous pubs, the passport scheme did introduce me to some superb ones as well. These were pubs which I would probably not have visited under different circumstances, and for this I am indeed grateful.

In 1984 I moved to the pleasant West Kent town of Tonbridge. Unfortunately Shepherd Neame pubs were rather thin on the ground, or at least they were a decade or so ago. However, the Foresters Arms, in Quarry Hill served a very good pint of Master Brew, and for a while it became my local.

Four years later, Shep's significantly increased their tied estate in West Kent, following the sell off of a number of pubs by first Courage, and later Whitbread. This has meant that the opportunities for me to enjoy the company’s beers have dramatically improved. One such outlet, acquired from Whitbread, offers Shepherd Neame ales direct from the cask; the Bush, Blackbird & Thrush at East Peckham thereby carrying on the same  tradition of offering gravity dispensed beers as it did when it sold Fremlins Bitter some three or four years ago.

Another encouraging development has been the increase in the range of cask beers produced by Shepherd Neame. Alongside Master Brew Bitter and Best Bitter, many pubs now offer Spitfire Ale. This beer was originally produced in 1990 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, with a donation to the RAF Benevolent Fund being made, for every barrel sold. This premium strength 4.7% ABV best bitter proved so popular with local drinkers that Shep's decided to make it a permanent addition to their range, where it joined the 5.2% Bishops Finger, introduced the previous year.

Bishop's Finger, known colloquially, and somewhat crudely, as a "nun's delight" had been available for many years as a bottled beer. It takes its name from the old-fashioned signposts which were once common throughout Kent, and is a strong, well-hopped, pale ale. Unfortunately not that many pubs seem to stock it, which is a great shame as it is a fine drink indeed.

Of the pubs that do sell Bishops Finger, many seem to replace it during the winter months with Original Porter, which is another fairly recent addition to the Shepherd Neame portfolio. The Porter is a strong, dark, full-bodied ale, again with an ABV of 5.2%. As its name suggests, the beer is brewed to an original recipe dating from the last century. Included in the make-up is a small amount of liquorice root. This gives the beer a very satisfying, almost medicinal taste, which is just the ticket on a cold winter's night. Drinking in Shepherd Neame pubs has thus acquired a far greater degree of interest than in times past.

It was during the early 1990’s though that Shep's seemed to be going through a bit of a rough patch, and certainly the bitter seemed less distinctive than the Shep's I had been used to drinking in my twenties and thirties. I later found out that the problems were related to the twin strain of yeast used at the brewery. Apparently, one of the two strains tended to become dominant over the other after a while, leading to frequent re-culturing on behalf of the laboratory staff. The problem was solved by selecting just one strain of yeast, resulting in a much more consistent product.

Unfortunately the consistent product seems to have become blander over time and although the company’s beers are still well-hopped, the former pleasant “flowery” hoppiness has been replaced by a much harsher and somewhat astringent bitterness that I do not find particularly pleasant – and I am someone who really likes hoppy beers! I am therefore convinced that the recipe has been “tweaked” over the years and “dumbed-down” in order to make the beers appeal to a wider audience. For this reason I tend to avoid Sheps’ pubs these days, preferring instead to drink my favourite local beer – Harveys Sussex Best.

To be fair to Shep's they have kept their pubs as traditional as possible, whilst still moving with the times. They have a range of seasonal beers to complement their regular ones, and they produce an interesting range of bottled beers. They have also invested heavily in bringing their brewery in Faversham’s Court Street, bang up to date. For all of these things they deserve praise, but I would still give a month's salary if I could find one of their pubs which could serve me a pint of bitter as fine as Squirrel used to!

Monday 12 May 2014

Pilsner Urquell

Is it heretical to admit to liking a big brewery beer? Well if it is then I don’t care, as I really like the beer in question and have been drinking rather a lot of it later. It’s one of those beers where the more of it I drink, the more I find things to like about it. One of the advantages of having previously owned and run my own off-licence is not only do I still have my own Personal Licence entitling me to sell alcohol to the general public (must remember to renew it next year), but more importantly I also still have a Cash & Carry Card.

The brewery entrance in 1984
The latter enables me to buy cases of beer, and other items, at wholesale prices, and the other week I took advantage of this by treating myself to a case of the beer I am talking about; 24 x 330ml bottles to be precise, and the beer, why Pilsner Urquell of course!

A similar view taken in 2012
Pilsner beer maturing in oak casks
Pilsner Urquell hasn’t always been a big brewery beer, and certainly not in the accepted meaning of the term “big brewery” that is used today. By that I mean large, multi-national conglomerate. That isn’t to say then that Pilsner Urquell hasn’t been a large brewery, as for much of the last century it was one of the largest breweries in what is now the Czech Republic, and previously Czechoslovakia and before 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was also the brewery where the original golden lager was first produced, hence the name Urquell, which in German means “original source”. Small coincidence then that nearly all  golden lagers are termed “pilsners”  “pilseners” or just plain “pils” in reverence to the east Bohemian city which gave birth to the style.

I am privileged to have visited the brewery twice; the first time being in 1984, when Czechoslovakia, as it then was, was firmly in the communist camp. The second was some 28 years later, in 2012, 23 years after the collapse of communism, and 19 years after the Czechs and the Slovaks went their separate ways.

Back in 1984, the Pilsner Urquell brewery was high volume, low tech high in man-power and owned by the Czechoslovak people, (well the government actually, as you surely don’t believe the communist line about "the people" actually owning things like breweries, do you?).  You can read all about my visit here.

By 2012, the brewery had gone all hi-tech, had expanded in size considerably, and was now owned (and still is) by global brewing giant SAB – Miller. I must admit I was sceptical at first about the new owners, but after watching a presentation and enjoying a trip round the brewery I trust I am right in saying this jewel in the crown of Czech brewing is in safe hands. In 1984 western visitors must have been as rare as hen’s teeth; today they’re shown round the plant in an almost conveyor-like fashion, with several trips a day conducted in English alone.

Apart from the extensive cellars under the brewery, which I will describe in more detail shortly, I don’t remember much about that original tour. I do recall being entertained with lots of free beer afterwards in a very nice hospitality room by someone high up within the brewery; possibly the plant manager? This time an American employee of SAB Miller conducted us round the brewery. He could speak Czech (hats off to him there as it’s a notoriously difficult language to learn), and was very knowledgeable about the company, telling us all about its history and showing us various exhibits on the way. These included the original copper in which the first golden pilsner was brewed, back in 1842, and a special cut-glass tankard produced to commemorate the visit to the brewery, of Emperor Franz Josef. I won’t repeat the history of the brewery and how the worthy burghers of Pilsen hired Bavarian brewer, Josef Groll to produce the world’s first golden lager here, as it is well known. If you are that curious, then click on the link here to the brewery website.

We were bussed around the huge site; starting at the sparkling new, multi-million Euro bottling hall. The after the audio-visual presentation about the brewery and its history, we were shown the brew-house; a careful fusion of old and new, but despite this much of the brewing process is still very traditional.

Pilsner Urquell are proud that they use a triple decoction mash regime; something which is very rare these days. The brewery claim that the third decoction helps extract the last amounts of malt sugars from the grain and that this is what gives the beer its full-bodied taste. “It gives our beer its unique caramelised flavour and round, rich mouth-feel from the malt which we produce in Plzen.” I am not certain they still use whole hop flowers, although they were at pain to inform us about the choice Saaz aroma hops used in the beer. They malt their own barley, which is petty rare for a brewery these days, although perhaps not that uncommon in the Czech Republic.

Rather less traditional though is the forest of tall conical fermenters which has sprung up around the site, replacing the time-honoured tradition of fermenting in large, round open, wooden vats, before maturing the beer for a lengthy period in huge, pitch-lined, wooden casks. These were housed underground, in a maze of cool and slightly damp tunnels beneath the brewery which extend for a distance of some 9 km in total.

This was where our tour finished up, back in 1984, and being shown around these tunnels was the real highlight of the tour. It was also where our tour finished in 2012, and whilst just a fraction of the tunnels still retain their original purpose, it remained a fitting highlight twenty-eight years on. A small proportion of beer is still fermented and matured in the original wooden vessels; partially as an obvious tourist attraction but, more importantly from the brewery’s point of view, to enable taste comparisons to be made between beer brewed the traditional way, and the bulk of the production brewed in the conical fermenters.

We were given a taste of the unfiltered beer drawn straight from one of the maturation, or lagering, vessels, and it was excellent. I would have liked some more, but our guide had to get back to meet his next tour group, so that was that. I had read about a pub somewhere in Pilsen which serves unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, but we had a two and a half hour train journey back to Prague ahead of us, so decided to leave that experience for another time. Recently, Pilsner Urquell have held a series of promotions in selected London pubs, show-casing their beer drawn direct from brand new oak casks. What’s more the beer is unfiltered and un-pasteurised.

I was unable to attend any of these events, but I’m pleased to report un-pasteurised Pilsner Urquell is quite widely available in Prague in the form of tankovna, or tank beer. Basically large stainless steel tanks are installed in the pub cellar, and the beer arrives fresh from the brewery, by means of road tankers, and is pumped straight into the cellar tanks. Only selected pubs are allowed to sell this type of Pilsner Urquell, because the beer that goes into the tanks is un-pasteurised, meaning it is fresher than pasteurised beer. However, the shelf-life for tank beer is just three weeks from leaving the brewery, and only one week once the tank is first opened, so pubs must be able to prove a sufficiently high turnover before they are allowed to stock tankovna. The freshness of the beer means you get a fuller flavour and a deeper taste, so it is well worth tracking it down when visiting the Czech Republic.(Closer to home, tankovna Pilsner Urquell has recently been installed at the renowned White Horse, Parsons Green, London).

Looking back to that first visit, I recall that after our tour we had lunch, plus yet more beer, at a pub-cum-restaurant adjacent to the triumphal arch which forms the entrance to the brewery. I looked for it on our return visit, but it seems to have closed. The configuration outside the brewery seems to have changed out of all recognition too. One possible reason for the pub’s closure is the provision of a vast new restaurant, constructed in part of the old cellars beneath the brewery. We had a couple of glasses of beer there, plus a light lunch, whilst waiting for our tour to start.

I’m not certain I tried Pilsner Urquell before my first visit to Pilsen; even though I believe it may have been available in the UK via specialist beer shops. Today though, the beer is readily available locally, with most of the major supermarkets stocking it, quite often at a discount. Like many of the beers I buy for home consumption, I normally wait until I see it discounted, and then buy it.
With all this talk of history, tradition and brewing, it would be easy to forget the actual beer. Pilsner Urquell though is very memorable. Unlike most continental lagers, which are brewed to a strength of around 5%, Pilsner Urquell weighs in at just 4.4%. However, the beer packs in loads of juicy, caramel malt flavours, probably as a result of the triple decoction mash carried out at the start of the brewing process. Also it is possible the yeast does not attenuate the beer as much as modern strains.

A video on the brewery website demonstrates three different ways of pouring the draught version to produce the thick creamy head, so beloved by Czech drinkers, but none of these techniques work properly when pouring the beer from a bottle. What is important though, is not to over-chill the beer. The brewery recommends serving Pilsner Urquell at between 5˚ and 8˚ C, with 7˚ C as the optimum. Whilst sitting in the brewery restaurant, waiting for the tour, I couldn’t help notice a large digital display indicating that the temperature of the beer being served was hovering at around this figure. Americans and Australians please take note; pilsner-style beers should not be served at sub-zero temperatures, and certainly gain nothing when this is applied to them.

A few final points to end up on

The switch to conical fermenters from the open wooden ones, happened in the early 1990’s, when the recently privatised company was owned by a consortium of Czech banks and share funds. This was before SAB-Miller acquired the company, so the current owners cannot be blamed for this loss of tradition.

Although conical fermenters are known to speed up fermentation times their effect on the taste of the beer is probably a lot less than many traditionalists would have us believe. Brewers such as Adnams and Fullers use them, and I can’t say I’ve noticed any deterioration in taste or quality with the products of either of these brewers. If, as the company insist, there is no noticeable difference between Pilsner Urquell fermented and matured in stainless steel conicals, compared to the old method of open wooden ones, then there was no point in persisting with the old system. Not only was it costly in terms of materials and manpower, it was also difficult to maintain.

Roger Protz, writing in the Morning Advertiser, claims otherwise, stating the pitch used to line the huge oak casks in which the beer was matured added a “rich vinous flavour to the beer”. Personally, I think this statement is a fallacy as pitch has been used for waterproofing buckets, barrels and even small boats, since time immemorial. I'd like to believe pitch is inert, but if it's not then I’m very much relieved that pitch-lined casks are no longer used, as organic compounds leached out of the lining, possibly by the action of the alcohol, are the last sort of substances I wish to be drinking with my pint!

There is one thing though which SAB-Miller have done, and which in my mind, is blatantly wrong. That is allowing Pilsner Urquell to be brewed in a location other than Pilsen, because in 2002 the company announced plans to open a satellite brewery in the Polish town of Tychy, in the heavily industrial Katovice area of the country. They claim this move is in response to local demand, and whilst the demand may well be present in Poland, this decision has instantly devalued everything which was unique about Pilsner Urquell. How can a beer, whose name means “pilsner from the original source”, be brewed anywhere else apart from at the “original source”, which is, of course, the won of Pilsen? It’s like trying to produce a top notch burgundy in Portugal, or a Grand Cru Bordeaux in Greece!

Madness! So after full marks to SAB-Miller for sticking with triple decoction, malting their own barley, and selecting the finest aroma hops for use in the beer, a huge minus for debasing a world heritage beer by trying to turn it into just another “international brand”.