Wednesday 25 June 2014

To Dublin for EBBC 2014

Like around 60 or so other Beer Bloggers, I’m off to Dublin tomorrow for the 2014 European Beer Bloggers Conference. It’s my first such event, and also my first trip across the Irish Sea; (OK, I’ve been halfway across to the Isle of Man, but that doesn’t really count!).

The conference takes place on the 27th and 28th of June and, whilst this is the fourth such event, the 2014 EBBC will be the first to be held 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.

The Beer Bloggers Conference will be a good opportunity to put faces to some of the many names and characters that inhabit the “blogosphere” and to spend some time with them in an unfamiliar town, enjoying a few beers together in a great pub or two,  exchanging information and generally getting to know them better.

Needless to say I’m really looking forward to what promises to be a festival of great beer, good food, and some unspoilt pubs, plus the chance to make useful contacts and new friends. 

There will a full report when I get back.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Off the Beaten Track

I’ve been quite active recently, with two hikes through the Kent countryside having been undertaken on consecutive weekends. The fact that these walks also involved stopping off at some of our best countryside pubs made the physical exertion involved all the more better.

I’ve gone down on record, on several past occasions, stating how lucky we are to have such lovely scenery, along with such attractive pubs in this part of the country, and whilst the second of the two walks re-visited three of the pubs I have written about before, the first explored some relatively new territory, and took in pubs I last visited during my late 20’s.

The most recent walk was a joint CAMRA social arranged between ourselves (West Kent), and our neighbours from Maidstone & Mid-Kent branch. We met in the excellent, National-Inventory listed, Old House at Ightham Common, where there was a good choice of well-kept beers on offer. Betty Stoggs Brazilian, from Skinners plus Old Father Thames from West Berkshire were both particularly good.

This timeless old 17th Century rural inn is bang up to date so far as modern communications go though, which was especially useful for me seeing as our home phone-line (and hence Broadband connection), was out of action at the time. The Old House’s free Wi-Fi connection therefore proved extremely valuable in allowing me to pick up the emails and other messages which form such a part of 21st Century life. There are few other concessions to modernity at the pub, and certainly no food is available, apart from nuts and crisps, but landlord Nick, was quite happy for us to eat our sandwiches out in the small, tree-shaded garden at the side of the pub.

We left at around 2.20pm to walk to the next unspoilt rural idyll on our list; the Golding Hop, at Sheet Hill, just outside Plaxtol. Our route was mainly along quiet country lanes, but there was a stretch which led us through some orchards. The Golding Hop is another classic country pub. Not as old as the Old House, but nevertheless an isolated white-painted building, possibly dating from the early 19th Century, and set in its own secluded valley.

The front of the pub is a real sun-trap, and I have spent many a happy hour sitting out on the small terrace, over-looking the garden, enjoying a pint or three! On this occasion we walked over to the garden, on the other side of the lane, commenting on the sawn-up remains of a huge tree which, until recently, had stood guarding the entrance to the car park. Landlord, Eddie, told us it had come crashing down during last winter’s storms, but fortunately had caused little damage. There will certainly now be an ample stock of fire-wood  for the pub’s open fires in the coming winters!

Adnams Lighthouse was my beer of choice here served, like at the previous pub, on gravity from a room behind the bar. Other members of the group sampled the Whitstable Native, plus Wadworth 6X; the latter being a beer we don’t see that often in this part of Kent anymore.

Onwards and upwards, and definitely the latter, we ascended the lane leading up Sheet Hill (Steep Hill would be a more accurate name!), and into the picturesque village of Plaxtol. Passing the long-closed Rorty Crankle pub (an outpost for Bateman’s beers back in the 1980’s), we traversed the village before turning off in a south-easterly direction, across the fields, to our final port of call, the Kentish Rifleman in the hamlet of Dunk’s Green. This part of Kent is known as the Bourne Valley; named after the stream which flows through its midst, and was formerly a centre for paper-making, on a pre-industrial scale. One of these former hives of activity, Roughway, Mill is close by, and a pub in the centre of Plaxtol commemorates this industry in its name; the Papermaker’s Arms.

The Kentish Rifleman is another attractive old building, which has been well-restored following a disastrous fire back in 2007 which almost completely destroyed the roof, and caused extensive damage to the rest of the building. Apart from the photo’s hanging in the public bar, showing the fire at its height, you wouldn’t know that such a catastrophe had befallen the pub.

We sat out in the secluded garden behind the pub, but there were quite a few locals, and their dogs, sitting out at the front of the building watching the world go by (OK, there’s probably not a lot going by in such a quiet rural retreat, but being nearer to the bar, they seemed to like where they were sitting.) There was a good choice, beer-wise, with Tonbridge Rustic, Whitstable Native (again) and Tolly Cobbold English Ale complementing local favourite, Harvey’s Best. The Tolly English Ale appears to be a regular beer at the Rifleman, as I have drunk it here on several past occasions. For a 2.8% beer it certainly packs in plenty of flavour, and makes perfect sense as a “must stock” beer in such an isolated pub, where the car is often the only means of getting there, particularly in the evenings when the bus ceases running.

No problems for us with the bus, or there wouldn’t normally have been, but road repairs had meant a diversion from the normal route. We were well aware of this, as the driver had pointed it out on the outward journey. A short walk, back along the lanes took us to a point where we could pick up the last bus back to Tonbridge, and with 16 or so of us boarding the bus was much fuller than it normally is.

Our Maidstone colleagues left us in Tonbridge to catch a bus back to Maidstone, although a few joined some of us for a final pint in the Humphrey Bean, our local JDW outlet). I wimped out though, resisting the lure of the Thornbridge Jaipur, and sensibly opting for a large coffee instead. My clear head the following morning and general feeling of well-being told me I made the right decision!

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Five - Young & Co of Wandsworth

As most beer enthusiasts will recall, Young & Co. of Wandsworth were a staunchly traditional company which stood virtually alone, during the late 1960's and early 1970's, against the keg tide which threatened to engulf the capital’s pubs. Young’s houses stood out as bastions of good beer and traditional values, when all around them other brewers were busy tearing the heart and soul out of their pubs, and replacing cask ales with fizzy and insipid keg versions.
Young’s persistence with traditional values paid off though, and drinkers began to actively seek out their pubs and their beers. They were eventually forced into the enviable position of having to re-build their brewery in order to meet the increased demand for their beers. So in mid 2006, why on earth did the company announced the closure of their historic brewery in Wandsworth, and the formation of a joint venture with Bedford brewers, Charles Wells; a move which, incidentally, left industry analysts and ordinary drinkers somewhat dumbfounded.

Young’s claimed the closure move was forced on them by plans announced by Wandsworth Council to redevelop the town centre, but their decision to act so swiftly, and throw their lot in with Charles Wells  did not tie in with what the company had been saying just a few months prior to the closure announcement. Their position back then was that they had entered into talks with Wandsworth Council, but were at pains to point that there were no immediate plans to relocate the brewery, and that a feasibility study was in place that may take years to complete. This suggests that the council were in no hurry to eject Young’s from their historic Ram Brewery site, and were certainly not about to issue a compulsory purchase order!

Young’s claimed that the Wandsworth site was too small to allow the expansion they required, and that no suitable alternative site was available in the London area. This was complete and utter nonsense as, from what I remember of the brewery site, there was plenty of room for growth. The tie up with Young’s may have made sense for Charles Wells, as their Bedford brewery was reported to be running only at 50% capacity. However, there was little in the deal for Young’s, unless they valued the development potential of the brewery site, right in the centre of Wandsworth, above that of a heritage which stretched back for several centuries.

Up until the deal was announced, Young’s seemed to be doing perfectly well. They were retaining a healthy respect for their roots without being afraid to move with the times. This was evidenced by a wide-ranging portfolio of beers which included two lagers of their own, an Oatmeal Stout, a Wheat Beer, available for the summer months, plus the introduction of their rather splendid Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. As its name suggests, the beer contained a high percentage of chocolate malt, and was also rumoured to contain some actual chocolate as well. It tasted superb, and was available in both draught and bottled form  Their range of cask beers had also been expanded, with the appearance of Ram Rod, which was formerly a high strength bottled, pale ale, in cask form, along with a number of seasonal specials as well.

I’m not going to try and explain what made the company abandon their heritage, and sell the family silver, but I wouldn’t mind betting money played a major role in their decision. I do wonder though whether they had lost their passion for brewing, even before the closure was announced, as to my mind at least, both their Ordinary and Special Bitters seemed to have lost quite a bit of character. Certainly they weren’t the distinctive beers they once were. What I want to do instead is describe my introduction to Young’s, and my experiences of drinking their beers during the mid to late 1970’s when, I feel, they were at their peak.

My acquaintance with the brewery, and its products, goes back to my late sixth form days. This was when I first sampled Young’s beers at the now sadly closed, Three Horseshoes pub at Lower Hardres, near Canterbury. I had been taken there by a school friend, who knew a lot more about beer than I did. When he first mentioned Young’s, I assumed that he was referring to Younger’s - the Scottish brewers well known at the time for their Tartan keg bitter. Myself, plus a group of other friends, thought that the latter was the beer to drink, but my friend Roy obviously knew better.

Another friend who owned a car, (or rather a Reliant Robin to be precise!), was persuaded to drive us the fifteen or so miles to Lower Hardres. I am not quite sure how Roy got to hear about the Three Horseshoes, but on arrival we found an unspoilt country inn, boasting a traditional public bar, plus a comfortable saloon. However, it was the beer that was the main reason for our visit, and I was soon initiated into the delights of Young’s.

Roy’s family came originally from south London, which was why he was so familiar with Young's ales. I had never heard of them myself, but soon got stuck into the delectable Ordinary (PA as it was called in those days), plus the equally delightful, but stronger Special. Both beers were served direct from wooden casks, kept behind the bar, by a landlord who was very proud of his beers. He even had some membership leaflets on display for an organisation called CAMRA! My friend joined on the spot, but I was slightly more sceptical about handing over 50p for something I had never heard of before. After all, 50p represented the price of nearly four pints of beer back in 1973!

It was to be a couple of years later that I got the chance to sup Young’s beers on a regular basis. This was when I started dating a girl whom I met at university. She hailed from the Wandsworth area, so visits to her parents’ house, during vacation time, gave me ample opportunity to sample Young’s Ales on their home patch. It also afforded the chance to enjoy the beers in some excellent and unspoilt pubs. The Leather Bottle, in Garratt Lane, Earlsfield was a particularly fine pub, and a favourite spot for a Sunday lunchtime drink, but I also have fond memories of the Crane and the Grapes; both in Wandsworth itself.

During these visits I sampled the company's Winter Warmer, (a beer with a truly apt name) for the first time, but on most occasions I was drinking either Young’s Ordinary or their Special Bitter. It was often difficult to decide which of these two beers to go for, as it tended to vary according to my mood, the time and also the place. I found that the Ordinary Bitter was a fine refreshing drink at lunchtime or in a pub garden on a hot summer's evening; whereas the Special was a beer to be enjoyed on other occasions, or to round off a session on the Ordinary. The latter occasion, of course, also applied to the Winter Warmer (when in season). This full bodied, dark ale was not so strong that it made you fall over; instead it was a fine, mellow beer, just right for supping as the autumnal gales heralded the approach of winter. It was also equally welcome as the cold March winds continued to blow, and one was beginning to feel that spring is never going to come.

Now, of course, all that is gone. Young’s beers are brewed by Charles Wells, at their Bedford plant, and are all the poorer for it. On the odd occasion I try a pint I am invariably left feeling disappointed, so unless there’s no other choice then I leave the company’s beers well alone. Probably the only good thing to come out of the brewery closure is that Young’s have invested much of the money they got from the sale of the Wandsworth site into improving their pubs, and to acquiring new ones.  Many of their London pubs now have a vibrant and contemporary feel to them, and are very pleasant places in which to drink. Fortunately, for the beer lover, quite a few of them now offer a beer from Sambrook’s; a Wandsworth based micro that have taken up Young’s mantle and run with it. Their beers are well seeking out, being full of both flavour and character, and are living proof that something good and well worth drinking, is still coming out of Wandsworth!

Normal Service Resumed

After five days without either phone or Internet at home, normal service has now been resumed. According to British Telecom there was a fault somewhere between the exchange and our house, but as from today we are now back on line.

I have to say that being without a land line and Broadband connection, was only a minor nuisance, and something which served to remind us that we all coped perfectly well back in the days before the world-wide web and social media ruled our lives. I actually found the whole experience quite refreshing and managed to get lots of things done in both house and garden that I perhaps wouldn't have done otherwise.

Anyway, now we're back on line there are a couple of posts follow this one, to make up for being away!

Friday 20 June 2014

Trouble on the Line

Apologies for the lack of posting at the moment, and for the lack of commenting on other people's blogs; (at least one person I can think of might welcome that!). This is due to our dear friends at British Telecom. Apparently there is a network fault affecting quite a few phone lines in the local area, and their engineers are working hard to trace the fault, in order to fix it. They can't give a time-frame at present, but they hope to have it sorted by 25th June; which is next Wednesday! The lack of a phone line means no Broadband connection, (infuriating as we've just paid out or a "Super-fast", fibre optic connection), and hence no access to the internet.

It's especially annoying as I've lots of things written at the moment, plus there are hotels and flights I want to book for a forthcoming trip. Fortunately, I've access during my lunchtimes at work, so hence this short post.

Hopefully, normal service will be resumed sooner, rather than later!

Friday 13 June 2014

The Keg is Cloudier Than the Cask!

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on cask-conditioned ale, but having run a successful real ale off-licence for nearly six years, I’ve looked after, and served, a fair few pints of the stuff. My cellar skills have been further augmented over the years, by looking after cask ales at various beer festivals, and also at parties and other get-togethers. On top of this I was, for many years, an accomplished home-brewer, producing a wide variety of different full-mash beers, and  knowing when to rack the beers off to allow a strong secondary fermentation, alongside being able to bring them into peak condition prior to drinking them, is another set of skills I have acquired over the years.

When it comes to keg beer though, I’m something of an amateur, and where “craft keg” is concerned, then I’m a complete novice. My recent crawl along the famous “Bermondsey Beer Mile” brought his latter point home to me in a number of ways; not that I was in any way involved with the brewing or the serving of these beers. However, I was quite heavily involved in the drinking and appreciation of these beers and when, at two of the breweries, my son Matthew was served a glass of a very “milky” looking beer, questions were beginning to form in my mind, along with a number of quite serious doubts.

My understanding of the whole “craft” scene is that the beers are stored in, and served from containers known as “KeyKegs”. I would imagine this type of container is covered by at least one patent, and that the name is trade-marked, although I may be wrong on these points. I saw quite a few “KeyKegs” stacked up in several of the breweries, and at one at least (Brew by Numbers), I saw beer being dispensed from one, alongside a couple of empty ones. (For the record, beer was being stored in a chilled room, behind a makeshift bar at the aforementioned brewery, and I could see what was going on through the partially opened door).

I’m kicking myself for not having taken a few photos of these “KeyKegs”, or having examined them at close quarters, as there was ample opportunity to have done so. Instead I am relying on memory, plus information I’ve been able to glean on-line. The “KeyKegs” I saw at several breweries were probably a similar size to a standard British steel keg, but were made of rigid plastic with a cardboard outer. Not entirely of these materials though, as the main part of the keg, and the part in which the beer is kept, is basically a collapsible plastic liner, contained inside the robust outer skin. I thought the outers were octagonal in shape, but looking at examples on various websites, I see they are twelve-sided; a do-decahedron?

Obviously the plastic and cardboard outer provides strength and keeps the whole thing rigid, whilst the collapsible plastic liner allows the beer to be dispensed without coming into contact wit the air. Rather like a polypin, or a glorified "wine-box" if you like. Now comes the clever bit; the beer within the inner liner not only never comes into contact with the air, but it also is never touched by the propellant gas. Basically the gas pressure is applied between the inside of the rigid outer container wall and the outside of the inner bag which contains the beer. As the latter is flexible, it collapses as the beer is forced out of the bag by the pressure of applied gas. As the gas does not come into contact with the beer, there is no risk of it becoming too gassy, as with a traditional keg. In addition, low-cost compressed air can be used as the propellant, instead of the much more expensive CO2.

All very clever, and ideal for breweries not wishing to invest in large numbers of traditional, but expensive, steel kegs. However, “KeyKegs” are “one-trip” containers, and whilst the manufacturers are keen to extol their green credentials by boasting that all components are recyclable, they still cost money, and this cost has to be passed on to someone. That someone is usually the consumer, and the popularity of  “KeyKegs” amongst “craft beer” brewers, may explain the inflated price of the final product at the taps.

I mentioned earlier my concerns about the milky-looking beer my son was served with, and whilst this is not a fault of the “KeyKeg” system per se, brewers using these containers to store and dispense their product need to pay a lot more attention to what they are doing, and what they are trying to achieve. As everyone knows, cask-conditioned beer contains a certain amount of live yeast, which allows the beer to undergo a secondary fermentation in the cask. This gives the beer condition and that all important "sparkle", but it also allows undesirable volatile components to be purged from the beer. Finings are added to the beer prior to it leaving the brewery, and these substances cause the yeast cells in the beer to clump together and fall out of suspension, eventually settling at the bottom of the cask. The resultant beer is clear and well-conditioned, and when looked after correctly can represent the very peak of the brewer’s art.

Unfortunately careless handling or poor cellar skills can lead to a pint which is cloudy, flat or both, plus of course, slow turnover will lead to prolonged exposure of the beer to oxygen in the air. This causes oxidation of the beer, making it taste stale and, if this process continues for any length of time, acidification occurs, with that all too familiar vinegar smell and flavour which is indicative of an “off-pint”.

Oxidation is not a problem with “KeyKegs”, but careless handling is, and so is poor formulation or insufficient maturation of the beer in the first place. Now I fully accept that the “craft fraternity” like their beer to be fresh and as natural as possible. This often means the beer is unfiltered and therefore still contains a certain amount of suspended yeast. I don’t have a problem if this suspended yeast is present at sufficient levels to cause a slight haze. I’ve drunk many unfiltered beers over the years, both at home and abroad and have generally enjoyed their fresh taste and slight yeasty background.

What I do have a problem with is beer which contains so much suspended yeast that it looks more like a "banana milk-shake" than a glass of beer, and unfortunately, whether by accident or design, this is what Matthew ended up with in his glass last Saturday afternoon! I didn’t say anything to him, as I didn’t want to cloud his judgement, if you’ll excuse the pun, or to prejudice him against hazy beer in the way that a whole generation of older drinkers has been conditioned to think. A good friend, who is ten years older than me, will often send back a pint which is just slightly hazy; sometimes without even tasting the beer first. This is in the mistaken belief that hazy, or cloudy beer gives people the “sh*ts”, or an unsettled stomach the following morning.

This is an old chestnut and, of course, not true. Matthew certainly suffered no ill-effects from drinking this yeast-laden beer, any more than I have in the past from drinking hazy, unfiltered beers. However, when the beer is as cloudy as described above then should we the customers speak out? 

I suspect I would have got short shrift from the busy bar staff last Saturday, by returning Matthew’s “banana milkshake”, although if it had been my beer which was looking like that then I would perhaps have been bolder. Surely beer isn’t supposed to be excessively yeast-laden like that? Now I suspect one of either two things were occurring. My son was either unlucky enough to be served the dregs from the bottom of the “KeyKeg” OR the yeast count of the beer, prior to racking, was way too high.

The answer could also be that a combination of both factors caused the problem, which opens up a whole can of worms regarding the formulation, maturation, storage and dispensing of “craft keg”, to say nothing of the sometimes eccentric or indeed maverick personalities of the people behind some of these outfits.

“KeyKegs” are a good, innovative idea, and I can see why they are really catching on amongst “craft” brewers. They are a God-send for breweries, who are just starting up, as they save having to buy expensive steel kegs, or casks, and as their use increases I’m sure that costs will come down. The fact they allow beer to be stored away from the harmful effects of oxygen in the air, and then enable it to be served without absorbing any of the propellant gas can only help the cause of beer and people’s appreciation of it as the drink of choice.

The problems I have outlined above are not an inherent fault with these containers, but instead are problems of some “craft” brewers making. Great play is made at the moment about drinking the “freshest beer possible”. Unfortunately, fresh often means “immature”; something known in the trade as “green beer”. Green beer can sometimes taste harsh, and it's flavour can also be affected by compounds which would normally disappear as the beer matures.

Racking beer into “KeyKegs” straight from the fermenting vessel is not a good idea. It is an especially bad one if the beer is still heavily-laden with yeast. Whilst I admire the enthusiasm of many of these new wave of brewers, I feel they need to take a few steps back at times, to pause and reflect on exactly what they are doing. With a little more forethought and a little less haste, they could be turning out some absolutely stunning beers, instead of serving up pints of sludge. The choice is therefore yours gentleman (and ladies!).

I’ve rabbited on long enough for now on this perplexing subject, but would be especially interested in hearing other peoples’ thoughts on the matter. I am not knocking innovation or even out and out experimentation in brewing, but I am concerned about being served a glass of beer which contains more yeast than it does malt and hops!

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The Bermondsey Beer Mile

Seasoned followers of London’s flourishing “craft beer” scene will no doubt be well aware that the capital now boasts 50 breweries. This huge explosion in the number of breweries over the past five years has provided a massive increase in variety of different beers being brewed in London, but for people like me who have taken their eye off the ball for a while, the choice available to today’s discerning drinker can at times appear bewildering.

One way to familiarise oneself with some of these new brewing pioneers is to have a go at the famous “Bermondsey Beer Mile” (BBM). This is a crawl which takes in five brewery taps, and one newly opened bottle-shop-cum-bar The taps are only open to the public on Saturdays, as the owners are busy brewing all this delicious beer during the rest of the week. The other point to note is that most of the breweries and their taps are located in railway arches, and given the congested rail approaches to London Bridge, there are a fair number of these in this unfashionable part of London.

To those like myself, whose visits to the capital are rather infrequent, this crawl has been something I have wanted to do for some time, but have never quite got round to it. This all changed last Saturday, when son Matthew and I decided to have a crack at this legendary crawl. Our journey, by train from Tonbridge to the big city, took just over half-an-hour, so leaving reasons of time and finances aside for a while, there’s no real excuse not to visit London more often.

There are several on-line guides to the BBM, but we used the one produced by the London Beer Guide. This guide not only includes a handy map, but also gives clear and precise instructions of how to get to each brewery stop on the way. We elected to follow the guide’s advice and to start from South Bermondsey, before working our way  back towards the city.

London Bridge station is undergoing a major re-build, and I hadn’t realised that trains for South Bermondsey depart from the “Surrey side” of the station, but once oriented properly we discovered there is a fairly regular service, with departures leaving roughly every 15 minutes. It’s just one stop and a five minute ride to South Bermondsey station, which itself is just a short stagger from Millwall Football Club’s ground, “The Den”.

The guide has you heading off on the opposite direction though to the first brewery tap on the crawl and the only one not situated in a railway arch. Fourpure Brewing are housed in a modern industrial unit which means they have more room than the other breweries to house the many beer aficionados who take part in this crawl every week.

Fourpure Brewing
This was our first experience of the BBM and our first taste of Fourpure Brewing. We discovered there were six beers available on draught; ranging from a 4.2% Session IPA to an IPA at 6.5%. There was also an Oatmeal Stout at 5.1%, plus a 4.7% Pils. Matthew opted for the latter whilst I, thinking it might be long day, went for the Session IPA. Beers were served in 2/3 pint sampling glasses and cost £3.00 each. We later found this price to be fairly standard amongst all the breweries on the walk.

As I mentioned there was quite a bit of space in Fourpure’s unit, with tables and benches in front of the impressive stainless-steel brewing kit. We had only just sat down to enjoy our beers when a large crowd of what Matthew described as “The Real Ale Twats from Viz” turned up, and suddenly the place became extremely busy. Most were attired in T-shirts advertising a pub in Peterborough, and they were obviously doing the same brewery crawl as us. I had intended to buy a few of the 330ml cans that were on sale, but as the new arrivals were queueing out the door this was our cue to leave. Despite our rapid departure, this group haunted our steps as we progressed around the first half of the tour, popping up at each venue, although we fortunately managed to lose them at Kernel Brewery.

Our next port of call was Partizan Brewing, crammed into a railway arch. As the guide warned, there was precious little space here, but as the rain had stopped we stood outside. There didn’t seem to be as much choice here, so we both plumped for the 4.2% Iced Tea Saison; a pleasant enough beer, with that unmistakable “Saison” taste. However, with the “Real Ale Twats” hot on our heels, we headed off towards Kernel Brewery - the third stop on the BBM.

Brew by Numbers
The Kernel took a bit of finding, and we had a couple of false turns. We bumped into another pair of enthusiasts, who seemed equally lost, despite protestations to the contrary, but after going our separate ways managed to get there before them! The guide had warned that unless one arrived very early, Kernel Brewery was likely to be extremely busy. Given the brewery’s reputation this is hardly surprising, but not having been able to heed the advice, we arrived to find the place absolutely rammed!

Kernel occupies two, inter-linked railway arches, the right hand one of which seems to be given over to storage and drinking. The queue for the latter snaked almost out the door, but there was a much shorter line of people waiting to buy bottles to take out. Grabbing some bottles to drink back at home seemed the most sensible idea, so at some stage I have a bottle of Export India Porter 6.2% and one of Citra-Amarillo India Pale 6.9% to look forward to.

Outside Brew by Numbers

A couple of points to note about Kernel, if you are planning a visit. First you are allowed to bring your own food and enjoy it over a few beers. There is an arch next door selling cheeses, meats and bread if you have come unprepared. Second, and most important to bear in mind; Kernel Brewery closes at 2pm, so it’s doubly important to try and arrive early. (It opens at 9am, should you fancy a beer with your breakfast!).

It is only a few minutes walking to the fourth brewery tap on the Beer Mile, and the one whose beers I liked the most. Brew by Numbers, at Arch 79, had a fantastic 6.5% Traditional Porter on tap. It was so good I could quite easily have had another and I’m kicking myself now for not having bought a few bottles of it. Matthew tried the 5.2% Golden Ale, but this looked a bit too yeasty for my liking. We sat outside, on some pallets enjoying the sunshine and the beer in equal measure, relieved to have finally given the “Real Ale Twats” the slip. Perhaps they are still trying to find the Kernel Brewery?

Anspach & Hobday
It was onwards and upwards to the last two venues; both of which are just an arch or two apart from each other. We called in at the sixth stop first, the brewery and tap room shared by Anspach & Hobday plus the Bullfinch Brewery. I don’t recall seeing any Bullfinch beers on sale, but the 6.0% Smoked Brown from Anspach & Hobday was exceptionally good. Matthew’s Pale, from the same company, was again very yeasty in appearance, and this is something I want to cover in a separate post.

The Bottle Shop
Finally, we retraced our steps to the recently opened Bottle Shop at arch No. 128. The shop is an off-shoot of Canterbury’s famous Bottle Shop which, being housed in the Old Goods’ Shed at Canterbury West station, also has a railway connection. The Bottle Shop doesn’t brew, but does offer a small selection of differing draught beers alongside a myriad of often hard to come-by bottled beers.

Matthew and I both opted for beers from Denmark’s To Ǿl Brewery. He had a bottled 6.0% Smoked Lager, called Stalin’s Organ, whilst I had a draught Pale Ale, the strength of which escapes me. We were served by Andrew Morgan, who I recognised as the owner and founder of the original Bottle Shop in Canterbury.

It was a good place to end the BBM, and after finishing our beer, we followed the directions, and map, given in the guide and made our way to Bermondsey Underground. From here it is just one stop on the Jubilee Line to London Bridge. We ended up at Southwark’s excellent Borough Market where we grabbed a bite or two to eat. Resisting the temptation to call in to the Market Porter, we headed into central London after for a bit of shopping before catching the train home.
A Couple of Well-Earned Beers

A word or two of advice; whilst the BBM comes highly recommended, with the large variety of beers available it is almost inevitable you will feel like a “kid in a sweet shop”. Most of the beers tend towards the strong side, and whilst it is very easy to give in to temptation and try several at each stop, be aware that you will end up more than a little the worse for wear by the time you reach the end. If you can carry the weight, and here a stout rucksack comes in handy, it is far better to supplement the beers you drink on the day by buying a few bottles, or cans, at each stop. That way you will get maximum enjoyment out of the crawl without ending up with a sore head!

Finally, I should point out, the distance between the first and the last breweries on the crawl is just under a mile and a half, but your feet may have told you this by the time you reach the end anyway. As for the name, well the “Bermondsey Beer One and a Half Miles” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, so a bit of journalistic license doesn’t go amiss!

Saturday 7 June 2014

Off the Beaten Track

On my recent visit to Norfolk, I was unable to book overnight accommodation at Bartle’s Lodge, my preferred B&B establishment. Instead I had to look further a field, and after just missing out on a place at a hotel in Swaffham, settled for a pub-cum-restaurant with the unlikely name of the Ugly Bug Inn.

Unlikely and, probably unique, but for someone old enough to remember the song, “Ugly Bug Ball”, sung by the American country singer, Burl Ives a rather strange choice of name for a pub. Never judge a book by its cover though, and after a look at the pub’s website, and reading the many positive reviews regarding both the restaurant and the overnight accommodation, I booked a couple of night’s stay for my son and me. 

The pub is well off the beaten track, on the edge of the tiny village of Colton, to the south of the main A47 road between Norwich and Dereham. It is unusual in having only been a pub since 1992. Prior to this it was a private home called the Ugly Bug Hall, and before that it was an old fruit barn workshop dating back to around 1810. Its current owners, John and Alison, have worked hard to develop the pub, and it is now a thriving village Inn serving good quality local real ales and food with a warm friendly atmosphere.

I hadn’t realised until after I had booked our accommodation, that the Ugly Bug Inn is also in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, and prides itself on only stocking cask beers from local Norfolk breweries. It regularly stocks beers from Beeston and Humpty Dumpty breweries, but at the time of our visit there was a beer from Panther Brewery gracing the bar as well. Panther are based in the village of Reepham, having taken over the plant of the pioneering Reepham Brewery, which closed in 2009.

We arrived in the area at just before 7pm last Saturday evening, and managed to find the pub without any trouble. After checking in and being shown to our comfortable and well-appointed first floor room, we headed back down to the bar and got stuck into the Honey Panther; or at least I did. Son Matthew is a lager drinker, so he went for the Carlsberg. Now I find this rather puzzling. The Ugly Bug’s management pride themselves on supporting local breweries, and yet the pub only stocks international “big name” lagers (Budweiser, Carlsberg, Fosters). Surely there are far better lagers available – Czech Budvar or Pilsner Urquell, to name just two of better tasting, and more ethical brands of lager which the pub could have opted for.

I’m speaking more for myself than my son here, as he was quite happy with his Carlsberg! The pub was heaving, mainly with diners. We had noticed the lack of spaces in the car park when we arrived, but fortunately there is an over-spill car park just across the road. All this bears witness to the pub’s popularity, especially as somewhere to drive out to for a good meal. It obviously has a good reputation, as even my mother had heard of it; and she’s someone who very rarely sets foot in a pub!

Although we hadn’t booked an evening meal, host John managed to squeeze us into the restaurant. This was good of him, given the large numbers of people that night. He told us there would be a bit of a wait for a table, but it was worth it, as the food was first class. We adjourned back to the bar after our meal, for a night cap. This time I opted for the Stirling, a 4.5% reddish beer from Beeston Brewery. It was pleasant enough, but not as good as the Panther.

We both slept well and the following morning treated ourselves to a full English breakfast. We ate elsewhere that evening, my two sisters having arranged a family get together with a meal, plus a few drinks at the Romany Rye, the local Wetherspoon’s outlet in Dereham. It was here that I had the Ruddle’s Best referred to in my previous post. There was still some Honey Panther left when we arrived back, but apart from ourselves, plus one other paying guest, the pub was very quiet.

That an isolated place like the Ugly Bug can thrive in these difficult trading times, says a lot for the dedication and enthusiasm of the pub’s management. Giving people what they really want, in the form of good beer, good food and comfortable and character surroundings, rather than what the Pub Co rep tells you they want, (Sky Sports, karaoke,  discos or themed evenings), speaks volumes for the pub trade today. On the whole, people prefer to make their own amusement in pubs, whether in the form of conversation, a game of darts or pool, and don’t really appreciate having something forced upon them. If to top this, the beer and the food are in tip-top condition, then so much the better.

If you are ever in the area between Norwich and Dereham, then why not call in at the Ugly Bug Inn? You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Eating Humble Pie

In my recent post about Ruddles I described how I attended a PR event at the brewery held to publicise the launch of the company’s Best Bitter. This 3.7% abv beer was never going to be a personal favourite, as in my mind at least, Ruddles had sold their soul to the devil, aka Watney’s! Watney pubs were few and far between in the part of West Kent where I lived, so Ruddles Best was not a beer I came across that often anyway, and over the years Ruddles and its beers largely disappeared from my radar.

As I recounted in the article, the brewery and its brands passed through a succession of different owners in the wake of the fall-out from the governments “Beer Orders 1989”; legislation designed to open up the beer market to competition but, as is so often the case with well-intentioned legal rulings, ended up having the opposite effect. Eleven years later Ruddles Langham Brewery had ceased production and the company’s beers had become little more than two of a myriad of different beers produced by Greene King; the new, and current, owner of the Ruddles brand.

I wrote that I would not go out of my way to drink either of the Ruddles beers , especially as Ruddles Best Bitter has had the indignity of becoming Wetherspoon’s “budget brand” bitter, and can be found on sale in most JDW outlets. Well last weekend I was forced to eat my words, as what started out as a “distress purchase” actually turned out to be a pretty good beer, and certainly one that punched well above its 3.7% weight.

There are several reasons why I ended up with a pint of Ruddles Best in front of me last Saturday night, but primarily they were due to my being in Wetherspoon’s Dereham outlet, the Romany Rye with my two sisters and three of our respective off-spring, for a rare sibling get together. We had chosen various dishes from the menu, but on ordering I discovered that my pulled pork sandwich came with a drink included. I am used to my local JDW allowing customers to include one of the “guest ales” as part of the “meal deal” but this particular outlet was more rigid in its application of the rules. If I didn’t want a pint of Strongbow or Carling, then it would have to be Ruddles Best. I decided to give it a go, especially as I would be driving later on and a 3.7% beer would be more sensible than the 5.5% Adnams one which had taken my fancy.

Well, as I said earlier, I was pleasantly surprised, and whilst Ruddles Best is still not a beer I would drink, given the choice, it certainly suited the occasion and my situation at the time. It was full-bodied, with sufficient hops to counter the maltiness, and all in all was a well-balanced and perfectly drinkable pint. So if there is a moral to this tale, then it is not to let preconceptions and blind prejudice cloud one’s judgement. The beer is evidently popular with Wetherspoon’s punters, and whilst price may play some part in this, I am sure taste and balance also count well in its favour.