Thursday 31 July 2014

EBBC 2014 - The sessions

Conference Agenda

So a month on and what was the EBBC all about? That’s probably a difficult question to answer in a few lines, as the truth is the conference was a myriad of many different things. Leaving the important business side of the event to one side for a moment, probably the biggest single thing to come out of the weekend was the discovery (for me at least, and I’m certain many others as well) of the strength of the emerging Irish Craft Beer Movement.

Whether this was by accident or design, or a combination of both, the overwhelming message that came across was that good, and quite often great, beer is alive and kicking in the island of Ireland. We were treated to four separate samplings of Irish Beer; five if you include Friday evening’s visit to the Guinness Brewery at St James’ Gate. Basically we encompassed the entire spectrum of beer in Ireland, from the huge multi-national that dominates the domestic beer market, right down to breweries which were just starting up. One doesn’t even yet have a permanent home, but is turning out some superb beers by “cuckoo brewing” using other people’s brewing plant.

The state of the Irish Craft Beer market is worthy of a post of its own, and hopefully I’ll get round to writing about it whilst it’s still relatively fresh in my head, but for now I’d like to return to describing what the business side of the conference was all about.

A number of different and quite varied topics were discussed, and there were several presentations. Some I found a lot more interesting than others, but one thing they all had in common, and the once common thread running through all of them, was that of beer. Following registration on Friday lunchtime, the conference kicked off with an introduction to Irish Craft Beer, before moving into the adjacent room set aside for the conference proceedings.

Vanguard Beer Collective
Historian, Declan Moore kicked off with his presentation entitled The History of Beer in Ireland. I must confess that despite spending time with Declan later that evening, and finding him positively charming, I found the whole subject of  Stone Age Brewing somewhat of a turn-off. So much so that, quite shamefully, I nodded off! There was just too much speculation and conjecture for my liking, and anyway the whole thing was so far removed from brewing as we know it, as to be of virtually no interest to me. (Sorry, Declan!)

Declan’s presentation was followed by the inter-linked topics of Keg versus Cask and Bottle versus Can. James Winans of the Vanguard Beer Collective and Brian Short from the Brown Paper Bag Project presented the pros and cons of these four packaging methods. I have already covered the Bottle versus Can debate, and whilst some interesting points were raised in the other half of the debate, I don’t intend to cover them here, as they are worthy of a separate post.

I said that there was a common “Beer Theme” running through the various topics, but that wasn’t quite true, as the two presentations on Saturday afternoon were about “How to Enhance Your Blog”, and “Supercharging Your Blogging With”. Both presentations were of much interest to me, and from a practical point of view, were by far the most useful of all the topics covered.

Cindy Molchany, from conference organisers, Zephyr Adventures, kicked off the first presentation with some really useful tips and advice about how to get one’s blog across to a wider audience. She also emphasised the importance of a strategy and covered how to add to its appeal, thereby attracting more interest, and more followers. I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I came away with lots of useful ideas and suggestions of how to improve both my blog and my online presence. So thanks, Cindy.

We were then treated to a real cool Californian dude representing Auttomatic – the company behind My own blog is hosted by BloggerGoogle’s own free blogging software. Now I know quite a few Bloggers who have switched from Blogger to WordPress, so I was keen to discover the pros and cons of both systems.

Derek  Springer (with the hat) from
Derek Springer, an accomplished home brewer, beer expert and programmer from Auttomatic, was very much in his element, and gave an excellent talk about how WordPress operates, explaining how the software has become the programme of choice for many Bloggers. He explored in some depth the ways in which bloggers can maximise the impact and reach of their posts, and like Cindy earlier, presented us with lots of useful tips and ideas.

Probably the most bizarre session was the first one on the Saturday morning. Billed as “The State of the Brewing Industry in Ireland”, Dean McGuinness, Managing Director of Premier International Beers, kicked off the day’s session with an insider’s look into the Irish Craft Beer Industry.  Dean used examples from abroad, (primarily the UK, but also, Germany – strangely enough), to illustrate his talk and demonstrate how “craft brewing” had taken off overseas, and was now beginning to establish a foothold in Ireland.
Chocolate Bock from Maisels

Using the examples of  Thwaites, Crafty Dan, and Black Sheep from Britain, plus Maisel & Friends from Bayreuth, Bavaria, samples of beers from these breweries were passed around to further make the point. If I told you this took place shortly after 10am when I was still recovering from the excesses of the night before, you will understand why I gave all these interesting beers a miss. The fact that that they were all strong beers, with the Black Sheep Progress weighing in at 10.0%, and the Maisels at 7.5%, you’ll understand my reluctance to start imbibing even more!

In some ways this was a pity, as the Black Sheep Progress was a limited edition beer brewed to celebrate 20 years of brewing, whilst the Maisels was a Chocolate Bock, (not sure if that’s strictly Reinheitsgebot?). Maisels have also revived some classic German lager styles, under the Aktion banner. I did, however, get to taste the Chocolate Bock later in the day.

The final presentation of the afternoon was all about "Video on Your Beer Blog". We heard from two experts on how to incorporate videos into your blog and how to promote those videos better.  Tomasz Kopyra is a Polish beer blogger who has successfully incorporated video into his blog and has 29,000 YouTube subscribers, whilst Mhairi MacLeod is director at Lux, Scotland’s only creative agency dedicated to food and drink, who carved her career from beer blogging. This was all new to me, but was a subject which left me with a lot of food for thought.

There in a nutshell, is a very brief synopsis of what exactly went on at the conference. Leaving aside the socialising, the beer sampling and brewery visit for one moment, these presentation were invaluable lessons and insight for anyone who wishes to improve, enhance and ultimately expand his or her blog. These sessions alone made the EBBC 2014 well worth attending.

Saturday 26 July 2014

A Drop of the Black Stuff

Few brands are more iconic and well-known in the world.

The first day's proceedings at the recent European Beer Bloggers' Conference in Dublin ended with a tour around the world famous Guinness Brewery at St James’s Gate. The tour was followed by a beer and food pairing, which was one of the highlights of the trip. Before I go any further, I have to say the Guinness Brewery was not at all like I expected. I had been told beforehand that the site occupied some 64 acres, but it wasn’t until we approached the maze of streets which led to the brewery that I realised just how old parts of it are.

We arrived on foot; having been escorted in a number of groups by guides from the Dublin Tourist Authority. Our guide was quite a character, and on the 20 minutes’ walk over from the conference centre, he pointed out places of interest, including many historic sites. These included Dublin’s two cathedrals, and ranged from the famous Halfpenny Bridge over the River Liffey to the church where Handel’s Messiah was performed for the first time . He also told us some facts about Arthur Guinness. We already knew that the founder of the brewing dynasty had been married in The Church which is now the conference centre where the EBBC took place. But much more was to follow, including the fact that Guinness was the largest employer in Dublin, and at one time it was reckoned a third of the adult population of the city was working for the company, in one capacity or another.

Cobbled streets and an old rail-track, leading to St James's Gate
As we neared our destination, we entered a series of quite narrow cobbled streets, running between stone-built 19th Century buildings. I was glad we had a guide with us, as it would have been quite easy to lose ones bearings. There were several, iconic black-painted gates, emblazoned with the legend St James’s Gate, but after several twists and turns we reached our destination; the Guinness Storehouse.

The latter is the company’s impressive visitor centre. Converted from a former fermentation block, this multi-floored Victorian building is now one of Dublin’s premier visitor attractions. It was still busy with throngs of visitors, despite it being early evening. I suppose virtually all visitors to the Irish capital want both a souvenir, plus a taste of its most famous product; even those people who wouldn’t normally drink Guinness! I didn’t bother going in the extensively stocked shop, although being open plan I could see it was stocked with every conceivable piece of Guinness merchandise imaginable.

19th Century tunnel under the brewery

Once the various parties were all assembled, we were told we would be getting a sneak preview of Guinness’s brand spanking new brew-house; which is still not fully commissioned. So after donning hi-visibility jackets and safety goggles (talk about OTT!) we were led across to the new,  No. 4 Brew-House. On the way we passed through a 19th Century underground tunnel, constructed to give workers safe passage from one part of the site to the other, avoiding both roads and the narrow-gauge railway which once criss-crossed the site. We also passed the No.3 Brew-House, constructed in the 1980's, which is still in operation, but due to be de-commissioned once the new plant comes fully on-stream.

The entrance to the shining new No.4 Brew-House
Once in the new brew-house we ascended to the top floor of the building where we were met by Fergal Murray, Master Brewer at Guinness, along with several members of his team. As the brew-house is still being commissioned, and the fact that we were the first outside visitors to be shown the plant, we were asked not to take photos. This didn’t bother me, as apart from the tops of a series of stainless steel vessels, which could have been coppers or lauter tuns, there was precious little to see anyway. I have to say new, hi-tech breweries don’t do much for me; in fact they’re a huge turn-off. Give me a working Victorian brewery any day, complete with levers and pulleys, plus various wheels to turn, rather than a soul-less steel-framed shed, and I’m much more interested.

Fergus and his team bombarded us with various facts and figures, but as I wasn’t taking notes most of them went completely over my head. What I do know is the new brew-house is extremely versatile and is capable of brewing both ales and lagers. When it comes fully on stream, not only will the adjacent No. 3 Brew-House close, but so will a number of parent company, Diageo’s other smaller, Irish breweries, including those at Dundalk, Kilkenny and Waterford, with hundreds of job losses. As well as stouts and Harp lager, St James's Gate will now brew both Bud and Carlsberg under licence, plus the Smithwicks ale brands.

There are a few crumbs of comfort in relation to the new brew-house, and these are that Diageo’s original plan was to build a new mega-brewery, elsewhere in Ireland, on a green-field site, and then sell the historic St James’s Gate site off for redevelopment. Fortunately, for Dubliners, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 intervened, forcing the company to change its plans. The construction and opening of the new brew-house confirms Diageo’s affirmation to continue brewing in the heart of the Irish capital for many years to come.

Walking back to the Guinness Storehouse
After our brief tour we retraced our steps to the Guinness Storehouse. As mentioned earlier, this visitor centre has been converted from a former fermenting block, but what I hadn’t realised was that the Perspex construction, which takes up the central core area of the building is actually in the shape of a gigantic pint glass. We were ushered into a lift which took us to the top of the building – all very “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Here, several floors up, is one of the best views over Dublin to be had anywhere in the city.

I believe they call the area we were shown into the atrium, and it was here that we were to be suitably fed and watered. The Guinness management had pulled out all the stops to lay on a “beer and food pairing” for us. Starting with oysters and bottled Extra Stout, we moved on to fish and chips with Smithwick’s Bitter, followed by some superb steak burgers with Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Finally there was chocolate mouse with Special Export Stout, brewed especially for the Belgian market.

All the pairings worked well, although I skipped on the oysters; raw shell fish have never struck me as a particularly good idea, and I didn’t want to risk a dodgy stomach spoiling the rest of my stay in Dublin!  After the food, Fergal gave a presentation, followed by a short question and answer session. One of the topics which came up was the special Guinness concentrate, or “essence”. This is sent overseas to be added to locally brewed Guinness, especially out in Africa, where the “base” beer is often brewed from more locally available materials, such as sorghum. The concentrate imparts the true Guinness “flavour” to the locally brewed stout.

Shortly after, we said farewell to our generous hosts at Guinness, and were whisked off in a fleet of coaches to begin the Pilsner Urquell party, I posted about earlier, where there was yet more food and yet more beer!

Friday 25 July 2014

Can the Can

One of the most interesting presentations and discussions that took place at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin last month concerned the humble beer can. The discussion was led by James Winans of the Vanguard Beer Collective; a “one stop shop” organisation for the promotion, and supply of Irish Craft Beers. The presentation kicked off with a bit of history to set the scene, then examined the relative advantages of cans over glass. I have added some of my own thoughts and views on the matter, and have also researched the rise of the beer can in slightly more depth.

Persuading consumers to accept beer in cans proved a long and painful process; a process which only really started to take off during the late 1930’s, in America. Although cans were in every day use for the mass distribution of foodstuffs during the late 19th century, it wasn't until 1909 that the American Can Company made its first attempt to can beer. This was unsuccessful, and the company would have to wait for the end of Prohibition in the United States before it tried again. Finally in 1933, after two years of research, the American Can Company developed a can that was capable of withstanding pressurisation and which had a special coating to prevent the beer reacting chemically with the tinplate which the can was made from.

Some rather non-PC 1930's cans from Krueger
Canned beer finally made its debut in 1935, when in partnership with the American Can Company, the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company delivered 2,000 cans of Krueger's Finest Beer and Krueger's Cream Ale to faithful Krueger drinkers in Richmond, Virginia. It is claimed that over ninety percent of drinkers approved of the canned beer, giving Krueger the green light to continue production.

The concept of canned beer proved to be a hard sell, but Krueger's overcame its initial reservations and became the first brewer to sell canned beer in the United States. The response was overwhelming. Within three months, over 80 percent of distributors were handling Krueger's canned beer, and Krueger's was eating into the market share of the "Big Three" national brewers--Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and Schlitz. Competitors soon followed suit, and by the end of 1935, over 200 million cans had been produced and sold.

The purchase of cans, unlike bottles, did not require the consumer to pay a deposit. Cans were also easier to stack, more durable and took less time to chill. As a result, their popularity continued to grow throughout the 1930s, and then exploded during World War II, when U.S. brewers shipped millions of cans of beer to its armed forces,

After the war, national brewing companies began to take advantage of the mass distribution that cans made possible, and were able to consolidate their power over the once-dominant local breweries, which could not control costs and operations as efficiently as their national counterparts.

Today, canned beer accounts for approximately half of the $20 billion U.S. beer industry. Not all of this comes from the big national brewers: Recently, there has been renewed interest in canning from micro brewers and high-end beer-sellers, who are realising that cans guarantee purity and taste by preventing light damage and oxidation.

Cone-top cans from Felinfoel Brewery
The first British brewery to try tinned beer was Felinfoel of Llanelli. Canned beer was introduced as a means of  boosting the local tin-plate industry, which was struggling at the time. I have seen photos of some of these early cans. They had a conical top, and were sealed with a traditional crown-cork. Whilst growing up I can remember certain items being packaged in these sorts of tins, although as neither of my parents were drinkers, I don’t ever recall seeing beer cans of this sort. From memory it was substances like furniture, or metal polish (Brasso), that were filled into these cone-shaped containers; perhaps this is why I have always associated tinned, or canned beer with having a metallic taste.

I do remember having to pierce cans with a pointed instrument, specially designed for the purpose, and it was necessary to make two holes; one to let the contents out and the other to let air in. I am talking about soft-rinks here, but beer was also marketed in these sorts of cans, which by now had lost their conical top, and looked just like any other ordinary can.

Aluminium cans first became available in the United States, during the late 1950’s. Their lighter weight, and greater durability meant they rapidly replaced the older, heavier, tin-plate cans. Then in 1959, Ermal Fraze devised a can-opening method that would come to dominate the canned beverage market. His invention was the "ring-pull-tab". This eliminated the need for a separate opener tool by attaching an aluminium pull-ring lever, with a rivet to a pre-scored wedge-shaped tab section of the can top. The ring was riveted to the centre of the top, which created an elongated opening large enough that one hole simultaneously served to let the beverage flow out while air flowed in.

The first “ring-pull” cans I was aware of, featured in an advertisement of  Long Life beer; Ind Coope’s premium pale ale brand. The ad made great play of the ring-pull, and of the fact the beer was designed and packaged for home-drinking, and the voice-over said, “Home is where you drink your Long Life; the beer brewed specially for the home, in ring-pull cans.” Unfortunately, the only clip I could find of this advert on You Tube was of such poor quality, that it wasn’t worth including a link to it.

By the 1970s, ring-pull cans were widely available, but they came with a significant problem, as people would frequently discard the ring-pulls on the ground as litter, or drop them into the can and risk choking on them. Towards the end of the decade, Daniel Cudzik's invention of the non-removing "Sta-Tab" solved the problem. The ring-pull was replaced with a stiff aluminium lever, and the removable pull-tab was replaced with a pre-scored round tab with a riveted lever which pushed the tab open and into the interior of the can.

Today, most people, particularly in the UK, associate canned beer with cheap, tasteless lager, or equally cheap and tasteless bitter. However, in other countries cans have a much better image, and have become very popular in the United States I have written before on this subject; something which was prompted by my visit to Japan last year. There cans are extremely popular, especially on environmental grounds. But cans score highly in other ways too, being light and therefore easier to transport. They chill down quicker than glass well, and are ideal for taking on picnics, due to less weight. Finally, cans are often permitted at events where glass bottles are not.

Cans therefore win on cost, convenience, ecology and taste.  Although canning costs a lot to set up initially, once the plant is up and running the ecological advantages of the can really start to creep in. Advocates of the can, and brewers who are choosing cans, say there are clear advantages over bottles: The beer in a can cools quicker. The can protects from beer-degrading light. Beer cans are portable and take up less space, advantages both for retailers and for consumers who want to take them camping, hiking or fishing, or to sports or other outdoor events.. There is also more space on a can for wraparound design and decoration.

Retro-style Pilsner Urquell cans
Some quite large brewers are pushing ahead with promoting cans as the ideal way to store and transport beer, and this was brought home to us in Dublin at the Summer Barbecue on the Saturday lunchtime, hosted by Pilsner Urquell. There, in the courtyard, was a huge stack of cans, on display,  ready for us to take away and try. What’s more the cans were decorated with some old designs taken from the brewery’s archives, giving them a real retro look. I brought my cans home with me, but then, rather foolishly, drank them all without carrying out a taste comparison with the bottled version of Pilsner Urquell. 

A choice of container from Crafty Dan
However, all is not lost as those good folk at Beer52 have come up trumps by including both a bottle plus a canned version of Crafty Dan 13 Guns; Daniel Thwaites’ recently launched American IPA in the case of beer they sent me recently. I tried both versions side by side, and have to admit I found it difficult, to tell the difference; certainly so far as taste is concerned, although I did prefer the mouth-feel of the bottled beer, which was tighter, if that makes sense. The canned version seemed looser, and what I think this conveys is that the dissolved gas within the beer was present as much finer bubbles in the bottles than in the cans.

So much for my rather inconclusive verdict, but from what I read and hear I would say that the jury’s definitely still out on this one. What do other people think?

Sunday 20 July 2014

40th Kent Beer Festival

The Kent Breweries bar

Following on from last weekend’s SIBA South East Beer Festival, this weekend saw the Kent Beer Festival taking place at Merton Farm, just outside Canterbury. The Kent Beer Festival is the second oldest CAMRA festival in the country, and this year the event celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The first festival took place back in 1975, and was held in Canterbury’s Dane John Gardens. It continued to be held on this site until 1984, when it moved to the Kent County Cricket Ground for a two year spell. In 1986 it moved again to Gravesend’s Woodville Halls; the only time it has been held outside of Canterbury. The venue didn’t prove to be a success, and the following year it moved again to its current site at Merton Farm, just outside Canterbury.

All 40 festivals have been organised by Gill Keay, formerly Knight; but this will be her last event in charge, as she is standing down for a well earned and well-deserved rest. There can be few, if any, other people, who have served such a long unbroken stint as Gill, and she describes in this year’s souvenir programme, how 40 years ago she had to drive round to various parts of the country in a van, to collect the beers herself, as there were no beer agencies, in those days. Gill also mentions that in 1975, there were just two breweries in Kent: Shepherd Neame and Whitbread-Fremlins; both of Faversham. Forty years on and there are now nearly 30 in the county; how things have changed!

Serving the thirsty  punters
Four of us from the Tonbridge area travelled down to Canterbury, by train, on Friday to see what was on offer. It was one of the hottest days of the year, so far, and after overnight thunderstorms and heavy rain, it was particularly humid out. I always enjoy the train ride to Canterbury, especially the section of line north from Ashford, along the Stour Valley. As the train approaches Wye, the first station from Ashford, I can just glimpse the solid square tower of the Norman-built, Brook Church, across the fields in the distance. I spent my teenage years living in Brook, and my friends and I would often cycle to Wye, in order to catch the train for a day out in Canterbury.

Canterbury is an obvious popular tourist destination, and the centre is invariably crowded with throngs of visitors from both home and abroad. In previous years we have walked up from the rail station to the city’s bus station, in order to catch the free shuttle bus which runs back and forth to Merton Farm. This year though we decided to take a taxi, and split four ways between us, it only worked out at a couple of quid each. It not only saved a walk through the sweltering heat, but it meant we arrived bang on opening time.

The festival filling up
A couple of friends who had arrived even earlier  had saved us some seats at a table, so after purchasing our glasses and beer tokens it was time to head for the bars. As might be expected, there was a strong emphasis on Kentish beers, with brews from all the Kent breweries currently in operation showcased on the Kent Breweries Bar. There was also a 40 Favourite Festival Beers Bar, with the top 40 beers, from previous festivals, as voted for by customers at these events. Of more interest though to those of us who wanted to try something new, there was a further bar dedicated to Other Breweries, from across the UK. My favourites amongst this section included Cheddar Ales-Gorge Best, Wylam-Gold Tankard, Great Oakley Wot’s Occurring and Black Hole Bitter from the Burton-on-Trent brewery of the same name.

In keeping with the farmyard setting
For those who have never been to Merton Farm, the festival takes place in a massive cow-shed. This year, given the warm weather, there was a definite “farmyard” smell about the place, but my main gripe was it was stiflingly hot inside. I countered this by nipping outside from time to time, as despite the searing heat from the sun, there was at least a cooling breeze blowing.

A tasty and filling Goan chicken curry helped soak up some of the beer for me, but there was also the option of fish and chips, pork pies, Bratwursts or Scotch Eggs to assuage people’s hunger. We saw Gill wandering around the shed, checking on things in this, her final time as Festival Organiser. The festival will continue in its current form, and at the same site, next year, and hopefully will carry on for many more years to come.

The Friday lunchtime session finishes at 4pm, and the festival then re-opens at 6pm. The evening session is traditionally “ticket only” and, as in previous years, all tickets had been sold out weeks in advance. We therefore caught the first shuttle bus back into Canterbury. On the bus we met up with some CAMRA colleagues from neighbouring Bromley Branch. They were keen to try some Canterbury Brewers’ beers on their home patch, but we knew from previous experience that the Foundry Brew-Pub, where the beers are produced, would be packed. Instead we headed for the company’s other pub, the City Arms, close to the cathedral. There those who had missed it at the festival were able to try the Kent 75 beer, specially brewed to celebrate the event’s 40th anniversary. Although only 3.6% in strength, it certainly packed in a lot of flavour, and appropriately was hopped using only local East Kent Goldings and Challenger hops.

Our Bromley colleagues departed soon after; heading off to Canterbury East station for a train back to Bromley. Our trains, on the other hand, depart from the city’s West station, at the other end of Canterbury, so as we made our way slowly back towards it, we decided to take in a couple of extra pubs on the way.

The Old Buttermarket is just a few minutes walk from the City Arms. It fronts on to a small pedestrianised square, right opposite the cathedral gate, and the tables and chairs set outside the pub looked very inviting. My friends though managed to find something even more welcoming given the fierce heat outside, namely a large air-conditioning unit, in the back room, blowing out some lovely cool air. We sat at a high table, just below it, after first grabbing ourselves a few beers. 

The Old Buttermarket, Canterbury
The Old Buttermarket is a Nicholson’s pub which means it serves a diverse and changing range of interesting beers. For this reason, the pub is quite well-known to us, as we have stopped there on several previous visits to Canterbury. I went for a couple of halves; the first being Hadley’s Blonde from Great Yorkshire Brewery; a 4.0%  refreshing blonde ale, brewed in conjunction with, and named after, Tony Hadley, former singer with Spandau Ballet. The other beer was Xingu Gold, from Everards; a golden ale, originating from Brazil, specially brewed for the World Cup. (Not always a good idea, given our national team’s inevitable early exit from the tournament!). Despite the inclusion of Nelson Sauvin and Cascade hops in the brew, this beer failed to deliver for me; certainly in comparison to the Hadley’s Blonde. Still, you can’t win them all, and after an afternoon’s steady sampling I can’t say my palate was at its best!

Our final port of call, before the train home was the Unicorn; an unspoilt, traditional city-centre pub just across the tracks from the station. I was pretty much “beered-out” by this time, but the half of Whitstable Brewery’s Citra did at least refresh my palate.

On the short walk back to the station we shared a couple of bags of chips between us, and watched the skies steadily darken, and the wind getting up, as a thunderstorm approached. Fortunately we were on the train by the time it hit the city, and when we arrived back in Tonbridge it had more or less petered out. Another good day out, and hopefully we will be repeating the process in a year’s time.

Sunday 13 July 2014

8th SIBA South East Beer Festival - A Few Reflections

I ended up picking several bummers on the second day of the SIBA South East Beer Festival. I’m not certain if it was down to dodgy casks, some poorly formulated recipes, or a combination of both. Fortunately I was drinking halves, so it didn’t matter that much; well not to me, but I thought it would have been of concern to the breweries involved, especially as the beers were being judged as an integral part of the festival!

It is possible to get the odd cask which hasn’t quite been cleaned thoroughly enough and this could lead to off-flavours, or even infection within the beer, but  surely when you know your beer is going to be showcased at a festival, and judged by your peers, you would take extra care over hygiene practices at the brewery?

A poorly formulated recipe is a different thing altogether, and to some extent can be largely a matter of individual taste. Again though; your beer is being judged against many others, and most will have been formulated to provide the right degree of balance within a particular style of beer, and most would be expected to conform to the requirements, and characteristics of that style concerned.

Anyway, gripe over and I have to say that yesterday was a cracking one at the festival, with the fine summer weather helping to boost attendance. Most people sat outside on the grass, where they could either listen to the various live acts performing or, could move a bit further away and just enjoy chilling out with their friends or family. I say family, as this particular festival attracts a lot of families, which is always good to see.

I didn’t make it down today, for the last day of the festival, but I imagine that most of the beer will have sold out, given the way things were going last night, but after that bit of moaning at the beginning of this post, how about ending on a positive note for what was an outstanding beer festival, by naming some of the really excellent beers I tried.

Andwell – Gold Muddler 3.9%; East London – Pale Ale 4.0%; Hackney – Best Bitter 4.4% & American Pale Ale 4.5%; Tap East – Smokestack Porter 6.5%; West Berkshire – Mr Chubb’s Lunchtime Bitter 3.7%.

A special thanks to all the SIBA breweries who supplied their beers to the festival, and to the army of hard-working volunteers from Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club who made the whole thing possible.

Saturday 12 July 2014

8th SIBA South East Beer Festival

For the benefit of my more local readers, but also for the interest of those from further a field, a belated shout-out for the 8th SIBA South East Beer Festival, which kicked off yesterday evening at Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club.

The event showcases over 150 different cask ales from over 50 different breweries in the South East Region (Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire I.O.W., and Greater London). I called in yesterday (Friday), and found the festival in full swing, with a marquee full of dozens of racked casks, and plenty of thirsty punters in attendance.

Earlier yesterday the beers were judged by panels made up from brewers, publicans, associated traders and the general public, and the results should be posted up soon on the SIBA website. It was particularly good to see our local Tonbridge Brewery picking up an award in the Premium Bitter category for their recently-launched, 4.7% Union Pale.

It was also good to see that hosts, Tonbridge Juddians’ clubhouse has been fully repaired and restored to its former glory, following the devastating floods of Christmas Eve 2013. The deluge of water, released by the Environment Agency from the Leigh Flood Barrier, flooded out the clubhouse, as it did other properties and businesses in Tonbridge. This was despite the clubhouse being constructed on pillars well above the level of the surrounding fields.

Now, thanks to the hard work of the club’s army of volunteers, who worked tirelessly to clear up the mess and repair the extensive damage, and also the generosity of local sponsors, the clubhouse is back up and running again.

I’ll be heading back down to the festival, later today, but for those who can make it earlier, the event is open from 11am onwards, and the same applies tomorrow. As well as the beers, there’s a selection of local Kentish ciders, soft drinks and food. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.

With special thanks to Jon Collins and Iain Dalgleish for the use of their photos.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Pouring the Perfect Pilsner in Dublin

Yours truly with the Head Brewmaster

After our Friday night party, courtesy of legendary Czech brewers Pilsner Urquell, we had a further opportunity to sample some un-filtered pilsner, the following day. Not content with plying us with beer and food the night before, the Czechs exceeded their generosity by hosting the Saturday lunchtime barbecue.

This took place in the beer garden behind The Church conference centre, and not only was there more Pilsner Urquell drawn straight from the wood, there was also the opportunity to sample the three different styles of “pour” favoured by Czech drinkers. After being a bit grouchy about the slightly warm beer at Friday’s party, the casks seemed to have been chilled down overnight, and the beer we were treated to was served at just the right temperature, and tasted superb. I even had my photo taken in front of one of the casks with Vaclav Berka, Head Brewmaster at Pilsner Urquell

As well as excellent draught pilsner, there was some really tasty food to help soak it up. The Church’s kitchen staff had pulled out all the stops to serve up some superb fare, with a fine selection of  barbecued meat (burgers, chicken breast, fillet steak, pork & leek sausages and ribs), together with fresh whole prawns cooked on the barbecue. The above were served with some fine artisan bread from the local Dublin-based Breztel Bakers, plus a selection of summer salads. The catering staff certainly did us proud, and I promised head chef Simon, that I’d give him a shout out on this blog; so a big thank-you Simon and to all of your team.
Breztel Bakers

To go back to the beer for a moment, I mentioned earlier the three different types of pours, and these were demonstrated to us by a Czech barman, using a traditional fount. Pilsner Urquell had brought over a mobile bar, complete with integral cooling unit, plus glass rinser in order to demonstrate this, and offer anyone interested the chance to sample, and taste the difference between these three ways of serving. Basically, it’s all about controlling the amount of gas in the finished beer, and this not only affects the size of the head, but also alters the mouth-feel of the beer.

The three traditional Czech "Pours"
A picture says a thousand words, so looking at the three glasses in the photo we have the two extremes on the left (Mliko and Na Dvakrat), and then the ideal Czech pint (Hladinka) on the far right. Note the size of the head in each case, as this is the key to pouring the perfect glass of Pilsner Urquell. With the Mliko, most of the gas has been allowed to form the head, leading to a smooth, velvety beer. The Na Dvakrat has a much smaller head, meaning here is much more CO2 gas in the beer, “making one burp” as the barman told us. This type of pour is the norm in much of Europe, and certainly here in the UK, where a gassy pint of lager is what drinkers normally end up with.

The Hladinka is the ideal compromise, and the way of serving most appreciated by Czech beer drinkers. Czechs love a thick foamy head on their beer, and prefer their pint not to be too gassy. By controlling the angle of the glass, the speed of dispense and the amount of gas (determined by clever use of the fount handle), a Czech barman (or barmaid for that matter), can deliver the perfect pint according to the customers’ wishes.

I was explaining this to the two girls from the “Let There Be Beer” campaign, who were at the conference to pick up ideas, and to find out what’s going on in the world of beer; especially at the craft end of the spectrum. They were looking for ways of increasing beer’s appeal to the general public, so what better way than a demonstration like the one we had just witnessed? I equated it to Guinness’s famous “Theatre of the Pour”, where it’s all about building a sense of anticipation (and thirst) for the drinker patiently waiting for his or her pint to be poured, with the rising fine bubbles as they come out of solution, forming the head as they do so. I really think much more could be made of this, although perhaps not in a busy pub on a Friday or Saturday night!

Retro-styled Pilsner Urquell cans
Finally as if traditionally poured Pilsner Urquell, and Pilsner Urquell direct from a wooden cask were not enough, there was a big stack of Pilsner Urquell cans for us to take away. One of the sessions that morning at the conference, had been about the advantages of the humble can over more traditional bottles. I was aiming to cover this in a later post, so I won’t go into details now, but here in front of us were some examples of canned Pilsner Urquell to take away and try at our leisure. What’s more the cans were decorated with some old designs taken from the brewery’s archives, giving them a real retro look. Again, badging like this is something the girls from “Let There Be Beer” campaign should be looking at.
Local artisan bread

All in all it was a fantastic lunch, made even better by being outside in the Dublin sunshine. Thanks to all the people at Pilsner Urquell who, not only gave us the opportunity to sample their classic pilsner at its best, but also demonstrated how this is achieved. Thanks also to the staff and management of  The Church for looking after us so well, and for their skills in presenting us with a lunchtime menu to remember for a long time.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Take to the Hills

Looking towards Westerham
I undertook another walk recently, a week prior to the one I described in a previous post. This wasn’t a CAMRA organised event; just a small group of friends out for a stroll through the beautiful Kent country side.

The area chosen for our outing was the Greensand Ridge, between the village of Brasted and the small town of Westerham. The latter of course, is famous for its proximity to Chartwell; the home of wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. The Greensand Ridge is a range of sandstone hills which runs parallel with, but to the south of the North Downs, in a line stretching from west to east across the counties of West Sussex, Surrey and Kent. The ridge takes its name from the underlying, green-tinted sandstone rock strata; the green colour being due to the presence of glauconite, and other clay-minerals in the rock. The ridge rises to a height of 294 m (965 ft), at Leith Hill; the highest point in south-east England, before gradually falling off, and eventually petering out, as it runs through Kent. We were walking close to Toy’s Hill, which is the highest point in Kent.

In order to get to our starting point, my companions and I boarded the 401 Go-Coach service which runs between Tonbridge and Westerham. This is the same service bus which we normally use for visits to the Windmill at Weald, and our plan was to call in at this excellent pub on the way back. However, we were thwarted in this aim due to reasons that will become apparent, later in the narrative.

We alighted from the bus in the centre of Brasted; a pleasant linear village, straddling the busy A25, but a place with far too many antique shops for our liking. Two of the village’s three pubs have now closed (thanks Shep’s), leaving just the rather food-oriented White Hart. (Perhaps the local have spent all their beer money on antiques?). The White Hart’s claim to fame is its patronage by fighter pilots based at nearby Biggin Hill airfield during the Battle of Britain. Some of their signatures are displayed in a glass case on the wall, but alas I’ve never ventured inside to see them for myself.

Our walk began with a long climb  onto the ridge, up what is technically known as the “dip slope”. Much of the way was undercover, beneath a dense canopy of laurel bushes. The canopy was so dense in fact that the sunlight had not been able to penetrate and dry out the underlying ground. The result was some pretty muddy going in places; ironic really when one considers there had been no meaningful rain during the previous few weeks!

Village sign, Crockham Hill
We eventually reached the summit and came out into the open, at last. After being under the tree canopy for so long the chilly wind that was blowing was quite noticeable, but it wasn’t that long before our route brought us once again under the trees. Fortunately they were beech trees this time, and the leaf cover wasn’t quite as dense as earlier. Passing through a remote settlement, known as French Street, we descended towards the rear entrance to Chartwell, amazed at just how busy the place was. Cars were queueing up to get in, and we noticed stewards directing motorists to a field which served as an over-spill car park.

We were glad to leave this tourist hot spot behind, and continuing in a westerly direction, through more beech woods, along part of the Greensand Way long-distance footpath, we eventually reached a clearing where several footpaths branched off at once. Here we began a long descent, down the “scarp slope”, towards the village of Crockham Hill and our first port of call, the Royal Oak. Here a well-earned pint of Westerham beer awaited us, for the Oak is one of just two pubs tied to Westerham Brewery.

A welcome pint
The pub was busy; it was Father’s Day after all. Also, the pub’s layout is a bit strange, in so much that the door to both bar areas opens into what is probably the narrowest part of the pub. Because of the lack of space we went out to the garden to drink our beer. The Royal Oak is a former Shep’s tied house, and was the first pub to be bought by Westerham. It sells quite a range of their beers, but being in need of something pale and cool, I opted for the brewery’s Summer Perle; a 3.8%, seasonal, golden ale, brewed using Hallertauer Perle Hops from Germany.

We only stayed for the one pint, as time was pressing on, and we wanted to be at out next pub for a spot of lunch. The pub in question was the General Wolfe, in the nearby town of Westerham; a journey of several miles. It was a case of drink up and then commence the long climb up, out of Crockham Hill, having broken one of the cardinal rules of rambling – having gained height, try not to lose it!

Actually the climb wasn’t as bad as feared, and before long we were at the summit and once again, deep in woodland, which eventually gave way to pasture and a pleasant green valley. There was a large herd of cows grazing, but apart from giving us a few curious looks they weren’t particularly perturbed by our presence. Apart from one more short uphill section, it was downhill all the way, and slightly later than planned we found ourselves in the small, pleasant town of Westerham.

General Wolfe, Westerham
As stated earlier, we were making for the General Wolfe; a small white-pained weather-boarded pub on the western edge of the town. The pub was formerly the tap for the Black Eagle Brewery of Bushell, Watkins & Smith; otherwise known as Westerham Ales. Until their takeover and absorption into what eventually became Allied Breweries, the company were quite a large concern, and their beers had a good reputation locally. The Black Eagle Brewery ceased production in 1965, but for some years after the site continued to be used as a depot for Ind Coope. A mixture of modern houses and offices now occupies the area where the brewery once stood.

I have fond personal memories of the General Wolfe, as I remember calling in there with my father, back in the mid-1970’s. We were on our way back to East Kent from Southampton, having dropped my sister and her friend at the airport there for a flight across to the Channel Isles. I had spotted the pub in the first CAMRA Good Beer Guide, and had marked it as a convenient place to stop on the way home. In the days before the opening of the M25, the A25, which runs through Westerham, formed one of the main east-west routes to the south of London, so our route home took us past the pub. As my companions and I approached the pub, we remarked on how much traffic the A25 used to cope with, 40 or so years ago. It seems hard to imagine given the volume which now passes along the adjacent motorway.

When my father and I stopped there in 1974, the only cask beer sold at the General Wolfe, was Ind Coope Bitter. This itself was something of a rarity in un-pressurised cask form. Today, the pub is owned by Greene King but, like many of their houses, is allowed to sell cask beers from other brewers as well. When we called in there were a couple of beers on alongside the usual Greene King offerings. I opted for the Whitstable Native, a pleasant, low gravity, but well-hopped ale.

Bargain-priced cod and chips
I have returned to the General Wolfe several times since that first visit. It doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years, with a timeless interior of dark wood, low ceilings and welcoming log fires in winter, and although it’s very much a locals’ pub, visitors are still made welcome. Despite the late hour, we also ordered some food. My cod, chips and mushy peas was really tasty and excellent value at just under eight quid! It’s a pity more local pubs don’t follow suit, rather than charge exorbitant prices for posh sounding, “beer battered cod” and “hand-cut chips”.

We only intended to stay for one at the General Wolfe, as the idea was to catch the 16:35 bus back towards Tonbridge. As this particular bus was the penultimate service of the day, the plan was to alight at Sevenoaks Weald and call in for a couple at the Windmill, before catching the last bus home. The Windmill is our West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year, so we wanted to spend a bit of time there.

That was the theory, but alas, the best laid plans go astray and despite leaving ample time to walk to the bus stop, right by the green in the centre of Westerham, it was evident that the bus had been early and had gone without us. We deduced this after waiting at the stop for over 20 minutes, with no sign of it. There was nothing for it but to find a place for another drink, and then make damn certain we were back at the bus stop at least 10 minutes before the stated departure time.

There are three pubs in the centre of Westerham; the Kings Arms Hotel, the George & Dragon and the Grasshopper on the Green. The first two are both former coaching inns, reflecting Westerham’s importance on the east-west highway which eventually became the A25. I had been in the King’s Head once before, but that was 20 years or so ago, and it was even longer since I last set foot inside the Grasshopper. As for the George & Dragon, well I had never been in the place, but all that was to change.

Grasshopper on the Green,  Westerham
We chose the Grasshopper to begin with, simply because it was nearer. It is an old building, with lots of exposed beams, low ceilings etc, but it has been divided into two halves, both of which are rather narrow. There is also a larger bar at the rear. In spite of this we managed to find a seat. There were quite a few beers on, but I only remember two of  them; Taylor’s Landlord and Westerham Spirit of Kent. The latter especially was in fine form, and is one of my favourite beers from the Westerham stable. Being a pleasant summer’s evening there were quite a few people sitting outside, facing the green, and whilst we were tempted to stay we decided to give the George & Dragon a try.

We were pleasantly surprised with what we found; an old, heavily-beamed, former coaching inn, given a contemporary make-over. Pride of place went to the large, comfortable sofas next to the fireplace. The pub also seemed popular with diners; there is plenty of space, with a separate area set aside for this, and with Kevin’s favourite beer on tap – Gales HSB, we were certainly glad that we called in.

We made certain we were at the bus stop in plenty of time for the last bus, and whilst it wasn’t early it did go sailing on past one hapless passenger who was waiting at a stop just outside Tonbridge! They say every cloud has a silver lining, and missing the penultimate bus did at least give us a chance to try a couple of pubs we don’t normally get out to, and gave us a different perspective on the popular tourist town of Westerham.