Sunday, 4 January 2015

2014 - The Year in Beer Part 2

Continuing my look back at 2014 from a beery perspective I now want to reflect on the handful of beer festivals I attended. As might be guessed from that last sentence, there wasn’t that many, with just two CAMRA events and one pub beer festival that I went along to.

My biggest faux-pas of the year was forgetting that the Great British Beer Festival had been moved back a week. Blissfully unaware of this fact I went gaily ahead and booked our week’s holiday in Munich. It was only when my wife’s niece and her partner asked which day Matt and I were planning to go along to Olympia that I realised my error. Both Heidi and Phil are relative newcomers to the world of decent beer, so it would have been good to have accompanied them to GBBF and introduce them to some of the beery delights the event has on offer.

Given the size and scope of the festival, some guidance is definitely needed, especially if one wants to avoid the plethora of similar tasting golden ales or the dullness of the myriad of “boring brown bitters”. OK, those are not my words, but there is an understandable preponderance of these types of beers, and of course not all are by any means bad. It’s often a case though of not being able to see the wood for the trees, so this year I hope to be of assistance to a new generation of  younger beer enhusiasts.

As it happened, I attended just the Kent Festival at Canterbury, plus my own branch’s event held in conjunction with the Spa Valley Railway during 2014. I enjoyed the first event far more than the second, despite the searing July heat. This was because I was one of the key organisers of the Spa Valley Railway Festival and with all the rushing around involved, to say nothing of the months of pre-planning, it was very difficult to relax and enjoy myself. Canterbury on the other hand was somewhere I could let my hair down and get into some serious beer sampling.
Kent Beer Festival, Merton Farm, Canterbury
Last years Kent Festival was the 40th such event, and was memorable for being organiser Gill Keay’s last festival. Gill had enjoyed an un-broken run of being in charge of all 40 festivals; an achievement which is almost certainly unequalled in the annals of the Campaign for Real Ale. This year, she will be able to take a well-earned rest and enjoy the festival, rather than having to worry about how things are going. Mind you, she looked pretty laid back last year; something which can surely only come with the wisdom and hindsight of running festivals over a period of  four decades!

As for the Spa Valley event; it was a qualified success, but unlike the previous year was not a complete sell-out. Apart from the bulk of the beer, which is sold at SVR’s Tunbridge Wells West HQ, there are bars at the two stations down the line (Groombridge & Eridge), as well as on the trains. This makes the event a logistical nightmare, especially as communications with the other two stations are patchy at best, due to poor mobile phone reception. Looking back it’s difficult to remember which beers really stood out, but I do recall some excellent porters from the likes of Hastings, Sambrooks and Portobello, together with some equally excellent “Green Hop” ales.

For the past three years our festival has made a feature of these seasonal specials, especially as the event coincides with the end of the hop-picking season It was therefore especially good to see local brewer, Larkins collect the “Beer of the Festival” award for their Green Hop Beer. We will be visiting the brewery to present their certificate later this year.

Last month I took the decision to step down as beer buyer for the festival, and also from the organising committee. 2015 sees both Eileen and I celebrating a significant birthday ( NOT 21 again!), and with this in mind we will both be focused on other things. The year also marks 30 years of my involvement with West Kent CAMRA – literally half a lifetime (oops, I given away  which significant birthday we'll be marking), so it seemed doubly appropriate to stand down from playing an active role within the branch. I will still attend branch socials as well as other activities which take my fancy, but I can’t describe the feeling of relief and lightening of the load this decision had brought.

Cooper's Arms, Crowborough
The pub beer festival I went to was the famous Dark & Delicious Winter Beers Festival held annually at the unspoilt Cooper’s Arms in Crowborough. A bus ride followed by a 20 minute walk brings one to this delightful pub on the outskirts of Crowborough and on the edge of Ashdown Forest. Crowborough is also the highest town in South East England, and has a reputation for being cold and windy. The Cooper’s is a “quiet pub”, in respect of no recorded music or fruit machines. I first knew it when it was a Charrington’s pub, back in the 1980’s. It then passed to Greene King, before eventually becoming a free-house.

There were twelve Dark and Delicious Winter beers on sale, all dispensed from several banks of hand pumps dotted along the bar. The beers which really stood out were Dark Monro, a 4.0% chocolate and coffee flavoured dark mild from Highland Brewery. (Their 5.0% Oat Stout was also very good). “Rhatas”, a rich dark bitter from Black Dog Brewery of Melmerby, North Yorkshire, was very enjoyable, but the star of the show, as far as I was concerned, was the award-winning 1872 Porter from Elland Brewery in West Yorkshire. This was a most enjoyable festival and I hope to be going along to this year’s event, which is probably coming up at the beginning of next month.

Tillingbourne presentation
At the beginning of March a group of West Kent CAMRA members visited Tillingbourne Brewery, at its stunning location high up in the Surrey Hills. The brewery’s 3.3% ABV The Source had won “Beer of the Festival” at the previous year’s SVR Festival, so we were invited to the brewery to present their certificate. Travelling by mini-coach our party of 22 arrived shortly after midday on what was officially the first day of spring.

The sunny weather helped the “feel good factor”, and it certainly was pleasant being out in the early spring sunshine.We spent an interesting couple of hours looking around the brewery whilst sampling three of the brewery’s beers: Falls Gold, Bouncing Bomb and Hop Troll. Our visit was followed by a pre-booked late lunch at the King William IV in the nearby village of West Horsley.

Old House, Ightham Common
That was the only brewery visit of the year, but other highlights of 2014 included a couple of tutored beer tasting sessions. I went to the first of these events, which took place in January at the 16th Century Crown Inn at Groombridge, right on the Kent-Sussex border. Conducted by Iain, our branch chairman, we were taught how to properly assess beer by taking into account its appearance, aroma, taste and mouth-feel. The tastings were conducted on two beers from Black Cat Brewery which, at the time, were brewed just down the road. Following a change of ownership, the brewery has now relocated to Palehouse Common, which is just a few miles down the road from Groombridge.

Throughout the year there were also a number of bus rips and rambles to some of the areas most unspoilt and hard to get to country pubs plus, of course, the annual Good Friday Ramble, organised by Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA On our bus trip to the Fountain, in the tiny Wealden village of Cowden, we saw off the last of the season’s Old Ale from Harvey’s. We also re-visited the National Inventory-listed Old House at Ightham Common.
Real pie, plus Harvey's Old - Fountain, Cowden
One final point which is certainly worth mentioning was my joining the British Guild of Beer Writers; the organisation which represents all those who write about beer, from professional journalists to Bloggers like me who write purely for my own enjoyment. This was something I had been meaning to do for a long time, and having been accepted into the Guild I feel that my writing has now come of age.

So here’s to an equally beer-filled 2015!

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