Sunday, 31 May 2015

Angelfest 4

This weekend saw our local football team, Tonbridge Angels FC, holding their 4th beer and music festival. Billed as Angelfest 4, and featuring around 40 cask ales, local ciders, plus a scattering of Belgian beers, my son and I took a trip down to the club’s Longmead Stadium for a closer look.

It took the best part of an hour to walk from our house in south Tonbridge, to the Angel’s ground at the opposite end of the town. We found the place buzzing and, unlike in previous years, the marquee which holds the event had been moved to behind one of the stands, giving much more space.

After collecting our £10 “starter packs”, consisting of a glass, plus five tokens, we set about trying a few of the beers. There were only nine breweries represented, but each had between four and six beers on sale. Apart from North Yorkshire; a brewery whose beers we rarely, if ever, see in this part of the country, all the breweries were local. Beers were sold at one plastic token per half pint, regardless of strength, which probably explains why the stronger ones sold out first.
Local brewery, Tonbridge were well represented, as were one of my favourite breweries; Gadds of Ramsgate. New to me were Bexley Brewery, and I tried both their 4.0% Golden Acre and their 4.5% Howbury. Both beers were golden in colour and well hopped using a combination of American, Australian and English hops.

I also went for a couple of porters; one from North Yorkshire and the other an old favourite of mine, Powerhouse Porter from Sambrooks. My son, Matthew couldn’t be bothered to queue for the Belgian lager, so he enjoyed a few glasses of Alsace Gold from Tonbridge Brewery, plus Pumphouse Pale from Sambrooks.

There were several live acts, although the best one, in my book, was a girl singer whose set finished shortly after we arrived. There was Thai food on sale outside the marquee plus the usual selection of burgers and hotdogs. By around 9pm the marquee was pretty full and one or two of the beers had started to run out. Unfortunately the 6.0% Thoroughly Modern Mild, from Gadds, which I had been working my way up to, was amongst the empties. Being a local festival we bumped into quite a few people we know, so news of the event had obviously got round.

We left around 10pm; mindful of the long walk back. We were tempted to call in at Wetherspoons on the way, but decided against it, even though the place looked half empty and the two bouncers on the door were standing there twiddling their thumbs.
Angelfest isn’t the most challenging of festivals for the beer connoisseur, and definitely has little to offer the “tickers”. However, as a good, local festival which appeals to a wide cross-section of the local community, it ticks all the right boxes and appears to be going from strength to strength each year. As one acquaintance I bumped into there remarked, “This is a festival where you don’t have to drink numerous halves, in an attempt to try as many different beers as possible. At Angelfest, you find one or two you like, and you stick with them.”

Later this summer, from 10th to 12th of July in fact, Tonbridge plays host to another and much larger festival. I am referring, of course, to the SIBA South East Beer Festival, which is now in its 9th year. The event takes places, as usual, at Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club, which is right in the centre of the town. There will be around 100 different cask ales to try, all brewed by SIBA members drawn from all over the south-east. I’ve already booked my place!

Vysočina Region - Czech Republic, May 2015

Town square - Jihlava on a rainy May morning
 The recent trip I made to the Czech Republic was as a member of a group of CAMRA members and friends from the Maidstone area. There were 13 of us in total; nearly all male but with a couple of wives who appreciated that this trip was not just about beer and pubs. I speak for all when I say we wanted to see beyond the tourist destination that is Prague and to experience a slice of local Czech life, scenery and culture.

What follows is a brief synopsis of the trip. I had planned to post this article on my other bog site; Paul’s Beer Travels, but as I post stuff rather infrequently on that site, and it consequently gets only a few viewings, I thought it would be better here, on the main blog site.

Ježek Brewery Restaurant, Jihlava
We based ourselves in the town of Jihlava; a city with a population of around 50,000 persons which is the capital of the Vysočina Region, on the Jihlava river, right on the historical border between Moravia and Bohemia. It is the oldest mining town in the Czech Republic. Up until the end of World War II Jihlava was the second largest German-speaking enclave in the republic of Czechoslovakia. The Germans had originally settled in the area during the Middle Ages; attracted by the opportunities afforded by the local silver mines, and they called the town Iglau, which is derived from the German word for hedgehog.

However, at the end of the war, and following the Beneš decrees, most German speakers were expelled due to their alleged support for the Nazi occupation of the country. The town was repopulated with Czech and Moravian settlers favoured by the new Communist regime. The influence of the former inhabitants’ lives on, as we discovered, for the second language of most of Jihlava’s citizens is German, rather than English but fortunately there were quite a few amongst our group, myself included, who could speak sufficient German to get by. The absence of our native tongue indicated that visitors to this area from the UK are comparatively rare, and I don’t recall hearing a single English, or for that matter American, voice whilst we were there.
Urban Brewery - Třebíč

The town is constructed on a hill, and the remains of the old town walls can clearly be seen in places. Lying beneath Jihlava is an extensive network of underground passages and tunnels, extending for a total of 25 km and occupying an area of some 50, 000 m². Although they are believed to have been excavated during the 14th and 15th Centuries by the silver miners, they are not located in silver-bearing rock. They are believed to have been constructed for a mixture of storage and defensive purposes.

With its good road and rail connections, Jihlava served as a good base for exploring this south-central region of the Czech Republic, and we travelled quite extensively during our three and a half day stay in the town. On our first evening in the town we made the hour and three-quarter long bus trip to Třebíč, which is the second largest town in the region. Here we visited the Podklášterní Pivovar, brew-pub, although from what I saw and have subsequently read, Třebíč itself appears to be a town which is well worth visiting.

Local train
The second day (Wednesday) saw us travelling, again by bus, to the nearby town of Humpolec; home to the Bernard Brewery, where we had a pre-booked tour arranged. That evening we were supposed to have visited the Jelínkova Vila & Malostránský brewery; a hotel, brewery and restaurant complex in the town of Velké Meziříčí. Unfortunately, with only 15 minutes to make the connection at Jihlava bus station, things were always going to be tight, and after our bus back from Humpolec became held up in rush hour traffic on the road into Jihlava, this trip just didn’t happen. This was the only hiccup on the entire trip, as all the other public transport arrangements worked well, and whilst an obvious disappointment it was probably just a case of "a brewery too far"!

On Thursday we switched to rail as our mode of transport, making the two hour journey to Slavonice; once an important staging post on the old coach road between Prague and Vienna, but today a town which time seems to have largely passed by. This was our “cultural day”, as after a brief look around this border town, followed by a slightly longer lunch, we re-boarded the train for a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Telč.

Main Square -  Telč
With one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, overlooked by multicoloured houses, a romantic chateau and surrounded by crystal clear fishponds, Telč was originally created as a moated fortress. It has been described as the "most perfect example of the Italian Renaissance north of the Alps". There was far more to do and see here, although our visit was marred slightly by the cold wind blowing through the town. We sought refuge from the unseasonable weather in a couple of pubs, before catching the bus back to Jihlava.

The journey back took us through some of the most pleasing countryside I have seen; with rolling hills, dark forests and stretches of verdant green pasture. Numerous fish ponds dotted the landscape, providing fresh fish for the villages we passed through on the way, as we travelled along winding country roads, lined by blossom-laden apple trees. It seemed a shame when the journey ended and we arrived back in Jihlava!
Typical rural station. Note the stationmaster with his red hat.
It was the train again for our final day in Jihlava, with a lunchtime tour booked of the Chotěboř Brewery, in the town of the same name. Our train from Jihlava dropped us at the important rail junction of Havlíčkův Brod; a town we would return to later in the day. From there we caught a rather crowded local train to the small town of Chotěboř.

We returned to the station, after our trip round the Chotěboř Brewery, for a lunchtime drink, or three, in the substantial, and popular, station restaurant, before catching the train back to Havlíčkův Brod. This town is home to the Rebel Brewery, and our itinerary included a visit to the brewery restaurant, situated in the centre of Havlíčkův Brod.

Havlíčkův Brod
After a substantial meal in the brewery restaurant, and several Rebel beers, we returned to the station for an interesting train ride back to Jihlava. Czech Railways are a bit like journeying back to the days of British Rail. Whilst investment in the rail system is starting to come through, many of the actual trains are either hangovers from a bygone era, or are other railway’s cast-offs. Our train, which was hauled by a massive locomotive, was running 20 minutes late on its journey from Prague. When it arrived we found it was made up of compartment type carriages, of the sort not seen in the UK for many years. They were, however, fondly remembered by members of our party, and we thoroughly enjoyed our journey back to Jihlava, packed tightly into two adjacent compartments.

The above is just a brief synopsis of our trip, and I intend to write in more detail, later on, about some of the places we visited, the pubs and restaurants we found and, of course, the beers we drank.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

First Stop - Prague

The day and a half I spent in Prague, prior to joining the other members of our tour group, represented my fifth visit to the city. I can therefore say I know the city fairly well; certainly the main tourist attractions. Despite this I was determined to make the most of my short stopover in the city by revisiting many of Prague’s best and well-known sights. Consequently on the first evening I caught the No. 18 tram into the city centre at alighted at Národni třida, virtually right opposite my first intended port of call and the place I had planned on having my evening meal.
Beer hall - U Medvidků
U Medvidků, (at the Little Bears), is one of Prague’s best known beer halls, but it is also much more than this as the establishment is home to a micro-brewery, a beer bar, plus a boutique hotel. On my last visit, at the end of November 2013, the beer hall had been bursting at the seams, and my wife, son and I had been unable to get a table. This time though, the place looked half empty, and I had no problem in finding somewhere to sit. I chose a table at the end nearest the main entrance, as this gave me a full view of the rest of the hall. I don’t know if there is some deep-seated reason for this, but I always prefer to sit facing the proceedings, rather than facing the wall and with my back to what is going on. Anyway, on this occasion I was dining alone, so which way to face was not an issue.

U Medvidků is tied to Budvar, and serves their 12˚beer in unpasteurised form, straight from cellar tanks. I feel it doesn’t have quite the character of Pilsner Urquell, but it is still a fine beer, and was definitely tasted all the better for not being pasteurised. I drank my way through two half litres of the stuff as the accompaniment to me meal of pork steak, cooked in beer sauce.

The hall had started to fill up by the time I finished my meal, so I decided it was time to move on. Although I had a list of some of the brew-pubs which had sprung up in the city in recent years, I instead decided to pay a return visit to U Fleků Prague’s original brewpub; an establishment which also claims to be the oldest brew-pub in the world. I am well aware that many beer writers regard U Fleků as something of a tourist trap, and whilst there may well be more than a grain of truth in this, the pub still produces what can only be described as “one of the world’s finest dark lagers”, and a definite world classic.

U Fleků
I had visited U Fleků on each of my four previous visits to Prague, so was determined not to break this record. I have fond memories of my first visit to the pub, back in 1984, when I was a participant on an early CAMRA trip to what was then Czechoslovakia. The place has obviously changed quite a bit since then, and is an obvious port of call on most tourist itineraries, but it still pervades an atmosphere of old world Prague, and its wood-panelled halls, and stone-flagged corridors, convey the visitor back to a bygone age. Also, as I stated earlier, the beer is bloody good and seems to have become much more consistent.

 I wound my way to U Fleků, through the maze of back streets and, as the pub was predictably busy, I decided to sit out in the rear courtyard. There were several groups, who looked to be from tour parties, but they were well behaved and reasonably quiet, so decision to brave the chill of the night air, proved to be a good one. The waiters outside also seemed more relaxed and there was none of the trying to press shots of Becherovka on unsuspecting customers that the pub has become notorious for. The other grouse, which many beer aficionados have about U Fleků, is that the pub serves its beer in 40 cl glasses, rather than the usual 50 cl. 

I sat there enjoying the rich chocolate-like taste of this dark  and malty13˚  lager, reflecting on the fact that it was 30 years ago that I had first set foot in this courtyard, where our CAMRA party had arranged to meet for a meal, plus beers of course, as the highlight of our first evening in Prague. How things have changed, and those die-hard communist leaders in charge of the country at the time would have a blue fit if they could see the place now. Perhaps that should be a red fit?

Two beers at U Fleků on top of the two I’d enjoyed earlier at U Medvidků, were enough for the evening, so I found my way to the nearest tram stop, and then walked the short distance back to my hotel. The next day dawned bright and sunny, and after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, I was ready to go out exploring again. As it turned out, that first full day in the country was by far the warmest and the sunniest of the entire Czech trip, with temperatures approaching the mid 20’s and wall-to-wall sunshine. I set off suitably attired in T-shirt, shorts and sunglasses, determined to do the whole Prague sight-seeing thing; even though I’d done most of it on previous visits. 

Prague Castle - Lower Entrance
I again boarded the No. 18 tram, but this time I stayed on until I reached the other side of the river, alighting at Malostranska. From there I walked short distance uphill until I came to the series of steps which lead up to the castle.  I hadn’t walked up that way before, or at least I don’t think so, as I do remember, back in 1984, walking up to Prague Castle via a series of steps, and my companions and I may well have taken that route. It was already hot in the sun and I was glad to reach the top. As with the steps which lead up to the front of the castle, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the city, spreading out below me. The dozens of other tourists though the same, and at times it was difficult to get close enough to the parapet in order to enjoy the view.

Klášterni pivovar Strahov
I continued up into the castle, and there I decided to bite the bullet and buy an admission ticket. I particularly wanted to see the historic artisan houses which make up Golden Lane - so called because there were alchemists, supposedly capable of transmuting base metals into gold, living there. This part of the castle tour alone was well worth the price of the ticket, as there were steps leading up into passageways between the thick medieval walls of the castle. There were umpteen suits of armour plus various swords on display, and also some rather gruesome torture instruments.

It was whilst walking back from Golden Lane and up between the walls of the former Royal Palace, that I had a real feeling of déjà vu. On that first visit to Prague, some 30 years ago, we had called into a real local’s pub, close to both the castle and the cathedral. On subsequent visits to the city I have never been able to find this pub again, but the high walls and narrow lane running between them felt as though they might once have contained such a pub.

Klášterni pinovar Matŭska
After looking around St Vitus’s Cathedral, I headed off in the direction of the Strahov Monastery, in order to visit the Klášterni pinovar Strahov  brew-pub. En route, and close to the Černisky Palace I passed U Černého Vola, a really basic pub which I had been in on a previous visit to Prague. I decided I would call in again, but not until I’d had something to eat and drink at the monastery. I followed a flight of steps up through a passageway which forms a short-cut into the monastery grounds, but as I made my way towards Klášterni Strahov  I noticed another establishment which I hadn’t seen before, called Klášterni pinovar Matŭska. A large banner beckoned me in; that and the prospect of sitting outside under one of the shady umbrellas. 

Lunch - Klášterni pinovar Matŭska 
I sampled their unfiltered, pale house lager, plus their dark. I much preferred the former, but I had a shock when the bill came, as both were priced at Kr95 per half litre, which was astronomical, even for Prague. The Kr59 I paid the previous night at U Fleků seemed cheap by comparison. To put things in context though, Kr95 is around £3.00, so by UK standards Klášterni pinovar Matŭska was still good value. I also had some more solid sustenance in the form of goulash soup in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. Over lunch I got chatting to an American, sitting at an adjacent table. Like my brother-in-law, he was an ex US Airman. He had been stationed in former West Germany back in the days of Cold War, when countries behind the Iron Curtain were strictly off limits to US service personnel. He was therefore making up for lost time, although he had tagged this short visit to Prague onto a much longer trip to Ireland. It was evident that he liked his beer, so I was able to recommend a few places for him to visit.

U Tři Růži
Having already had two half litres, I reluctantly decided to give U Černého Vola a miss. There was a lot more that I wanted to do on the tourist trail, so I headed back down towards the Charles Bridge and the old town area of Staré Mésto. As expected, this was serious tourist territory, but before heading to Old Town Square I had one further brew-pub to visit, in the form of U Tři Růži; one of Prague’s newest brew-pub and a welcome haven to escape the hustle and bustle of the Old Town.

I perched myself at one of the tall tables in the shadow of the in-house brewery and ordered a 25cl glass of Videnské cervén (Vienna Red 5.7%), plus the same quantity of the house Tmavé  Speciál (Dark Special 5.1%). Of the two, I preferred the Vienna Red, although both beers were very quaffable.

Brewing kit - U Tři Růži
After this all too brief interlude, it was back to the sight-seeing, followed by some shopping. I would be meeting up with my fellow travellers the following morning and leaving Prague for the town of Jihlava,  deep in the central highland province of Kraj Vysočina; right in the heart of the country. Before the day was up though I had time for one final pub visit, which was to a place called Zly Časy; Prague’s premier craft-beer pub which had the added bonus of being just five minutes walk from my hotel.

The “Evil Times” features nearly 40 draught beers, which are offered in three bars, spread over three separate floors. Rather confusingly each bar has a different selection making it difficult, especially for non-Czech speakers to know what is available where. I opted for the cellar bar, which was quite extensive and certainly much busier than the virtually deserted ground floor bar. I was feeling rather tired by this time, so only had two beers; Tambor 11˚ from the town of Dvůr Krájové, plus Uherský Brod Comenius Speciál Světlé 14°. Both were good, and both are brewed by well-respected Czech micro-brewers.
Zly Časy

With a tasty home-made beef burger and chips to help soak up the beer, it was a good end to a long and tiring day spent in the Czech capital. With the thoughts of being off to pastures new in the morning, I made my way back to my hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Back to Reality

I arrived back on Saturday evening from my Czech trip, and after spending a couple of days in Norfolk staying with my father, it was back to work with a vengeance this morning.

 There’s a lot to write about, and I intend to do this in the fullness of time, but in the meantime I just want to say how different, and refreshing it was to go to a place well off the normal tourist trails of Prague, and to see a bit of the real Czech Republic. 

We visited historic old towns, caught in a time warp, as well as work-a-day industrial towns which help power the national economy. In between was some of the most pleasing countryside I have been fortunate to gaze upon; with rolling hills, dense forests and stretches of verdant green pasture. There were numerous fish ponds dotting the landscape, providing a renewable source of fresh fish for the many picturesque villages which abound in this part of the country; settlements linked by winding country roads, lined by blossom-laden apple trees, all looking particularly splendid at this time of year.

There were also attractive old pubs serving hearty and tasty meals with plenty of excellent beer to wash the food down. Even better was the fact that both beer and food were available at prices last seen in the west many years ago. And all this enjoyed in the company of friends and like-minded people. The only thing lacking was some warm weather and sunshine; but then you can’t have everything.

I had a great time, and enjoyed sights and experiences I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Over the next few weeks, I plan to share some of them with you.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Czech Sojourn

I won’t be blogging for a week or so, as tomorrow morning I’m off to the Czech Republic for a week. Unlike my previous visits to the country, which were based almost entirely in Prague, this trip is based in Jihlava; a city which is almost in the geographical centre of the Czech Republic, close to the border between Bohemia and Moravia.

The trip has been organised by a long-standing friend who is heavily involved with Maidstone CAMRA, and has been nearly a year in the planning. There are around a dozen of us going, and between us we’ll be split between three hotels in the city. As most of the participants have been involved with CAMRA over the years, there will be a strong emphasis on beer and breweries, with several brewery visits arranged, including one to the legendary Bernard Brewery in nearby Humpolec, and a tour of Chotěboř Pivovar in the town of the same name. The former is well known to beer aficionados in the UK, and is sometimes seen at British beer festivals. It is also quite widely available in Prague. The latter is a brand new brewery, where beer is brewed following traditional Czech brewing methods, including fermentation in open vessels, followed by  maturation in enamelled lager tanks for up to ninety days.

There is also some culture included, with visits to the towns of Slavonice and Telč. The former lies close to the border with Austria and was an important staging post on the old coaching road between Prague and Vienna. The latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was created as a moated fortress. Today the city is surrounded by crystal clear fishponds and is described as the most perfect example of the Italian Renaissance north of the Alps. I’ve looked at the websites for both towns and each looks stunningly beautiful.

In many ways, this is the beauty and the attraction of this trip, as although we will be arriving in and leaving from Prague, it will be nice to get away from the tourists and experience some true Czech culture and see what else the country has to offer. We also have the advantage that out tour leader is half Czech, and as well as having been a frequent visitor to the country, he can also speak the language. Now that IS impressive.

Zlý Časy
Most of the party will be flying out on Tuesday morning, but I’ll be spending a couple of days in Prague prior to their arrival, and will meet them at the coach station. My hotel in Prague is close to Zlý Časy, a cellar bar which has become an institution in Prague's beer scene with its eclectic choice of guest beers. The pub is reported to serve 38 draught beers. A good choice of hotel Paul, but selected quite by accident I have to say!

Well it's now way past my bedtime, and I've a flight to catch in the morning, so I will see you all in a week or so's time.


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Meantime Takeover

Yesterdays’ news concerning the takeover of the long-established, pioneering craft beer brewer, Meantime of Greenwich, certainly set the blogosphere alight, with numerous writers wading in with their four penneth worth. So on the premise of if you can’t beat them, why not join them, I thought I would add some thoughts of my own to the fray.

My first thought is one of congratulations to Meantime’s founder and Head Brewer, Alastair Hook. If anyone deserved his place in the sun, then this knowledgeable and, at times, visionary exponent of all that is best in beer, certainly does. For the last fifteen years, Alastair has unashamedly ploughed his own furrow, undeterred by trends and eschewing the traditionalists who shunned Meantime because there was no cask beer in their portfolio. Instead he carried on, steely determined to achieve his ambition of putting London back where it deservedly belongs; back on the world brewing stage.

I first became aware Meantime through the lagers they brewed for Sainsbury’s, back in the early 2000’s. Included in the range were a Vienna-style lager and a Kölsch. These formed an early part of the supermarket’s “Taste the Difference” range. Well, you certainly could taste the difference with Alastair’s beers. The lagers he produced, were brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, and were full flavoured, with plenty of malt body, set against some wonderful hop aromas and flavours, from the use of traditional Hallertau and Saaz hops.

It was disappointing when Sainsbury’s dropped these beers, but Meantime went on to bigger and better things, with some innovative takes on former English classics, such as Porter and India Pale Ale. Both beers are sold in large, 750ml, Champagne-style bottles, complete with wired-in corks. They also produce an excellent London Lager, London Stout and London Pale Ale, as well as various wheat, and fruit beers.
Beer garden at Old Brewery, Greenwich
In 2010 I visited what was then Meantime’s sole pub, the Greenwich Union on Royal Hill, Greenwich. The pub is next door to the famous King Richard I; a Young’s pub, also known as Tolly’s, after the former owning brewery, Tolly Cobbold of Ipswich. I wrote about my visit to this pleasant pub here.  In the same year the company opened the Old Brewery Bar & Restaurant with a brewery in the original 1836 Brewhouse of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. A cold, but bright early December day in 2012, saw my son and I braving the cold and sitting out in the beer garden, behind the Old Naval College enjoying a Meantime Oktoberfest and a London Lager.

I alluded earlier to the fact Meantime had incurred CAMRA’s wrath by their refusal to produce any cask-conditioned ale. There is a reason for this; Alastair is of the firm opinion that oxygen is the enemy of good beer. Whilst I bow to his superior knowledge as a brewer with many years’ experience, I disagree slightly with him on this point, as in my opinion, a relatively low exposure to oxygen, at the start of the conditioning process, is beneficial to flavour development within cask beer; although obviously once the beer has finished conditioning, and is ready to be served, oxygen really does need to be excluded to prevent off-flavours caused by oxidation, from developing.
Still Meantime is his company (or should that be was?), and the draught, keg beers which Meantime turn out, together with the bottles of course, are all very good. So good that global brewing giant, SABMiller have bought the business for an undisclosed sum. The takeover makes Meantime the first home-grown British brewer within SABMiller’s global business, but an obvious sign of the regard which the brewing world holds the Greenwich based company.

As an integral part of the deal, Meantime’s existing management team, led by Chief Executive Nick Miller and Meantime Founder and Brew Master Alastair Hook, will continue to run the company supported by the current Sales and Marketing, Production and Retail teams. But with SABMiller investing heavily in their new acquisition, a two-part plan for growth will be put into place.

The first part involves expansion of the Greenwich Brewery enabling the continued growth of Meantime’s existing portfolio of modern craft beers – led by the core range of London Pale Ale, London Lager, Yakima Red and Pilsner. This in turn will lead to the company expanding beyond its traditional London heartland, providing more drinkers across the UK and further afield with the chance to enjoy Meantime’s high quality beers.

New owners
Secondly, the installation of a new pilot brewing facility at Meantime’s Greenwich brewery will be led by Alastair Hook and will become a centre for innovation and new product development for SABMiller Europe. The pilot brewery will allow Meantime to continue to create innovative beer styles for Meantime’s Seasonal, Limited Edition and permanent ranges.
All good positive stuff, and there’s nothing here that I could take issue with. Plenty of other writers and correspondents have, however; accusing the company of selling out. Well if someone came along and offered you a pile of cash for the company you started from scratch, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity?  If the deal also included expansion of your existing facility, and the chance to dedicate yourself to producing even more exiting and innovative brews, would you turn it down? Lastly, if you no longer had to worry about paying back the loans you took out to expand your facility and grow your business, wouldn’t you be a happy bunny? I know I would!

There are certainly some interesting times ahead, and I for one look forward to seeing new and existing Meantime beer becoming much more widely available, throughout the UK.

These formed an early part of the supermarket’s “Taste the Difference” range. Well, you certainly could with Alastair’s beers. The lagers he produced, were brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, and were full flavoured, with plenty of malt body, set against some wonderful hop aromas and flavours, from the use of traditional Hallertau and Saaz hops.
and, at times, visionary exponent of all that is best in beer, certainly does. For the last fifteen years, Alastair has unashamedly ploughed his own furrow, undeterred by trends and eschewing the traditionalists who shunned Meantime because there was no cask beer in their portfolio. Instead he carried on, steely determined to achieve his ambition of putting London back where it deservedly belongs; back on the world brewing stage.

and, at times, visionary exponent of all that is best in beer, certainly does. For the last fifteen years, Alastair has unashamedly ploughed his own furrow, undeterred by trends and eschewing the traditionalists who shunned Meantime because there was no cask beer in their portfolio. Instead he carried on, steely determined to achieve his ambition of putting London back where it deservedly belongs; back on the world and, at times, visionary exponent of all that is best in beer, certainly does. For the last fifteen years, Alastair has unashamedly ploughed his own furrow, undeterred by trends and eschewing the traditionalists who shunned Meantime because there was no cask beer in their portfolio. Instead he carried on, steely determined to achieve his ambition of putting London back where it deservedly belongs; back on the world brewing stage.

Yesterdays’ news concerning the takeover of the long-established,
Yesterdays’ news concerning the takeover of the long-established, 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Another Bluebell Walk

Bluebells at their finest
Three weeks after my walk through the bluebell woods to the Dovecote at Capel, I was fortunate to go on another pub walk and this time the bluebells were, if anything, even more spectacular.

This walk was to the award-winning Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald; a real gem of a village pub and a true community local. The occasion was to present licensees Matthew and Emma with their certificate for winning the West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year 2015. This worthy award follows on from their success in the same competition last year. The couple then went on to win Kent Pub of the Year 2014 followed by Finalist in the National CAMRA Pub of the Year 2014 competition.

The Windmill at Weald - our destination
Despite emailing various interested people, there were only three of us undertaking the walk in the end, as the others either drove to the pub or travelled by bus. Nevertheless it was one of the most enjoyable, and scenic walks I have enjoyed for a long time, with the route taking us through some unspoilt countryside and along little-used lanes. This was despite the route following the same corridor as the A21 trunk road and the main London to Folkestone railway.

The three of us caught the train, one stop from Tonbridge to Hildenborough station, from where we headed off up the hill before crossing into Philpotts Lane. My friend Don was leading the walk, as he had walked this way several times before. After a short distance the road crosses the busy A21 Tonbridge-Sevenoaks By-Pass, by means of a bridge, and soon after afterwards we turned off to the right and headed off in a north-westerly direction. 

More bluebells
Eventually we left the road altogether and set off across some gently undulating countryside. The route took us through a wooded area which contained one of the best displays of bluebells I have seen in a long time; it certainly knocked spots off what we saw a few weeks ago. The photos I have shown here don’t really do justice to the vivid blue carpet which lit up the banks on either side of our path.

After skirting the local golf course, we reached a track which took us past a couple of isolated cottages, before descending through some thicker woodland (and more bluebells), towards railway line. We crossed under the tracks by means of a narrow pedestrian underpass. This was the only wet and muddy spot on the entire walk. We then crossed a couple more fields, divided by a stream, before coming out onto a narrow lane. After passing a riding stables, and a farm, we reached a T-Junction, and turned right into the strangely named Scabharbour Road towards our destination of Sevenoaks Weald. I was back in familiar territory now, as I know this road quite well. Some fifteen minutes later we arrived at the Windmill keen to see which beers were on offer in order to slake our thirst.

That first, much anticipated pint is always even more eagerly awaited by the time one reaches the end of a long country walk, and this pint was no exception. As is always the case at the Windmill, there was an excellent selection of beers on sale, including local offerings in the form of Goacher’s Light, Larkins Traditional, Musket Muzzleloader and Dark Star Victorian Ruby Mild, plus Redemption Big Chief and Truman’s Swift from slightly further a field. I opted for the latter to begin with; an excellent gold coloured pale ale, well-hopped with some thirst-quenching citrus flavours.

The pub was surprisingly empty for a Sunday afternoon, but the barman told us it had been busy with diners earlier. Being the first fine warm day for some time we decided to sit out in the suntrap of a garden at the side of the pub. Here we met up with the other members of our party. A second pint was called for, and this time I went for an old favourite, in the form of Goacher’s Fine Light. It didn’t have quite as much hop character as the Truman’s, but it was still a very good beer.
The excellent beer selection

Shortly after 4pm, we were joined by the Windmill’s licensees, Matthew and Emma. After a few pleasantries, Don presented the couple with their well-deserved certificate for West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year. We stayed out in the garden chatting to Matthew and Emma whilst enjoying the pleasant warm afternoon sunshine. I also enjoyed a further two beers; Redemption Big Chief, a 5.5% well-hopped Golden Ale, followed by the chewy dark malt of the 6.4% Dark Star Victorian Ruby Mild.

Worthy winners, Emma & Matthew
We said goodbye to our hosts, and left the pub shortly after 6.30pm. Don reckoned it would take an hour to walk back to Hildenborough station, where we would be able to catch the 19.36 train back to Tonbridge. Unfortunately he slightly underestimated the time, and we arrived at the bridge over the railway, just in time to see the train departing from the station below us! Another three or four minutes and we would have been ok.

The walk back from the pub though had been worth us missing the train, as although we stuck to the lanes, we passed some really impressive and, at times, quite stunning multi-million pound properties, all tucked away down the intriguingly named Egg Pie Lane, which leads down from Scabharbour Road to Philpotts Lane. There is certainly some money tucked away in this part of the county.

Missing the train meant an hour’s wait for the next one. There used to be a pub, called the Gate, just down the hill from the station, but this was converted, years ago, into an eatery. After various incarnations, the pub is now a rather good Indian Restaurant. Eric, who was walking with us, took the opportunity to call in for a curry, but Don and I, decided to catch the up-train to Sevenoaks, where we knew we could get a fast train back down to Tonbridge.

I arrived home slightly later than anticipated, but there was a welcoming pot of beef stew waiting for me in the slow-cooker; courtesy of my lovely wife. I was rather hungry following the walk, but fortunately there was sufficient stew for a second helping.

Once again the enjoyment of a gentle ramble through the unspoilt Kent countryside, coupled with the excellence of an award-winning village pub, had proved an irresistible combination. I am looking forward to further such delights as the summer unfolds.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Mild Matters

In my last post about CAMRA’s  “Mild in May” campaign I stated that I was not a huge fan of the style, even though I have probably drunk quite a bit of mild over the course of my drinking career. So in order to set the record straight I thought I’d take a nostalgic look back through the years at some of my experiences of mild ale.

I’m not certain as to quite when mild ale slipped into my consciousness, but then when I started my drinking career I wasn’t that aware of the term “bitter” as a name for a pale and well-hopped beer either. I discovered quite a few years later that the Courage beer brand, known as PBA (Pale Bitter Ale) which my friends and I had enjoyed drinking during the early 1970’s, was in fact a light mild, rather than a bitter.
We weren’t legally old enough to drink, but that didn’t seem to matter back then, as long as you behaved yourself. It also helped that the pub we frequented in Ashford, was where one of our friend’s parents drank.

I think the first time I saw dark mild being drunk, and indeed tried it myself, was a mix, in the from of brown and mild (a half of dark mild, topped up with a bottle of brown ale). The reasons for the popularity of this mix were twofold; first it was common practice for bar staff to give a “long pull”, dispensing slightly more than half a pint of the draught component.  Secondly, the bottled brown ale had the effect of livening up what was often a flat or sometimes even stale glass of mild. As draught beer was considerably cheaper than bottled, diluting a bottle of brown with draught mild had the effect of eking out an expensive drink, whilst making an acceptable alternative. Light and bitter, based on exactly the same principle, was an even more popular and alternative choice, during this time.

CAMRA Publicity Figure
I do recall, again back in my Sixth Form days, that if one was out of pocket, it was possible to purchase a half of mild for one shilling (5p in today’s money!), but you had to be really skint to stoop that low! This though, was probably when I tried dark mild, on its own, for the first time.

Moving forward a few years, to my student days in Greater Manchester, where I discovered mild was a popular drink. By this time I had begun to take more than a passing interest in the brands and styles of beer I was drinking. There were so many different breweries, whose names I’d never heard of, in the Manchester area that it was a real voyage of discovery going to various pubs, just to try a different beer. I still look back on those times with fond memories; talk about a kid in a sweetshop.

The publication of CAMRA’s first Good Beer Guide in 1974, changed all that, as the back of the guide provided a handy reference in the form of a list of all the breweries in England and Wales, (Scotland didn’t get a look in until the following year!). The guide did help to clarify where these various breweries were based, and gave a rough (very rough), idea of what to expect in their pubs.

A student friend and I took it on ourselves to try as many of these beers as possible, and I remember cycling from Salford, practically all the way to Oldham just to sample the mild and bitter from the local Oldham Brewery. We discovered that Robinson’s Mild was a light mild; as was the mild from Hydes. We also learned that Boddingtons and Thwaites both brewed two milds apiece; an ordinary and a best mild.

Throughout this time I still much preferred bitter, as there was something very satisfying about the thirst-quenching “bite” of a well-hopped pint of this beer style. With brewers, such as Boddingtons and Holts adding considerable quantities of hops to their respective bitters, the Manchester area really was a bitter-lover’s paradise.
 After four and a half years in Greater Manchester, I moved to London, where I lived and worked for a couple of years. There was precious little mild available in the capital, not that this bothered me much, but when my then wife and I moved out to Kent; Maidstone to be precise, we found that most Shepherd Neame pubs stocked a quite palatable cask mild.

I mentioned in my previous article about the local CAMRA branch doing its best to keep this beer going in cask form, but despite members doing their best to drink Shep’s Mild, wherever possible, the brewery switched it to a keg only product during the mis-1980’s.

I now live 17 miles from Maidstone, in the pleasant market town of Tonbridge. I have lived here for over 30 years, and again we see very little mild. There are a handful of Harvey’s tied pubs in the area, and some of them make an effort to sell their quite pleasant dark mild. Apart from that, mild might make a very rare appearance at the odd Greene King pub, or sometimes as an occasional guest ale in a local free-house.

When my wife and I ran our Real Ale Off-Licence, we weren’t brave enough to even contemplate selling the odd cask of mild, despite the fact that porters and old ales always proved popular with customers. And here’s the strange thing, some old ales are very similar in taste and style to dark mild; the only difference being they are quite a bit stronger. Harvey’s seasonal XXXX Old Ale is reputed to be based on a Victorian dark mild recipe.

The low strength of mild is for me, the main reason I am not keen on the style. Their low strength might make them ideal for quaffing, but so far as I am concerned they are insipid and lacking in body. The fact that I enjoy the higher strength Old Ales, such as Harvey’s, King’s, Long Man, Hepworths etc, and also strong milds, such as the 6.0% ABV Dark Ruby Mild from Sarah Hughes, proves there is nothing wrong with the basic formulation of mild; just its strength.

Perhaps that is the answer to mild making something of a comeback!