Tuesday 30 June 2015

JD Wetherspoon Place 20 Pubs on the Market

A short article published in today’s Morning Advertiser, reports that J D Wetherspoon have placed 20 of their pubs on the market. The pubs concerned are all leasehold properties which, whilst mainly situated in London and the south, also include a handful in the Midlands, plus one in Scotland.
The sale is being handled by CBRE, who claim to be “the world’s largest commercial real estate services and investment firm”, and the properties are being considered for sale individually, in small packages or as a group. I have not, so far, seen an explanation as to why Wetherspoon’s are disposing of these outlets, although no doubt the company will issue a statement in the next few days.

Sennockian - Sevenoaks
One of these pubs, the Sennockian, is in nearby Sevenoaks. I am not familiar with any of the other pubs, but obviously know the Sennockian quite well. The pub is a shop conversion of what was previously a furniture shop. It is not one of Wetherspoon’s bigger outlets, but whilst it always seemed reasonably busy, I don’t think I have ever seen it heaving.

It will be a shame to see it go though as the Sennockian is definitely a cut above some other Spoon’s outlets; hardly surprising given its situation in one of the most affluent and upmarket towns in the south-east. It has also been quite innovative in its time, with several successful “meet the brewer” evenings, along with a number of “tap takeovers”.

My thoughts are with the staff of all these JDW outlets, who must obviously be concerned about their job security and future prospects.

Full details of the 20 pubs on the list can be found by clicking on this link to the Morning Advertiser.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Bamberg Revisited

Schlenkerla Rauchbier

On the final day of my visit to Nuremberg I had the choice of either going along to the Fränkisches Bierfest beer festival again, or venturing somewhere further a field. As I had bought an all zones Tages Ticket Plus the previous day, and it being the weekend, the ticket was still valid. It therefore seemed daft not to take advantage of the ticket.

Bamberg was the logical choice as it would have been unforgivable for me not to have visited this beer lovers’ city whilst staying in the region. This would be my fifth visit to this lovely, compact baroque gem of a city, even though it would be a relatively short one. So after checking out of my hotel, leaving my suitcase in one of the left luggage lockers at Nuremberg station, I boarded a train heading off to Bamberg.

After the slow train I’d been on the previous day, it was nice to be on the Regio-Express, which stopped at just a handful of stations. Consequently, some 45 minutes later, the train was puling into Bamberg. After overnight thunder and rain, the sky had started to clear, but it was still quite muggy out. I exited the station and headed into town, with just one destination in mind; the world renowned Schlenkerla Tavern right in the heart of the old city.

Bamberg was, as expected, busy with tourists, but for some reason there weren’t many of them in Schlenkerla; in fact there was room in the left-hand bar, which being the haunt of regulars and locals, is normally packed. I sat at the end of one of the long tables close to the window, and after attracting the attention of the Kellnerin, ordered myself a Seidla (half litre glass) of Schlenkerla’s famous smoke (Rauch) Märzen beer. One mouthful was sufficient for me to renew my acquaintance with this world classic beer. Coal black in appearance and topped with a delicate white lacy head, but most important of all it had that wonderful smokiness which people either love or hate. Fortunately I love it; as do many other people, not just from within Bamberg, or indeed Franconia, but from all over the world.
Bierstubla Schlenkerla
 Some beer enthusiasts have accused the brewery recently of “dumbing down” the beer, as many first-time drinkers were rumoured to find the characteristic smokiness just too intense. I disagree, and even though it is nearly five years since I last drank the draught version, I found the beer as full of character as ever, with an intense smoky character imparted by the beech wood-kilned malt. Possibly the aroma may not have been as intense as it once was, but the distinctive taste was definitely there.

Hotel Alt Ringlein
My intention was to just have the one beer at Schlenkerla before moving on; perhaps out to the nearby suburb of  Wunderburg for some Mahr’s beer, and then to end up at Café Abseits – conveniently close to the station and the train back to Nuremberg. I modified this plan when I noticed, through the open window, the Hotel Alt Ringlein just across the street from where I was sitting. A sign outside indicated that Mahrs Ungespundetes was on sale there, meaning a bus ride out to Wunderburg would not be necessary.
A substantial lunch

However, as I sat there enjoying my excellent Märzen, I realised it would be a shame just to have the one. Besides, it was lunchtime and with an evening flight home, there would be precious little opportunity to grab some thing to eat later on. Consequently I ordered a dish of roast pork with Knodl (potato dumpling), plus Wirsing (puréed green cabbage-tastes much better than it looks or sounds!), plus of course, another Rauchbier.

It was very pleasant sitting in the taproom of the centuries old Schlenkerla Tavern, watching the world go by through the open window, but also enjoying the timeless atmosphere inside the pub. There were a couple of locals sitting at the Stammtisch. They obviously knew the waitress, as she went and sat with them whilst taking a break for her lunch. There were also two Chinese ladies tucking in to a substantial lunch themselves. They smiled and waved at me, as I took a few general photos.
Enjoying lunch and a Rauchbier

I could easily have stayed for a third beer, but time was getting on and I wanted to squeeze in a visit to Café Abseits whilst still allowing plenty of time to get back to Nuremberg, retrieve my luggage and then get to the airport. Consequently I made my way back to Bamberg station, and crossed beneath the tracks via the underpass, before making my way to Abseits. It was a similar hot day back in 2013, when my son and I had first visited Bamberg’s premier beer pub, and like then I ended up in the small, shady beer garden behind the pub.
Café Abseits
I found myself an empty table and after perusing the substantial beer menu, ordered myself a beer. Huppendorfer Vollbier was my first choice; an amber coloured draught beer, which slipped down really well. I followed it with a bottled Hummel Kellerbier which, although good, was perhaps not quite as enjoyable as the first beer.

Now I don’t know why I didn’t look at the back pages of the beer menu, as it wasn’t until I was getting ready to leave, with the aim of catching the 17:00 train that I saw there were several bottles beers brewed at the world-famous Weyermann Maltings, just a short distance away from the pub. The beers included a Rauchbier, plus a Porter, and it was a shame I missed them. It was also a shame I didn’t get the chance to introduce myself to Gerhard Schoolman, Café Abseits’ proprietor.

I am friends with Gerhard on Facebook, but then so are countless other beer lovers from around the world, so I wouldn't expect him to know me from Adam. I did see him on several occasions, bringing various things down from the kitchen, but he looked rather busy and a little flustered. A better time would perhaps have been early evening, in the pub itself, whist things are still quiet. So there are two things to be done on my next visit; try some of the Weyermann beers, plus say hello and introduce myself to Gerhard Schoolman
Huppendorfer Vollbier

I left the pub and walked the short distance back to the station. I had misread the timetable, and the train I’d planned to catch didn’t run on Sundays. I didn’t have too long to wait for one though, and after a 45 minute journey, through the pleasant Franconian countryside, I was back in Nuremberg.

After retrieving my case from the left luggage lockers, I made my way to the airport, arriving in plenty of time to catch my flight. I could probably have stayed for a few more beers at Café Abseits, but it was better to arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare, than to be stuck somewhere wondering whether I would make the flight or not. And as for Bamberg, it is still as lovely as ever and didn’t appear completely over-run with tourists.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Pub Closures – A Kent Village’s Experience

Hadlow Tower - local landmark
I was prompted to write this piece following a drive through the village of Hadlow, the other weekend. The sight of a once thriving pub, now converted into an up-market village shop, set me thinking about other pubs which have closed in this large Kent village.  Sadly, what has happened regarding pub closures in Hadlow; a village which still has a strong sense of community, mirrors the situation taking place in other parts of the country.

The village of Hadlow, which lies to the north-east of Tonbridge, is known for two things. The first is its well-regarded agricultural college, whilst the second is the Victorian folly, known as Hadlow Castle. The latter with its recently restored 175 feet high tower, is the tallest folly in Britain, and from the top of the tower one can see for miles over the surrounding countryside.

Up until the middle of the last century, Hadlow was also known for brewing, and the village was home to a thriving brewing concern in the form of Kenward & Court. At its height, the company supplied 68 public houses in the West Kent area, but in 1945 Kenward & Court was taken over by Charles
Former maltings - now  desirable apartments
Hammerton & Co. Ltd. of London. Beer was last brewed in September 1949. In 1952 Hammertons was bought out by Watney's, who then sold the brewery to Charringtons. Malting continued for several years and the brewery closed in the late 1960s, having been used as a distribution centre towards the end. The buildings gradually became derelict over the course of the 1970s, but were eventually listed in July 1979. There was much debate locally as to whether the buildings should be demolished or converted, but commonsense prevailed and in 1990 the old malting buildings were converted into flats.

Given the village’s past involvement with brewing one might expect Hadlow to have plenty of pubs, but whilst this was once the case, closures over the years have reduced the number to just three; and one of these is outside of the village.

I first became acquainted with Hadlow around 36 years ago, when I ended up working in nearby Tonbridge. I was living in Maidstone at the time and my journey to and from work took me along the A26. Back then I remember counting four pubs as I passed through the village and being interested in licensed premises and brewing took the opportunity, over the space of a couple of years, to try them all. Five years later, in 1984, I moved to Tonbridge, saving a commute of around 30 minutes each way. It was around this time that the first pub closure must have taken place.

The Blacksmith’s Arms was a small pub by anyone’s standards, but it was centrally located close to the
Former Blacksmiths Arms - now a fish & chip shop
entrance to Hadlow Castle. I probably only visited it a couple of times, but it was noteworthy at the time for stocking Sam Smith’s OBB. This was at the time when the Yorkshire brewery’s beers were quite widely available in the local free-trade; before they retreated to within the M25. It had a “modern” decor of stripped pine, but that and the Sam Smiths is all I remember about the Blacksmiths, apart from it being popular with the local village “lads”. After a period as a shop, the Blacksmiths re-opened as a fish & chip shop; a function it still fulfils today, trading under the name of “The Hadlow Fryer”.

The most recent pub to close in the village is now also a shop. Situated on the southern edge of the village, virtually opposite the former maltings complex, the Prince of Wales was (still is) an attractive, weather-boarded building. Like many former Kenward & Court pubs, the Prince of Wales became a Charringtons pub, and remained so for many years. I think I am right in saying that it never sold Draught Bass, relying instead on its much inferior stable mate, Charringtons IPA. Again it was a pub I rarely frequented, and judging by its closure it appears that much of Hadlow didn’t either. It’s therefore somewhat ironic that the pub is now an upmarket, second-hand shop.
The Harrow, once thriving; now closed

Two down and one to go, and the third Hadlow pub to close was a real surprise. Situated right on the A26 and heading out of the village towards Maidstone, the Harrow was a former Courage pub which was acquired many years ago by Shepherd Neame. Whilst no architectural gem, the Harrow was a pleasant long, open-plan pub, built parallel with the road, with a garden at one end and a car-park at the other. I always assumed it was a popular pub, in spite of the beer it sold. It had a good reputation for food, and the car-park always seemed full whenever I drove past. Twenty years or so ago the firm I worked for at the time, held its Christmas dinner there. The meal was excellent and the equally good seasonal porter almost made me forget I was drinking in a Shep’s pub.

The Harrow closed in 2014, with the brewery claiming they were unable to find new tenants for the pub. It remains boarded up with the site having been sold for redevelopment. This is rather surprising, in view of the good reputation the Harrow once had, and doubly so when on considers the amount of money which Shepherd Neame put into the place. However, the brewery does have another pub in the village, and this may explain why they were not that bothered to see the Harrow disappear.

Rose & Crown
Their other Hadlow pub is the Rose & Crown, tucked away down Carpenters Lane and not far from the converted maltings of the former Kenward & Court Brewery. I don’t know the pub very well, but from what I have heard it is doing OK, and is popular with local drinkers.

So what of the other pubs remaining in the village? Well, the most centrally located, and probably the most popular is the Two Brewers. This Victorian local is owned by Harvey's of Lewes, who acquired the pub some time around 2003-2004. A former Ind Coope pub, known as the Albion, the Two Brewers went through a lengthy spell of being called the Fiddling Monkey, which was really unfortunate as people often referred to it as the Piddling Monkey! It was primarily a young persons’ pub with all that entailed, so it was quite a surprise when Harvey’s bought it.

Many pundits said the brewery should instead have bought the Rose Revived; the other remaining Hadlow pub which I’ll come onto shortly, but it has to be said Harvey’s have made rather a good job on the place. The Two Brewers has an open plan interior, which is divided up into a number of different drinking areas by wood panelling and some etched-glass screens. The pub also has a good reputation for food, but the main draw, as far as I am concerned, is the wide range of Harvey’s beers on offer, including the brewery’s mild, plus seasonal specials such as Old Ale in winter and the 7.5% ABV Christmas Ale over the festive period.

The final Hadlow pub is situated to the south of the village in Ashes Lane; roughly half a mile before you come to Hadlow College. Until fairly recently it was known as the Rose Revived; a name which refers to a previous landlord who bought the run-down and ailing Rose and turned its fortunes around. It is a lovely old building which is around 400 years old, but under its former ownership it was rather “cliquey”. That said it always sold a very acceptable pint of Harvey’s and often had Old Ale on in winter.

Today, it is known as the Hadlow Bar and Grill, having been bought by a highly experienced chef with good knowledge of the local area. The new owner has carefully restored the pub, adding his own touches to this well-know pub. It’s rather a shame then that I have yet to set foot in this refurbished pub, so unfortunately I can’t report much else about it at present.

What has happened in Hadlow over the course of the past 30 years, where half the pubs in the village have closed, is typical of what’s been happening up and down the country during the past few decades. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that people’s habits have changed, (I know mine have), and visits to the pub are not a common, or as regular as they once were. But for those of us interested in pub history, it makes fascinating reading, albeit rather sad, to look back at these old hostelries; all of which have closed within living memory.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Eine fränkische Tour (A Franconian Tour)

Fränkische Bierfest
Readers of my post about Fränkische Bierfest might be aware, from the comments posted, that I met up with local beer enthusiast, Erlangernick at the festival. (Erlangernick gets mentioned quite a few times over the course of this narrative, so for the sake of brevity, I will refer to him from now as EN). With close on 40 breweries with stands at the festival, some were bound to be better than others, so it was really good to be guided by someone with both knowledge and experience of the beer scene in this region of southern Germany.

I really enjoyed EN’s company. He encouraged me to converse with him in German, so the event provided a good opportunity to practise both my listening and conversational skills. The festival itself was great fun and there were lots of interesting bees to try, but it did get very busy and rather crowded; and this was on the Friday afternoon! Saturday would no doubt prove even busier, so at EN’s suggestion I decided it would be nice to get out of the city and see some of the Franconian countryside.

Before we went our separate ways, we had sketched out a rough plan that I would head out towards Forchheim; either for a visit to the Kellerwald (home in around six week’s time to Annafest), or make for the Kellers on the Kreuzberg, between Stiebarlimbach and Schnaid.  My son and I had done this a couple of years’ previously, although we had confined our visit to just one Keller; namely the one belonging to Roppelts Brauerei, just behind the brewery itself in Stiebarlimbach. It was here that we missed the last bus back to Forchheim and had ended up hitch-hiking, but that’s another story, but come the Saturday it seemed a good idea to head in that direction and see what transpired.

I had been in email and text communication with EN, and following his suggestion I purchased a Tages Ticket Plus, which not only covered all zones of the extended Nuremberg public transport area for both rail and bus services, but was also valid for entire weekend. At €18 it was an absolute bargain, as I was able to use the ticket the following day, to visit Bamberg and also to get myself to the airport in the evening for my flight home.

Brauerei Roppelt
I caught the next train to Forchheim, a slow stopping one unfortunately, but it still connected well with the hourly bus to Stiebarlimbach. My plan was to walk to the top of the Kreuzberg, whilst it was still relatively cool, have a few beers at the various Kellers and then make my way back down to Roppelt’s Keller, where I would be in a good position to catch the bus back to Forchheim.  Whilst on the bus I received a text from EN, enquiring of my whereabouts. When I informed him of my destination we arranged to meet up at Roppelt’s.

The bus ride up to Stiebarlimbach brought back memories of a similar journey undertaken almost two years previously. It was a similarly hot day, and the bus had several passengers who alighted at the village centre stop, right opposite the Roppelt Brewery; no doubt bound, as I was, for the Keller. This time I checked the bus departure times carefully, as I didn’t want a repeat of my previous experience. That done, I walked through the brewery yard, before turning left towards the woods. It was already very hot and sticky, and although it was only a short walk, I was glad of the shade and a stoneware mug of nice cool Kellerbier when I arrived at Roppelt’s.

Brauerei Rittmayer - Aisch
It wasn’t long before EN arrived. I offered him a bier, but he declined, explaining he had arrived by car, and would therefore not be drinking much. He then explained his proposal to drive the two of us around a few Kellers in the area, as there were a couple he wanted to check out, and he thought I would also like to visit some which were well off the beaten track. Too right; I jumped at the chance, so after I had finished my beer, we set off in his car in order to sample a few of Franconia’s finest breweries and Kellers. Driving through the unspoilt countryside of the Steigerwald, in search of good local beer, with some vintage Yes playing on the car stereo, made me think “life doesn’t get much better than this,” and when we arrived at our first port of call I was right.

This first stop was the tiny village of Adelsdorf-Aisch; set on a hill overlooking the River Aisch, and its surrounding meadows. On the edge of the village, and overlooking the flatlands is the Brauerei & Gasthaus Rittmayer Aisch. EN informed me that there are three breweries in the region, all sharing the Rittmayer name, but the one in Aisch is the smallest. Just up from the pub and the brewery was the village church, making up that classic combination of pub and church which is so common in English villages as well.

The pub has its own small, shady beer garden, just across the road and it was this we made for. A small hut in the corner is often used to serve beer straight from the cask, but EN said that as the day was so hot, the management would not wish to leave the beer there for any length of time. It didn’t matter, as our arrival had been noted and the Kellnerin was soon over at our table taking our order. We both went for the Hausbrauer-Bier and to eat the obvious choice was the local white asparagus, known in German as Spargel. This was my first experience of Spargel, and wrapped in slices of ham and served with boiled potatoes, it was delicious. The beer was good too, and sitting there under the shade of the chestnut tree, against the backdrop of the pub, brewery and the splendid view was really as good as things can get, so in some ways it was a shame we had to move on.
Spargel with potatoes and ham

It was a bit of a drive to the next pub and brewery; a drive which took us around a stately home. Later, when I looked at a map, I saw that we had travelled a fair distance north and were almost parallel with Bamberg, although quite a way over to the west. The village in question was Mönchsambach; a much larger settlement than Aisch, and with a substantial brewery in the form of Brauerei Zehendner. We drove into the brewery courtyard and parked the car. The place seemed very much asleep; hardly surprising given the thermometer had now reached 30˚. EN thought it would be a case of self-service, so we entered the large pub on the opposite side of the courtyard to the brewery and ordered some beer. A half litre for me and a Schnitt for EN.

Brauerei Zehender -  Mönchsambach
What is a Schnitt? “Literally translated this is German for a “cut.” Rather than tipping your glass and getting a proper fill, the barman just opens the tap for a burst and lets it hit bottom. There is a varying amount of head produced and whatever fits in the glass is what you get. Whatever the amount, you get a standard reduced-priced beer, something perhaps 20-40% off the usual price of your beer. A Schnitt is often your last beer as you are heading home or if you are waiting for friends to finish their full beers and you just don’t want them to be lonely. You are not supposed to order a Schnitt as your first or only beer, but it makes for a nice closer.” With thanks to Kevin Revolinski and his Pilsgrimage website, for this explanation.

View from Schmausenkeller
The most popular beer at Zehendner is the Lagerbier, but EN reckoned that the Export was better. He managed to get us a sample of the latter. We at outside in the shade, but it was at this point that my phone decided to die on me, so I was unable to take any photos; either here or at our next port of call – Herrmann-Keller, in a glorious country setting, on the edge of a hill, overlooking some really attractive rolling countryside. With a gentle breeze blowing and a mug of nice cool Herrmann Kellerbier, brewed in the nearby village of Ampferbach, this too was an idyllic place at which to spend an afternoon. Right next to Hermann-Keller was Max-Keller, which sold beer from Max-Bräu, who also brew in Ampferbach. However, it was closed at the time of our visit.

The final stop on our tour was the Schmausenkeller, which sells beer from Brauerei Müller who brew in the nearby village of Reundorf. Like the previous Keller, Schmausenkeller is set in glorious countryside, with wide-ranging views. However, it is a much larger, operation, with the serving area, by the side of the road (we could see an old Keller, built for beer storage set into the side of the hill) leading up to a substantial three-story building, which houses bars and a restaurant, and which allows for all-weather service. However, given the fine, warm weather, like us, virtually all the Keller’s patrons were sat outside, enjoying the beer and the views.

Enjoying a nice cool mug of Kellerbier
As I mentioned above, Schmausenkeller was our last stop, and it was time for EN to get back to his wife and hound. We had gradually worked our way back south, so EN told me he would drop me at Hirschaid, where I would be able to catch a train back to Nuremberg. On the drive back, we came across an abandoned railway line; it seems that Britain wasn’t the only country to suffer a pruning of its rail network.

EN dropped me in Hirschaid right outside the Brauerei Kraus Gasthof, where he said I would get a decent meal, plus some good beer. I thanked him profusely before he drove off, for providing me with such an enjoyable tour of the Steigerwald and for such an excellent day out. During the time we spent together, we had conversed practically all the time in German which, for me, was a great opportunity to practise.
Brauerei Kraus - Hirschaid

EN was right about Brauerei Kraus. There was a beer garden at the rear of the brewery-pub complex, with a self-service area which reminded me of beer gardens in southern Bavaria, and Munich in particular. I chose a substantial looking Schnitzel, which was cooked whilst I waited, plus a half litre mug of Kraus Kellerbier to wash it down.

Beer garden at Brauerei Kraus

I found a free table at the side of the garden and sat down to enjoy my meal and indulge in a spot of people watching. It was early on Saturday evening; the place was busy, and I guessed that some of the customers had been there for some time (one was leaning back on his chair, fast asleep!). There were plenty of families there too, enjoying the pleasant warm evening. I got stuck into my food, whilst enjoying the cool, hoppy beer. I was tempted to have another, but after I found that I too was starting to drift off, decided against the idea.
Schnitzel, chips plus Kellerbier

I wandered along to the station and caught the next train back to Nuremberg. I got a seat without any problem, but the train started to fill up as we headed towards our destination. I didn’t really notice this until we reached Fürth, as this time I really did nod off!

Footnote: a big thank-you to fellow beer blogger, Tandleman for putting me in touch with Erlangernick

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Czech Cultural Day


I promised that I would write a bit more about last month’s visit to the Czech Republic, and whilst many people could, with some justification, dismiss the whole trip as a bit of a piss-up, we did have one entire day devoted, more or less exclusively to cultural and touristy things. I say “tourist things”, but as we were already staying well away from the normal tourist haunts of Prague, Brno, Kutná Hora, Český Krumlov and Karlovy Vary we were in a good position to visit a couple of real, unspoilt gems, which few visitors from the UK get to see. The “cultural day” took place on the Thursday, which was the penultimate day of our trip.

The towns we visited were Slavonice and Telč; both similar in nature and both with an air of faded glory about them. However, as there is little about beer in the narrative, I have published the write-up on my other blog, Paul’s Beer Travels. You can read descriptions of both towns, as seen by my good self, by clicking on the above link.

Paul’s Beer Travels is still essentially about beer, but with a little more information about the places I have visited in search of the perfect pint. I have to say it’s more of an occasional blog, which is probably why it doesn’t attract that many visitors. Give the site a go though, as you might find something there which attracts your interest.

Friday 12 June 2015

Chotěboř Brewery - Czech

We visited two breweries during the recent trip I made to the Czech Republic and whilst they both made good beer, they could not have been more different. I have already written about the visit to the Bernard Brewery at Humpolec, but two days later, and on our last full day in the country, we had pre-booked a lunchtime tour of the Chotěboř Brewery, in the town of the same name.

Chotěboř is a brand new brewery, which began beer production in 2009. Despite its modernity, it follows classical Czech brewing practices, with a decoction mash regime followed by a full, ninety minute, hop-boil. The beer is then fermented in open tanks, before undergoing maturation traditional, horizontal lagering tanks.  Only the finest ingredients are used to make the beer, with Moravian malt, quality aroma Saaz hops from the famous Žatec region, and spring water from the Czech Moravian Highlands of Vysočina.

We travelled by rail from Jihlava; changing onto a rather crowded local train at the important junction town of Havlíčkův Brod.  From there it was a short 25 minute journey to Chotěboř, followed by a 20 minute walk to the brewery, which is sited just out of the town, on the edge of a forest.

There were several members of the party who, expecting a micro-brewery along the lines of Goachers, came in for a bit of a shock as we approached the brewery, and the size of the operation became clear. This was no one man operation, but a place where some significant investment had taken place. A plaque on the brewery gate indicated that some of the money had come from the European Union. The imposing new brewery building, with its outer glass wall, allows visitors to observe the brewing process at close hand. Inside the brewery uses modern production technologies for controlling and monitoring temperature stages during both brewing and fermentation, and also for the filtering and filling procedures, (both bottles and kegs).

Financed partly by the EU
So far, so good, and we were all looking forward to a look round the plant, followed by a tasting of the products. However, as we passed through the electrically-operated gates and entered the site it soon became clear that all was not well, and we were not expected, after all. It turned out that the person with whom our group leader had booked the tour with, no longer worked for the company, and although our man presented a copy of the email, confirming the tour, the former employee had not passed this on before he left. As we waited outside in the pleasant May sunshine, it seemed as though an impasse had been reached and we would not be getting our tour.

Full marks to our organiser for persistence though, as after 15 minutes or so of what must have been quite terse negotiations, he emerged from the brewery office to announce that the tour would be going ahead after all. The arrival, by car, of a brewery worker who looked as though he had just been dragged out of bed confirmed this, and a short while later we were led inside for what turned out to be a very impromptu tour.

Fermentation & maturation
Our guide spoke some English, and was able to explain the process and answer some of our questions as he showed us round. We didn’t actually see the brew-house, but after viewing various pipe work, pumps and ancillary equipment beneath it, we were shown into the fermentation building, which takes up virtually one side of the brewery. It was here that we saw for ourselves, beer fermenting in open-top, rectangular fermenters, of the sort once common in many traditional British breweries; and still in use at companies such as Harvey’s of Lewes.

Traditional open fermenting vessels
Opposite the open fermenters, was row after row of horizontal lagering tanks, where the beer undergoes a slow and lengthy maturation process. Now came the best, but most bizarre part of the tour. Our guide disappeared for a short while, before re-emerging with a tray full of glasses. He then proceeded to unscrew a thin, coiled stainless steel pipe, attached to the front of one of the lagering tanks, and began the slow task of filling up our glasses. It was slow, because as the beer was still maturing it was extremely lively, but showing the patience of a saint, our host filled all the glasses and passed them to us eagerly awaiting visitors.

I have drunk beer straight out the lagering vessel on only one previous occasion. That was at the end of a tour of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, back in 2012. This time though, instead of a small, clear-plastic cup, I had a full half-litre, and after the beer had warmed up a bit, (it is kept at just 2˚ inside the tank), the taste began to come through. We were told this was the 12˚ Premium Light Lager (5.1% ABV), and very nice it was too, especially as it was unfiltered at this stage, and completely natural.

Pouring the beers!
Unfortunately, given the time it took to pour us all a drink that was the only beer we were given at Chotěboř. We moved on to the kegging and bottling areas, but there was nothing happening here. We managed to glean from our guide that the brewery only operates two or three days a week, depending on demand. This was hardly surprising, given the size of the place and the high degree of automation.

Following an online search, I discovered that the yearly production at Chotěboř is 10,000 hl, with possible supplementary expansion of up to 25,000 hl a year. Six beers are produced; one of these though is a non-alcoholic beer. For a more details of these beers, see the brewery website here, and for a high-definition video of the brewery, click on this Vimeo link.

Station refreshment room
After our trip round the Chotěboř Brewery, we returned to the station.  Before catching the train back to Havlíčkův Brod, we called in at the substantial, and popular, station restaurant for a lunchtime drink. Chotěboř 12˚ Premium Light Lager was one of three beers on tap there; the other two being  un-pasteurised Starobrno, and a beer from Rebel, but as we were due to visit the Rebel Brewery tap later on that day, and Starobrno is a beer now owned by Heineken, I stuck with the Chotěboř.

Three beers on tap
We all managed to squeeze around a large rectangular table, enjoying the plain, but pleasant surroundings of this provincial station bar. I think the lady behind the bar was pleased with the amount of beer our party of thirteen must have got through; so long as she had enough for her regular customers, later in the day! For my part is was good to enjoy the experience of drinking in this out of the way place, and sample a piece of the real Czech Republic, in a part of the country which few UK tourists visit.

As for Chotěboř Brewery; do give their beers a try should you come across them, but if contemplating a brewery tour, double check you are still on the list before turning up!

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Fränkisches Bierfest 2015 - Nürnberg

Just 12 days after returning from my Czech trip, I found myself back at Stansted airport, embarking on another journey to foreign parts for a three night stay in Nuremberg, in order to sample the delights of the Franconian Beer Festival (Fränkisches Bierfest).

I’m not quite sure when I first became aware of this festival, but for the last two years my plans to visit it have been thwarted by clashes with other events. The year before last the festival began just a few days following my return from a business trip to Japan; whilst last year’s event was too close to the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference to enable me to do both.

This year was looking similar, but with a gap of almost two weeks in between Fränkisches Bierfest and my return from the Czech Republic, I figured I could squeeze in a short visit to Nuremberg, without attracting too many adverse comments from the family. Actually, my son Matthew had originally planned to come with me, but due to a clash of holiday commitments at his work place, had to cry off, almost at the 11th hour. Undeterred, I finalised the arrangements and set off alone.

In the shadow of the castle
This year’s festival was the 18th, and from what I understand the event has increased in size each year. However, unlike Munich’s world famous Oktoberfest, and the lesser known Cannstatter Volksfest which takes place in Stuttgart, Fränkisches Bierfest is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world; although it has to be said that us Brits are gradually becoming aware of Franconia’s authentic and tourist-free beer festivals. These are usually centred around the local church or a particular saint's day, and are known as a Kirchweih or Kerwa.

Annafest is probably the best known Franconian beer festival, and this outdoor event, held on a wooded hillside overlooking the town of Forchheim, has become increasingly popular with visitors from the UK. Two years ago my son and I had a great time there, and I know quite a few people from these shores who have done the same. Bamberg’s Sandkerwa, which takes place around the August Bank Holiday weekend, is another event which also attracts many native English speakers; although here the visitors are much more likely to come from across the Atlantic, than the British Isles.

The common theme which runs through all these German beer festivals is their emphasis on local beer. For example, the beers available at Oktoberfest are restricted to the products of Munich’s “Big Six” breweries, and then they confined largely to a single and rather strong “Festbier”, brewed specially for the occasion. Annafest offers “Festbier”, from Forchheim’s four breweries, plus a few from slightly further a field, whilst Sandkerwa is also largely restricted to the products of Bamberg’s breweries, although at least there are nine of them to choose from. 
The calm before the storm
What makes Fränkisches Bierfest virtually unique in Germany then is it offers a choice of beers, from around 40 different breweries, drawn from all over the Franconian region. In this respect it closely resembles a typical British CAMRA Beer Festival, rather than one found in other parts of Germany. It was this aspect which particularly appealed to me, coupled with the festival’s outdoor setting in the moat which runs below the impressive bulk of Nuremberg’s Kaiserburg, or Imperial Castle.

This year’s Fränkisches Bierfest ran from Wednesday 3rd to Sunday 7th June, and apart from some thunder, in the early hours of Sunday morning, was blessed with wall-to-wall sunshine. In the end I only attended two sessions; the first being on Thursday evening, and the other on Friday afternoon, from just after opening at 2pm to some undetermined time in the early evening. Both sessions were packed, although the Friday afternoon one did start out nice and peaceful.

Some points to note: there were 38 breweries in total; all but one based in Franconia. Each brewery had its own stand, and virtually all offered between two and four different beers. There was plenty of seating (UK
Starting to fill up
festival organisers please take note!), with the polished wooden tables and benches which are typical of most German beer gardens. There were also plenty of pub-type umbrellas, providing some much needed shade - essential in 30˚ of heat. Most beers were priced at €3.20 - €3.50 per half litre. A refundable deposit of €2.50 was charged on glasses, and as most were badged glasses, unique to the owning brewery, it made sense to return them to where they originated, rather than keeping the same glass with you for the duration and then having to trek back to your starting point to get your refund. Food was the usual German fast food offerings of sausages (either Nürnberger or Thuringer) in bread rolls, grilled mackerel or pizza. I did see half an oxen being prepared for spit-roasting, early on Friday afternoon, but that wouldn’t have been ready until well into the evening.

I sampled beers from 11 of the 38 breweries exhibiting at the festival. These included various Hells, Vollbiers, Landbiers, Kellerbiers, plus the odd Dunkles and Pils. All were good; with some served direct from wooden casks, although most were served from pressurised kegs. There was a great party atmosphere, and whilst most festival goers were within the 20-30 year age bracket, there was still a good sprinkling of people from other age groups. What was particularly pleasing was the number of female visitors, and I would estimate that women made up roughly 35-40% of the attendees.

Festival in full swing
All in all it was a cracking festival; better than Annafest in terms of the number of different beers available AND for the fact that half litres rather than litre Maß Krugs were the order of the day. Its central location, and stunning setting, both added to the overall appeal of Fränkisches Bierfest, making it, for me at least, a festival I very much want to visit again. If you want a beer event which combines the best of both German and British festival traditions, then this one should definitely be on your agenda. If you need more persuading still more, then take note that, unlike most UK festivals, admission is free! See you there next year, then?

Wednesday 3 June 2015

The Bernard Family Brewery in Humpolec - Czech Republic

On my recent trip to the Czech Republic, the group I was with was fortunate to visit one of the country’s most respected breweries, namely Bernard, who brew in the small town of Humpolec, which was a short bus ride away from our base in Jihlava. Bernard beers have an excellent reputation, both at home and abroad, and when you read on the company’s website the care taken over the selection of ingredients and the attention to detail in the brewing process, you can understand why.

For example, Bernard malts its own barley in a traditional floor maltings, at Rajhrada near Brno. They select only the highest quality Czech hops, ensuring the perfect balance between aroma and bitterness. They use their own spring water from the Czech-Moravian Highlands, which has the ideal attributes for brewing. They also have their own, unique yeast culture.

On the brewing side the lengthy maturation process is separated from the primary fermentation, with the former being carried out in traditional, horizontal lagering tanks. Post maturation Bernard beers are NOT pasteurised; instead they undergo micro filtration, in a process designed to maintain a fresher and more natural taste. This, the brewery claim, is what makes Bernard beers exceptional.
The brewery yard

Our visit to Bernard had been pre-arranged by our tour organiser, and took place on our first day in Jihlava. The brewery is situated close to the town centre, and was just a 15 minute walk away from the bus station. It was cold and damp on the day of our visit, with periods of quite heavy rain, but this failed to dampen our spirits. We presented ourselves at the brewery shop opposite the main plant, where we were met by our guide.

Before embarking on the tour we each had to don one of the obligatory hi-vis waistcoats which now seem to form such a feature of these types of visits. After that we were led across the road to the brewery itself. There was some work going on at the front of the main building, but we were led round the side and into the bottling hall. This proved to be a rather brief look, as the bottling lines had stopped due to a changeover of product/bottle, so instead we were led up into the impressive new brew-house.
The attractive modern brew-house
It was rather warm inside, which made a pleasant change after the cold damp conditions outside. What I found particularly impressive was the shiny, new brewing vessels were all constructed out of copper, which had been polished so you could almost see your face in them. We could see into one of the lauter tuns, which was just being cleared of spent malt grain; however, there is no getting in and shovelling out the wet grains here, as the process was fully automated. In the adjoining room were several brewing kettles, although in view of their construction they could rightly be described as coppers.

The next part of the plant was a complete contrast, as we were shown into the maturation room, where the beer cold conditions in traditional horizontal tanks for a period of between four and six weeks. The conditioning is carried out at temperatures close to freezing, so after the almost tropical heat of the brew house, the low temperatures in this particular section were really noticeable, and we were all glad when we stepped back outside again.
Traditional horizontal lagering vessels
The primary fermentation is conducted in large tall, conical fermenters, sited at the rear of the brewery. The beer undergoes seven days fermentation here before being transferred to the aforementioned maturation room.  The final area we were shown was the kegging plant, where kegs are washed and sterilised before being filled with fresh beer. There was a substantial amount of automation in this section, which included a built in check-weighing system which rejected any kegs which were below the required fill weight.

Then came the part of the tour we had all been looking forward to the most; namely the sampling of some of the products. For this we were shown into the staff canteen, several floors up and with a good view over the rear of the site. Humpolec was looking very wet and rain swept, but no matter; we were warm and dry and had several glasses of Bernard beer to enjoy. The beers we sampled were an unfiltered 12˚ light lager at 5.0% ABV, plus the 5.1% ABV dark lager. The latter in particular was very smooth tasting, but on balance, I preferred the light version. We were also given some bottles of Bernard Bohemian Ale to try. The latter is bottle conditioned, and weighs in at 8.2 % ABV.
A view of a damp and dreary Humpolec
Whilst drinking our beer, we were shown a short video which outlined the history of the brewery and which showed the contrast from 1991, when the current management team took over, to the present day. At the time of the collapse of the country’s communist regime, the brewery was known as the Humpolec Brewery and was part of the Southern Bohemia Group of breweries. The plant was on its last legs, following years of under-investment, and closure seemed inevitable, despite brewing having been carried out on the site since 1597. Local people understandably wished to see it continuing, and salvation came when three partners, Stanislav Bernard, Josef Vávra and Rudolf Šmejkal, bought the business at auction, when it was being privatised. The name “Bernard” was chosen for the new company, because it is recognised in many languages.
In 2000, the partners sold a 50% share of the business to Duvel Moortgat of Belgium. The new stakeholders have invested heavily in the company and this has paid dividends. We were told, for example, that production had doubled over the past 10 years from 120,000 to 240,000 hectolitres per annum. Bernard beers can now be found in many Czech bars, and the company currently exports to around 30 different countries. We learned that 60% of Bernard’s output is in keg, whilst 40% is in bottles. This is against the trend for the Czech market, where bottled beers command a high sales volume. Mr Bernard and Mr Vávra are still actively involved with the brewery, with the former concentrating on marketing, and the latter acting as the company’s Brewmaster. 176 people are currently employed at the Humpolec site.

At the end of the tour, we were all given a stylish badged, Bernard beer mug, plus a pen.

Traditional Czech casks - remarkably similar to those in the UK
Footnote: included here is one of the photos we were shown of the brewery before renovation. The B&W photo clearly shows a stack of traditional Czech casks, which look remarkably similar to British ones. If you look in CAMRA’s first Czech Good Beer Guide, published in 1996, author, and CAMRA founder, Graham Lees explains that up until the early 1990’s, Czech beer had been packaged in casks which allowed the beer to “breath”. The beer was delivered to the customer’s glass by an air-pressure system similar to that still used in parts of Scotland today. The result was a beer with a smooth texture and a thick dense head.

In a virtual re-run of the "kegification" which occurred  in Britain during the 1960’s, virtually all Czech breweries have now converted to keg storage and CO₂ dispense.