Thursday 30 July 2015

Two Fine Czech Brew-Pubs

There are now over 20 brew-pubs in Prague; I’ve visited just under half of them, which isn’t bad going, and the list includes, of course, U Fleků – the world’s oldest brew-pub. However, whilst one might expect the capital of the world’s greatest beer drinking nation to have a good sprinkling of such establishments, I was very impressed by two excellent brew-pubs I visited, in the Vysočina Region of the Czech Republic. This area is some distance from Prague, so is unlikely to be directly influenced by what is going on in the capital. It was therefore all the more satisfying to find these two places which were unashamedly ploughing their own furrows.

The visits to these pubs took place as part of the trip I made, back in May, with a group of friends from Maidstone CAMRA. We were based in Jihlava; a city which is almost in the geographical centre of the Czech Republic, close to the historic border between Bohemia and Moravia. I have covered the trip in some detail in previous posts, but a look back on the trip, plus a spot of on-line research, made me appreciate just how good these two brew-pubs really were.

We actually visited both establishments on our first evening in Jihlava; the first was in the town of Třebič, which was a 45 minute bus ride away, whilst the second was in Jihlava itself. We had journeyed to Jihlava earlier that day, by bus from Prague, and after checking into our respective hotels (given the size of our group we were split between three different ones), we reconvened at the bus station in time to board the 17.15 bus to Třebič. Due to road works the bus was forced to detour down some rather narrow roads and into a wooded valley, so the journey ended up taking slightly longer. I was in no hurry, as the ride opened my eyes to the attractive local countryside with its rolling hills and winding roads, lined with fruit trees, in this area, known as the Czech Moravian Highlands.

Eventually we pulled into Třebič, a largish town with an interesting, but rather tragic history. Like many towns in the region Třebič had a thriving Jewish community, but as with so many others in Central Europe this was virtually wiped out in WWII during the Nazi occupation. The Holocaust was obviously an act of pure evil, but the Nazi’s other poisonous legacy was the stirring up of hatred between the Czechoslovak and the German communities in the country; communities which, with their Jewish neighbours, had peacefully co-existed  for centuries.

At the end of the war the Czechs and Slovaks took revenge on their German-speaking neighbours, who they accused of assisting with the Nazi occupation; forcibly expelling around 3 million people of German descent. Many of these folk had been their neighbours prior to the war, and many were from families who had lived in Czechoslovakia for hundreds of years. Today, as in much of the country, there are few traces of these former communities, but in Třebič the Jewish Quarter and the Jewish Cemetery remain, and are included in the UNESCO list of world cultural and natural heritage sites.

Exterior Podklášterní pivovar Třebíč
The main part of the town lay across the river; on the opposite bank to the bus station, and it was here, on a hill in a semi-rural setting, that the Podklášterní pivovar Třebíč  Brew-Pub complex was situated. It was a bit of a hike up to there, but I was just following the rest of the group. Fortunately our tour organiser had done his homework in advance, and we arrived at our destination without any trouble. It was a pleasant evening for walking and as we ascended the hill, we turned off up a path and eventually came to what had once been a monastery. The brew-pub was just up from there; one of several buildings overlooking the former-monastery.

Across the courtyard was what appeared to be a car showroom, with some very impressive looking vintage Jaguars on display. The whole set up looked a rather incongruous and definitely out of place in this semi-rural setting. Looking later at one of the beer mats I picked up in the pub, I noticed an advertisement for Jaguar cars on the rear. I later discovered, from the Podklášterní pivovar Třebíč website, that the place was actually a Jaguar museum.  However, beer rather than cars was on the minds of most of the party, so we entered the pub, through a lobby, and found ourselves in a spacious building with a high ceiling. I suspect the building had once been a barn, but it had been converted to house a beer hall with a small bar in one corner.
Interior Podklášterní pivovar Třebíč
We sat down at three adjoining tables situated along the far wall of the pub, and here we were given menus (in English). Fortunately our tour leader spoke sufficient Czech to get by, but as we were later to discover, German, rather than English, is often the second language in this southern part of the Czech Republic; a legacy perhaps of pre-war days, although more likely due to the area’s proximity to the border with Austria.

Apart from our relatively large party, there was a handful of locals in the pub which, given its isolated setting on the edge of town was slightly surprising. People would have needed to walk there as it didn’t appear to be on any bus routes. Still, I know quite a few Biergartens in Munich where arrival on foot or by bike are the only options, and given the liking for beer which the Czechs have, surpassing even that of their westerly neighbours, I am sure a stroll up the hill in order to enjoy a few tasty mugs of beer at this excellent brew-pub, would be no great hardship.

Podklášterní pivovar Třebíč sells its beers under the “Urban” trademark. The regular beers are 11° Světlŷ Ležák “Urban”, 12° Světlŷ Ležák “Urban”, 13° Polotmavŷ  Ležák “Urban”, 12° Red Ale “Cornel”, plus various specials brews. I tried the 12° and the 13°, and both were excellent. One member of our party spotted a Rauchbier as a “special” on the beer menu, but unfortunately there was insufficient time for me to sample it.

What I particularly liked was the efficiency of the pub. There were 13 people in our party and yet the food all arrived promptly and the beer flowed freely. Like the beer, the food was excellent, and I really enjoyed my meal of pork steak and chanterelles with tagliatelle.  I would have been more than happy to have spent the whole evening there, but the last bus back to Jihlava left at 8.15pm and unless we fancied spending the night in Třebič, it was essential that we were on it.

The bus ride back to Jihlava was basically the outward journey in reverse, although by the time we arrived back it was dark. Our beery evening was set to continue though with a visit to Jihlava’s own brew-pub, Radnicni Jihlava, which forms part of an up-market restaurant overlooking the town’s main square. The actual brewpub is situated in an old cellar, in the basement of the building, but primarily because of the loud music being played down there, we decided to remain upstairs.

Radnicni Jihlava
Over the course of our stay in Jihlava we managed to visit this establishment on three nights out of four, and ended up trying virtually all the beers. Like its counterpart in Třebíč, Radnicni Jihlava was also quite innovative, with a core range of beers which were complemented by occasional brews. The latter were available in bottle form, rather than draught, and one evening we managed between us to clear out the restaurant’s entire refrigerated stock of Radniční speciál: IPA 15°. The fridges had been replenished by the following evening, but the waitresses got the message that we really liked this Czech interpretation of a traditional British beer style.

We ate at Radnicni Jihlava on our second evening in Jihlava, and I have to say my Schnitzel with potato salad was really good. The regular beers were Ignác - světlý ležák 12° (Pilsner) and Zikmund - polotmavý speciál 13° (Semi-dark).They were complemented by a quite bitter-tasting, single-hop ale. A look at the brew-pub’s website (Czech version, as the English language site is very basic), shows the brewery produces an extensive range of different beer styles, including Porter, Biére de Garde, Oatmeal Stout, plus various single-hop ales. On our last evening in the town, we tried the bottled Radniční speciál: Maibock 15°, which was excellent.

Both these brew-pubs demonstrate an astonishing degree of innovation and an impressive range of different beers and styles. This is light years removed from the usual (German) model of a light (Helles), a dark (Dunkles) plus a wheat beer (Weizen), which characterises most European establishments. The local Czechs are certainly lucky to have such places.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t think any of us realised just how innovative these two establishments were. I hadn’t done any of the pre-trip research I would normally do, as this tour wasn’t my pigeon. Instead I was relying on our party leader who, it must be said, did a really good job in organising the accommodation and transport arrangements. I was just content, for once, to go with the flow. However, if I ever find myself back in the Vysočina Region of the Czech Republic, I will certainly make a point of returning to these two excellent brew-pubs.

Sunday 26 July 2015

The Kent Beer Festival plus a Surprise Meeting

There are now 32 breweries operating in Kent, and several more are reported as being on the way. All 32 currently operating breweries were represented at this year’s Kent Beer Festival; the 41st to be precise, and last Friday I made the journey to Merton Farm, just outside Canterbury, where the festival takes place.

This Friday lunchtime visit has become an annual event for my local West Kent CAMRA branch, so in the company of five friends we caught the 10.51 train to the cathedral city and then, by means of a pre-booked taxi, travelled out to the rural delights of Merton Farm and its famous cowshed. The weather this year was quite a contrast to 2014’s searing heat. Heavy rain was forecast for later in the day, and whilst it didn’t materialise as early as forecast, it still made for a very wet end to our time in the city and for the walk home from the station.

This year the bars had been divided up into three, with one specifically for "Kent Breweries", one entitled “Dark & Fruity”, with the third reserved for “National Brewers”. The latter was perhaps an unfortunate term to use, as it brought back memories (bad ones), of the former “Big Six” national brewers; a more accurate heading would have been “Brewers from the rest of the UK”. Anyway, that’s just me being pedantic, as it was pretty obvious from looking at the programme what was meant by the term.
General view inside the cowshed

There was already quite a queue for glasses and tokens when we arrived; and that was before the first “free” shuttle bus had arrived from the city centre and disgorged its horde of thirsty punters. Fortunately, two friends had managed to arrive early, and had grabbed a table, plus eight chairs. We therefore had a base at which to park ourselves as we got down to the business of some serious supping.

I had downloaded a list of beers available on all three bars and, as in previous years, had made a decision to stick mainly to the Kentish ones. There were several new kids on the block, including Attwell’s (cloudy), G2 (very astringent), and Romney Marsh (rather good).Also new on the Kentish scene were Isla Vale and Gemstone, but I didn’t get to sample either of these.

My trip across to the Dark & Fruity Bar turned up the excellent Black Prince Porter from Bexley Brewery, the equally good Marmalady Orange from Grafton Brewery (the only non-Kentish ale I drank), plus a real turn up forth books from Shepherd Neame, in the form of Red Sails Cherry Porter. Although only 4% ABV, this dark beer was packed full of Kent Morello Cherries,  making a good combination with the porter, and proving that Shep’s can make a decent beer if they want to.

Beer of the Festival, for me, was Cattle Shed 4.5% ABV. This is a new beer, launched at the festival, from Old Dairy. It was a classic combination of biscuity English barley malt and citrus American hops; another winner from this Tenterden-based company. My only regret was their Dark Side of the Moo – a 7.0% Imperial Stout had sold out the night before.
The bar section of the cowshed

The festival was noticeably busier than last year; in fact attendances seem to be up year on year. This did mean the rows of tables were packed quite tightly together, making it difficult for anyone without a sylph-like figure to squeeze between the rows.We left the festival just after 4pm, when it closes in preparation for the manically-busy, ticket-only, evening session. 

Before leaving though I bumped into Erlangernick, who I had met in Nuremberg six weeks previously, and who very kindly took me on guided tour of some of Franconia’s best Bierkellers. It was one of those strange moments as we were literally standing next to each other at the bar, when we both turned round in recognition.

I quickly introduced him to my friends and he accompanied us back into Canterbury. Our first stop was the excellent New Inn; a Victorian terraced pub, situated down a back-street close to the city walls. This was my first visit to this excellent pub, although Erlangernick had been there before. A couple of my friends had as well, and as we gathered in the cosy front part of the pub, watching the rain outside growing heavier and heavier, we enjoyed some friendly banter, and swapped notes, with a drinker who had travelled down from Yorkshire specifically to attend the festival.
The excellent New Inn
The beer in the New Inn was excellent, and included Adnams Ghost Ship, Fuller’s Seafarer and Kent Beyond the Pale. I went for the latter; probably not the wisest of moves givens its 5.4% ABV. Later I tried a half of a beer whose name I am still trying to remember, but there was a bird depicted on the pumpclip.

The main part of our group departed for the Foundry, but I had visions of it being very crowded (it was apparently). Erlangernick and I decided to head for the Bell & Crown; a former Truman pub I have walked past on numerous occasions, but have never ventured inside. My companion recommended it, as he had been there the night before. It turned out to be a wise choice, with a good mixed crowd of people and a decent range of beers. Unfortunately, the drink had caught up with me by this point, and apart from the well-hopped and refreshing 3.8 % Gadd’s Festivale which I enjoyed, I cannot recollect any of the other beers.

Eventually, the time came for my departure; probably not a bad thing in view of the amount of beer I’d consumed, but a shame in another as I had been enjoying my conversation with Erlangernick. I said farewell, and left him to find the way back to his hotel, before trudging off through the rain to rejoin my companions and take the train home. It had certainly been a good day out as well as one with a surprise and totally unexpected meeting; confirmation, as if it was needed, of the saying  about it being “A small world.”

Tuesday 21 July 2015

The Compasses - Littley Green

The Compasses - Littley Green
In my post about the former Essex Brewers, T.J. Ridley & Sons, I wrote about a visit I made to their brewery at Hartford End, to the north of Chelmsford, and to the company’s brewery-tap; the unspoilt Compasses at Littley Green, a tiny hamlet just a mile or so from the brewery.

That visit took place in 1990 and whilst I did make a short return visit to the Compasses, a year or so later, I have longed desired to make another one. Ridley’s, of course, ceased brewing back in 2005, following the takeover of the company by Greene King, but it wasn’t until I began the research needed to bring my article about the firm up to date that I discovered that whilst the brewery has long since closed, the Compasses is very much alive and kicking; and what’s more it’s now owned and run by one of the sons of the Ridley family who were directly involved with the company right up until its sale to Greene King. I also discovered that another son had started his own brewery, and although he wasn’t allowed to use the Ridley’s name directly, he named his company after the family’s most famous ancestor, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, who was burnt at the stake for heresy, in 1555 during the reign of Queen Mary.

A return visit to the Compasses therefore was crying out to be made, and I made my intention to do this quite clear in this article, posted back in April. I was finally able to make this visit last Friday, when I broke my journey up to Norfolk, where I was going to visit my father, in order to call in for a quick lunchtime pint, plus a bite to eat at this lovely old country pub.I was able to do this because of a change from my normal travel routine. Instead of making the journey early Saturday morning, I decided to leave shortly after midday the day before, as this would allow me to make a lunchtime visit to the Compasses, whilst still being at dad’s house in time for tea. Unfortunately I hadn’t factored in the traffic, which is often notoriously heavy on a Friday afternoon. The signs weren’t looking good when I joined the queue at the Dartford Crossing, and after the traffic ground to a halt in the tunnel itself for a while, I resigned myself to a long journey.
The brewery, in happier times

The traffic did clear the other side of the river, but I then learned of further problems ahead on the A12 Chelmsford Bypass; the very same route I needed to take before turning off to Littley Green. The pub’s website informed me that the Compasses was open all day on a Friday, but would not be serving food after 2.30pm.  This then was the time to aim for and, in the end, I managed it with about 15 minutes to spare. I had planned on stopping by the old Ridley’s Brewery and taking a few photos, but decided against this in view of the tight time schedule. However, as I drove towards Hartford End and the River Chelmer, I was rewarded with a view of the brewery buildings, still standing behind the bright blue-painted wooden hoardings which now surround the site, but looking very sad and forlorn. I understand they are due to be converted into apartments, so at least part of this historic country brewery will still remain for future generations to appreciate.
Drinking al fresco

I turned right, immediately opposite the brewery, and headed off towards Littley Green. I had forgotten what a narrow road it was, but fortunately I didn’t meet any traffic travelling in the opposite direction. I turned left at the T-junction at the top of the road, and there it was, on the left; the lovely old red-brick building that is the Compasses pub. I pulled up and reversed the car into one of the spaces opposite, and walked over to the pub.Being a hot summer’s day, there were a couple of groups of people sitting outside, and whilst I would normally have joined them, (I love al fresco drinking when the weather allows), I wanted to savour and experience the pub and see if it had changed much.

Fortunately the Compasses was more or less as I remembered it, even though my last visit must have been a quarter of a century ago. The bar layout follows the shape of the building which is a long narrow middle section with extensions at both ends, sticking out at right angles. The serving area is in the middle, and being a rural pub this area has a tiled floor. A step up to the right was an area more or less cut off from the rest of the pub. Clad partly in blue-painted match boarding, and decorated with some old posters and photos this is the section I remember sitting in with my CAMRA colleagues, enjoying our beer and food, all those years ago.
Main bar area

There is a further section at the opposite end of the pub, but this is more open and not as isolated. I am not sure if this area was open to the public 25 years ago, as it may have been part of the licensees’ living quarters. After my look around, I sat myself down in the main part of the pub, opposite the bar and waited for my food to arrive. I had already bought a pint of Bishop Nick Ridley’s Rite; a traditional light bitter with an ABV of 3.6%, which made it an ideal quaffing ale. There was also a stronger Bishop Nick beer on sale in the form of the 5.0% ABV Martyr IPA, plus Welland Valley Mild 3.6% from Great Oakley Brewery. In addition, there were beers from Box Steam, Tripple fff and Skinners (Betty Stogs). The latter is a regular beer in the pub’s beer range. A number of traditional ciders were also on sale.
Gravity dispense

All the cask beers are served by gravity, direct from casks stillaged in a temperature-controlled room out the back. A window allows the curious to pep in, so being nosey I just had to have a look and take a couple of photos. This chilled room is a new addition as, although the beer was served by gravity back in 1990, there was no temperature control or artificial cooling in place back then.

The food I had ordered came in the form of a "Huffer". Traditionally a Huffer was a half a loaf of bread that agricultural workers would take with them each day, stuffed with a selection of fillings. Today, Huffers take the form of a triangular bap filled with a variety of fresh local ingredients. My ham salad Huffer was certainly the perfect accompaniment to my pint of beer. Nice though the beer was, I decided against an additional half pint; a wise decision in view of the long drive ahead of me. Instead I bought a bottle of Bishop Nick Heresy; a 4.0% ABV golden ale, to drink later.
The famous "Huffer"

I was reluctant to leave the Compasses. Not only was my visit good from the nostalgia point of view, but it was also good to see a thriving and well-run country pub, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, bustling with customers, all enjoying good beer, and equally good food, in the plain and simple surroundings of an unspoilt rural alehouse.

For those contemplating a longer stay, it is worth noting that the Compasses offers overnight accommodation in five comfortable and well-appointed rooms in a building adjacent to the pub. It is also worth noting that the pub’s connections with its former owning brewery continues, as the Compasses is owned today by Joss Ridley, who bought the pub in 2008 and has tastefully expanded and improved it during the intervening years. Bishop Nick ales are brewed in nearby Braintree by his brother Nelion. Finally the Compasses website, and the pubs overnight rooms, have been designed by Joss’s sister Alice Ridley, making the whole operation a real family concern.

Do make a point of calling in if you are in the area or, like me, are able to make the detour to Littley Green. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Hi-Tech Ticking

Several months ago I wrote what proved to be a rather controversial post about “Beer Ticking”. I won’t go into the ins and outs of the post again, but the crux of my argument was beer ticking is akin to train spotting, stamp collecting or all the other, predominantly male pursuits which involve ticking things off, categorising them and then writing it all down.

At the time I wrote the post I was aware that the world of ticking had moved on from the days of scruffy, barely-legible lists maintained in tatty old exercise books and that with the advent of the Smartphone, and the growth in associated Apps, electronic versions of ticking were now available; bringing the “delights” of this hobby/obsession to a completely new audience.

 I am assuming that most readers of this blog will either possess a Smartphone, or will be familiar with what such a device can do. With this is mind, just type in the word “beer” on Google Play or the App Store and do a search. You will see a plethora of different beer-related Apps spring up; 250 when I last looked!  Some have only tentative links to beer and some are darn-right stupid, but after sorting the wheat from the chaff, there are a significant number of Apps designed with the serious Beer Geek in mind.

Foremost amongst these are Rate Beer and Beer Advocate; both with impressive credentials and with massive followings world-wide. Rate Beer describes itself as “The world’s largest source for the information on craft beer”, whilst Beer Advocate is “An extension of the largest beer community on the planet.” 
With their rankings and descriptions, both sites are taken very seriously by those who care about these things. Like their equivalents in the world of wine, Rate Beer and Beer Advocate can probably make or break a beer, depending on the review they give. This may not be their intention, but because of the weight given to the comments, and ultimate verdicts on these sites, a beer may either be boosted to stardom, or confined to the dustbin.

Now I pride myself on not possessing a herd mentality, so I don’t tend to frequent these sites very often. I much prefer to make my own mind up about a particular beer than be guided by other people’s, often highly personal, opinions. Also, Rate Beer and Beer Advocate both have a strong North American bias, and contrary to popular (American) belief, NOT all the world’s great beers originate from the United States.

Apps which focus more upon the British beer scene, and in particular cask beer, include Perfect Pint, Cask Finder plus various brewery sponsored beer sourcing applications. There is though, another App which, although American in origin, seems to be extremely popular this side of the Atlantic, particularly amongst the craft-beer community. I am talking here about Untappd.

For the uninitiated, and according to its own website, “Untappd is a new way to socially share and explore the world of beer with your friends and the world. Curious what your friends are drinking or where they're hanging out? Just check their profile where you can toast and comment on their beers! Untappd will offer you beer recommendations based on what you and your friends have been enjoying, so you’ll have no reason to not try something new! As additional encouragement, Untappd allows you to earn a number of cool badges for completing a variety of different criteria.”

In other words it’s old fashioned beer ticking combined with social media (read Twitter or Facebook). According to the Untappd website, users can:

Explore Nearby Popular Bars & Beers. Not sure where to grab a pint? Untappd shows you popular bars nearby and what’s on tap.

Share What & Where you’re Drinking. Share reviews, ratings and photos of the beers you drink with your friends around the world.

Discover What Your Friends Are Drinking. The best recommendations come from your friends, so find out where & what they drink.

Drink New Beers, Unlock Badges: Expand your palate by trying new & different beer styles and unlock achievements along the way.

All very noble, I’m sure, but unless you’ve a narcissistic personality, why would you want to broadcast all this to the world? In fact, are you that socially insecure that you feel you have to do this to accepted by your peers? I’m obviously missing the point, as isn’t this what social media is all about? Why else would you post pictures, or even video footage showing you tipping a bucket of ice-cold water over your head?

Last year, whilst in Dublin for the European Beer Blogger’s Conference, I noticed quite a few fellow beer bloggers almost glued to this App. Now I understand that “tapping” a particular beer, in a particular pub, will leave an electronic trail which the person inputting the data can make use of the following morning; handy if your on a pub crawl and are drinking a variety of different beers. This is also handy if your memory isn’t what it was, or that too much alcohol has clouded it. I also appreciate the social side of this, in so much that you can let your mates know where you are and, more importantly, which great beers they are missing.
 More recently, on last May’s trip to the Czech Republic, there was one member of the party “tapping” beers in every pub or bar we visited. Now this particular gentleman is older than me and quite worldly-wise. He is also someone I have known for a long time, and is a person I have a lot of respect for. So without wishing to judge him in any way, I was nevertheless rather surprised to see how serious he was about using this App to tick off beers. The sight of him frantically searching for an internet connection, whenever we entered a new pub, became all too common

I chatted with him about what appeared to be an obsession, and he freely admitted that he had become somewhat addicted to Untappd. Each to their own, but to me, this was a shame, as we visited some excellent pubs and bars during the course of our stay, and to be glued to your Smartphone, instead of engaging with others in the group and taking in the general ambience of the place, seemed to be missing the point. This acquaintance of mine wasn’t the only offender in this respect; as there were a couple of other members of the party who were also doing the odd spot of “Untapping”, but he was definitely the worst.

Now a year or so ago I tried Untappd myself, for a short while, but gave it up for the very reasons highlighted above. Often I would forget to use it and sometimes, I just couldn’t be bothered. Normally, if I want to make a note of the beers I have drunk, I stick to old-fashioned paper and pen, so Untappd wasn’t really for me.

There were other reasons as well why I didn’t get on with Untappd; the prime one being my phone contract has a limited data allowance, so unless there is free Wi-Fi available in the pub, the App is of little use to me. The other snag I found was that Untappd works on the back of another App called Four Square, which you have to download separately. It is free, but in my experience wasn’t that reliable. Basically, Four Square is a location-based, social-media type of App which lets the user share information with friends and other Four Square users. A good GPS signal is necessary for it to work, which again begs the question, could you be arsed?

The irony of the whole thing is that whilst the users of Untappd might well be engaging with friends who could be the other side of the world; they are not engaging with people around them. People they are with, here and now, in the real world. In other words, they are not present and they are not living in the now.

The same of course applies, to all mobile phones; especially Smartphones. It is a sad indictment of today’s society to watch a couple, or group of people out for a meal. The majority of them will be tapping or swiping their phones; totally oblivious to what is going on around them. There is little or sometimes even no conversation going on, as each person is immersed in their own virtual reality “bubble”. When this happens with a group of friends in a pub, I wonder how many realise the irony that they have totally lost sight of why they met up in the first place, and that instead of enjoying the moment and appreciating it with each other; they would rather share it with people who are often many miles away. As far as I am concerned, this isn’t social media, it’s anti-social media!

I am certain that I have only scratched the surface of this new, social-media version of “beer ticking”, and that there are hundreds, if not thousands of dedicated users out there, all no doubt able, and willing, to fill me in further about the delights of Untappd and Four Square. Beer ticking has obviously become a lot more sophisticated and, dare I say it, a lot more cool, but in the same way that the old exercise-book scratchers lost sight of the main reason(s) for drinking beer, then I’m sure their modern day, hi-tech counterparts have as well.

Sunday 12 July 2015

SIBA South East Beer Festival 2015 - Report

This weekend’s SIBA South East Beer Festival, held at Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club, was the best to date. This annual event seems to get better each year and apart from the 2012 event, which had to be cancelled due to some rather un-seasonal flooding, the festival has gone from strength to strength. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the event has now become one of the highlights in the Tonbridge’s social calendar.

This year’s event was the 9th, and the 7th which the rugby club have hosted; the first two having taken place at the former Whitbread Hop Farm near Paddock Wood, although this attraction is now known as the Hop Farm Country Park. Before the festival throws its doors open to the public, some serious judging of the various beers takes place. A glance at the SIBA website shows the numerous categories, but whilst the results obviously matter to the brewers concerned, they make little difference to me, in exactly the same way as the GBBF results don’t either. If you are at all interested in which beers won which awards, then click on th link above.
Opening Time - Saturday

My lack of interest in the competition results does not mean there weren’t some cracking beers available; and I will highlight some of them later For me, the best aspect was the family nature of the festival, with the club’s large marquee opening out onto a couple of the pitches, giving plenty of room for people to sit out and soak up the sun, along with the beer. An extended family group, which included my wife and I, my wife’s two nieces and their respective partners, plus a few friends, visited on Saturday afternoon, and we all brought various items of food to enjoy with the beer.

Soaking up the sun
It was one of those quintessentially English summer days, made all the better by our cricket team beating the Aussies in the first test. There was even a vintage 1940’s aircraft which flew low, doing several circuits over the Sportsground, which got everyone’s attention and added to the atmosphere. Not being a plane buff, I am unable to categorically say whether the aircraft was a Spitfire or a Hurricane, but given the profile of its wings, my money’s on the latter! However, its presence certainly sparked a lot of debate amongst all who saw it.

There were around 170 cask beers on sale, all priced at £3.20 a pint; paid for by means of tokens. All the beers were entries in the SIBA South East Competition, and were sourced from brewers in the counties of Berkshire, East Sussex, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Kent, London, Surrey and West Sussex which, together, make up the South East Region. My favourites were the two offerings from Burning Sky (Plateau 3.8% & Aurora 5.6%), the three beers from Franklins (English Garden 3.8%, Smoked Porter 5.0% & Citra IPA 5.5 %.), Flack Catcher 4.4% from Flack Manor and Knight of the Garter 3.8%, from Windsor & Eton. Also scoring highly were Summer 3.7% and Mosaic Pale 4.1%, from Hammerpot, plus Thirty Three 3.3% from Brighton Bier.

Inside the marquee
I understand there were a few duds, but fortunately I had been alerted to these by friends and neighbours, the previous evening, so knew which to avoid! Not on sale were the “craft keg” beers, which were there just to take part in the competition (separate category, of course). According to a couple of friends who took part in the judging, the beers were very good, but there were problems with gas-lines and with over-lively beer (fobbing). Logistical problems also meant it was not possible to make these beers available to the public; but who knows what might happen in future years.

The only downside to this festival was the fact my American brother-in-law, who was supposed to be spending a fortnight with us, and who was looking forward to the festival, had to cancel his trip over from the US, due to work commitments. If you’re reading this Ernie, the beer was excellent and we certainly had a few on your behalf!

Thursday 9 July 2015

9th SIBA South East Beer Festival

Well it’s the big one this weekend, as the 9th SIBA South East Regional Beer Competition kicks off tomorrow on my home patch. As in previous years, the event is being hosted by Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club, and is housed in a large marquee behind TJ’s clubhouse.

The festival features 170 cask beers from the region’s finest independent brewers, and this year, for the first time the event will also feature “craft keg” beers produced by SIBA members from across the whole of the SIBA South Region.

The event opens to the public at 5pm Friday 10th July, but prior to that the serious business of tasting and judging the beers takes place. There are umpteen different categories, and from tomorrow evening the results will be available on the SIBA website. The festival then continues right through Saturday and into Sunday.

Entry is free, but you will need to purchase a glass at £2.00. A token system is in operation, with all beers priced at £3.20 a pint; regardless of strength. A range of ciders and perrys will also be available, along with a B-B-Q. On Saturday, the Acoustic Reverb Collection will provide the musical entertainment, introducing a number of up and coming local musicians.

I am planning to attend tomorrow evening (Friday), and also on Saturday, when a family group of us will be having a picnic out on the grass in front of the marquee. A full report on the festival will follow in due course.


I have been asked by one of the festival organisers, to point out that the “craft keg” beers mentioned are reserved for the SIBA competition, and will not be on sale to the public at the festival itself, so apologies for any confusion.

This is because of all the extra cooling and dispense equipment necessary for this type of beer. However, with 170 cask beers, plus 21 different ciders, there will still be more than enough to satisfy even the most hardened and fastidious of beer connoisseurs (Higgsbosun – are you reading this!!).

As for myself, I can’t wait to get stuck into the mountain of delicious pale ales, IPA’s, porters, stouts and special beers which will be on sale. Cheers, Prost, zum Wohl, a votre santé and all that!

Tuesday 7 July 2015

From the Archives - A Visit to Crouch Vale Brewery, 1994

What follows below is an article I originally wrote for my local CAMRA branch magazine, back in the mid 1990’s, about a trip the branch made to Crouch Vale Brewery, just across the water from us over in Essex. The article was far too long, so was never published; although the branch’s social secretary at the time did produce a considerably shorter article, which was more to the point and therefore much more suitable for the magazine.

I’ve updated the article slightly, and embellished it in places, having come across it whilst looking back at some old files on my computer. As it provides a bit of an insight into some fairly recent brewery history, I thought it should see the light of day. The article also highlights an excellent pub, which is well worth a visit, should you find yourself in that part of Essex.

Whilst I have enjoyed visiting many of the new micro-breweries which have sprung up in recent years, I find that they do not have quite the same appeal and attraction attached to them as their more established counterparts. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the beer they produce. On the contrary, I have found that much of it compares well with the products of the established breweries. Some of it is even better. What I am getting at, is more to do with the architectural designs of the buildings rather than the products produced in them.

The older, established breweries are invariably housed in purpose built structures, which are both attractive in appearance and functional in design  This form of industrial architecture reached its peak with the classic Victorian  tower brewery, where gravity is put to good use, allowing the flow of ingredients from one stage of the brewing process to another. In addition, such breweries often tend to be home to all sorts of interesting pieces of plant and equipment, ranging from teak-clad mash tuns, to functioning steam engines.

With a small number of exceptions, none of this applies to the new breed of micro-breweries. Although I can think of micro-breweries that occupy old barns, converted farm buildings, and redundant railway stations, new breweries, in the main, tend to be housed in modern, light industrial units, of the type which are commonplace throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom. Such buildings are functional, relatively cheap to construct, and easy to maintain. Unfortunately they have none of the embellishments, or indeed character, of their Victorian predecessors.

Crouch Vale Amarillo
Crouch Vale Brewery, at South Woodham Ferrers in Essex, was no exception to this rule, and it was outside just such a unit that a dozen or so fellow CAMRA members and I found ourselves on a sunny February morning, back in 1994. This was the prelude to a trip round this small, but well respected micro-brewery. However, if the outside of the building looked plain and functional, the inside was anything but.

We were met by Colin Bocking, one of the two original partners who had set up the brewery in 1981. Realising that we would be thirsty after our mini-bus trip up from Kent, we were each given a pint of Crouch Vale Millennium Gold, before beginning the tour. As its name suggests, this particular beer is gold in colour, and is a well-hopped brew of 4.2% ABV. Whilst we were enjoying our beer, our host gave us a very interesting talk on the brewing process in general, followed by details of how it was carried out at Crouch Vale. He also gave us a potted history of the company, and described how it was just entering into a period of expansion, thanks largely to the “guest beer” rule. All this was interspersed with amusing anecdotes, underscored by Colin's very dry sense of humour.

It is always encouraging to hear of success stories, and that of Crouch Vale certainly fitted the bill. As stated earlier, the brewery was founded in 1981 by Colin and his partner, Rob Walster and after steady, but unspectacular expansion had reached a stage where it was ticking over nicely. Then along came the 1989 Beer Orders, which opened up the guest beer market to the new breed of micros, and the company has never looked back. Rob Walster left, to set up his own beer agency and concentrate on the wholesaling side of the trade. He also bought his own pub - more about that later. Today, Crouch Vale supplies over 100 free trade outlets, as well as its own tied house. At the time of our visit this was the award winning Cap and Feathers at Tillingham, but the pub has since been sold and another purchased – the Queen’s Head in Chelmsford.

The talk was followed by a look around the brewery itself. Every available square foot of the unit seemed to be pressed into use. Most interesting was the brewing copper, sited on a mezzanine floor above our heads, and fired from below by direct gas flame.

Cap & Feathers - Tillingham
After a further pint of Millennium Gold, it was time to leave our host to get on with the brewing, and depart for the next stop on our day out. This was to be lunch at the aforementioned Cap and Feathers. The pub took a fair bit of finding, despite having been given directions from Colin, but the perseverance of our driver, and the map reading skills of the navigator within our party brought about our eventual success. So after a pleasant half hour's drive through the winding lanes of this lesser-known part of Essex, we arrived in the picturesque village of Tillingham, and parked outside the Cap and Feathers.

The Cap and Feathers was everything a village pub should be, with old oak beams, open fires, traditional pub games and a quiet, unspoilt atmosphere, enjoyed by a varied and appreciative clientele. Not only did we enjoy lunch here - courtesy of the brewery, but we were also able to sample several more beers from the Crouch Vale portfolio. These included Woodham IPA, Best Bitter and, for the braver souls amongst us, the head-banging 6.4% ABV Willie Warmer, described by the Good Beer Guide, at the time, as "a meal in a mug".

It was therefore, with some reluctance that we left, come closing time, at 3pm. Included amongst our party, was Dave Aucutt, director of the East-West Ales Beer Agency and branch chairman at the time. Dave knew the area well and was able to guide us to the third stop on our itinerary, the Prince of Wales, in the tiny hamlet of Stow Maries.

I must admit that before we arrived at the Prince of Wales, the beer was beginning to catch up with me, and the prospect of drinking yet more starting to appeal less and less. However, once we reached the pub all such thoughts vanished, for housed in a white-painted, weather boarded building, constructed in typical local style, was one of the best pubs I have been in. The Good Beer Guide described the Prince of Wales as a rural gem, and it was therefore hard to believe that only a few years previous the building had been more or less derelict. It had been beautifully restored by its then owner, who turned out to be none other than Rob Walster- the former partner in Crouch Vale, whom I mentioned earlier.

Prince of Wales - Stow Maries
What I particularly liked about the Prince of Wales was the way in which it had been divided up into a number of separate, but inter-connected rooms. There was an open fire burning in one and, from what I recall, a stove in one of the others. The decoration was provided by a number of old brewery advertisements, some of them from long defunct concerns. The floor was part wooden and part quarry tiled, and on a cold February afternoon, the pub seemed to possess a marvellous, yet tranquil atmosphere.

There was no piped or other recorded music to disturb one, or to detract from the gentle hub-bub of conversation. Moments such as these are to be cherished, especially when one is in good company, and whilst it is easy to romanticise when one has enjoyed a considerable number of pints, I have extremely fond memories of that Saturday afternoon in the Prince of Wales.

We spent a couple of hours in this wonderful pub, sampling several of the different ales that were on offer. All were in good condition, and it was with considerable reluctance that we took our leave. The journey back to Kent was uneventful; I fell asleep, and missed my first trip across the then recently opened Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at the Dartford Crossing.  So ended an excellent day out; just the thing to lift one’s spirits at, what can often be, a depressing time of the year. I kept promising myself a return visit to the Prince of Wales, but to date the opportunity hasn’t arisen.

As for Crouch Vale, they are now the longest-established brewery in the county of Essex. They have won countless awards, moved to larger premises, built a new brewery and remain independent and privately, family owned, with Colin Bocking still in charge. Rob Walster still runs the aforementioned Prince of Wales, at Stow Maries. That’s not bad going for a couple of beer enthusiasts who followed their dream and started a brewery using various second-hand items of plant and equipment.

Footnote: No photos from the original trip, I’m afraid. Back then I didn’t possess a mobile phone, let alone one with a camera! I’m not sure they were around, anyway. I did have a pretty decent SLR 35mm film camera, but that was far too big and cumbersome to take on a brewery trip!

Sunday 5 July 2015

Border Country

My recent visit to the Brecknock Arms at Bells Yew Green brought back memories of my first visit to this Victorian village local, which took place nearly 30 years ago. I was working in the village of Lamberhurst at the time, and had volunteered on behalf of my local CAMRA branch, to survey the Brecknock for possible inclusion in the Good Beer Guide.

A look at the map showed that Bells Yew Green was roughly five miles away, so a visit during my lunch hour would be perfectly feasible. The map also showed that part of the route along the B2169 was along a long straight section of road, known locally as the "Bayham Straight". After a 10-15 minute journey I arrived at the Brecknock and, after noting that the pub had two bars, ventured into the saloon.
The landlord, whose name I later learned was Martin, was happy to answer my questions and I had soon gathered all the information I required. Over the course of the next couple of years, whilst I was still working in Lamberhurst, I would make occasional visits to the Brecknock, bombing along the Bayham Straight at what seemed like warp factor nine!

Elephant's Head - Hook Green
I quickly realised there were several other pubs in the area, and during my time in that particular job I managed to visit most of them. I returned to one in particular several times, as it was one of the closest to my workplace. The pub in question is the Elephant’s Head, situated in the tiny settlement of Hook Green. Today the pub is tied to Harvey’s, but back then it was free house belonging to the nearby Bayham Estate. I had visited this historic timbered, former Wealden Farmhouse on a couple of previous occasions, the first being when I had cycled there from Paddock Wood. Back then the Elephant’s Head was about as traditional as you can get, with bare stone walls, flagstone floors and a public and saloon bar, and although the bars were eventually knocked into one, and some modifications made to the internal layout, the pub remains a fine old country pub.

I’m not certain when Harvey’s acquired it, but apart from adding a conservatory at the rear, which provided some much needed space particularly for diners, they left the pub pretty much as it was. The Elephant’s Head normally sells Harvey’s seasonal ales, alongside the regular brews. I haven’t eaten there for many a year, although the food does look good. There are open fires in winter, plus a large garden at the rear for the summer months. The only drawback is the pub is virtually impossible to reach by public transport. I have walked there in the past, with friends, taking a route from Wadhurst station, which is part cross country and part along country lanes, but cycling would probably be the best option.

Returning to Bells Yew Green for a while; the village is served by Frant station, on the London-Tunbridge Wells-Hastings railway line, making a visit to the Brecknock by train, pretty easy. The last train back is at 23.33, so a long evening in the pub is perfectly feasible. Frant village though is a mile and a half along the lane which leads off to the right of the Brecknock, and the village is home to two pubs, plus an old brewery.

The Brewery Business Centre - Frant
The latter is the former premises of George Ware & Sons and was designed by the famous brewery architect William Bradford. Bradford’s best known surviving works today are the breweries of Harvey’s and Hook Norton. Ware's brewery, on the Frant - Bells Yew Green road, was constructed in 1893. After George Ware’s death, the firm continued to be run by his sons, and was incorporated as a limited company in 1925. The company and its 12 pubs was taken over by the Tunbridge Wells brewers, E & H Kelsey Ltd in 1950, who themselves were acquired by J.W. Green of Luton. The latter then changed their name to Flower’s Brewery Ltd, after taking over the Stratford upon Avon brewery of the same name. Whitbread, ended up as eventual owners and Kelsey’s Culverden Brewery, in St John’s Road Tunbridge Wells, was closed and eventually demolished. As mentioned earlier, George Ware’s brewery is still standing, but today the building is known as The Brewery Business Centre and is home to a number of small businesses.

Abergavenny Arms - Frant
As well as a fine old brewery, albeit no longer brewing, Frant has the two pubs mentioned earlier. The first and largest of these pubs is the Abergavenny Arms Pub & Restaurant, which occupies a prominent position overlooking the main A267 Tunbridge Wells- Eastbourne road. The pub is a former coaching inn, which dates back to the 15th Century. Inside there are two large, heavily-beamed bars; one of which acts as a restaurant-cum-function room.

The beer choice today is limited to Harvey’s Sussex Best or Young’s Bitter, but at one time it was much more extensive. It is many years since I last set foot in the Abergavenny; primarily because Frant isn’t a place I visit that often, despite is proximity to Bells Yew Green. The village’s other pub, the George Inn, is also old, dating back to 1750. Harvey’s Sussex Best and Sharp’s Doom Bar are the regular beers here, although according to Whatpub, Harvey’s Old Ale is often available during the winter.

George Inn - Frant
To my eternal shame I have only visited the George once, and that was so long ago I remember little about the place. As I mentioned above, Frant is just a mile and a half in distance from Bells Yew Green, and Frant station, so a train rid,  followed by a short walk to Frant village offers the opportunity of trying both pubs. If one is still feeling thirsty, then there’s the opportunity of calling in at the Brecknock on the way back to the station.

Also well worth doing is to stay on the train one stop further down the line towards Hastings, and alight at Wadhurst station. The Rock Robin Inn, next to the station, has long been demolished to make way for housing, and the Cross Keys on the hill leading up into the village, has also been closed a long time. This pub was an early pioneering brew-pub, but on the few occasions I tasted the beer there it left a lot to be desired.

I digress; the purpose of leaving the train at Wadhurst is to walk to Hook’s Green and the Elephant’s Head. The walker will need a good map as there is a maze of small lanes in this area, and it is easy to become lost. It is probably best to stick to the lanes; they are not very busy, and there is no obvious direct foot path.
Vineyard - Lamberhurst Down
If time allows, it is worth continuing the short distance along the B2169 in the direction of Lamberhurst. At Lamberhurst Down the thirsty pub explorer will find the Vineyard, a restored 17th Century inn, close to the entrance to the local vineyards. When I worked in nearby Lamberhurst, the pub was called the Swan. I haven’t been in since the change of name, but the Vineyard is one of six pubs belonging to the Elite Pub Group; a company which describes itself as “A small family of dining pubs”.The clue is in the name, but whilst the emphasis is obviously on food, the pub does have a comfortable bar area for those who just wish to drink. Beers from Harvey’s and Westerham are the choice here.

Before wrapping up this article, I wanted to end with a brief mention of my former workplace in Lamberhurst. The village was home to Crown Chemicals, a privately-owned pharmaceutical company which specialised in veterinary medicines. I mention this because part of Crown’s village centre site was formerly the brewery and offices of Smith & Company. Smith & Co ceased brewing in 1921, when most of the firm’s 68 pubs were sold at auction. The brewery buildings were acquired the following year, by the Dartford Brewery Co Ltd.

Crown Chemicals moved to Lamberhurst during the 1940’s, after their London premises were destroyed by bombing. The laboratory building, where I worked, plus the adjoining office block, were part of the original brewery, but leading of into the side of the hill, were a couple of tunnels which had been used to store casks of beer back in the day. Unfortunately the tunnels had been sealed off (for safety reasons?), and staff were not permitted to enter them. The company relocated to the Irish Republic in the late 1980’s and the site was then sold for housing.

If you have stayed the course this far you will appreciate the rich pub and brewery heritage of this attractive border area between West Kent and East Sussex. As I have indicated, there are a number of excellent pubs here which are well worth visiting; although to appreciate them properly and make the most of any visit, a little forward planning will be necessary.