Thursday 29 October 2015

A Few Prague Brew-Pubs

My recent trip to Prague (the second one this year), represented my sixth visit to the city. I can therefore say I know the Czech capital fairly well; particularly the main tourist attractions. On this visit I was accompanied by my son; unlike May’s visit, when I was travelling alone. We stayed at the same hotel that I had used back in the spring, and like then, on the first evening, we caught a tram into the city centre and alighted at the Národi Třida metro stop, virtually right opposite our first intended port of call.
Beer hall - U Medvídků

U Medvídků, (at the Little Bears), is one of Prague’s best known beer halls, but it is also much more than this as the establishment is home to a micro-brewery (more about that later), a beer bar, plus a boutique hotel. Unlike our visit, back in November 2013, when the beer hall had been bursting at the seams, the place looked half empty, and we had no problem in finding somewhere to sit. We chose a table at the end nearest the main entrance, as this gave us a full view of the rest of the hall. U Medvídků is tied to Budvar, and serves their 12˚beer in un-pasteurised form, straight from cellar tanks. I feel it doesn’t quite have the hop character of Pilsner Urquell, but it is still a fine beer, and was definitely tasted all the better for not being pasteurised. We drank our way through two half litres of the stuff as the accompaniment to our meal; pork steak in cream sauce for me, and goulash with bread dumplings for Matt.
U Fleků

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

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

We wound our way to U Fleků, through the maze of back streets, and although the pub was busy, as expected, we decided to escape the crowds by sitting out in the rear courtyard. The courtyard is my first memory of U Fleků, as it was there that my fellow travellers and I arrived 31 years ago, almost to the day, on a similar balmy early October evening. Then the courtyard had been full of locals; most of whom appeared to be students. Instead of the bench seating, present today, there were some rather rickety looking tables and the chairs were the metal-frame variety that people of a certain age will remember from their school days. Money was obviously tight back in communist times but, on the plus side, U Fleků was much more a local’s pub, rather than the major tourist attraction it is today.
World's oldest house-brewed beer

Back to the story; my son and I sat out chatting and enjoying a couple of mugs of the house-brewed U Fleků beer. We successfully brushed off the waiter offering “shots” of Berechovska (a herbal liqueur), basically by telling him to “go forth and multiply”, as this one was certainly more persistent than most. Apart from the purpose of ripping off visitors, I really don’t know why the management of what is otherwise an excellent establishment, persist with this practice. Having said that I noticed the price of the beer had crept up to Kr 60; more than I had paid in May, and now at a level which easily makes it the most expensive beer in Prague. Still, Kr 60 is still below the £2 mark, but it should be noted that for some years now, U Fleků  has served its beer in 40cl glasses, rather than the more usual 50cl.

So what about some of the other brew-pubs in the city? There are two, virtually next door to each other in the grounds of the Strahov Monastery, just along from Prague Castle. I visited the newest of the two back in May, and we stopped for lunch at the longer established one this October. The latter is called Klášterní Pivovar Strahov, and I understand it was one of the first of the wave of brew-pubs to have been established in Prague, following the Velvet Revolution. Klášterní Pivovar brew several English style beers (IPA and Porter), alongside traditional Czech styles, such as pale, amber and dark lagers. I first popped in back in 2009. That trip was right at the end of December, and after trudging round the castle, cathedral and palace complex, I was glad to find somewhere warm and out of the cold. I liked what I saw and have returned a couple of times since; most recently this October with Matt. We sat outside, glad of the opportunity for some al fresco eating and
Beers - Klášterní Pivovar
drinking this late in the year. I tried a half of amber followed by one of dark; both going well with the goulash soup.

Virtually next door is Velká Klášterní Restaurace. I stopped off there back in May, even though my original intention had been to visit Klášterní Strahov. It was a baking hot day, so I sat outside under the shade of a parasol. Whilst enjoying my beer, along with my lunch, I got chatting to an American visitor who was sitting at an adjacent table. Like my brother-in-law, he was a former US Airman. He told me that during the Cold War he was stationed right up close to the Czech border in what was then West Germany but, given his status, was forbidden to enter the country. This was his first visit to Prague and he was really enjoying the city.  I recommend a few places (pubs, of course!) for him to visit and before parting company we swapped names and home towns and agreed to look each other up on Facebook. I sampled both the light and the dark Matuska beer here. They were both good, but on the dear side. I understand they are sold elsewhere in Prague, but I didn’t come across them on either trip.
Matuska beer- Velká Klášterní

I have since found out that whilst Velká Klášterní Restaurace advertises itself as a brew-pub, it is no such thing. Instead the place is trying to capitalize on its location and all the people headed to Strahov. Well you can’t win them all, and despite this deception I enjoyed my visit and meeting up with Ray from Michigan.

There is another fairly recently opened Brew-Pub in the city which I visited both in May and October. On the first occasion the pub afforded a welcome escape from the baking hot sun; whilst the second time it was somewhere to escape from the rain. U Tří Růží is located right in the heart of Staré Město – Prague’s Old Town, in a maze of narrow streets. It is so well hidden that my son and I failed completely to find it on the evening of our second full day in the city.
U Tří Růží

U Tří Růží is larger inside than it looks from the street. The copper brew-kit is on your left as you enter, and then the pub opens up to the right of the central serving area. There are even some more rooms upstairs. On my first visit I enjoyed a small mug of both IPA and Dark beer, whereas most recently we opted for the Fest Bier, brewed in honour of Oktoberfest, which had just come to an end in Munich. I have to say we were unimpressed; the beer had a Belgian yeast taste about it – nothing wrong with that per se, except it was not the clean-tasting beer we were expecting and I wonder whether the brewer intended it to taste that way either. Thinking about it later, I considered the possibility that the house yeast may have cross-fertilised with a wheat beer strain (U Tří Růží does brew a Weiss Bier).
Brew-plant U Tří Růží

We were also somewhat disappointed with the welcome we received, after being more or less told to find a table upstairs. We climbed the steps, but the music blasting out from the speakers was far too loud for my liking, so much to the waiter’s annoyance we promptly descended and grabbed a table opposite a group of visiting and rather hungry, Russians. This experience rather put my son off the place, but I explained that being in the heart of the Old Town means having to cope with hordes of bewildered tourists day in and day out. The waiter relaxed his somewhat frosty manner, after we had ordered some food, so I expect my summation above is correct.
1466 lager - U Medvídků

We visited three other brew-pubs which are worthy of a post of their own, but before finishing I mentioned earlier the micro-brewery at U Medvídků. We called in on our second evening in Prague. The brewery is situated right at the rear of the premises, and on the top floor. To access it you have to walk right through the beer hall, and then climb several flights of concrete steps. Once there you can see the brewing equipment through a glass wall.

There are tables and benches, and as well as being able to sample the range of “house-brewed” beers, you can also order a meal.  We didn’t bother with the latter as we had already eaten, but the menu looked the same as what is on offer downstairs. It feels a little cramped up there, as it is literally up in the attic of the building, but it is worth the climb in order to sample the beers. We tried the 1466 lager, 6.1% ABV, which is unfiltered and un-pasteurised and the Oldgott 13° semi-dark lager 5.2%, which is also unfiltered. The latter beer is fermented and later undergoes secondary fermentation in large oak barrels. We could see these behind the glass wall.
Brew-plant- U Medvídků

If you are feeling really flush, you can also stay the night here, as U Medvídků offers a number of comfortable rooms, all fitted out in an historical style. For a central location, I can think of few places better to stay in Prague than this.

To be continued...........................

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Some Dark Beers From Beer Hawk

After having tasted and reviewed over the past 18 months several cases of beer from online beer merchants, Beer52, I received a similar request back in September, from a company called Beer Hawk. Before agreeing to review the beers, I had an interesting on-line conversation with Zoe Piper, the company’s online marketing manager, about the beers featured in their portfolio. I pointed out that along with some rather good international examples, my No.1 favourite smoke beer, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier from Bamberg was also included as a stock item.

I told her that as we were heading into autumn a selection of porters, plus a few bottles of Aecht Schlenkerla would fit the bill nicely. She kindly offered to send me a selection of porters and possibly a few seasonal brews as well. This was an offer I couldn’t refuse, although I did warn her that as I was heading off to the Czech Republic, it would be several weeks before I could get something into print.

The beers turned up whilst I was away; no problem as I arranged for them to be delivered to my workplace. Upon my return, I gave my system several days to recover from a week of steady drinking before cracking a few open. As Beer Hawk generously sent me a case of 12 beers (all dark), I have divided the review into two halves; the first half of which appears below. The second will be published in a week or so’s time; once I have finished drinking them!

Tiny Rebel - Dirty Stop Out Smoked Oatmeal Stout 5.0%
Perhaps not as smoky as its name suggests, this jet-black beer is brewed using a blend of nine different malts, which makes for a velvety-smooth stout, with coffee and chocolate aromas, balanced by sufficient bitterness to produce a very quaffable and enjoyable beer.

Tiny Rebel Brewing Co,are based in Newport, South Wales. Their Cwtch Welsh Red Ale, received the accolade of Champion Beer of Britain at this year's Great British Beer Festival.

Runaway Brewery - Smoked Porter 6.0%
Well this one doesn’t take any prisoners; instead it’s a full-on assault on the taste-buds and other senses. Again, not particularly smoky, but black as your hat and right in your face with its mouth-puckering bitterness, and almost oily mouth feel.

A bottle-conditioned beer from the Manchester-based, Runaway Brewery; this one is definitely a beer for sipping, rather than supping.

Aecht Schlenkerla - Rauchbier Weizen 5.2%
Now this is an unusual beer for sure; a Rauchbier that’s also a Weizen (wheat beer). I’ve been aware for some time that Heller-Bräu Trum (Schlenkerla) had this beer in their portfolio, but not being a fan of wheat beers (Bavarian ones in particular), I have never been tempted to try it – until now that is!

I’m certainly glad that I did, as the intense smokiness which is a characteristic of Schlenkerla beers, overcomes the banana and clove aromas normally associated with south German wheat beers. These ester-like notes are produced by the yeasts used to brew wheat beer. Schlenkerla state on the label that this beer is fermented using such a yeast, and even mention “complex notes of bananas and cloves”. The label also informs us that only the barley malt is smoked over beech wood, whereas the wheat malt used is un-smoked.

As Bavarian wheat beers are normally brewed from a 50:50 mix of barley and wheat, the smokiness of this beer is testament to the skill of the maltster, who produces the intensely smoked malt used in this beer.

The result is a very pleasant beer, which slips down rather too well. As a bonus, this beer is un-pasteurised and bottle-conditioned. It certainly takes me back to last June, when I spent a very pleasant couple of hours sitting in the timelessly old Schlenkerla Tavern in Bamberg, enjoying a few mugs of Aecht Schlenkerla.

Wiper & True - Milk Shake Stout 4.0%
I wasn’t certain I was going to like a milk stout; the name, and style remind me of Mackeson – the beer my father, who was never much of a beer man, used to drink.

This beer is Bristol-based, Wiper & True’s take on a style once famous in Bristol and the surrounding area. Dark and sweet, with a hop bitterness of just 14 IBU, this bottle-conditioned beer is brewed from a grist packed with luscious dark malts, including Munich, Mild, Chocolate, Crystal and Biscuit. Oats and a touch of wheat malt are added for extra smoothness along with vanilla. Lactose, a sugar derived from milk, is added to give the beer that rich, extra full-bodied feel.

I must confess to not having heard of Wiper & True before, but if this masterpiece is anything to go by, I’m going to search them out and try a few more of their beers.

Weird Beard Brew Co - Decadence Stout 5.5%
Presented in a nicely decorated can, this is another beer which is full on and in your face. Jet black and extremely lively; this is what stout should taste like. Thick and full-bodied, with plenty of mouth feel.  Rich with chocolate and roast coffee flavours with a touch of creaminess from the use of oats in the grist, this beer punches way above its 5.5% ABV strength.

Weird Beard Brew Co. As the brewery slogan says, "No gimmicks, no crap and never knowingly under hopped. Just great hand-crafted beer brewed in West London."

 Left Hand Brewing Company - Black Jack Porter 6.8%
I’ve enjoyed this excellent porter before, at a British Guild of Beer Writers function, back in August. The beer tastes every bit as good as it did previously, pouring with a jet black colour, but with surprisingly little head.

Brewed by the Left Hand Brewing Company of Longmont, Colorado, this fine example of an American brewed porter has a lush malty sweetness with chocolate and coffee notes, balanced by a slightly spicy hopiness. Like many strong beers, this one slips down rather too easily!


If you would like to send me beers to review, please be aware that I will give a totally honest opinion of your product. If I like it, then great, but if for some reason I don’t, then I will say so. 

If the beer is not to my taste, but has been brewed correctly, and is not suffering from off-flavours, then I will again be honest. I will probably say that the beer in question is a good example of the style in question, but it just doesn’t float my boat! You can’t say fairer than that!

Monday 26 October 2015

Ashdown Forest by Vintage Bus

Hundred Acre Wood - Ashdown Forest
On Saturday I joined a group of friends from Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA on their annual Vintage Bus Trip. The branch has been running these trips for quite a few years now. They normally take place in the autumn and, as might be guessed, involve visiting a few pubs in a location outside the branch area.

This year’s trip was to the fringes of Ashdown Forest; a place which just happens to be on the edge of the West Kent CAMRA branch area. This was handy for me as I was picked up in Tonbridge, as the bus passed through.

Veteran CAMRA member, and vintage bus enthusiast, Roland Graves provided the transport in the form of a rather splendid 1960’s coach. He also acted as our chauffeur, along with another bus enthusiast friend. Our journey took us through Tunbridge Wells and Groombridge, and then across the border into Sussex. After passing  through the tiny hamlet of Withyam we turned off in a southerly direction and up onto the Forest itself.

Before going any further, a word or two about the area we were visiting: Ashdown Forest is an ancient area of tranquil open heathland occupying the highest sandy ridge-top of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It lies some 30 miles south of London in the county of East Sussex. Its heights, which rise to an altitude of 732 feet above sea level, provide expansive views across the wooded hills of the Weald to the chalk escarpments of the North Downs and South Downs which can be seen on either horizon. Ashdown Forest is the largest public access space in South East England, and the largest area of open, uncultivated countryside in the area.

Our trip only touched on the fringes of the Forest which, unlike the high ridges in the centre, have an extensive covering of trees, interspersed with the odd clearing. It was in such a clearing that our first port of call was reached, the Hatch Inn, at Coleman’s Hatch.

I had heard of this pub before, but had never visited it; however, as my fellow travellers and I got off the coach and walked towards it, I had that sixth sense feeling that this would be a good pub. I was right; the Hatch Inn is an attractive, part weather-boarded building under a tiled roof which dates back to 1430. It started life as a row of cottages, but has been a pub for nearly 300 years. In days gone by it was the haunt of the charcoal burners who used to work in these parts and the odd passing smuggler as well!

Inside there are the low sloping ceilings, supported by ancient beams, one expects from such an ancient building. The bar occupies a central location, with space opening up either side. At one end a log fire provided a warming welcome, but of more interest to me was the row of hand pumps on the bar; one of which was advertising Harvey’s Old.

Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale is one of my all time favourite winter beers, but in previous years I have struggled to come across it outside one of Harvey’s own tied pubs. The fact it was sitting here on the bar of a free-house was rather unusual then, but nevertheless very welcoming. Almost to a man (and woman), we formed a line to one side of the bar and ordered ourselves pints of this classic dark winter ale. It was every bit as good as I was expecting; so much so that I had to have another. There was also Harvey’s Best, Taylor’s Landlord and Larkin’s Traditional on sale (good to see Larkin’s reaching out into Sussex), but the Old was the only beer for me during our stop at the Hatch Inn.

I spent my time at the pub chatting to a couple of old friends. It is always good catching up with people you haven’t seen for a while, and being able to do so within the confines of a classic old English country pub, whilst supping one of the finest seasonal beers available locally, made the whole experience even better.
Anchor at Hartfield

We left the Hatch Inn at 12.45pm, and rejoined the coach to the next pub on our itinerary and the one where we had booked for lunch. The Anchor is one of three pubs in the nearby village of Hartfield; the others being the Hay Waggon (currently closed and up for sale) and the Galipot Inn. Hartfield is the main village in the parish of the same name. Its most famous resident was A.A. Milne; author of the Winnie the Pooh books. Many of the stories about Pooh Bear were set in or around Ashdown Forest, and the famous “Poohsticks Bridge”, and the "Hundred Acre Wood", are all close by. Milne, his wife and Christopher Robin lived at Cotchford Farm, which was later owned by Brian Jones, guitarist and founder member of the Rolling Stones. Jones was tragically discovered dead in the swimming pool there in July,1969.

I hadn’t been in the Anchor before, although many years ago I called in for a drink at the Hay Waggon whilst on a cycle ride through the area. The Anchor Inn is a friendly, family orientated 15th Century Inn, which for a period during the 19th Century housed the parish poorhouse. It became an inn in 1891, and today prides itself in providing a blend of traditional and contemporary pub cuisine. The pub has two bars; the one at the front is where the locals tend to gather and is much smaller than the rear bar. The latter is a large, comfortable open space with sofas set around the fireplace, books on the shelves to read from (rather than just on display), and a piano. During the morning it doubles up as a breakfast bar and café.

Leading off from the bar is a spacious dining area, and after purchasing our beers we took our seats here for our pre-booked meal. Food wise I went for the battered cod and chips, which arrived in a gigantic portion and was both tasty and filling. So far as beer was concerned I opted for a pint of Chronicle Bitter 3.8%, brewed by the High Weald Brewery in nearby East Grinstead, but Harvey’s Best and Larkin’s Traditional were also available.

It was raining when we left the pub and boarded the coach for the ride to our penultimate stop; the Coopers’ Arms at Crowborough. Regular readers of this blog will have spotted that I have written about this pub before, and I will repeat what I said back then that it really is worth a visit if you are in the area.

The pub is an attractive late Victorian building perched on the side of the hill, in an affluent residential area to the west of the town. It is constructed out of brick and local stone, with a terrace at the front. Internally there is one long and quite narrow bar, which opens up at both ends. There are rooms leading off at either end as well. The Cooper’s Arms is a flourishing free-house which as well as supporting local breweries (in particular Dark Star), holds regular beer festivals. I have been to several of these, including a mild festival and a celebration of winter ales and, coincidentally, there is a festival taking place at the Cooper’s this coming weekend.

On Saturday there were four cask beers on sale; Dark Star Partridge Best Bitter, Kent Brewery Cobnut, plus two "green-hop" beers from Pig & Porter - Purest Green (a 5.2% Pale Ale) and Strangely Brown (a 4.8% Porter). I tried both offerings from Pig & Porter, preferring the Porter to the Pale Ale. I also tried, for the first time, Westerham Bohemian Rhapsody - a 5.0% Pilsner-style keg lager.
The coach party

We departed the Cooper’s at 4.45pm, and headed towards our final port of call. This was Groombridge Station; one of the stops on the Spa Valley Railway line between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge. As people may have noted from my previous post, the railway was holding its annual beer festival, so the idea was to allow people on the trip to sample a few beers from the bar on the platform, before heading back to Maidstone.

It was here that I jumped ship, as I had volunteered to do a stint behind the bar at Tunbridge Wells that evening. So after picking up my staff badge and grabbing a very welcome mug of tea, I said goodbye to my Maidstone CAMRA friends and hopped on the first available train back up the line. I arrived at Tunbridge Wells West in time to start my pre-arranged shift, behind a very busy bar.  I won’t go into any further details here about the festival, as I intend to write a separate post about it later on, but it was a good way to end what had been a most excellent day out.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Spa Valley Railway 5th Annual Real Ale & Cider Festival & Autumn Diesel Gala, 23rd - 25th October 2015

This coming weekend 23rd - 25th October, sees the 5th Spa Valley Railway Beer and Cider Festival taking place. This now annual event is a joint venture between West Kent CAMRA and the Spa Valley Railway (SVR), who operate the preserved railway which runs down from Tunbridge Wells West station, to Eridge. The latter station is on the mainline between London Bridge and Uckfield, and is jointly operated with Southern Trains.

This festival is more complicated than most because as well as there being beer available at SVR’s Tunbridge Wells headquarters, there  is also a selection of different beers further down the line at both Groombridge and Eridge stations. To complicate matters further there is also beer on sale on the trains which operate up and down the line.

Unlike previous years, when I was heavily involved with the organisation and running of the event; an involvement which included selecting and buying all the beers for the festival, I have taken a back-seat role. I haven’t been along to any organisational meetings, and neither have I assisted with setting up and looking after the beer. I will however, be going along on Saturday evening (normally the busiest session of the festival), to lend a hand behind the bar.

I therefore can’t tell you that much about the festival, apart from saying that the beer order has been increased to 100 different beers. The vast majority of these have been sourced from local brewers; and by local I mean Kent, Sussex and Surrey. There will be a strong focus on Green-Hop Beers, with this promotion carrying on from the recent Kent Green Hop Fortnight. I understand there will be around 20 of these special beers, all brewed using hops harvested fresh from the bines, and used within 12 hours of being picked.

One new addition to the festival, which is well worth mentioning, is that people, who operate the highly successful Fuggle’s Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells, will be taking over the refreshment car on one of the trains and offering a selection of craft keg beers, dispensed from Key-Kegs. This means even more variety and choice for visitors to the event.

Train enthusiasts too will be in raptures over the different diesel locomotives that will be operating up and down the line, because the festival is also billed as the SVR’s Autumn Diesel Gala. Diesels leave me cold; give me a living, breathing steam engine any day - but each to their own. The SVR people obviously know their stuff and diesels, apparently, are what pack the punters in.

Since its inception, this festival has always been a logistical nightmare, both in terms of ensuring all points of sale are adequately stocked and suitably staffed, but also extremely difficult when trying to forecast the likely demand for beer. Entrance to the main site at Tunbridge Wells West is free, which means the Spa Valley have no idea how many people attend each year. They know how many tickets they sell for the trains, but many of those enjoying the ride along the line are enthusiasts who have turned up because of their interest in preserved trains, rather than to enjoy the many and varied beers on offer. Those arriving at the other stations will equally not be counted, unless they have bought a ticket, but even then not everyone gets off at these stops, or wants to buy a beer. These factors all combine to make the job of estimating the amount of beer needed at these intermediate stops doubly hard.

Fortunately, none of this is my concern. Instead I will just turn up on Saturday evening, do my stint behind the bar, sample a few beers, if time allows, and then catch the train home to Tonbridge.

I appreciate this is rather short notice, but do try and come along if you can. Surely there can’t be many better ways of spending a damp, autumn weekend than sampling a few of the excellent range of beers on offer at the festival, especially when there’s the added attraction of riding up and down this preserved line, through the glorious Kent and Sussex countryside which lies between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge.

Further details of the beers and ciders, opening times, train timetables and fares can be found by clicking here on the SVR website.

Monday 19 October 2015

Sennockian to stay as JDW

This post is primarily aimed at local readers, although it may be of some interest to those living further afield.

In a dramatic about turn, pub operator JD Wetherspoon has decided to take its Sevenoaks pub off the market. The Sennockian was put up for sale back in July, as part of a package of 20 pubs scattered throughout the country. Now the company has stated the pub will remain open "for many years to come".

Wetherspoons said there had been interest from a number of prospective buyers, but it had decided to take into account the views of local customers and townspeople, who wished to see it continue as a JDW outlet. Lobbying by former Sevenoaks Lib Dem parliamentary candidate Alan Bullion, also played a key role in helping to change the company's mind.

Wetherspoon's spokesman, Eddie Gershon said: "They made it clear that they wanted The Sennockian to remain a Wetherspoon pub and we have responded to that. The Sennockian has been a Wetherspoon pub since 1999 and we look forward to welcoming customers through its doors for many years to come. We are certain that the pub's loyal customers as well as our staff will be delighted with the news."

This is obviously good news for both local drinkers and Sevenoak's residents; many of whom have frequented the Sennockian since it first opened its doors. I am wondering though, whether this change of heart is purely a local phenomenon, or will other pubs on the "for sale" list also be granted a reprieve?

With thanks to the Sevenoaks Chronicle for breaking this story.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Something New Just Popped-Up in Tonbridge

The Old Fire Station
I’ve written about this before and probably on more than one occasion, but Tonbridge is crying out for a decent pub. I’ve lived in the town now for over thirty years and have seen the closure of several Tonbridge pubs and witnessed the slow decline of many more. Fortunately the south end of the town, which is the part where I live, still has a sprinkling of half-reasonable pubs which is more than can said for the north end of Tonbridge. Here just two remain from the six which once graced this newer part of the town.

The pubs which are left are, by and large, owned by one or other of Britain’s two main pub chains - Enterprise or Punch. As such they tend to stick to a “safe formula” offering tried and tested beers, quiz nights or Sky Sports.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course if it’s what people want, and whilst this may apply to the majority of the town’s remaining pub-goers there is a substantial minority to whom such a package holds little or no appeal. I include myself amongst this group, and the fact that a minority of disgruntled would-be pub-goers does exist in Tonbridge was demonstrated on three nights last week and three this week.

To elaborate; Tonbridge has a new venue in the guise of the town’s former fire station. Tucked away in the streets behind Tonbridge’s imposing 13th Century castle, the Old Fire Station saw the last fire engine depart back in 1986, when the Fire & Rescue Service moved to a modern and purpose-built facility on the town’s industrial estate. Now, after standing empty for the past three decades, and following extensive renovation work, the iconic building has been given a new lease of life, and opened its doors for the first time at the beginning of the month.

The Old Fire Station’s new owner is Richard Collins, a 42-year-old successful businessman who founded and runs Medischeme medical insurance brokers. Richard beat around 40 other bidders to buy the building after promising himself ten years ago that one day he'd own it. His idea is that the Old Fire Station will house a variety of pop-up bars, restaurants and shops, giving businesses which are new to the area the opportunity to trade in the town.

First to transform the disused space has been Tunbridge Wells based, Fuggles Beer Café; itself a recent and much welcomed addition to the local beer scene. Fuggles owner Alex Greig, hailed the move as a "great opportunity", stating “We've been quite keen on expanding the brand for a while now and this seemed like a great opportunity." He added “Tonbridge is very high on the list of places to move - whether that will be in a year or in five years. This is going to be something a bit different and I can't wait to bring a bit of Fuggles to the town."
Fuggles Pop-Up Bar

This opportunity came true a week ago last Thursday. Unfortunately I was out of the country that week so was unable to attend. I did see via social media, that the initial three nights were a roaring success, so with the same nights (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) planned for this week, I took a wander down to see for myself.

I arrived shortly after 7.30pm on Friday evening, to find the place buzzing. Some people were standing out in the yard, but the majority were seated at wooden bench-like tables in the attractively renovated interior space. I had a pre-arranged meeting with a friend, who had arrived a little earlier than me. He recommended I try the Ilkley Fireside Porter, but I thought it a little early for such a dark beer. Instead I opted for a swift half of Arise, a 4.4% extremely well-hopped IPA from Burning Sky Brewery.

We bumped into three neighbours of mine, who were about to leave. They kindly offered us their table; right in the corner of the room, adjacent to the bar and close to the rather small kitchen. This was lucky, as the rest of the tables were all occupied. Looking around the clientele all seemed to be enjoying themselves. There were a good number of women, getting stuck into the beers, the wine and the gin and tonics; the latter being something of a speciality with Fuggles. The customers were certainly not the usual Wetherspoon’s crowd, nor were they the football shirt wearing, Fosters-swilling blokes who are all too common in Tonbridge pubs. Instead they appeared to be the sort of discerning people who would appreciate an establishment such as Fuggles, which offers a wide variety of beers along with interesting variations on other drinks.
Saturday Afternoon

It all bodes well for the future. I managed a very brief chat with owner Alex Greig who, like the rest of his staff, was rushed off his feet. He was extremely pleased with the way Fuggles have been received in the town, and confirmed that he is definitely looking for suitable premises in Tonbridge, to give the company a permanent home here.

After the craft-keg, I moved on to a pint of cask Mary Jane, a 3.5% pale ale from Ilkley Brewery. Brewed using American Amarillo and Cascade hops; this was an excellent and thirst-quenching beer. I followed with a pint of 4.2% Fireside Porter from the same brewery. Smooth, warming and eminently drinkable, this was a good beer to finish on. We left just before 10pm; my friend had a train to catch and I was tired following a hectic week at work, catching up with things after a week away in the Czech Republic.

I popped back in briefly, late this afternoon, having just enough time for a swift one before picking my son up from the station. The Old Fire Station was less busy, but there were still quite a few punters sitting enjoying what was on offer. Before leaving, I took the opportunity of shooting a few photos.

I will definitely be back; Fuggles themselves return next month and Sankeys, the Tunbridge Wells based, pub, fish restaurant and champagne bar people, will be running a pop-up over two weekends in December.

It is believed that more shops and restaurants will get involved to transform the ground floor of this iconic building, with owner Richard Collins, stating "Everyone loves it in Tonbridge. My offices are still going in on the top floor, but we are looking for a range of different things for downstairs. It's basically a big community space. Since we have started putting stuff online about the development, everyone has been coming to say what they would like to do.” 
Rear of the building, showing the attached tower

"The building was built in 1901, it's been community owned for a long time I am just the guardian of it. This isn't about making a profit, yes great if we do, but it's about people enjoying themselves. I want to do something for everyone; I don't want just restaurants and pubs. I want to get the whole community involved.” 

For people like myself, not only does this development show that Tonbridge is finally starting to go places and become something which is a lot more than just a dormitory town for London-based workers. More to the point, it also demonstrates there is a demand for an innovative beer establishment, such as Fuggles (something many of us have known all along).

Thursday 15 October 2015

Pivovar Eggenberg - Česky Krumlov

The Eggenberg Brewery sits on flat ground, overlooking the Vltava River in the heart of Česky Krumlov close to the town’s massive castle. With roots that go back to 1560, Pivovar Eggenberg beers can be found both in the town itself and villages within the surrounding area.

Many commentators have described the beers as nothing to get excited over, and whilst that description may apply to the company’s Světlý ležák 5.0% light lager, but the 4.2% Tmavý ležák dark lager was eminently drinkable, and reminded me of an English Porter. Eggenberg also produce several other beers, primarily in bottle form, but a draught, unfiltered version of the light lager is available in a few outlets, and also at the large beer hall, attached to the brewery.

A recent addition to the range is the Nakouřený Švihák, a 5.2% smoke or "Rauchbier". I enjoyed a bottle with my meal in a restaurant in the centre of the historic town, and have also brought a bottle home. Whilst not as smoky as the classic Schlenkerla beer from Bamberg, the Eggenberg version is still very drinkable, and is well worth looking out for.

Brewery Beer Hall
A tour of the brewery had been high on our agenda, so imagine the disappointment when we saw the notice informing visitors that tours were suspended until December, owing to renovation works. Nevertheless we still enjoyed a meal in the large beer hall, attached to the brewery, and also a quick “morning beer” from the tiny bar in the brewery shop.

The Eggenberg Brewery in Česky Krumlov should not be confused with the Austrian brewery of the same name. As mentioned earlier, the brewery dates back to 1560, when a new brewery was built in the town to satisfy the demands of a growing population. In 1622 the Eggenberg family gained control of Krumlov and between 1625 & 1630, they relocated the brewery to where it is today. The town remained in the possession of the Eggenberg's until 1717 when the last male heir died aged only 13. The Eggenberg’s Bohemian possessions then passed to the House of Schwarzenberg which began modernizing the brewery in 1719.

Brewery shop & bar
Production volumes increased dramatically during this period, reaching almost 35.000hl at the end of the 19th century, and the brewery remained in the hands of the Schwarzenberg family until 1940, when it was seized by the occupying forces of Nazi Germany.

Adolph Schwarzenberg, the last owner, had been an outspoken critic of the Nazis but managed to escape occupied Czechoslovakia. Fully expecting the return of his property after the war, he found himself on the wrong side of the notorious Beneš decrees of 1945, which led to the expulsion of around 3 million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia. This was despite his strong anti-Nazi stance and his record of being a loyal Czechoslovak citizen. Back in 1937, he had even donated a million crowns towards fortifications for the defence of Czechoslovakia against invasion by Germany!

The brewery from across the river
After overcoming these preposterous allegations and proving, beyond doubt, his loyalty to the post-war state, Adolph Schwarzenberg still saw his estate confiscated by a Czechoslovak government, increasingly under communist influence. The final straw was the communist takeover of February 1948, which put an end to all hope for Schwarzenberg to return home or seek redress.

Today, the brewery is again privately owned, with its new owners naming it after the Eggenbergs; the founders and first aristocratic owners. Look out for their beers if you are visiting the Czech Republic, especially if you are fortunate enough to visit Česky Krumlov.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

An Autumnal Week in Czech

My autumn Czech trip was, in some respects, similar to the one I made back in the spring. Prague was sunny and warm for the first couple of days, but this was then followed by a period of rain. I’m sure the receptionist in our hotel was pleased as she said that after an exceptionally dry and hot summer, the whole country was crying out for rain. That’s all well and good I replied, but if it was all the same to her I would prefer it if the rain held off for another week!

In the end we only really had one day of wandering around in the rain, as the second wet day was spent travelling, by coach, from Prague to Český Krumlov – the town where we spent the second half of our trip. The rest of our stay was characterised by sunny days, but increasingly cold nights. Autumn was definitely a week or two ahead of the UK, with some spectacular seasonal colours from the trees. Snow is forecast for the coming weekend, but I’m sure that’s not that unusual for a mountainous region of central Europe.

Basically, our trip was a tale of two contrasting halves; spending four nights in the big city atmosphere of Prague, followed by four nights in the delightful preserved medieval town of Český Krumlov. The latter wasn’t without its share of tourists; in fact the town is now the second most popular destination for foreign visitors to the Czech Republic. Český Krumlov is people sized though, and easily seen in a day, but for me it was the perfect place to relax and enjoy a few beers - after taking in some of the impressive sights of this beautiful medieval town.

More detailed reports to follow, of course, but I’m pleased to say that good and sometimes excellent beer is still available in what has become one of my favourite countries to visit.

Saturday 3 October 2015

An Evening at the Old House

Old House Ightham Common
 It was a rare treat for me last night, when I spent an evening at the CAMRA National Inventory-listed Old House at Ightham Common. Because of the isolated situation of the Old House, the majority of my visits to this unspoilt gem have been in daylight hours; the normal means of getting there being by bus from Tonbridge, and then a short walk down the lanes.

On this occasion, a friend’s son kindly offered to drive his father, a couple of friends and me over to Ightham Common. The reason for our visit, apart from to spend some time in this excellent pub, was that a few members from South East London CAMRA had got in touch with our branch social secretary, to say they would be visiting the Old House, and wondered if some of us would like to join them.

We arrived shortly before 8.30pm, and found the pub busy, but not quite bursting at the seams. There were three people from South East London sitting by the window, so after ordering our drinks, we grabbed some chairs and sat down and joined them. Their means of getting to the pub had been train to Borough Green, followed by a taxi to the pub. They had booked a return rip and we had done the same. This proves, as if it were necessary, that where there’s a will there’s a way to get to these isolated pubs.

We were all glad we did; the South East London contingent for the cider, and the four of us from West Kent for the beer; Dark Star Hophead, served direct from the cask, kept in a temperature-controlled room out the back. Later, some of us switched either to St Austell Tribute or Stonehenge Great Bustard. I opted for the former, but I understand from my companions that the Stonehenge was also very good.

I have written before about the Old House, which is situated to the south of Ightham village in Redwell lane. It is an attractive, part 17th Century tile-hung building, but there are few clues externally that it is actually a pub! There is no pub sign and the signboard on the right gable has faded beyond recognition! Internally there are two bars, with the main one on the left, and a much smaller bar, which looks more like someone’s front room, on the right.

It is definitely a case of “duck or grouse” in the main bar, due to the low-beamed ceiling and this is where the regulars gather and the real banter takes place. There is a large brick inglenook fireplace at the far end, which houses a roaring log fire during the winter months. We all agreed that it would be very atmospheric to visit on a cold January night, and enjoy a few pints whilst toasting our toes in front of the fire.

The Old House has limited opening hours, because owner and licensee, Nick Boulter has a full time job in the city. This means opening has to be restricted to weekday evenings and weekends. Nick's brother Richard had run the pub for 20 years prior to Nick taking over and it was the uncertainty over the succession that had called the pub's future into doubt for a while. Fortunately, things turned out fine in the end, and following some much needed renovation work, back in 2011, the Old House is well and truly back open again for business. For more details click the following link to CAMRA's National Pub Inventory website, which contains a much more detailed description of the pub.

Our respective taxis arrived shortly after 10.30pm. There were still a few regulars left in the pub, but most of the earlier crowd has vanished. It had been a good couple of hours in this classic old rural pub, with good beer, good company and pleasant and uncluttered surroundings. As Arnie once said, “I’ll be back.”