Sunday 29 November 2015

Another CAMRA Branch Milestone

I attended a rather special reunion on the last Friday in September, when I went along to the 40th Anniversary celebration of the Maidstone & Mid-Kent Branch of CAMRA. Although not a founder member, (I was still at university back in 1975), I joined the branch in late 1978, after moving to the county town following the purchase of my first property.

Despite having been a CAMRA member since 1974, this was the first time I had joined up with the local branch in the area I was living. MMK branch made me feel welcome, and I soon began to play an active role within the organisation, which culminated in me joining the branch committee. As well as assisting with local beer festivals, I also helped deliver the branch newsletter, “Draught Copy”, around local pubs. Eventually I would go on to edit it!

Things changed in late 1984 when I moved to Tonbridge; some 17 miles south-west of Maidstone, and said goodbye to the many good friends I had made during my stay in the town. Despite not wishing to become too involved with another CAMRA branch at the time, I was persuaded to help kick-start the then moribund Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells Branch (now known as West Kent CAMRA) back into life. It was rather ironic then that just a few months after the latter branch celebrated 30 years since its reformation, I should receive an invite from an old friend at MMK to attend their 40th birthday celebration.

The event took place at the Dog & Gun; a Shepherd Neame pub which is just a short hop from Maidstone’s rather grim-looking Victorian prison. Even more ironic was the fact that when I lived in the town the Dog & Gun was my old local, being just five minutes walk away from my house. Friday was therefore a double reunion, as I don’t think I had been back to the pub since moving away from Maidstone.   

I caught the train over from Tonbridge and arrived at the Dog & Gun shortly before 7pm. Like many pubs it had changed in the intervening 30 years, with the former public and saloon bars now knocked through into one. They hadn’t made a bad job of it, and there was a good choice of beer on the bar. All Shep’s of course, which isn’t my favourite, but the Whitstable Bay Organic Pale was in good form, as was the company’s No.18 Yard Green Hop Ale; a very quaffable 4.5% ABV Golden Ale. To make things even better, the first pint was on the house!

I soon noticed a few familiar faces; most with hair either greyer, or non-existent, but with one or two exceptions I was able to put names to most of those present. It was particularly good to meet up again with Richard and his wife Gill and with Dave and Jan. Dave was chairman when I first joined the branch, but moved down to Hampshire to run a pub in Andover, on behalf of Bourne Valley Brewery; one of the pioneering first new wave of micro-breweries. Following Dave’s departure Richard had taken over the reins of chairman.

I also met up with friends whom I have kept in touch with over the past three decades, and it was good to see them all again. Dave and Jan had brought a large display of old photos, press-clippings, newsletters and other memorabilia. The pub had laid on an impressive buffet; something I was particularly glad of as I had rushed over straight from work without having time for anything to eat. Something solid to soak up the beer was therefore especially welcome.

I chatted with numerous people that night, swapping stories and bringing ourselves up to date with what had happened in our respective lives over the years. One story which is worth repeating is that the night Maidstone CAMRA branch was formed literally went with a bang; for about half a mile down the road, on the other side of the prison, the Provisional IRA exploded a bomb outside the Hare & Hounds pub. This was at the height of the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign; the pub being targeted because it was popular with soldiers from the nearby barracks. Fortunately no-one was seriously hurt, and despite extensive damage the Hare & Hounds was eventually rebuilt. Those present at the inaugural meeting though, certainly heard, and felt, the explosion!

The other thing worth noting was the dearth of real ale pubs in Maidstone back in 1975. The real thing was only available in the town’s nine Shepherd Neame pubs, plus the odd Courage and Whitbread-Fremlins house. By the time I moved to Maidstone, the latter company, which had both roots and their former brewery in the town,  had embraced cask ale in a big way, bringing back the Fremlins name for their excellent Trophy D bitter, and launching a new stronger beer called Tusker; named after Fremlins famous elephant trademark.

These improvements were thanks in no small part to the campaigning work put in both locally and nationally by CAMRA, and not long after I joined the branch a guide to all the Real Ale pubs in the local area had been published by MMK.

I left the Dog & Gun around 10.30pm and made my way back to the station; arriving in time to catch the last direct train back to Tonbridge. It had been an excellent evening, but not completely devoted to nostalgia. MMK branch has gone from strength to strength over the past four decades and is now one of the most successful of the Kent branches. I am proud to have played a part, albeit a small one, in that success.


I waited a couple of months before publishing the post, as I was expecting to see some photos of the evening’s celebrations. None seem to have appeared, and unfortunately I didn’t take any of my own. If any do surface, I will add them above.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Augustinerbräu Kloster Mülln - Salzburg

Salzburg in all its finery
My recent short break in Salzburg represented my third trip to this delightful and picturesque Austrian city. My first visit took place in late December 2006, at a time when I was very much in need of a break. I was six months into a new job, whilst at the same time trying to sell our Off-Licence business as a going concern. It was all getting a bit much, so when my wife suggested I get away for a few days, I jumped at the chance.

I’m not sure quite why I chose Salzburg, but my desire to escape to somewhere person-sized and with a touch of class about it undoubtedly influenced my decision. Whatever the reason though I was glad I selected Salzburg as my bolt-hole. The weather back then was cold and crisp and, part from a sprinkling of snow on our first full day in the city; it was pretty much the same this time around.

One place I was determined to visit on that first trip was Augustinerbräu Kloster Mülln; a brewery attached to a monastery, not far from the centre of Salzburg where the beer is served straight out of wooden casks. Ron Pattinson’s excellent European Beer Guide website had first drawn my attention to this establishment; so on my first full day in the city, I set off to try it out.

Augustinerbräu does not open until 3pm during the week, so after a morning’s sight-seeing, followed by lunch in an establishment in the newer part of the town, I set off in the rapidly fading daylight and the increasingly cold air to find the place. It was a short walk from my hotel down to the river Salzach, which I crossed by means of a footbridge. It was then a case of following the road along the riverbank until the floodlit exterior of the monastery church, perched on the edge of the Monchsberg hill, came into view.

Entrance to the Bräustübl
The entrance to the Augustinerbräu Bräustübl is through a large wooden door, where a long tiled passage leads to a further door behind which a flight of steep stone steps leads down into the heart of the establishment. The first thing I noticed was the half dozen or so kiosks where customers can purchase a variety of hot or cold food to accompany the beer. Alternatively you can bring in your own picnic, as many of the locals do.

There are three large, cavernous beer halls, plus a number of smaller, more intimate rooms that are available for private hire. For the summer months there is a large, shaded beer garden to the rear. The main attraction is of course the beer and as mentioned before it is served direct from large wooden casks. A full-bodied lager, known as Märzen  with an ABV of 4.6%  is brewed all year round, whilst from November through to Christmas a stronger Weinachtsbock (Christmas Bock) at 6.5% ABV is produced.

Unfortunately, despite visiting the day after Boxing Day, the entire stock of the festive beer had sold out, so I never got the chance to sample it. The well hopped, malty and satisfying Märzen though more than made up for it. As the beer is served straight from a wooden cask there is no excess gas to bloat one’s stomach, and the beer slips down a treat!
Grab a bite to eat from one of the kiosks

I quickly sussed out the ritual necessary to obtain a beer. There is a serving area just round the corner from the end of the food kiosk corridor. Here you help yourself to a stoneware mug (litre or half litre) from the dozens laid out on a series of wooden shelves. You then rinse the mug at the ornate marble fountain before queuing up and paying the person sitting behind a glass screen. In exchange for your money you are given a ticket, which you then hand to the man dispensing the beer. He takes your ticket, fills your mug with beer and then slides it back over to you across a perforated metal counter.

Grab a mug

You then wander off and find a seat in which ever beer hall takes your fancy. When you want a refill you simply take your mug back to the central kiosk, pausing perhaps to rinse it clean at the fountain, before repeating the process.

I tried all three different beer halls during the two visits I made to the Augustinerbräu Bräustübl on that first trip, but preferred the non-smoking one to the left of the serving area. As it was still relatively early in the evening there were plenty of wooden tables to sit at. What I especially liked was that Augustinerbräu appeared popular with people from all walks of life and also from all age groups. Groups of young people were just as eagerly getting suck into their mugs of beer as their older counterparts. When I left, after more than a few mugs of beer myself, I witnessed no signs of trouble.

Rinse your mug
Some eight months later, I found myself back at to Augustinerbräu; this time accompanied by my son and at the height of summer. On that occasion we sat outside in the shady beer garden at the rear of the establishment. The beer was now being served from one of a number of hatches (the others were dedicated to serving food). The same ritual of selecting and rinsing your mug still applied though. The place was packed, but we managed to squeeze around one of the tables, and sat there, under the shade of the chestnut trees, enjoying our beer. Matt was only just old enough to drink at the time (16 years is the legal age in Austria), but he enjoyed the beer every bit as much as I did.

Fast forward eight years to last week’s trip, and I’m pleased to report to Augustinerbräu Bräustübl  is every bit as good as I remember it; in fact I’d say it was even better than I recall. My wife, son and I arrived shortly after the 3pm opening time, having caught the bus up from the Old Town. As we walked along the corridor and then descended the steps to the corridor where the food kiosks are situated, everything came flooding back

My favourite of the three halls
We settled on the furthest hall; the one past the serving area. This hall allows smoking, much to my wife’s approval. It was fairly empty, so we grabbed a table, but before I had the chance to go and get some beers, a waiter appeared and asked what we would like to drink. I was slightly disappointed to be missing the self-service bit, but it seemed churlish to send him away. I ordered a beer each for Matt and I (Märzen), plus a lemonade for Eileen, and we settled down to enjoy the whole monastery brewery experience.

It was whilst we were sitting there conversing, that Eileen’s confusion became apparent. For some unknown reason she had thought I was taking her to the abbey where the opening scenes of the Sound of Music were filmed. She seemed far less impressed that I had brought her to a beer hall; albeit one of the finest and one with definite spiritual connections. I thought I had made the nature of our current location abundantly clear, but obviously not. Fortunately, the opportunity to enjoy a cigarette indoors in the warm won the day and we started laughing about the mix-up.

Weinachts Bock at last!
A small “A”- fold sign on our table advertised the presence of the Bock Bier; something I‘d already ascertained by the sight in the serving area of a smaller wooden cask alongside the larger one. This time I went for the self-service option, and ordered myself a mug of the Weinachts Bock.

The beer was everything I expected and more, being rich, malty and strong enough to taste the alcohol. In short, it was excellent. I was tempted to go for another, but thought I might be pushing my luck. I settled for another Märzen instead. During the hour or so we were there, the hall had really begun to fill up; such is the popularity of the Augustinerbräu Bräustübl.

It was dark when we left, and the gods must truly have been shinning on us that day as, when we reached the bus stop, I noticed a No. 27 bus was due along shortly, and this would take us directly back to where our hotel was situated, adjacent to the main railway station.

Märzen on the left; Bockbier on the right
I managed a second visit to Augustinerbräu, but this time I went alone. This was on the afternoon of our last day in Salzburg, and having done the majority of our packing, I remarked to the family that I fancied a wander into the town for a last minute look around. Neither my wife nor my son were keen on accompanying me, so I set off set of on my own. Eileen gave me that knowing look as if to say “I know where you’re going”.

She was right of course, and after a short bus ride along to Mirabellplatz, I crossed the river, by means of a footbridge, and arrived in the Alt Stadt. I was a bit early for opening time at Augustinerbräu, so I had a quick look round before heading up in the direction of the monastery. I arrived at a similar time to the previous day, but before grabbing a beer ordered a Schnitzel roll from one of the food counters. I then obtained a mug of the Weinachts Bock and took myself into the beer hall to the left of the serving area. This was the one I preferred from my first visit back in 2006.

The main entrance for those walking up from the city
It was already quite busy, but I found a seat ok and sat down to enjoy my food and my drink. One thing I noticed was the large number of signs on the wall, stipulating that many of the tables were Stammtisches. These are tables reserved for groups of regulars but, as the signs indicated, most were only reserved on specific days or at specific times. For example, one such Stammtisch was for a pensioners’ group which met at 19.00 on the first Thursday of the month. This meant that at other times, the table was available for other customers to use.

I liked this aspect, and also the rows of coat pegs hanging up along the walls. This is another welcome tradition in the German-speaking world, and it prevents people hogging a disproportional amount of space by spreading their coats along the benches or over the chairs. I was very tempted to have another Weinachts Bock, but I wasn’t quite sure how strong it was. (I later found out it was 6.5%). I opted for a Märzen instead, and before leaving I enquired about the availability of bottles to take away.

I discovered they were only sold in packs of six; an amount which would have put my baggage weight allowance over the rather paltry 15 kg allowed by Ryanair, but the helpful man at the cash desk told me there was a shop across the road at the back of the brewery which stocked Augustinerbräu bottles.

Not exactly small beer - the impressive brew-house.
I left by the back door, pausing to look at the beer garden which stripped of its tables for the winter, looked rather bare and forlorn. I also saw the impressive brew-house at the rear of the Bräustübl, and was surprised by the sheer size of it. Brewing at this monastery is certainly no small beer!

I found the shop alright, but they only had bottles of Märzen available, and no Bockbier. I bought one anyway, and then made my way back to our hotel on foot. My route was the same one I’d taken back in 2006, and despite stopping on a number of occasions to take photos, I was back with the family within half an hour.

If you ever go to Salzburg, whether for business or pleasure,  a visit to Augustinerbräu Kloster Mülln is a must. Not only is the Bräustübl tavern the largest in Austria, it is also one of the finest and most traditional beer halls anywhere in the world!

Thursday 26 November 2015

Beer in Salzburg

Austria isn’t a country particularly renowned for its beer; a fact which is rather surprising considering it borders both Germany and the Czech Republic. There is no Reinheitsgebot in place ensuring Austrian beers are brewed from just malted barley, hops and water, although it is fair to say many of the country’s 170 odd brewers do adhere to the principles of that 500 year old consumer protection legislation.

There are of course, pockets of excellence and I mentioned one such example in my previous post about my impending trip to Salzburg. I arrived back home yesterday, and pleased to report that the beer at Augustinerbräu Kloster Mülln is as good as ever, and I even managed to sample the Weinachts Bock (more about that in a separate post).

So far as the rest of the beer in Salzburg is concerned, I managed to sample beers from several Austrian breweries, along with a few from the city itself, and whilst they weren’t world classics, they were still perfectly quaffable beers which suited the time and the occasion. This largely means they were enjoyed in various pubs, bars and restaurants, normally as an accompaniment to a meal. The trip was, after all, a family holiday, rather than a beer-hunting expedition!

Like in neighbouring Germany, it is often difficult to know exactly which of a particular brewery’s products you are sampling. Point of sale material on beer founts is often restricted to just the brewery logo, and menus, particularly in restaurants, will just list the brewer of the beer, rather than specifying the particular type. This is quite surprising as in common with their Teutonic neighbours many Austrian breweries brew a bewildering number of different beers, many of which have suspiciously similar strengths. Moral of tale - it’s no use being a “ticker” in this part of the world!

The beers I did get to sample include, in no particular order, Stiegl Goldbräu and Paracelus Naturtrüb; Wieninger Dunkel; Hofbräu Kaltenhausen Original; Gösser (variety unknown); Zipfer Urtyp and Sternbräu Stern-Bier. However, rather than write about the beers it’s probably better to describe a few of the pubs and kellers they were enjoyed in.

I intend doing this in a subsequent post.

Friday 20 November 2015


I’m off on my fifth overseas trip of the year at the weekend. The destination this time is Austria; Salzburg to be precise. What makes this trip even better is my lovely wife is picking up the tab!

We both hit the bit six-O this year, so a short break in this lovely old city, taking in the Christmas markets (which start early in Austria), seemed as good a way as any to spend a bit of time before the Christmas rush begins.

I’ve been to Salzburg a couple of times before, and whilst it’s not the most exciting city beer-wise, there are some fine traditional beer halls in the old town. There is, or course, one place every beer lover should visit and that is Augustinerbräu Kloster Mülln. Attached to a working monastery, a kilometre or so from the city centre, in the suburb of Mülln, Augustinerbräu should not be confused with its better known Munich namesake.

The entrance from the street is quite easy to miss, and once inside, you descend a couple of flights of stone steps, which takes you to the beer halls.  First you pass a number of kiosks selling various food items. The kiosks include a bakers and a couple of butchers; the idea being to allow customers to buy “picnic-style” food to go with the beer. As in many German Beer Gardens, patrons are also allowed to bring their own food, and many local seem to do this.

The beer halls are towards the end of the corridor and here there is a choice of three large rooms; all with high ceilings and long, sturdy wooden tables. You can then either queue up for your beer at a self-service counter or pay a little more for a waiter to fetch your beer for you.

The beer itself  at Augustinerbräu is an excellent 4.6% ABV Märzen served directly from large oak barrels. As it is served in stoneware Krugs it is difficult to determine the colour, but it tastes delicious and is lovely and fresh.

Around Christmas, a stronger Bockbier is available, but I unfortunately  missed it by just a few days on my first visit to Salzburg, in late December 2006. I wonder if I will have more luck this time? I will produce a more detailed report upon my return, but in the meantime zum Wohl!

Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Best Beer in the World?

Westvleteren 12 - Best beer in the world?
In terms of beer production, the St Sixtus Monastery at Westvleteren in West Flanders is the smallest of the 10 Trappist Monastery Breweries, with an output of just under 4,000 barrels, or 126,000 gallons, a year.  Contrast this with Chimay, the largest and probably best-known Trappist brewery, which produces about 3.2 million gallons a year, and you get some idea of the differences in scale between the two establishments.

Three brews are produced at St Sixtus - Westvleteren Blonde (green cap), 5.8% ABV, Westvleteren 8 (blue cap) 8% ABV and Westvleteren 12 (yellow cap) 10.2% ABV. The latter is by far the best known and most renowned beer brewed at the abbey.

Back in August, whilst in Belgium for the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference, I was fortunate to visit Westvleteren. I didn’t get to see the brewery; no-one ever does as St Sixtus is the Willy Wonka chocolate factory of  breweries. But if you think the monks occasionally hide "golden tickets" in amongst their packs of beer, then think again! The closest anyone gets is to either visit the modern and spacious In de Vrede café, located just across from the abbey in the Donkerstraat 13, or to try their luck at the drive-thru pick-up gate.

In de Vrede- Westvleteren
I would strongly recommend the former, as at In de Vrede not only can you drink the beer by the glass, but you can also buy limited quantities of bottles to take home with you at the café shop, (maximum of two six-packs per person). Or at least you can normally, but on that hot, late August Sunday, when we called by, In de Vrede was packed out with thirsty customers and was not doing carry-outs. After speaking to other beer lovers on my return to the UK, I discovered you will have much better luck mid-week, when the café is usually much quieter.

Attempting to buy your beer at the monastery gate though is a much more fraught experience, as not only are you limited to just one case per car, but your order must be reserved at least 60 days in advance. You do this by calling the brewery over the "beer phone"; a dedicated number which is supposed to put you through to the brewery. However, when the phone system was first introduced, the call volume was so high that the local exchange crashed, forcing the monks to switch to a national high-capacity number. This has made little difference and at peak times as many as 85,000 calls are made per hour. It is reckoned that  only around 200 callers get through during the two-to-three-hour window when orders may be placed.

Determined drinkers do get through though as on most afternoons, a line of cars forms outside the monastery walls at a pick-up point for the latest coveted batch. Drivers stay in their cars as staff check registration plates, load the single crate and then take the credit card payments.

So what is it about Westvleteren beer which makes it so hard to get hold of, and why are supplies so limited? The situation dates back to 2005 when the beer-information website rated Westvleteren 12° as the best beer in the world. The monks at Saint Sixtus who brew this dark, quadrupel-style beer were not at all pleased by the ensuing publicity, despite this award being an achievement that most brewers can only dream of. The problem is they are not in the business of brewing beer in order to win awards; neither are they in it for the money. They brew beer only in sufficient quantities to support themselves and their abbey.
Awaiting the thirsty hordes - glasses at In de Vrede

As you can imagine, a beer which few people had heard of suddenly rocketed in popularity. One day, a few dozen people were drinking the beer; the next, there was a huge line of cars queuing up at the abbey gate to buy it. Stories began to appear about the abbey's stocks of Westvleteren 12 starting to run low, so to counter this situation the monks were forced to reduce the amount of beer sold to each customer. In a rare interview one of them explained that the abbey had no intention of increasing its production, despite the clear demand for the beer, adding "We make the beer to live”, he said, “but we do not live for beer.”

In 2015 Westvleteren 12 is again on RateBeer's list of the best beers in the world. The monks of St Sixtus remain detached, as much as possible, from the ongoing publicity, and continue to decline requests for either interviews or visits. However, it’s probably fair to say that the abbey is secretly proud of the title. Brother Godfried, who is in charge of the brewery, reportedly told a news agency, "It's good to know our customers appreciate what we make."

Westvleteren is part of Vleteren; a small rural town in West Flanders, close to the French border.  Situated in an agricultural region known as the hop country of Belgium, it also consists of other small villages such as Oostvleteren and Woesten. The combined population is around 3,600 inhabitants.

Hidden behind a high wall - Sint Sixtus Abbey, Westvleteren
The St Sixtus monastery was founded in 1831 by Trappist monks from the Catsberg monastery in France. In 1838 a brewery was added at Westvleteren, to brew beer primarily for the monks own consumption. The brewery was ‘modernized’ in 1871 and brewing continued apace; even surviving both World Wars. In 1931, the abbey began selling beer to the general public; having only served beer to guests and visitors up until that time. During the 1930’s the monks even used trucks to distribute their beer!

Things came to an abrupt end at the end of the Second World War when Gerardus, the Abbot at the head of the monastery, decided to downsize the Sint-Sixtus brewing operation. He believed that brewing was taking up too much of the monks’ energy and was beginning to interfere with their true spiritual calling. According to the Abbot brewing beer on a commercial scale was not part of that calling

In 1946, deal was struck with the owner of a local cheese factory in nearby Watou, to brew the beers. To assist with the start-up of the new brewery, the Brewmaster from St Sixtus became a partner in the new set-up and brought with him the recipes, the expertise and, most important of all the St Sixtus yeast.

For many years, the Watou brewery produced and marketed the beers under the names "Trappist Westvleteren" or "St Sixtus". Beer also continued to be brewed at the abbey to cater to the needs of individuals buying it at the gates as well as three local cafés connected to Sint-Sixtus. This was done to continue providing beer for their own consumption as well as to keep the tradition alive within the monastery walls.

The contract with Watou was renewed in 1962 when the Abbey gave them a second license; this time spanning a 30 year period. This agreement ended in 1992, primarily due to changing laws and regulations which stated that in order to be labelled a Trappist, the beer actually had to be made (mainly) by real Trappist monks at a working Trappist monastery. That same year, the abbey opened its new brewery to replace the older equipment. In 1992 that license came to an end and the production was completely taken over by Sint-Sixtus again.

St Sixtus brews about 70 days a year, starting at around 9 a.m. and finishing at approximately 5 p.m. The brewery currently employs three secular workers for various manual labour tasks; however, the primary brewing is done by the monks only. It is the only Trappist brewery where the monks still do all of the brewing. Of the 26 Cistercians who reside at the abbey, five monks run the brewery, with an additional five who assist during bottling.

As soon as the Watou Brewery got over the loss of the Westvleteren beers they started to produce and market their own line of abbey-styled beers, under the name, St. Bernardus. One of the beers they came up with was St. Bernardus Abt 12. Many claim this to be the same beer as Westvleteren 12, as St. Bernardus had the recipe and almost 50 years of experience and, more importantly, knew how to brew it.

Special edition - Oak aged St Bernardus Abt 12
Others dispute this, claiming that if you compare the two side by side, you will certainly find similarities but they are clearly different beers. I have tasted both, but not at the same time, so I don’t consider myself qualified to judge. In addition both beers are bottle-conditioned, with a five year shelf life, so there are bound to be subtle differences anyway, depending on age, storage conditions etc.

What I do know is I have a half dozen bottles of St. Bernardus Abt 12 sat in my cupboard. The beer is easy to come by in Belgium and also closer to home. A work colleague has a Belgian friend who visits England quite regularly, so I always get him to bring me a case over with him.

It was interesting that whilst in Belgium we met the Managing Director of the St Bernardus Brewery. He, of course, was adamant the beers are the same, but then he would say that, wouldn’t he? Unlike St Sixtus, St. Bernardus is open to visitors and offers a wide selection of speciality beers including St. Bernardus Tripel, Prior 8, White, Pater and Christmas Ale plus the lesser known 'Grottenbier' and 'Watou Tripel'.

A few of the St Bernardus beers
So after all the publicity and hype surrounding Westvleteren 12, and the controversy surrounding St Bernardus Brewery’s claim that their St. Bernardus Abt 12  is the same beer, which one is better and is either of them the best beer in the world?

I have drunk quite a few bottles of St. Bernardus Abt 12, but only one bottle of Westvleteren 12, so am unable to answer the first question. Both beers are very good, but at 10% ABV they are not the sort of beers you drink every day. This leads me on to the second question, and here I would argue there is no singular “best beer in the world”.

The reason of course is beer is such a diverse drink, with a myriad of different styles and strengths, that there are in fact dozens of “best beers in the world”. The choice of beer depends on many things and is influenced by location, climate, company and occasion, so whilst a nice cool Pilsner is to be enjoyed whilst sitting out at a pavement café on a hot summer’s day, a cool, well-hopped pint of traditional English bitter is equally appreciated after a long walk to a traditional country pub. Conversely, the two aforementioned Abbey beers are best enjoyed sat in front of a roaring log fire on a cold winter’s night.

In this respect rating sites such as RateBeer have not only done a disservice to the holy brothers of St Sixtus Abbey, but they have turned the world of beer drinking into little more than a "list-ticking exercise", rather than what it should be – the appreciation and enjoyment of beer. It is one thing for writers and beer aficionados to recommend certain beers, but to select beers of different styles, tastes and strengths, and then try and rank them in a table of “best in the world” is sheer hypocrisy and self-indulgence of the worst kind.

Are people so shallow minded and herd-like that they need ranking sites to tell them what to drink? Make your own minds up people. Don’t rely on rating sites; especially as they can leave themselves open to manipulation. Don’t follow the crowd; do some proper research of your own. Get out there and try these beers for yourselves. Even better, try and visit some of the places which produce the world’s classic beers and experience how better they taste on home turf. You know it makes sense!

Sunday 15 November 2015

First of the Season

I managed to track down some Larkin’s Porter yesterday; the first of the season. Dark and full-bodied and brewed from a grist that includes plenty of chocolate and crystal malts, Larkin’s Porter has a rich, full mouth feel, with plenty of bitterness to match the lush sweetness of the malts. At a strength of 5.2%, it is a beer for savouring, rather than swilling. The beer’s appearance each November is eagerly awaited by its devotees, and it is no secret that Larkin’s Porter is one of my all time favourite, seasonal “winter” beers.

Larkins produces just two brews of this superb beer each year; one in mid-September, and the other towards the end of November, (round about now). Following brewing and primary fermentation, each brew is allowed to mature, in cask, for a minimum period of six weeks before it is released to trade. Traditionally the first batch is not released until Bonfire Night, so just over a week later is was good to give the beer a try.

I came across the porter at lunchtime on Saturday, at the Old Fire Station in Tonbridge. This historic old building was being run again by Beer Café proprietors, Fuggles of Tunbridge Wells, as part of their November “pop-up” take-over. I don’t think many people knew they were open as, apart from myself there was just a small group of elderly gentlemen occupying one of the tables.

The lack of customers enabled me to have a chat with Fuggles owner, Alex who was working behind the bar, along with a member of his staff. Alex told me that the Thursday and Friday evening sessions had been very popular and they were expecting the same for that evening. Amongst other things we discussed Thursday’s session back at their main site in Tunbridge Wells, where the Troubadour tasting event had taken place - see previous post.

Later, whilst sitting at one of the tables nurturing my excellent pint of Larkin’s Porter, I began to contemplate the appalling events which had taken place in Paris the previous evening. Sitting there in the calm and tranquil surroundings of this lovely old building I was struggling to contemplate how can people be so wicked. These thoughts remained with me after I had left the Old Fire Station and walked back to the town via the imposing Gatehouse of Tonbridge’s historic 12th century castle.

There are no answers, of course, but before I left, I thanked Alex and reminded him that, along with some of my CAMRA colleagues, I would be back on Thursday evening for our pre-arranged social.

ps. Larkins have finally moved into the 21st Century with their own website.As you might expect, there are no fancy gimmicks, just an attractive and informative site. Check it out above.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Off the Record

The debate sparked by my most recent post about “revitalising” the Campaign for Real Ale threw up a number of issues; one of which revolved around the question “Would lapsed or even non-members be welcomed at an official CAMRA social?”

Speaking from my own branch’s point of view, I would say, unequivocally, that they would. Despite having over 500 members on our books, we often struggle to reach double figures for our socials, so even though the branch would obviously prefer these people to be fully paid up members, we extend a friendly welcome to any new comers; members or not.

One of the things we do from time to time is hold “unofficial” get-togethers. These are normally socials, visits to beer festivals, or a ramble to a nice country pub. Unlike official socials which, owing to the lengthy timescales involved in getting them advertised in “What’s Brewing”, have to be organised weeks in advance, we can be much more spontaneous with these other events. Normally a quick on “Whatsapp”, or a message on the branch’s Facebook Page does the trick and seems to work quite well. Sometimes we even attract more people along to these unofficial “dos” than we manage for the official ones!
Last Thursday was a case in point, when a group of seven of us turned up at the Bedford in Tunbridge Wells for an impromptu get-together. We actually didn’t stay that long at the Bedford, despite some excellent beer from the likes of Pig & Porter, Goody Ales and Yeovil. The pub had a couple of live acoustic acts on, and whilst it is always good to see pubs supporting live acts, we wanted to chat. So rather than try and talk above the level of the music, which would have been both difficult from our point of view, and rude as far as the performers were concerned, we headed off up the hill and along to Fuggles; the town’s premier Beer Café.

A couple from our party had already gone ahead before I arrived, but there was time for me to enjoy the excellent, citrus flavoured Yolo #6 from Yeovil Ales. I actually had wind that a special event was taking place up at Fuggles, as earlier in the day, I had received an email from the British Guild of Beer Writers informing me that  Cave Direct Beer Merchants would be launching Troubadour's annual special IPA in two locations – Fuggles in Tunbridge Wells and the Lowlander Cafe in Covent Garden.

Now this of course was quite a scoop for Fuggles, although I must confess I had not heard of Troubadour before, but I understand that since their foundation just over 10 years ago, the company have made quite a name for themselves, both in their native Belgium and, more recently, further afield.  What made the launch so interesting was that this year's version of their Magma IPA had been spiked three times with the wild yeast, Brettanomyces to create a sour, saison-style beer. It was going to be tapped and served alongside the original, non-spiked IPA.

Fuggles was heaving when we arrived; although we later discovered that some of this was due to an office “leaving-do” which just happened to be taking place at the same time. We found the advance party from our group, and managed to pull up some chairs, but not before ordering our drinks from the bar. Fuggles were running a special offer of a third of each of the two Troubadour beers for £3.50. We all opted for this, and it was interesting comparing the two beers side by side.

Now I wouldn’t normally go straight in for a couple of 9.0% ABV beers; certainly not on a school night, but both beers were well-crafted and most enjoyable. Whilst initially preferring the original Magma IPA, I found myself warming to the “Brett” spiked version. Others needed a little more persevering, but we all agreed this was a good exercise. To give some idea as to the taste of the original Magma, Troubadour’s website describes it as “An amber coloured beer with the bitterness of an American IPA but balanced with the fruitiness of a Belgian Triple.”

Normally I would start off with the weakest beer on the list and then work my way up the gravities, but on Thursday it was a case of doing things in reverse. Cloudwater Porter from Manchester, which came in at a mere 6.0% was next up, and proved to be an excellent dark and tasty porter, with plenty of roast and chocolate flavours, and my final beer of the evening, was Tonbridge Green Hop Ale which, after the high octane beers, proved an ideal palate cleanser. So an interesting evening, with some good beer in pleasant surroundings made all the more enjoyable by the company of friends.

One final point, all but one of our party on Thursday evening, were CAMRA members, but we quite happily switched back and forth between the cask and the keg beers. There are no prejudices about what makes a good beer amongst our group; the ultimate proof being what does the stuff in the glass taste like. I am not sure whether CAMRA as a whole will ever come round to this way of thinking, or whether it will remain constrained by its definition of real ale. It may be too much a leap of faith for the organisation to make such a change, but the fact that many members now put more credence on the quality and taste of the finished beer, rather than how it is stored and dispensed, does give grounds for optimism.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Revitalising the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale

Just over a month ago, veteran blogger The Pub Curmudgeon published a lengthy and well though out post about the “Revitalisation Project”which is being launched by Tim Page; CAMRA’s new CEO. The post has to date, attracted 50 comments with views ranging from “Yes, CAMRA does need to take a few steps back and look at itself closely”, to “CAMRA has had its day and is a total irrelevance in today’ rapidly changing beer market.”

Of course there were lots of voices raised from the centre ground as well, but having read and found myself agreeing with much of the sentiment raised, I find myself increasingly questioning the relevance of CAMRA to my life today.

I don’t want to go over the history of my involvement with CAMRA over the past four decades; although I will nail my colours to the mast and say that I have been a member of the Campaign since 1974, and an active branch member since 1979. During those years I have seen CAMRA change from a dynamic young person’s organisation to today’s collection of pensioners’ drinking clubs. Before anyone points the finger, I include myself in the later group, even though I’m not yet officially retired!

Since its inception, CAMRA has changed from a high-profile, self-publicising campaigning group of individuals, to a safe and staid organisation of largely faceless lobbyists – albeit a highly successful one. Along the way the campaign has become involved with all sorts of things which weren’t in its original remit; including full pints, beer prices, pub-preservation, licensing reform, publishing and, most controversially, a drink made from fermented apple juice, which is completely unrelated to beer!

Strange brew!
Now I have warmed to traditional cider over the years and recognise it as a fine drink in its own right; but it is those last four words “in its own right” which sum up my attitude to cider and make me, like hundreds, if not thousands, of others to question why the Campaign for REAL ALE is putting time, money and effort into campaigning for REAL (or indeed any) CIDER!

I realise it is regarded as heresy in many CAMRA circles to even question such an association, but surely the time has come for the CAMRA off-shoot APPLE to be spun off as a completely separate and autonomous organisation, rather than one which leaches time, effort and funding from a campaign which purports to promote our national drink, BEER!

I will await the findings of Tim Page’s “Revitalisation Project” with interest, although I very much doubt it will propose anything as radical as what I have suggested in the preceding paragraph. There are also several other questions I would like to see answered, and many areas of concern which need to be addressed.
Curmudgeon’s excellent post, highlighted at the beginning of this article, puts forward some serious, in-depth suggestions as to which areas the “Revitalisation Project” should be addressing. I certainly agree with most of  what Mudge is proposing, but whether the great and the good within the CAMRA hierarchy will see things the same way, remains to be seen.

On the positive side CAMRA has definitely recognised it is at a crossroad, even if it remains uncertain as to which direction it should be taking. I too, feel much the same way and with next year’s membership renewal fast approaching, and subscription rates being increased, do I cancel my long-standing direct debit or should I do nothing and let inertia take over so that my membership automatically renews for another year?

I will almost certainly do the latter, as in many ways it would be a crying shame to pour 40 years of CAMRA membership down the drain. However, on the other hand membership benefits, such as Wetherspoon’s vouchers and reduced admission to CAMRA beer festivals aren't sufficient incentive alone to keep me in the fold. For the record, I rarely use all my Spoon's vouchers and this quarter, with just over three weeks left to run, I haven’t used a single one!  

One thing I do look forward to is the quarterly Beer Magazine; a publication which is well worth reading from cover to cover, but apart from this, and branch socials (an activity I could still be involved in without being a CAMRA member),  there is precious little else within today's campaign which interests me. This leaves me with the following dilemma; should I remain a member and stay inside the tent pissing out, or should I let my membership lapse and find myself on the outside pissing into the tent?

Before deciding one way or the other, I will wait and see what transpires over the coming year as, I suspect, will many other longstanding CAMRA members.

One final point, the irony of the word “Revitalisation” in the title of the Chief Executive’s proposed project, will almost certainly be lost on much of today’s CAMRA membership. It’s almost ancient history now, but the “R” in the acronym “CAMRA”, originally stood for “Revitalisation”, back in the day when CAMRA was the Campaign for the REVITALISATION of Ale!

Saturday 7 November 2015

The Rest of the Dark Beers From Beer Hawk

I promised Zoe Piper, the online marketing manager at Beer Hawk, that I would post my review of the rest of the beers  her company kindly sent me. I reviewed six beers first time around, and assumed there were another six to go. It turns out I miscounted, and there were actually an additional nine beers so, without further ado, here are my thoughts and impressions of this rather fine bunch of dark beers.  

Mad Hatter Brewing Company - Hare of Darkness 7.4%
If I hadn’t read the small print on the label describing this beer as a “Black IPA”, I would have described Hare of Darkness as a strong stout. It really is “as black as your hat”, and is incredibly bitter (IPA?), with a burnt almost liquorice like taste. There’s not much other information on the label, apart from the fact the beer is hopped with Galaxy and Centennial hops.

I have never been comfortable with the term “Black IPA”, and refuse to give it credence by recognising it as a style. Only the Americans could have come up with this sort of nonsense. To me, this beer is a strong stout, which borders on being an Imperial Stout. Unlike some of the other beers tasted above, this one is definitely a beer for sipping, as it doesn’t take any prisoners.

The Ticketybrew Company - Stout 5.4%
Described as “a roasty stout, with a smoky, silky finish”. I wouldn’t argue with that description, apart from saying I detect very little smokiness. I appreciate I’m something of a “smoke” addict, but having drank some of the finest “smoke beers” in the world (I’m talking Bamberg here), I find other beers which claim to be “smoked”, often pale in comparison.

What I can instantly detect in this beer is the presence of treacle – and I don’t like it! I noticed it before I had even looked at the ingredients list. Just a personal foible, but black treacle has no place in a beer, so far as I am concerned, no matter how black or how stout the beer is!

Fortunately the Belgian yeast, used to brew this Ticketybrew beer comes to the rescue, adding a touch of spiciness, and the malted wheat helps smooth out the almost iron-like taste of the treacle. The beer did grow on me, but it’s not one I would rush out and buy.

Left Hand Brewing Company -Milk Stout 6.0%
Roasted malt and coffee flavours build the foundation of this creamy sweet stout - so says the label anyway. Dark-brown/dark ruby-red in colour with a loose light-brown head, there’s little in the aroma, but plenty in the taste of this mid-west American take on a classic old English ale style.

Full-bodied, as one might expect from a milk stout of this strength, there are also plenty y of roast malt and coffee notes- as stated on the label. An enjoyable and interesting beer, with an interesting artistic label to boot.

To Øl - BlackBall Porter 8.0%
Pours jet black with a light-brown rocky head. Roasted and chocolate notes are in the aroma, but these leave the drinker totally unprepared for this intense bitter-sweet chocolate full-bodied, almost oily beer.

This really is one of the most intensely flavoured beers I have drunk, and full credit to Danish brewers To Øl. The statement on their website sums up the philosophy behind the company. “To Øl  wishes to make potent beers, packed with flavour and character. Beer, which you do not forget easily (unless you just had too many). We make beers with an edge and with a drive that prefers quality way before quantity.”
Give this, or any other of the company’s beers you come across, a try; you won't regret it.

To Øl - By Udder Means 7.0%
In case you hadn’t guessed from the rather painful pun, this beer is a milk stout. Similar in appearance to the other To Øl beer, this one I perhaps smoother - the effect of the lactose? Again, full bodied, with lots of roast and chocolate flavours. There is also a very noticeable hop aroma when the beer is first poured.

Another extremely good beer with a modern Scandinavian twist on a classic English style. Like the Black Ball Porter above, this is another very full-flavoured beer which definitely ticks all the boxes.

Rogue Mocha Porter ABV – not declared
I’ve been a fan of Rogue Beers for many years, even though they are rarely seen for sale in UK shops. I first became aware of the company when a work colleague brought me in a bottle of Rogue Dead Guy Ale. His son had bought a short-dated case of the beer at a knock-down price and, much as he liked the beer, he was having trouble getting through it. He also knew ht given my penchant for a decent glass of beer, I would appreciate this one. I certainly did, and have kept a lookout for Rogue Beers ever since. 

The Mocha Porter is one of two Rogue bottles included in my selection from Beer Hawk, and like all Rogue beers the label features an appropriate character giving the trade-mark “clenched-fist” salute. The beer itself is a deep-dark ruby-red colour, topped by a white fluffy head. The ABV is not declared on the bottle, but the company website gives it as 5.3%, and then goes on to describe the beer as having a bittersweet balance of malt and hops, with a light creamy finish. This encapsulates the beer, as far as I am concerned; especially the creamy finish.

As might be expected from the description, the beer slides down a treat, and is just the ticket on a damp and misty early November evening.

Rogue Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout ABV – not declared
Pours jet black, with a tight, light brown head, this American oatmeal stout certainly packs in plenty of flavour. There is a rich creaminess about this beer, which combines well with the dark roast coffee notes, and the slight lactic taste lurking in the background. The latter reminds me of the U Fleků house-beer, before they cleaned up the taste.

Another excellent beer from the extensive Rogue stable; a sign on the label informs the drinker that the beer is a World Stout Champion. I can quite see why. Like with the other Rogue beer, the ABV is not declared on the bottle, but the company website gives it as 5.8%.

The Ilkely Brewery - The Mayan Chocolate Chipotle Stout 6.5%
Ilkley Brewery, based in the Yorkshire town of the same name, brew some stunning beers, and this unusual chocolate stout is no exception. Inspired by an ancient Maya recipe, this beer is brewed with Chipotle Chillies, chocolate malt and real chocolate. The resulting beer is velvety smooth bittersweet stout with the added heat from the Chipotle Chillies; an odd combination, but one which is known to work.

Deep dark, ruby-red in colour, with a contrasting tight creamy head, the Mayan is certainly a beer well worth getting stuck into. I remember drinking a draught version of this beer, back at the start of the year, and this bottle certainly brought back some happy memories.

The Durham Brewery - Temptation Russian Stout 10.0%
According to the label  “Temptation is an Imperial Russian Stout: a style that was exported to Imperial Russia in the 19th Century. The massive body supports oily coffee, liquorice and chocolate flavours. The alchemy of Golding hops and roast malts make a complex aroma of anise, caramel and blackberries.”

Well despite such a mouth-watering write-up, I’m going to resist Temptation and leave opening this beer until Christmas. Such a high-strength beer commands respect; especially when it comes in a 500ml bottle! This is a beer which will go well with the Christmas pudding or with the cheese and biscuits afterwards.

There is no hurry to drink it, as the beer is bottle-conditioned and has a Best Before End date of June 2020!

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!