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.


David Harrison said...

Some familiar names and places from way back, Paul. I think I was technically a MMK member, but tended to go to Ashford branch events as it was nearer, but rarely because of driving related issues-few buses.I was working in County Hall at the time, and remember the effects of the bomb.

Paul Bailey said...

County Hall was probably a bit too close for comfort to the explosion!

Anonymous said...

Interesting to read your reflections on the lack of real ale in Maidstone in the mid '70s, in the light of your and Mudge's discussion of the reality of real ale back at the start of CAMRA. I get the sense that it would have been real in, say, a third of pubs, assuming the town had at least 60 pubs back then. Who would have owned the keg pubs back then ? I'd always assumed Kent was more inclined to proper beer !

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, back in the mid-70’s the beer situation in Kent was clouded by the widespread use of “top-pressure”. This was basically a hybrid system whereby the majority of beer was still in cask form, but CO2 gas was used to force the beer from the cask in the cellar into the customers’ glass at the bar. As this required a fair amount of gas pressure, the beer often became overly gassy, and in extreme cases resembled keg beer.

I grew up just outside Ashford, and went to school in the town. Although I reached the age of 18 in the spring of 1973, I started to frequent pubs prior to this. It was easy to do this back then, as there were no ID checks, and many landlords turned a blind eye, provided you behaved yourself. I’m sure you know what I am talking about, and I would imagine your own experiences are probably quite similar.

Anyway, I digress. What I was going to say is that the vast majority of the pubs in Ashford, and indeed much of East Kent, were tied to either Courage or Whitbread, and these two brewers had switched over almost exclusively to top-pressure dispense. Shepherd Neame, on the other hand, still had hand pumps in the majority of their pubs, but their beers had a poor reputation amongst local drinkers back then. My friends and I therefore tended to avoid Shep’s pubs (nothing changes!).

My friends and I tended to use a small number of pubs in the town, because we knew we would get served in them. They were all Courage houses, and without exception served the beer by top-pressure. We mainly drank a beer called PBA (Pale Bitter Ale), which was actually a light mild; East Kent being an area where this style of beer was popular.

I remember Courage bringing out a new keg beer, called John Courage. It was actually rather good; having a firm malt base and being well-hopped. Several years later, I found it was actually Director’s Bitter in keg form, which explains why, despite the gas, it tasted so good.

The local pub in the village where I lived was the exception, in that it served Whitbread Trophy “D” Bitter direct from the cask. This beer was later renamed Fremlins Bitter, in the late 1970’s, as Whitbread tried to project a more local image. (Ironically, the Trophy Bitter, brewed locally at Faversham, was itself based on an original Fremlins recipe).

It is also worth noting that the electric pumps, which were quite widespread in the Midlands and the North, were totally unknown in the South East; in fact I wondered what they were, when I first came across them on a school Geology field trip to North Wales.

When I moved up to Manchester, to start university, in the autumn of 1973, the majority of what I learned to recognise as “real ale”, was also dispensed by electric pumps; hand pulls being confined to the smaller and more traditional (some would say run down) pubs.

Sorry for the rather lengthy explanation, but “real ale” in Kent, was quite thin on the ground back in the early days of CAMRA.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul - genuinely interesting. Only thing that surprises me is the poor reputation of Sheps. I've always enjoyed their beers (except at the Southborough pub near my in-laws !), and I recall Spitfire having a good reputation in the '90s.

Paul Bailey said...

I’m genuinely not sure what it is about Shep’s, Martin. There was a period during the late 70’s, and much of the 80’s, when I seriously rated their beer. In fact I’d go as far as saying that a properly kept pint of Master Brew was one of the finest bees in the country back then. I’m sure Shep’s beers were pretty good when I first started drinking as well. It’s just that when you’re young you tend to follow the crowd, and I think much of the prejudice amongst my friends, against the company’s’ beers, was inherited from their fathers.

Into the 90’s and something happened to Shep’s beers. My personal view is they are over attenuated; so much so that virtually all the residual sugars in the beer are fermented right out. The resultant beer is thin in body and astringent in taste. The wonderful flowery hoppiness, which once characterised the company’s beers, has been replaced by a harsh, almost metallic bitterness which, set against a background of low residual malt sugars, leads to an un-balanced and unpleasant beer.

Far more lager than cask is drunk in Shepherd Neame pubs these days, and the company itself seem little more than a contract lager brewing company (think Asahi, Samuel Adams, Orangeboom, Hürlimann, Kingfisher and probably several others).

ps. The last time I drank in the Imperial at Southborough, the beer was pretty good (for Shep’s). Most of the punters were drinking lager though!