Thursday 31 December 2015

Norfolk Again

The time between Christmas and New Year (Twixmas), is always a slightly strange one. I have an enforced lay-off from work, as my company shuts down from Christmas Eve until New Year. It’s not as if they carry out any maintenance or other essential work, but close it does and staff have to keep back 3-4 days, depending on how the Bank Holidays fall, from their annual leave to cover this.

On several occasions in the past I’ve used this time off to take a short break (2-3 days) in a European destination; normally somewhere cold, and on one trip even experienced some of the heaviest snow I have seen in my entire life. More recently, I have taken the opportunity to visit my elderly parents in the wilds of Norfolk.

Mum sadly passed away, back in February, and now dad has had to move into a care home, due to the worsening of his Alzheimer’s. I don’t have to remind anyone about what a cruel and devastating disease this is, as it not only robs people of their memories, but as time goes on it increasingly destroys someone’s personality. Their interaction with other people also starts to fade, as they gradually start to retreat into their own private world.

They say that Alzheimer’s is often worse for loved ones, and for others close to the sufferer, and having seen dad I am pleased to report he is being well looked after and has settled in well at the small, specialist care home close to where he and my mother were living until quite recently. He also appeared in good spirits, quite content with his lot, calm and certainly not distressed in anyway, so this is a comfort to the family.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a blog about beer, so it is worth referring to the two pub visits I made whilst in Norfolk. The first was on the journey up, whilst the second was whilst staying overnight at the family bungalow.

I know the route up to Norfolk like the back of my hand, and this year have made the journey a record number of times; first to visit mum in hospital, then for the funeral, and then to visit dad. I take the well-worn route of M25, M11 and then A11, before skirting round Norwich via the A47 towards Dereham - the nearest town to the family home. As I wasn’t in a hurry this time, I decided to stop off on the way for a spot of lunch, and a crafty pint.

Chequers Inn - Thompson
I debated where to stop, before setting off; settling in the end for the unspoilt 16th Century, thatched Chequers Inn at Thompson; a small and intriguingly named village in the heart of Norfolk’s Breckland area of sandy heath-lands and extensive pine forests. I had been there once before, along with my wife, young son and American brother-in-law, Ernie. This was about twenty years ago, when Ernie was still stationed at nearby Lakenheath with the United States Air force.

During the course of his 13 year stint with the air force, Ernie had developed a distinct liking for English beer, and had also sussed out many of the local pubs. He also, of course, had met and married my sister. She didn’t accompany us, on that visit, having recently given birth to my nephew Jack, but Ernie had promised us a look around the airbase, and had thrown in a visit to this rather splendid, country pub as a bonus.

As you can see from the photos, the Chequers is an attractive looking building with a steeply thatched roof which seems almost to reach to the ground. I don't remember that much about the pub from that first visit, because we sat outside. Our son was only around four years old at the time, so we were unable to take him inside. It was a nice day, so enjoying our drinks in the open air was no problem. I do recall the pub serving an excellent pint of Adnams though.

This time around, without the assistance of my brother-in-law to guide me, the pub took a bit of finding. This was despite me having an OS map in the car. It’s not very easy trying to read a map, and drive at the same time, and although I had memorised what I thought was the way, I still ended up taking a couple of wrong turns.

Perseverance pays off, and eventually I noticed a sign, right in the centre of the village, directing travellers along a narrow road to the Chequers. The sun was shining as I arrived, and after parking the car I walked across towards the entrance, pausing first to take a few photos.

A latched door led straight to a central bar, but there are rooms leading off on either side. Both were furnished for diners, but as there was sufficient space in the low-ceilinged bar, and I liked the cosy feel of the place, I decided to remain there. Greene King IPA and Woodforde’s Wherry were the cask ales on offer, and I opted for the latter. I have never been a huge fan of Wherry, but the pint I had was exceptional, and had I not been driving I would definitely have had a second.

Sensibly, I stuck to the one and ordered a ham baguette for my lunch. This too was excellent; the thick slices of tasty home-cooked ham in a large crusty white baguette being just right to set me up for the rest of the day. I liked the feel of this small middle bar as well. It was populated by country folk, and the talk was of country pursuits, such as shooting – clays as well as game. There was a well-spoken young lady, dressed partly in tweeds, enjoying a drink with both her father and grandfather. She was home from university and was talking across to the young lad behind the bar, swapping tales about their various shooting experiences. She seemed a little upset though when her grandfather told her, in a very matter of fact way, how he had despatched a fox, using both barrels of his gun. Country life obviously isn’t “jolly hockey sticks” all of the time!

One other point about the bar which I couldn’t help noticing was the rather low beam running directly in front of the bar counter. One hapless chap, presumably not a regular, managed to crack his head on it no less than three times whilst ordering his drinks!

As I said, it would have been nice to have stayed and enjoyed another pint, but I continued my journey, cutting through along the rural roads through Watton and then on to Dereham. Dad was looking OK when I arrived at the care home, and the staff told me he had settled in nicely. I stayed for a couple of hours, even though the conversation didn’t always make a lot of sense.

I then headed for the family bungalow, which felt cold and empty inside. I turned the heating up and made myself at home. With no food in the place I decided I would eat out that evening, so after sorting a few things out I set off down the road to Darby’s; the pub at the other end of the village. I have written previously about Swanton Morley's two hostelries, and whilst the Angel is the nearest one to dad’s bungalow, and the one I usually frequent, it is very much a locals’ pub. Darby’s it was then, so I set off along the more or less straight road which runs the entire length of this linear village, reaching my destination some 20 minutes later.

A welcoming log fire at Darbys
The pub was bustling, mainly with diners, but still not quite full when I arrived. I found a space at the end of a long table, having first ordered a pint of Lacon’s Legacy. I remembered this excellent hoppy, straw-coloured beer from my previous visit, and it was every bit as good this time round. Also on tap, were Adnams Bitter, Bullard’s No. 3 ABV 4.7% (brewed by Redwell- the brewery which got into a spat with Camden Town over the use of the term "Hells"), plus a couple of seasonal specials, (one from Wolfe, and the other a 4.2% beer called St Nick’s from Lacon’s).

I tried both the Bullards and the St Nick (halves only), preferring the latter due to the hint of spiced orange peel combined with the citrus notes from the hops. Food-wise I went for the battered cod with potato wedges and petis pois, which was just right. The early diners gradually drifted off, although a few latecomers did take up some of the vacant places. I was fine, sitting close to the welcoming log fire, and before going ordered another pint of the excellent Legacy. The landlady told me it was now a regular beer behind the bar, and one of the pub’s top-selling cask ales; deservedly so in my book.

I said my farewells and set off to walk back to the bungalow. It is nearly all uphill going back, but fortunately the moon had risen, meaning I had little need of a torch on the return trip.

I expect I shall be going back to Darby’s; at least until the bungalow is sold, for the hard financial truth is that care home fees are not cheap and there is no help from government for people like my father. People like him who have worked hard all their lives, paid their taxes and provided for their families by buying their own home, are then expected to hand everything over to the state; whilst the work-shy and ne’er-do-wells have everything given to them on a plate when they reach old age. Such is life in modern day Britain!

On a more cheerful note, it was a good couple of days. The Norfolk countryside was looking pretty good in the winter sunshine. The pubs, the beer and the food were all good and, most important of all, I can relax in the knowledge that dad is being cared for and is being looked after well. He is in a place of safety where I know he can live out his final days in peace and contentment.

Monday 28 December 2015

Three Beer Books for Christmas

I received three beer-related books in this year’s Christmas stocking. One has proved almost impossible to put down, one I have merely flicked through, but I can see it is going to be an excellent and informative read and the other, well read on and see what you think.

First up is veteran beer bloggers, Boak& Bailey’s first book, “Brew Britannia”.  This excellent paperback is an entertaining run through of the strange rebirth of British Beer; a story which begins with CAMRA’s fore-runners the Society of Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW), continues through the formative years of the Campaign for Real Ale, and concludes with the emergence of the “craft-beer” movement. The story, of course, continues today, and the fascination with and interest in beer, in its myriad forms and styles, which started in these islands, has now spread far from these shores to become the global phenomenon it is today.

“Brew Britannia” has a particular resonance for me, as I was around in those early days; admittedly not right from the start, but my involvement in CAMRA and my interest in beer and pubs in general does stretch right back to the early 1970’s; meaning I can identify with how the Campaign for Real Ale has evolved over the years. In some cases I either had direct personal involvement with what went on, or can remember being associated with, what at the time, were pioneering and ground-breaking events. It’s now just three days after Christmas, and I have nearly finished reading it; surely the sign of a good book, and I find myself asking why didn't I buy it when it first appeared last year?

The second book is veteran beer writer Stephen Beaumont’s excellent treatise on matching beer with food. Titled, surprisingly enough, “The Beer & Food Companion”, Stephen’s book carries on where Garrett Oliver’s groundbreaking “The Brewmaster’s Table”, published 2003 (I have a signed copy on my bookshelf), leaves off.

As I said, I have only flicked through this book, but it seems packed with fascinating tips and ideas for matching beers with certain foods, in much the same way as Garrett’s book did, but given the phenomenal growth of the global craft beer market, it is able to draw on a much wider range and variety of different beers. It will be interesting to compare these two publications side by side. (It’s worth remembering that despite what the wine connoisseurs tell you, beer often provides a far better accompaniment for many foods, than does wine, so why not find out for yourself and get hold of one, or both, of these books).

The third Christmas beer book I received is a dark horse, and one which is difficult to pigeonhole. However, I have a feeling it will grow on me over time. “Mikkeller’s Book of Beer” is written by legendary Danish brewer, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and his wife Pernille Pang. Amongst other things it contains 25 original Mikkeller brewing recipes, along with instructions of how to brew “exciting, great-tasting beer at home.” Readers also get to learn about “Mikkeller’s evolution from experimental hobby brewer to trailblazing international micro-brewer.”

Confession is said to be good for the soul, so I will come clean and say that despite all the publicity and hype surrounding Mikkeller, I have never drank one of his beers. Actually, the reason for this omission from my own personal experience of world beer is  BECAUSE of the almost “god-like” status Mikkeller is held in amongst the craft beer “glitterati”. That and the exorbitantly high prices charged for his beers!

Some might say my schooling in the world of craft beer is therefore incomplete; and I would probably agree with them, but I have never been a person who just follows the crowd, and the bigger the hype surrounding something, the more likely I am to shy away from it.

Things of course, can change and I am keeping an open mind on this. However, I was rather shocked when I learnt earlier this year, during a rather heated discussion at the European Beer Blogger’s Conference in Brussels, that Mikkeller does not have a brewery of his own, and is therefore a “gypsy brewer” using other people’s plant and equipment. This to me, shows a lack of commitment, and signifies someone who, whilst liking to experiment and play around with recipes, is not a person prepared to put his money where his mouth is.

A few weeks ago, fellow blogger Ed wrote a post, Entitled “Beer and Wanking”, in which he reviewed Mikkeller's book. You need to follow the link back, via Ed’s blog, to a comment on Stonch’s blog to discover the origin of the masturbatory reference, but in his post, Ed claims the book’s overview of brewing is “riddled with inaccuracies”, and that the “account of brewing history is untroubled by any of those annoying facts that get in the way of a good story.” He is most scathing though when he reveals that despite Mikkeller being a “gypsy brewer”, “he doesn't actually brew on other people's kit, as he considers the actual brewing to be just manual labour.”

Presumably Mikkel must have tried and tested the recipes he sends out to those “contract brewers” prepared to do his bidding, but the lack of a hands-on approach at the coalface, so to speak, has lowered my estimation of him even further.

As I said though, I will be keeping an open mind until I have finished reading “Mikkeller’s Book of Beer”, as who knows it might turn out to be the surprise find of them all, and what's more, given the right circumstances, I might be persuaded to try a Mikkeller beer!

Saturday 26 December 2015

Christmas Day 2015

I don’t, as a rule, drink that much beer (or anything else for that matter), on Christmas Day itself. A gargantuan meal sees to that, and this year has proved no exception. We ate quite late; both of us having over-slept, although I was the worst in this respect, having not awoken until just before 10am! Fortunately Eileen was already up and the turkey in the oven by the time I surfaced, and I have next door’s cat to thank for waking me up. To explain, our neighbours are away for Christmas and we are popping round to feed their cat, twice a day.

After rushing round in my dressing gown; an unedifying sight for anyone who saw me, it was back for a quick shower and shave, followed by a spot of breakfast. After the present opening and some tidying up, I cracked open my first beer just after one o’clock; quite late for me on Christmas Day! Beavertown Neck Oil Session IPA hit the spot, selected primarily because it was in a can and would therefore cool down quicker. It was one of a number of Beavertown cans bought for me by my son, but it would definitely have benefited from further chilling.

We sat down to our Christmas meal around 2.30pm and as in previous years, Fuller’s 1845 was my beer of choice to accompany the meal. The rich maltiness compliments the turkey in just the right way, and there is sufficient bitterness present to cut through the full flavours associated with such a large roast dinner.

I didn’t have another beer, even though I had a bottle of Westmalle Tripel chilling in the fridge. We had a break before the Christmas pudding and whilst I again had selected a suitable beer to accompany the dessert, (Rochefort 8, 9.2% ABV), in the end I settled for a pot of freshly-brewed coffee!

Now, as I write this, I am drinking a tall mug of Pilsner Urquell; sufficiently hoppy to be refreshing, but with a satisfying maltiness always present in the background. This classic Czech pilsner has become my stand-by, go to drink beer at home. It may sound as though a great beer has been debased by being sold cheaply in the major supermarkets, but when I can pick a 500ml bottle up for £1.50 at ASDA, I’m not going to complain.

I don’t normally watch a lot of TV, but I thought I’d better be sociable and keep my wife company, as our son had gone out to see a friend. Fortunately the ghastly OTT soaps had all finished, so there was just a bit of light comedy left to enjoy. I cracked open that bottle of Rochefort 8 I was planning to dink earlier, and very nice it was too, dark and well-rounded and definitely not too sweet. It would have been even better drunk from the correct glass, and I remembered this morning that I have a chalice-style glass lurking at the back of the cupboard.

It’s Boxing Day morning now, I didn’t oversleep – although neither Eileen nor I heard our son get up and go off to work! Next door’s moggie has been fed, and I think I can smell bacon sizzling in the pan downstairs. There won’t be any drinking until this evening, as we’re off to visit Eileen’s niece, and this involves a short car journey. If I was on my own, I would walk there, but my immediate family much prefer me to chauffeur them, and I really don’t mind, as long as we find a place to park.

I’m not quite sure which beers to go for tonight, but I’ll make sure there is a decent selection chilling nicely in the fridge before we go.

Thursday 24 December 2015

It was the Night Before Christmas

I’ve been swamped with beer this Christmas. Not a bad thing, as one can never have too much (good) beer. I already had quite a stash; not only bottles I’ve been accumulating over recent months, but also bottles I’d brought back from this year’s many overseas trips. Belgium features prominently on the list, but I’ve also got offerings from Austria and the Czech Republic to get stuck into.

Family and work colleagues have also stepped up to the plate with beery gifts, including these Christmas-themed goodies. The attractive-looking crate above, and its contents, came from two work colleagues. I haven’t had a chance yet to catalogue the bottles, but they include offerings from Backyard, Bradfield, Byatts, Conwy, Hop Studio and Ridgeway. First glance tells me they will be good.

The Christmas selection pack, is a gift from our neighbours for looking after their cat whilst they are away over Christmas.. It is from a company called Cottage Delight, who are based at Leek in Staffordshire. The company specialise in food items like cheese, preserves, sauces and cooking aids, and have been trading for the past 40 years.
Cottage Delight founder, Nigel Cope, recently became a major investor in the nearby Staffordshire Brewery, and this selection pack is one of the results. As well as a Ruby and a Pale Ale, there is a Stout included in the selection. And as if this was not enough, my son has, amongst others, also got me the  three goodies above from Beavertown Brewery.

I can’t start drinking yet, as I’ve got to pick the lad up from work, but once he’s home, and the door is shut, then let the Christmas festivities begin!

Merry Christmas everyone.

Monday 21 December 2015

A Few Pre-Christmas Drinks

At the weekend I arranged to meet up for a few pre-Christmas drinks with my old friend and long-distance walking companion, Eric. We headed over to nearby Tunbridge Wells, as there is little of interest pub-wise in Tonbridge, where we both live. Engineering works and a re-timed departure schedule meant trains were not running at their usual frequency between the two towns, so after a frustrating 30 minute wait at Tonbridge, we finally boarded a late running train and arrived at our destination some 10 minutes later.

Opera House - JDW
We headed up the hill, as I had some tickets to collect from the town's Assembly Hall Theatre. We then walked along to Fuggles, but we could see through the clear glass windows that the place was absolutely heaving. We therefore decided to call in at the Opera House instead for our first drink of the afternoon. The Opera House is the JDW outlet in Tunbridge Wells and, as its name might suggest, is a pretty grand affair.

This imposing Edwardian building, which saw its last opera performed back in 1931, was purchased by Wetherspoon’s  in 1996, and turned into today’s successful public house. After several decades as a cinema, and then a bingo hall, the Opera House needed substantial restoration work, which the company carried out with their usual sensitivity and eye for detail, and whilst the upper seating areas (circle and private boxes), are not open to the public, the whole of the ground floor is, including the stage.The latter area has been converted to house a second bar and drinking area.

This was where we sat, both enjoying an excellent pint of Old Dairy Blue Top. We had timed our visit perfectly, as the lunchtime crowds had drifted off, and the evening drinkers had yet to arrive. So we sat there chatting and catching up with what had been going on in our respective lives.

Grove Tavern
After finishing our pints, we decided to move on, and the Grove Tavern, hidden away in the Tunbridge Wells “village area”, seemed the ideal next stop. En route we walked through Calverley Gardens, pausing to admire the ice-rink set up in the grounds for the benefit of seasonal revellers. This year’s December weather has seen record high temperatures, so I am sure the chillers must have been working overtime to keep the ice from melting, but the rink seemed pretty popular and looked suitably festive all lit up with Christmas lights.

We reached the Grove Tavern, which is reputed to be one of the oldest pubs in Tunbridge Wells. It was busy with a good mix of regulars; many of whom we recognised, plus a group of pool players. Landlord Steve and barmaid Sally were in charge behind the bar, and they had their work cut out keeping up with the steady demand for more pints to be pulled or poured.

Steve had four beers on the bar – Harvey’s Best, Taylor’s Landlord, Longman Blonde plus a seasonal beer whose name escapes me. I sampled both the Landlord and the Longman, preferring the former. I met up with a couple of old acquaintances, which was one of the reasons we stayed for a second pint. It was good to see the pub so busy, but this high level of trade seems to be the norm if previous visits are anything to go by.
Duke of York
We wandered down the hill towards the Pantiles; intending to call in at the Ragged Trousers. A look through the window revealed that, as in the case of Fuggles, the place was absolutely heaving, so instead we made for the nearby Duke of York. The latter is one of the oldest pubs on the Pantiles, but its star attraction as far as we were concerned is that it is now owned by Fullers, and sells the full range of the company’s beers.

The Duke has also had a successful makeover, with the bar being moved back to create a lot more space. Despite this there was still no room to sit down, so we stood at the bar admiring the highly professional way the manager and his staff conducted themselves and went about ensuring everyone was served as quickly and efficiently as possible. Beer wise we opted for ESB, as this legendary strong bitter is rarely seen outside of Fuller’s tied houses. I am pleased to report it was good and highly satisfying. Whilst in the pub, we bumped into my wife’s niece and her boyfriend who have become regular visitors to the Duke. Like us they live in Tonbridge, but again like us feel the need to travel over to Tunbridge Wells to drink in a decent pub.

They told us they had just come from the Pantiles Tap; a relatively new addition to the town’s drinking scene. The Tap opened just over a year ago, and I wrote about it here. Eric had not been there, and I had not been back since my initial visit, so wanted to see how it had changed. We ended up walking straight past it, as it is tucked away in what are the former cellars of the long vanished Gloster Hotel, (note the strange spelling).
Taps at the Pantiles Tap - photo from last year

Realising our mistake, we retraced our steps and descended down into this basement bar. It was busy, but we managed to find room at the bar. With sixteen beer lines (cask and keg),  it was difficult to decide which beer to go for. The young lad behind the bar helped us decide, and we opted for a dark beer from Northumberland brewers, Anarchy Brew Co. I thought the beer was a porter, but can find no porter listed on the company’s website, so perhaps it was one of their stouts. Whatever it was it was good, and whilst standing there drinking, we got chatting to Jo, the landlady who was sitting on our side of the bar.

It turned out she remembered me from my off-licence days, and possibly I remember her but, as with a pub, a lot of different people passed through the door of my shop, so it is difficult recalling them all. That aside, we chatted about beer related matters, and learned of the success Jo and her partner Geoff have had with the Pantiles Tap over the past year. The bar has mellowed nicely since last November, when I first called in, and the Tap is now firmly established as part of the Tunbridge Wells drinking scene. All three of us agreed that Tonbridge is crying out for a similar establishment, but the lack of suitable premises seems to be the main stumbling block preventing similar ventures from opening in the town.

We finished with a beer from Buxton; possibly Axe Edge, but things were starting to get a little hazy by this time. We made our way back to the station, calling in at the Bedford for one last drink, (not that we really needed another one!). The final beer was Nine Tails, a 4.9% Old Ale from Black Cat Brewery.

Black Cat began brewing in 2011 on a 2.5-barrel brew plant in nearby Groombridge, but re-located under new ownership, to Palehouse Common in East Sussex. I’ve always enjoyed their beers, but they used to be quite hard to find. It was therefore good to come across a Black Cat beer so close to home, and it was certainly a good one to mark the end of what had been an excellent evening out.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Friday on my Mind

An unholy alliance of health campaigners and anti-drink crusaders are warning that “Mad Friday”; billed as one of the busiest days of the year for UK pubs and clubs, could see alcohol-fuelled emergencies increase by up to 50%.

"Mad Friday" is the nickname for the last Friday before Christmas, and is probably the most popular night for firms' Christmas parties. Consequently it has become one of the busiest nights in the year for ambulances and the police.

My company’s Christmas meal took place last Friday and, whilst a reasonable amount of drink was consumed, people were generally well-behaved and there were none of the embarrassing incidents sometimes associated with firms’ do’s. I strongly suspect most company Christmas parties were similar. People know how to behave, especially when the boss is around, and with many having to drive home afterwards, soft-drinks are often the order of the day.

None of this, of course, prevents the anti-alcohol lobby from trotting out the same tired stories about drunken mayhem on our streets, and government body, Public Health England, has jumped on the band waggon and released a press statement urging people to sign up for “Dry January”.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, from Public Health England said people drinking "much more than usual" over the Christmas period can lead to "the NHS and police dealing with more drinking-related accidents and emergencies". Really??

"It's not surprising that many of us feel ready to take a break from alcohol," she added. "A period of abstinence could help encourage less harmful, better drinking habits in the long-term - even six months later, evidence from Dry January shows that more than two-thirds of participants are still drinking less". Less than when?

"As the festive season continues, we're urging people to take a break and get their 2016 off to a positive start by signing up for Dry January." What's positive about hitting the already beleaguered pub trade at its quietest period of the year?

The statistics put out by PHE fail to stack up, and with no information on the size, scope or range of people questioned, I strongly suspect that, like all such surveys, the whole thing is manipulated to give the answer the group is looking for.

Do they seriously believe that mature adults feel pressurised into drinking more over the festive period? Are people so utterly devoid of free will that they give in to social pressures to drink more than they might otherwise have done?

Apparently, more than half of us (53%) drink alcohol over the Christmas period even when we don’t necessarily want to. Really?

Of those that drink more than they usually do over the festive season, one in four (27%) agree they feel guilty for drinking more and nearly a third (30%) agree that they feel run down as a result of drinking. Some might well feel a bit run down, (and over-consumption of food and lack of exercise probably play an equal role here), but why would they feel guilty? No one forces them to carry on drinking.

One in five (21%) of us are tired of drinking alcohol by Christmas Eve. In other words, the majority of us (four out of five) aren’t! Many of us are still working on Christmas Eve, so where do these figures come from?

Last year’s Friday before Christmas saw sales of alcohol rise in Britain’s pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels by 142% - and this does not take into account that the majority of alcohol sales are from shops. And???? So according to these health busy-bodies,  people aren’t allowed to spend time socialising and celebrating with friends,  family or colleagues.

The whole thing really is the usual predictable scare-mongering we have come to expect from the likes of Alcohol Concern, but for government-funded organisations to be sticking their oar in as well, seems to me a gross mis-use of public funds.

I strongly suspect that “Mad Friday” like “Black Friday” before it, will be little more than a damp squib. This sort of nonsense may well keep these prod-noses and health fascists in a job, but when my taxes are being used to tell me how to conduct my life, then I am not amused!

Thursday 17 December 2015

EBBC 2015 Pre-Conference Excursion - Looking Back

It’s been a couple of months now since EBBC Pre-Conference Excursion and I am still struggling to present an overall picture of the day’s events. The excursion took place on Thursday 27th August; the day before the conference kicked off. It was organised by the Belgian Family Brewers; an association of 22 family-owned companies representing some of the best traditions of Belgian brewing. The idea behind the
A taste of things to come
event was to showcase examples of each member company’s products and to attempt to give a brief history and overview of each. With every company keen to promote its own role within the association, this was never going to be easy, and in fact posed a serious logistical challenge for the excursion organisers.

To get an overall impression of how the day worked out it is necessary to consider that there was no way in which we could have visited all 22 of the breweries which belong to the Belgian Family Brewers Association. Instead we had four stopping points spread over the course of the day which were arranged so that between six and seven brewers were represented at each halt; with representatives from each company present to talk about their brewery, the beers they brew and to talk us through a tasting of some of their products.

Travelling in style
This was all well and good in theory, but somewhat ambitious and over-optimistic in practice, as small delays at each stop, and the length of some of the presentations, meant that the planned schedule seriously over-ran. When torrential rain and traffic problems on the Belgian motorway network are factored in, it is no surprise that we ended up arriving back in Brussels some two hours later than originally planned.

However, in the greater scheme of things, these were just minor irritations, and the day ended up being interesting, educational and jolly good fun; even if it was something of an endurance trip at times! It’s safe to say that we all came away with a much greater knowledge of Belgian brewing in general, and of the special role played by the Belgian Family Brewers in ensuring the methods, traditions and customs associated with some of the country’s best known beers continues to be passed on from one generation to the next.

A tent in a field on a wet August afternoon
We set off from the conference hotel on one of the wettest August days imaginable; something which ended up exasperating the aforementioned traffic problems. The coach we were travelling in belonged to the Belgian National Football Team - the “Red Devils”, and was painted up in the team’s colours and their logo; so despite the weather we were really journeying in style.  Our first stop was a hop garden planted in the grounds of the Palm Brewery headquarters, in the village of Steenhuffel.

The coach dropped us just off the road and then, following our guide, we hiked along a track towards a large marquee set up facing one of the aforementioned hop gardens. This was our base for lunch and also for the associated beer tastings and presentations. The marquee was rather an upmarket affair, with a wooden floor, a bar with full catering facilities in the background and a large TV screen to aid with the presentations.
It's quite a posh tent, mind you!
There were high tables, cleverly grouped around the larger supporting tent poles, so we divided ourselves up into appropriately sized groups around these tables and stood awaiting the first beer samples and the first of the five courses which were served for lunch. We also listened attentively to the first presentation which welcomed us to Steenhuffel, before launching into the history of the Palm Group of Breweries. 

To be honest there was rather too much in the way of facts and figures to be taken in; not just with the first presentation, but with all of them, and whilst they all had their own story to say, as the day progressed we all started to suffer from information overload. 
One of many presentations
Although I was taking notes, they weren’t that detailed; my presence on the trip being purely for enjoyment, and whilst I certainly wanted to enhance my knowledge of the Belgian beer industry, I was not there in some paid journalistic role where I would be expected to provide a full report on the day’s activities. What I can report is that, given the setting, the emphasis at this stop was on "hops". Beers and representatives from the following breweries were present in the marquee at Steenhuffel: Van Eeke, Het Anker, Lefebure, Huyghe and Duvel.

Sampling session at Lindemanns
The lunch which accompanied the first series of presentations, was excellent; as were the beers selected to go with each course. We later discovered that the marquee had not been erected solely in our honour, but had been put in place for an event scheduled to take place a few days later, when the hops in the adjacent fields would be picked, and then taken away to be used in the brewing of the Belgian equivalent of “green hop” beer. As it happened, the weather on the chosen day (Sunday) was glorious, so I would imagine that everything passed off as planned.

We made our way back across the fields to the awaiting coach, and then set off for our next scheduled halt at the Lindemanns Brewery in Vlezenbeek , in the heart of the “Lambic country” of  Payottenland. This was when the carefully-timed schedule began to go astray. The fact that the welcoming speeches, beer tastings and the presentations which took place at Lindemanns, also over-ran didn’t help either.

and the new!
The old
Unfortunately there was insufficient time to look around the brewery, 
with its brand-spanking new brewing plant, but we were given a quick look at the maturation room where the beer conditions in large oak vats, or Foeders, many of which date back several decades. Unsurprisingly the emphasis at this stop was on "yeast", and the other Belgian Family Brewers present were: De Brabander, Omer Vander Ghinste, Timmermans and Verhaeghe.

Brasserie Dupont
The rain had stopped by the time we re-boarded the coach, and then it was quite a lengthy drive to our next stop, the picturesque Dupont Brewery in the village of the same name. We entered a renovated old farm building, which forms part of the brewery, and then sat down around a long table. The Dupont Brewery dates from 1844, and is best known for its Saison Dupont. The host team had been joined by brewers from five other breweries, all keen to present their wares and tell us about their breweries. Consequently more glasses of beer were placed in front of us, and from this point on, everything started blurring into one.

Sampling session at Dupont
There were just too many beers to taste, too many presentations to listen to and consequently far too much information to take in, but I was taking notes (old habits die hard), so I can confirm representatives from the following companies were there to tell us about their breweries: Bosteels, St-Feullien, DeRyck, Brouwerij Roman and Brasserie de Silly. The guideline notes relating to this stop, indicate an emphasis on “more”, whatever that is supposed to mean!

From what I recall, it was no great distance to the final stop on our tour, namely the Dubuisson Brewery and the home of Bush beers. Here we were treated to something more solid in the form of a sit-down meal in the brewery restaurant. It being Belgium, and this being an excursion organised by the Belgian Family Brewers, we had that most Belgian of meal - Boeuf  Carbonnade with chips. It was rather good, and as well as a Dubuisson beer (Surfine - Saison) to drink, we sampled beers from De Koninck, De Halve Maan, Van Hosebrouck and Sint Bernardus.  We also met the head brewer from the latter brewery, and it was here that I first heard the tale about the brewery’s claim to be the brewer of the original Sint Sixtus-Westvleteren.
A Belgian classic for dinner
The evening finished with a tour of the extensive cellars beneath the brewery, where the beers quietly mature and condition in row after row of oak casks. The latter are, in the main, former wine barrels, primarily from Burgundy and once containing the famous Nuits St Georges wine. With the emphasis at Dubuisson on barrel-ageing, the focus at this final stop of the tour, was understandably on "oak".

I slept for most of the journey back to Brussels, awakening just as we arrived back in the city centre. This was some two hours or so later than scheduled. It had been a long, but interesting day, packed full of all sorts of beery goodies, and there would be more to come the following morning, as the conference proper was due to kick off!

Maturation cellar at Dubuisson
Looking back at both the various brewery leaflets I collected along the way, together with the notes I made (more comprehensive than I first thought), I believe there is sufficient information to do a more detailed write up on the four locations, with obvious emphasis on the beers sampled plus, where available, some back ground history of some of the breweries. This will be a project to keep me busy over the Christmas break, so it may be a few weeks before the first of these posts appears on the blog.

Sunday 13 December 2015

West Kent CAMRA Christmas meal - 2015

Not many photos, but today the Bailey family joined ten other West Kent CAMRA members and friends for the annual branch Christmas meal. This year’s venue was the Brecknock Arms at Bells Yew Green; a small and comfortable Harvey’s pub, just one stop on the train from Tunbridge Wells.

The pub provided the perfect location, combining the relaxed informal atmosphere of a village local with good food and equally good drink. This year’s dinner was an unqualified success and a complete contrast to five years ago, when we last visited the Brecknock for our Christmas meal. On that occasion the pub’s heating had broken down, and we sat huddled close to the fire, trying to keep warm!

There were no such problems this time and, if anything, we were almost too warm and cosy, particularly in view of the unseasonably mild weather outside. Eileen, Matthew and I went for the traditional roast turkey, which was very good. Also good were the Harvey’s beers, and with the Sussex Best being joined on the bar by XXXX Old Ale and draught Christmas Ale, I was in beer heaven!

Prior to our meal, we were joined for drinks by intrepid walkers Craig and Phil – plus dog, who had walked over, across the fields, from Tunbridge Wells. The Brecknock is that sort of pub; in fact everything a village pub should be, and it is great to see this Victorian local thriving again, following a period of uncertainty and several indifferent owners.

The turn-around in the pub’s fortunes, is down to new owners, Sally and David Fawcett who have transformed the Brecknock since taking over back in February. Together with their friendly staff, they coped admirably not only with our party of 12, but also with another group of diners in the other bar.

We left the pub, shortly before 4.30pm, to catch the train back to Tonbridge. A few intrepid souls alighted at Tunbridge Wells, announcing they were going up the hill to Fuggles, for some Otley O6 Porter. They are probably still there!

For some background information on Harvey’s outstanding Christmas Ale, click on this link to a video blog about the beer, from the company’s Edmund Jenner.

Saturday 12 December 2015

What Am I Supposed To Do With These?

What am I supposed to do with these? Well, drink them is the obvious answer, but it’s not so obvious with one of the beers. At 13% ABV, and packaged in a corked 75cl, screen-printed bottle, Bush – Scaldis Prestige de Nuits is a beer which isn’t going to take any prisoners. Matured in large oak casks, which had previously contained the famous Nuits Saint Georges wine, this special beer then undergoes a further conditioning in the bottle.

I was given the bottle when I visited the Dubuisson Brewery, in the village of Pipaix, in the Belgian province of Hainaut. The visit formed part of the European Beer Bloggers Pre-Conference Excursion, and was the final stop on what proved a packed and very beery day. We had dinner at the restaurant attaché to the brewery, and afterwards (or was it before?), we were shown the cellars beneath the brewery where the beer matures in these impressive oak casks.

The cellars - Dubuisson Brewery
All well and good, and never look a gift horse in the mouth, but there is no way I am going to drink that volume of a 13% beer on my own. My family won’t help, as my wife doesn’t drink and my son is an out and out Stella-drinking “lager lout”. We are not expecting any visitors over Christmas either, so I think the beer will just have to be laid down until a suitable occasion arises.

As for the other beer; well that too was a gift, and ironically enough it was acquired on the same beery trip, but this time at our first port of call. This was a rather up-market marquee, overlooking a hop garden planted in the grounds of the Palm Brewery headquarters, in the village of Steenhuffel, to the north of Brussels. We had stopped there for lunch, plus several beer tastings, on one of the wettest August days imaginable. The marquee had been erected for an event scheduled to take place a few days later, when the hops in the adjacent fields would be picked, and then taken away to be used in the brewing of the Belgian equivalent of “green hop” beer.

The other large 75cl bottle contains a “triple-hopped” beer, called Palm Hop Select. According to the label, the beer is hopped three times, the last addition being the “home-grown, aroma rich, Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops from Palm’s own Belgian hop field, are added”. These were the lovely ripe, bright-green cones we could see, hanging in abundance, just a short distance away. I need to find my notes from the trip, but I’m pretty sure this beer was the first we sampled that day.

At a mere 6% I will probably manage this one OK, but it will still require care in pouring as it is another bottle-conditioned beer, so the final question to ask is why do some brewers fill their beer into such large bottles? There is no single correct answer, but brewers do this for reasons of exclusivity, (as in the case of these two beers), but they also do it to enable the beer to be shared amongst friends, (something essential when dealing with a 13% ABV beer!). A beer packaged in one of these large bottles, also makes a nice gift; especially at this time of year. Finally, and probably most important of all, the above reasons all mean that brewers can sell these large bottles at a premium price.