Sunday 31 January 2016

The Cooper's Arms 7th Winter Ales Festival

Crowborough's most famous former resident

At 787 ft above sea level, the town of Crowborough is one of the highest points in Sussex.  Alighting from the bus yesterday in the centre of the town, and feeling the rather keen wind blowing through my hair, it certainly felt exposed to the elements, and I was wishing I had worn a thicker coat as well as a hat.

A brisk walk downhill through a residential area of mixed, but mainly quite substantial modern houses, brought my companions and I to the Cooper’s Arms; an attractive 19th Century pub constructed partially from local stone and looking somewhat incongruous amongst the late 20th Century houses and their leafy setting on the flanks of Ashdown Forest.

As mentioned in my previous post, the Cooper’s was holding its annual Winter Ales Festival, now in its seventh year. We arrived at the pub just five minutes before a bus load of around 40 CAMRA members drawn from branches in north Sussex and neighbouring Surrey. Also in our favour, were a small number of other members of our branch who had caught a slightly earlier bus and had managed to secure a table at the far end of the pub.

There were printed beers lists scattered about the pub, but I had already spotted which beer I was going to start with. Gun Brewery Scaramanga EP (Extra Pale), at 3.9% fitted the bill and certainly agreed with the tasting notes. This light straw-coloured, well-hopped pale ale is brewed by Gun Brewery, based at nearby East Grinstead, and was so good that I wished I’d ordered a pint; especially as the thirsty hordes from the bus had now arrived and were milling around the bar.

I decided on another pale beer, before moving on to the dark stuff, and this time I went for Chinook, a 4.1% single-hop ale from Crouch Vale Brewery. This beer was also nice and refreshing, but not quite as good as the EP. Had I drank this one first, then I’m certain I would have enjoyed it more.

Beer list
So then over to the dark side and Burning Sky Porter, a fine rich dark porter with a chocolaty background, and not too strong at 4.8%, was a good one to start with. This was followed by Black Pearl Oyster Stout, a 6.2% strong stout from Eddie Gadd’s Ramsgate Brewery which is was originally brewed for a local sea food restaurant, and which is normally sold in bottle form only.

For many of my companions this was the beer of the festival, but for me that honour went to Old Freddy Walker from Moor Brewery near Bristol. Full-bodied and rich and dark, this 7.3% strong ale had been ageing in cask in the Cooper’s cellar since the beginning of 2015. Priced accordingly, it really was a stunning beer, and I was not the only one to state that it was the best beer of the day.

There was one other beer which I perhaps should have tried. From a pure “missed opportunity” point of view I’m wishing that I had, but I know my body and my lack of a hangover this morning are telling me it was a good job I didn’t. Fuller’s Golden Pride is a strong, (8.5% ABV), barley-wine style beer, sold in bottles. I still have two bottles in the cupboard downstairs, but it’s not often that I want to knock back 500 ml of such a high strength beer.

The beer is only very rarely available in cask, but Cooper’s landlord David managed to persuade Fuller’s Head Brewer, John Keeling to let him have a cask of Golden Pride; in fact the according to the tasting notes, John told David he could have any beer which Fuller’s make, put into cask; “you just have to ask”, were the words quoted. The description of a “high-strength ale, with hints of orange oil and toasted grain, with a big hit of alcohol”, was almost enough to tempt me, but in the end I resisted. All who did try it though described it as excellent.

The bus party left at around 4.30pm, which meant more room in the pub and the chance to reflect on yet another excellent Festival. I had one last beer in the form of the 5.1 % Slow Dark Stout, from local brewers, Pig & Porter. The latter had two beers listed on the festival sheet, but regrettably the 5.7% Cast no Shadow; a chocolate and orange porter was unavailable.

Leaving the pub at dusk
The landlord and his staff at the Cooper’s Arms had once again excelled themselves by putting on an excellent festival. They coped admirably with the 60 plus people who must have been in the pub, making sure everyone was served promptly, and with a fresh glass each time. The mountains of wrapped and pre-prepared cheese and onion rolls at each end of the bar soon vanished, and the kitchen staff were kept busy serving either pasties or Polish sausage and chips.

Some of our party, including me, left the Cooper’s at 5pm; allowing plenty of time to a walk back up to Crowborough Cross for the bus back to Tunbridge Wells. The others remained in the pub awaiting a couple of pre-booked taxis. They were obviously warmer than we were, but I must admit I quite enjoyed the climb back up to the main road.

I stopped off to join some of the others for a quick one, at the Pantiles Tap, back in Tunbridge Wells, but as I was feeling peckish I decided to call it a day and make for home. I annoyingly just missed a bus, and with an hour’s wait for the next one (buses aren’t that frequent on a Saturday evening), I caught the train back to Tonbridge instead. I picked up a chicken shish from the local kebab shop, and after walking back up the hill, I was sat down in front of the fire, enjoying it in the company of my family.

As I have said before, it’s a good job I don’t live in Crowborough as I would be a rather too frequent visitor to the Cooper’s. The pub is currently advertising for kitchen and waiting staff, following an upgrade of the kitchen, but I think that, however good, food will always play second fiddle to the beer at this excellent pub in its delightful setting.
Footnote: Both Gun Brewery and Moor Brewery produce beers which are un-fined, and therefore can sometimes be slightly hazy. Both believe that by not fining their beers they are creating a more natural, and better tasting product. Also, the omission of isinglass finings from the brewing process means the beers are suitable for vegans.

Friday 29 January 2016

Winter Ales at the Cooper's Arms

Tomorrow (Saturday), I’m off across the border into Sussex, for the Winter Ales Festival at the Cooper’s Arms, Crowborough. I’ve written about this excellent pub on several previous occasions, and I have also been to the Winter Ales Fest before. Unfortunately I missed it last year, due to family reasons, but I can report that the year before’s event was really good.

There will be a party of local West Kent CAMRA members travelling over to Crowborough by bus, and we’ll be meeting up with members from neighbouring Sussex and Surrey branches. Two years ago, these other members arrived by vintage bus, but whether this is the plan this year, remains to be seen.

So far as I can make out, there will be 11 cask ales on sale at the Cooper’s; most, but not all, strong and dark. Gun Brewery (a new one on me), Redemption and Pig & Porter are all supplying two beers each; with the rest coming from Crouch Vale, Dark Star, Fuller’s (cask Golden Pride, no less!), Gadds and Moor Brewery.

It promises to be an interesting day, and I will be publishing a full report in the fullness of time.

Wednesday 27 January 2016

A Brief Taste of Spain

In late November 2014, my family and I enjoyed a short break in Barcelona. Weather-wise we couldn’t have picked a worse time for our trip, as one of the heaviest storms to hit the western Mediterranean had made its way up the coast from Africa, and really hit hard on the third day of our visit.

I have written about the trip here, and my post, of course, majored on the two craft beer establishments we managed to track down. I picked up a few bottles at both these places, but I also bought a few more on the Saturday; which was the second day of our visit. Knowing that nearly all the shops would be closed the following day, we had frantically done our shopping for presents and take-home goodies, and it was in a large Carrefour outlet, on Las Ramblas, that I picked up several more bottles.

I had tried to avoid the more obvious “big brewery” brands; going instead for what, on the surface at least, appeared to be some rather more artisan brews. As you will see later though, not everything is as it first seems and some of these beers turned out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I enjoyed these Spanish/Catalan beers over the course of 2015; eventually finishing the last one last weekend. I had been keeping notes as I went along, and also took a few photos. Here’s what I found, in the order in which I drank them.

Moritz Epidor 7.2% - Amber in colour with a full malty flavour. Deceptive, as doesn’t quite drink to its strength. Attractively packaged, I bought this beer when we visited the Fabrica Moritz, a popular and fashionable brew pub on the Ronda Sant Antoni that occupies the site of the original Moritz Brewery.

Mahou Negra 5.5% - A stylishly packaged, dark, Munich-style lager, full bodied and smooth, and on a par with many Dunkel beers I have drunk in Bavaria. I later discovered that Mahou are part of the San-Miguel Group, so I didn’t spot that one!

Damm Cerveza de Navidad 2014. 6.5%. A strong pale lager, packaged in a 66cl "1876 Original". The label looks interesting as it depicts various hand-written “brewing notes”. The wort had an extract value of 14.6˚, and a colour of 9.0. Brewed solely from water, malted barley and hops, the beer was matured for 3 months and bottled in October 2014. There are some tasting notes, but my Spanish is practically non-existent, so unfortunately I cannot elaborate further.
bottle, embossed with the words

So what does the beer itself taste like? Well there’s little in the way of aroma, and despite its high ABV the beer tastes surprisingly dry. There is probably just the right level of hoppiness for a beer of this strength, although I would like to have seen a higher amount used to make this beer really stand out. However, I can imagine drinking this beer in a Barcelona bar, with a few typically Catalan dishes.

Cruzcampo Gran Reserva 1904 6.4% - This beer doesn’t drink like a 6.4% beer, despite being on the sweet side. Pale amber in colour, with not much in the way of aroma, a closer look at the bottle reveals this is a Heineken-Spain brand from Seville. I have to say, that despite its pedigree, this beer was perfectly pleasant and very quaffable.

Naparbier ZZ + Amber Ale 5.5% - A very lively bottle-conditioned beer, which was 
difficult to pour; so much so that I ended up with a pint glass full of foam. The beer was hazy and very malty tasting, with a background yeastiness. The beer did grow on me after a while, but was still disappointing considering the ornate, Grateful Dead inspired label and the beer’s obvious craft aspirations.

This was one of the beers I bought at Biercab in Barcelona. I noticed that Best before Date was 15/04/15. Today is the 2nd May 2015!

Ambar Export 7.0% - Another beer from Carrefour, described on the bottle as “Double fermented” and brewed using three different malts. The beer is certainly very malty, but not unpleasant. It is amber in colour, as its Spanish name suggests. From what I can make out, it is brewed by Zaragoana SA.

La Pirata Black Bock Imperial Stout 11.2%. I had been saving this beer for some
time as I knew it would be good. It turned out to be a real belter. The keeping qualities of a beer this strength were never in doubt, and the brewery had given my bottle a consume by date of August 2018.

The beer poured thick, black and oily. There were the typical aromas associated with a beer of this strength, such as wood, leather and a number of others which it was difficult to identify. The characteristic Imperial Stout taste of roast malt, burnt toast, and bitter coffee was present, with perhaps just a hint of Brettanomyces lurking in the background.

Cerveses La Pirata are based in of Súria, a town to the north west of Barcelona. From what I can make out, their beers are contract-brewed elsewhere. Regardless of this, their Imperial Stout was excellent, and formed the perfect companion to some strong cheese.

Seven bottles in total, representing a snapshot of some of the beers available in Spain’s second largest city. There were not many true “craft beers” amongst my haul, but it was still an interesting and, on the whole, enjoyable selection. I am off to Barcelona again, in six weeks time; travelling alone on this occasion, just for a long weekend. The reason for my visit is the Barcelona Beer Festival, which runs from 4th to 6th March.

This will be the fifth such festival to have taken place in the Catalan capital, and is being held at the Barcelona Maritime Museum, situated on the city’s seafront. There are reported to be around 300 beers at the festival, although only 60 will be available at any given time. The majority of these beers, of course, will qualify as “craft” in some way or another, and you can find further details on the Barcelona Beer Festival website.

I received my invitation to attend the festival via fellow blogger, Joan Villar-i-Martí, who I met at both the 2014 and 2015 European Beer Bloggers Conferences. Joan host his own site Blog Birraire, and has also co-authored the first Catalonia Beer Guide. You can check out his blog here, as well as links to the Barcelona Beer Festival.

I am really looking forward to the festival, and also to seeing a bit more of Barcelona itself. There’s still plenty of time to book your flight and hotel if you fancy joining me

Saturday 23 January 2016

Lewes - Part Two

Following on from my first article about Lewes, I continue the story about my connection with the town and how I ended up working there.

In 1988, the company I was working for was taken over by a larger concern that happened to have its main factory in Lewes. The intention had been to merge the operations of the two companies at the larger and better equipped Lewes site. Fortunately, a last minute change of heart by the new owners led to the shelving of this plan, and production and packaging continued much as before at the Nature's Best factory in Tunbridge Wells.

Harvey's Brewery  Shop
This did not stop close cooperation between the two sites, and in my role as Quality Assurance Controller for Tunbridge Wells, I became a frequent visitor to Lewes. I normally timed my visits to arrive first thing in the morning, so that business was generally concluded by lunchtime. This gave me the opportunity of enjoying a pint of Harvey’s, plus a bite to eat in one of the local pubs before heading back.

It was during one such visit that I first discovered the Harvey’s Brewery Shop. The shop is situated in Cliffe High Street, just in front of the brewery itself. As well as selling the full range of Harvey’s bottled beers, there were always several draught beers on sale for customers to take away in their own containers. In fact Harvey’s state that they will supply up to two gallons on demand (for quantities greater than this they require 24 hours notice).

This was not usually a problem, so far as I was concerned, as I found a four pint container to be sufficient and, providing it was kept in a cool place, the contents lasted over a two day period. For times when I was expecting friends, or over long weekends, such as Bank Holidays, a gallon container was the order of the day. Suitable containers were available from the shop; 50p for a four pints and £1.00 for a gallon one.

What I found especially good about the shop was the fact that the beer was sold at brewery prices. Back in March 1995, a four pint container of Best Bitter cost just £3.95, which worked out at slightly less than £1 a pint. Even cheaper was Harvey’s Knot of May Mild, a seasonal light mild. Four pints of this beer cost a mere £3.13! The excellent strong pale ale, Tom Paine, available only during the month of July, retailed for £4.47, equating to just £1.12 a pint.

The Harvey’s shop was to prove a life saver when, in 1992, my job was transferred to Lewes. This was following a further takeover when the whole group was bought by a Danish pharmaceutical company. The Danes did what the previous owners had shied away from - namely concentrating all operations on the Lewes site.

My former workplace - an old chalk quarry on the edge of Lewes
I didn't particularly enjoy my job there; nor did I enjoy the sixty mile round trip to work each day. The factory I was based at was situated on an industrial estate, occupying the site of a former cement works, on the edge of the town. It was a good, brisk walk of some twenty minutes or so, along the banks of the River Ouse before one reached the town, but it was worth it in order to escape from what could often be a highly charged and stressful workplace. 

On such occasions, I was invariably smitten with the old world charms of Lewes. Its ancient and historic buildings seemed a world away from the chaotic nature of the factory. I spent many a happy lunchtime browsing round its numerous antique shops or, when time permitted, some of the second hand bookshops sited at the top end of the town.

I was also a regular visitor to the Harvey’s Shop, where I was always addressed quite politely, and properly, as "Mr Bailey"! I even received preferential treatment. At times when the shop was closed for stocktaking, I was told to "pop round the back", where the staff would willingly replenish my container for me. I was also treated to sneak previews and tastings of new brews, or special commemorative ales. In short I was treated with that "old-fashioned" politeness and civility which is so sadly missing from much of the retail trade today.

I ended up spending nearly four years working in Lewes, and despite being short-listed for several jobs elsewhere, never quite managed to escape. Not until, that is, I was made redundant in November 1995. The saddest part of leaving was telling the staff in the Harvey’s Shop that they would be losing one of their regular customers. Apart from that, the redundancy turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it forced me to concentrate all my efforts on finding another job, and I was fortunate to find a reasonably paid managerial position in Tonbridge itself.

Since my redundancy I have been back to Lewes on several occasions. The first occasion was in 1996, when I called in to the Harvey’s Shop. At the time the shop was housed in temporary accommodation following the disastrous fire of February that year, which completely gutted both the shop premises and the brewery offices. Upon entering the shop I was greeted like a long lost son by the manager and his staff, and it was very much like meeting up with old friends again.

In the autumn of 2004 I attended a wine presentation and meal at the brewery. This was back in the day when my wife and I had our of-licence in Tonbridge. Seeing as we were selling cask beer to take-away by the pint, we obviously had an account with Harvey’s; in fact the brewery’s Sussex Best was our top-selling cask ale and occupying a semi-permanent position on the bar.

John Harvey Tavern
We also bought wines from Harvey’s; wines which were in the next price bracket up from the run of the mill, lower-priced Chardonnays, White Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons which made up the bulk of our wine sales. Harvey’s were particularly supportive in of sourcing and helping us promote some reasonable wines and in respect we had the help of Andrew Harris, their Wine Manager.

I had first met Andrew when he was a helpful young lad, working in the Harvey’s Shop in Lewes; not realising at the time he was studying to complete various courses connected to the wine trade. It was therefore good to see him on those occasions when he visited the shop, accompanied by our normal sales rep, John.

It was through Andrew that I received an invitation to attend the aforementioned wine presentation. Harvey’s had invited their wine grower from the Rhône region of France over to give a talk about some of the wines his family produced, and in order to showcase them at their best, there was to be a five course meal to accompany the tastings.

I jumped at this opportunity’ particularly as time away from the off-licence was a rare treat, and for a night away; well, that was almost unheard of. I booked myself a room at the White Hart; the best known and most prestigious hotel in Lewes. Situated opposite the Law Courts, this historic old coaching inn has roots going back to the 16th Century. The White Hart was also the meeting place of the “Headstrong Club”, a group of radicals and revolutionaries, who included one Thomas Paine amongst their number. The latter’s writings inspired the American War of Independence and he went on to become one of the "Founding Fathers" of the United States. 

Unashamedly putting this trip down as a legitimate business expense, I drove down to Lewes on the afternoon of the appointed day, parked the car at the White Hart and checked in for the night. Shortly afterwards, I walked down the hill towards the River Ouse and Harvey’s Brewery. The dinner and presentation was being held at the John Harvey Tavern, opposite the brewery, and arriving there early meant I would be able to catch the first of the season’s Old Ale.

Plaque commemorating Thomas Paine
This I did, and found it so good that I just had to have another pint. On reflection this wasn’t the wisest of moves given that there was a whole evening’s wine sampling ahead, but hey-ho! The meal and the sampling took place in the upstairs function room, and were both very good. The French wine grower certainly knew his stuff and we tasted, and enjoyed, a variety of his wines ranging from an unusual White Rhône, through to a full-bodied Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

And there the evening might have sensibly ended were it not for the fact that the meal was followed by several glasses of vintage port. The port was 40 years old, in fact, and was “flood damaged” stock salvaged from the devastating flood of 2001 which completely swamped the brewery. Wine bottles, of course are hermetically sealed, not just with a cork, but with a foil seal. The contents therefore remained completely unaffected, and after the bottles had been washed and wiped down with disinfectant, they were perfectly OK to be drunk. Harvey’s were not allowed to sell the salvaged bottles though, as the insurers had already paid out on them, but there was nothing to stop the port from being served to non-fee paying guests, like us.

The smooth rich, mellow port slipped down a treat, and whilst the sensible thing would have been to have refused the several top-ups offered, I decided that the opportunity to enjoy such a rare and excellent drink were unlikely to come again. Consequently I had more port than was wise. I said goodbye to the other guests and thanked my generous hosts, before staggering back up the hill to the White Hart. I found my room and collapsed into bed. Somewhat surprisingly I didn’t feel too bad the following morning and ate my full English breakfast with considerable relish.

Three and a half years later I found myself spending another night in Lewes; but this time in far less salubrious surroundings. I was on the first stage of a walk along the South Downs Way, accompanied by a friend. This first section was designed to break ourselves in gradually and to get ourselves used to walking, what for us, were quite lengthy distances.

We had spent our first night at a B&B in the lovely old downland village of Alfriston, and were heading towards our second overnight stop. The village of Kingston had been our preferred choice, as it was on the trail and we knew there was a good pub there in the form of the Juggs Inn.  Unfortunately all the B&B accommodation in Kingston was booked up, due to a series of performances taking place at nearby Glyndebourne.  Lewes is slightly off the South Downs Way, but we weren’t too concerned.  With many attractions to tempt us, not least of which were the Harvey’s beers brewed there, Lewes would be a good alternative.

A good place for drying socks
After being caught in torrential rain as we descended from Firle Beacon, we had stopped to dry off at the Abergavenny Arms in Rodmell.. Although it was the last week in May there was still a welcoming log fire burning in the grate! We took advantage of this feature to dry off our socks and our boots, whilst enjoying a couple of pints of Harvey’s. Looking at the map, there was still a fair way to go before we reached Lewes, and the shortest route, and one which avoided the roads, was along the banks of the River Ouse. Whilst this seemed a good idea on paper, in practice it was not so clever.

Although the rain had eased off the long grass was still soaking wet. Pretty soon it had soaked through our boots and our feet were as wet as ever. What was worse, the course of the river twisted and turned and although we could see Lewes and its imposing Norman castle through the mist, it seemed to be getting further and further away, rather than nearer. Eventually, soaking wet, footsore and weary, we reached Lewes. The pub we were staying in was right at the top end of the town, which meant a long trudge up through the rain soaked streets.

Unfortunately we had drawn a bit of a bummer with our choice of accommodation, certainly after the bright and airy B&B in Alfriston our second nights billet left a lot to be desired. Still, in the state we were in, an old barn would have sufficed, and after a couple of warming cognacs in the bar, and a change of clothing, we set off to explore the town and find ourselves something to eat.

King's Head, Southover, Lewes
For a town of its size, Lewes had precious little in the way of pubs serving food on a cool late May evening, but we were directed to the Kings Head;  an excellent street corner local in the Southover district of town. As well as furnishing two hungry and weary travellers with an excellent steak meal, the young, attractive barmaid provided us with some interesting conversation. For a start, she was really in to sixties rock music, which was our era. We spent a most enjoyable couple of hours talking about music and bands us two oldies had seen and bands that she would have liked to have seen, before returning to our somewhat austere and rather basic accommodation for the night.

I won’t name and shame the pub we stayed in, as looking at its website it seems to have been altered and improved out of all recognition. So much so that I am tempted to call in the next time I am in Lewes. This of course, just goes to prove that nothing stays the same in the world of pubs.

I returned to Lewes in June 2012, in the company of four friends.  We had travelled down by bus, from Tunbridge Wells,  and spent a most enjoyable day in the town walking around and visiting a few pubs. To save myself having to repeat them all, you can read about the trip here if you so desire.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Beer and Self- Abuse

Never judge a book by its cover
I finished reading Mikkeller’s Book of Beer at the weekend. This was one of the beer-related books I received for Christmas – family and friends obviously know me well. At first glance I thought the book was rather superficial, but it actually turned out to be a lot more interesting than I first thought. The old saying “never judge a book by its cover” is particularly appropriate here it seems.

Being something of a beer geek when it comes to beer and brewing, there wasn’t a huge amount in the book that I didn’t already know, but the material about Mikkeller, his background, his other interests and how he became involved with beer were all of interest and helped to dispel a few of the myths surrounding the man and his beer.

The first thing which comes across is that Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is an obsessive character. In a previous life both he and his twin brother Jeppe were avid runners; in fact they were both multiple Danish champions. In addition they were awarded running scholarships at American universities, but Mikkel was so obsessed with the sport that he literally ran himself into the ground; developing exercise-induced asthma along the way.

The man himself
He quit running in December 1997, and trained to become a teacher. During this time he developed an interest in beer and started brewing in 2002 with Kristian Keller (nickname Keller), an old friend from his running days.

The two eventually went into partnership combining their names to form the title of their new business – Mikkeller. One of their first outlets was a beer shop in Copenhagen, jointly owned by twin brother Jeppe.

The partners obviously leaned quickly and became rather good at turning out award-winning beers, but almost from the start were not interested in owning their brewery. Instead they arranged for their beers to be contract brewed; initially by Danish brewers Gourmetbryggeriet. However, when the latter suggested a partnership Mikkel got cold feet, despite Keller being in favour of the idea.

The brewing of Mikkeller beers was switched to the De Proef Brewery in Belgium, where there was a lot more capacity, alongside the technical know-how. The latter was provided by De Proef’s owner and brewer, Dirk Naudts, whilst the ideas and recipes were supplied by Mikkeller.

In 2007 Mikkel and Keller went their separate ways. Keller had already found alternative work in the music business, but after being paid off by his partner, agreed that the company name should remain as Mikkeller. By this time Mikkel had married Pernille, the co-author of this book, and when the following year the two found out they were going to be parents, Mikkel cut back on his teaching commitments and took on his first full time employee.
The business has obviously grown steadily since then and Mikkeller beers are now brewed at breweries in Norway and the USA, as well as in Belgium. The company also own four bars; two in Copenhagen, one in San Francisco and the other in Bangkok. Mikkel writes that when he is not travelling meeting importers or conducting beer tastings, he can be found in his Copenhagen office, along with his ten permanent employees.

This presumably is the thinking behind the remark which first surfaced on Stonch’s blog. The comment alleges that Mikkel spends all day lounging round his flat before emailing recipes over to various breweries. Blogger Ed Wray used this remark as the inspiration for his post Beer and Wanking, as he was noticeably annoyed by the fact that Mikkel is not involved in the brewing process at all. I must admit it didn’t exactly endear him to me either; at least to begin with. Some attendees at last year’s European Beer Bloggers Conference in Brussels obviously thought the same, and in a heated debate on Beer Marketing Jean Hummler, from Moeder Lambic took the opportunity to lambaste gypsy and cuckoo brewers, with particular reference to Mikkeller.

To be fair, Mikkell is quite clear on why he has no desire to won a bricks and mortar brewery, citing the large investment, and resultant heavy borrowing this would entail, and his fears that the company would be forced to sell more and make more “commercial” beer in order to service the loans and pay the bills. In a YouTube interview with Irish blogger, Sarah Finney, Mikkel answers his critics and makes the case why it is sometimes better being at arms length, than up to your knees in spent grain, digging out the mash tun.

Brew your own!
The rest, and indeed by far the greater chunk of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer though is taken up with chapters on the history of beer, micro-brewing and the beer “revolution”,  the various styles of beer, how to taste beer and how to brew it. There are chapters detailing beer recipes and how to match beer with food.

All in all it’s an enjoyable read, probably pitched at just the right level by being not so technical so as to put off new comers to beer, but at the same time not so simple either as to be patronising to those of us who know a fair bit about beer and brewing. The cover price, for what is a nicely laid-out hardback book is £20, but like my wife managed to, you too should be able to pick up a reduced price copy somewhere out there.

Finally, a few short words by way of explanation about the title of this post. Mikkel obviously damaged his health during his early twenties with his running obsession; self abuse, if you like. Continuing the theme brought to light on Ed Wray’s blog,  the term “self abuse” could obviously refer to the “pastime” referenced by Ed; although I will leave that to people’s imagination!

Sunday 17 January 2016

Lewes - Part One

In this, the first of a two-part article I take a look at an historic town in neighbouring Sussex; a town which is home to an iconic brewery, and a town with traditions going back centuries and which takes its Bonfire Night celebrations very seriously indeed.

I am talking about Lewes, of course, and whilst there is some mention of beer, with particular regard to the town’s celebrated brewery, the post is more about Lewes itself, and how it has grown in my affections over the years.

I have something of a soft spot for Lewes. Nestled in a fold in the South Downs, this historic old town with its narrow twisting streets, and attractive ancient buildings, occupies a fitting role as the county town of East Sussex. Lewes has some deep-rooted traditions, the best known of which are the famous Bonfire Night celebrations that take place every year on November 5th. Then the whole town comes to a standstill, as various local bonfire-societies parade through the town in a variety of colourful costumes (more about that later).

The famous Bonfire Night celebrations
Probably the main reason though why Lewes rate so highly in my affections, is that it is home to my favourite brewery - Harvey & Son Ltd. In addition, but of secondary importance, is the fact that I spent three and a half years working for a company based on the edge of the town. Although I disliked the job I was doing (as well as the long journey each way), I did leave a number of good friends there when I left.

I first became acquainted with the town in 1969, whilst on a Youth-Hostelling holiday.  I was aged 14 at the time, and was with a group of young people on a walk along the South Downs Way. We had begun our journey at Eastbourne, and were heading for Brighton on the second leg of our journey. We stopped off in Lewes for lunch, on the second day of our trip, picnicking in the grounds of the imposing castle in the centre of the town.

Harvey's Brewery - known as the cathedral of Lewes
It was only a fleeting visit, but the memory struck in my mind. It was to be some 12 years before I next visited the town, and by this time I had began to take an interest in beer and breweries. The fact that Harvey’s brewed in Lewes seemed a good enough reason to visit the town, but it was not until the early 1980’s that the chance came about.

During that time I was actively involved with the Maidstone & Mid-Kent Branch of CAMRA, and in the summer of 1982, our social secretary came up with the idea of arranging a bus trip to Lewes. Knowing that a prominent member of the neighbouring Gravesend CAMRA Branch, called Roland Graves, was the co-owner of a vintage double-decker bus, and also the holder of a P.S.V. Licence, was sufficient for our man to get in touch with Roland in order to take things further.

It turned out that Roland was happy to provide the transport for our trip, and also to act as our chauffeur providing the trip could be arranged as a joint venture between our two branches. So on a Saturday evening in late August, a bus full of eager CAMRA members set off in high spirits to make the 40 mile journey to Lewes.

The trip seemed to take an age, due to the bus being limited to a top speed of forty miles per hour, but it gave us time to appreciate the scenic countryside of Kent and Sussex which we passed through en route. When we arrived, Roland parked the bus, and we all set off, eager to explore the town and its pubs.

The odd thing about Lewes pubs is that whilst the town is home to Harvey’s, there are only three tied Harvey’s pubs in the town itself. At the time of our visit, most pubs in Lewes belonged to the firm of Beard & Co. Beards were a pub owning chain which opted out of brewing in 1958. For the next quarter of a century they contracted out the production of their beers to Harvey’s. One reason for them stopping brewing was their cramped, town-centre brewery, in Star Lane, Lewes, was suffering from a yeast infection. Beards felt that by pooling resources with Harvey’s, the future of both companies would be assured. Harvey’s would benefit from the increased capacity, whilst Beards would not have the bother of having to brew the beer themselves.

This arrangement lasted until 1986, when Beards pubs became free to choose from a wide range of different cask ales supplied by the company’s wholesaling division. This side of the business was later sold off; becoming the well-known wholesaling company The Beer Seller. During the early 90’s Beard’s pubs began offering Beards Best Bitter, which was produced exclusively for the company and allegedly to the original recipe, by the Arundel Brewery, based in nearby West Sussex.

The new deal didn’t last long though, as in the summer of 1998, Beard & Co agreed the sale of their entire tied estate to Greene King, and the company to all intents and purposes ceased to exist. It was rumoured that Harvey’s were somewhat put out by this deal, as not only did they lose their remaining supply contract with Beards, but they also lost the chance to buy the company’s pubs. It is believed that Harvey’s, had been under the impression they would get “first refusal” on Beards, should the latter ever come up for sale, although Harvey’s have never openly admitted this.

Lewes Arms - not sure about the old boy in the foreground
To return to the narrative, and that 1982 visit to Lewes; Beards pubs were supplied exclusively with Harvey's range of beers, which were badged as their own.

We split up into smaller groups; the party I was in visited several good pubs that night; all of them belonging to Beards. The most memorable was the unspoilt Lewes Arms, where, the unusual game of Toad-in-the-Hole was played. The latter is a game originally peculiar to Sussex, but is one that has now spread into neighbouring Kent. It involves throwing metal discs at what can only be described as a box with a lid. The object of the game is to try and get the discs to fall through a small, round hole in the lid of the box. The lid has a covering of lead, so the noise made as the discs clunk against it can be imagined! At the end of each round, the discs are retrieved by opening a drawer in the base of the box.

The old Beards Brewery buildings - now used as craft-workshops
Two other pubs stick in my memory from that night; the first was the Black Horse at the top end of the town, which featured some black and white photos showing the old Beards Brewery in its heyday. The other was the Lamb, in Fisher Street, directly opposite the then empty Star Lane Brewery. Today, the attractive old brewery buildings have been converted into craft-workshops. We stopped off at the chip shop just before boarding the bus. The journey back seemed to take even longer, but it was a good night out nevertheless.

My third trip to Lewes was on a hot Saturday in June 1984, when Maidstone CAMRA branch had been invited to tour Harvey’s Brewery. Roland Graves was once again our driver, but this time our mode of transport was a vintage single decker bus, rather than a double decker one. Our guide for the brewery tour was none other than Miles Jenner, head brewer at Harvey’s, although at the time of our visit he was deputy brewer. This was the first of four brewery tours I have made at Harvey’s, and on each occasion I have listened spell-bound to Mile's graphic and fascinating description, not only of the brewing process, but also of the history of Harvey’s, and of brewing in Lewes.

A couple of years later, when I was secretary of the then Tonbridge and Tunbridge WellsBranch of CAMRA, I arranged a further trip to Harvey’s. This time the tour took place on a Friday evening, but myself, plus a couple of friends decided to make a full day of it. Travelling by train, we chose Brighton as our initial destination; our tickets giving us the option of travelling on to Lewes later in the day.

Entrance to Harvey's Brewery
Only one Brighton pub sticks in my memory from that day and that was the Basketmakers Arms, an unspoilt back street local belonging to the late lamented Hampshire independent brewers George Gale & Co Ltd. The Basketmakers served a good lunch, and also gave me the opportunity of trying Gales 5X Winter Ale for the first time.

Most of the other Brighton pubs we visited that day were unremarkable, but nevertheless by the time we arrived at Harvey’s we were slightly the worse for drink. We met up with the rest of our party, just prior to the tour. Miles Jenner was once again our guide, and by the time the talk and trip round the brewery was finished we were ready for some more beer. A generous session in the Harvey’s sampling cellar made up for some of the lacklustre beers we had tried in Brighton; the Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale being particularly welcome on that cold damp winter's evening. We departed in sufficient time to catch the train home to Tonbridge, after a most enjoyable day out.

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

Thursday 14 January 2016

A Dying Tradition?

A few lines on Cooking Lager’s recent blog post “The Puritans are winning”, about a workplace tradition which has fallen by the way side, served to remind me that this is one particular custom I don’t miss. I am talking, of course, about the Friday lunchtime pint; that one time of the week when whole work’s departments would decamp to the pub for a few jars, a quick bite to eat and the chance to let their hair down.
This practice was very much the norm in offices, shops and other workplaces up and down the land. If some of tales I’ve heard are true, it was even quite common amongst people who had no business mixing drink with the safety critical work they were supposed to be carrying out. I also remember, not that long ago (alright  it was actually 20 years ago), when I was “between jobs”, and working as a Christmas casual at the local  Royal Mail sorting office, my amazement on discovering that postmen could walk straight in after their shift and have a quick bottle of brown ale in the bar attached to their restroom.

Times have obviously changed, along with people’s attitudes, and I know Cookie was trying to put this argument across on his blog. No-one in their right minds would disagree that excessive drinking has no place in the modern workplace, but now it seems that many organisations have taken things a whole stage further and banned staff from consuming any alcohol during work time altogether.

An old friend of mine, who is a retired railwayman, used to regale me with tales of horror about five pint lunchtimes, and whilst him and his colleagues were thankfully not employed in “safety critical” roles, he openly admits that they were not exactly giving their best when they returned to their desks on a Friday afternoon.

Matters came to a head on the railways, following a number of fatal incidents where drink and/or drugs had been involved, and the authorities (British Rail in those days), quite rightly clamped down hard in a determined bid to stamp out a culture of drinking which had been endemic in certain parts of the rail industry. A total blanket ban was imposed on staff, prohibiting them from having so much as a shandy whilst at work.

Still the norm for many City workers
The ban applied to all staff irrespective of where they worked or in what role. If you were just sat behind a desk you were still barred from consuming alcohol, in exactly the same way as train, track or signalling crew were. If, for example, someone in your office was celebrating a special occasion; birthday, getting married, retiring etc, it was necessary to book the afternoon off, and take your coat, brief case etc with you to the pub. You were not allowed back in the office/booking hall etc, under any circumstances, that same day.

This policy was obviously sensible, and managed to call time, if you’ll pardon the pun, on an activity which had once been commonplace on the railways. But what about other industries and other areas I hear you ask?

I have spent my entire working life in the private sector, and there I have to report a rather mixed bag. However, even though none of the companies I have worked for over the years expressly forbade employees from having a “swift one” at lunchtime, it would definitely be noticed when people made this a regular occurrence or they overstepped the mark.

It was quite common when I began my career to go for that Friday lunchtime drink. Many workers regarded it as the start of the weekend, and it no exaggeration to say productivity  suffered on  Friday afternoons. In my second job after graduating, I got into the habit of going for a Friday.lunchtime pint with a couple of colleagues from the engineering department.  Except it wasn't just the one pint; three blokes, meant three pints, as we all felt obliged to get a round in, and I honestly can say my work suffered when I got back in the afternoon, and I’m certain my colleagues did as well.

A lunchtime pint whilst walking the South Downs Way
It wasn’t really until the early 90’s, when a forced job relocation saw me working down in Lewes, which was the best part of an hour’s drive from my home in Tonbridge. Thankfully there was far less temptation in my new place of employment, to sneak off to the pub for a quick lunchtime pint. The factory was sited on the edge of town, which meant a drive into Lewes would have been necessary in order to grab a pint. The factory also had a decent canteen, so there was no need to go off site in search of something to eat.

It must have been around this three and a half year period of my working life that I realised I didn’t miss lunchtime drinking, whilst at work.  I could also add I’m not a huge fan of it when I’m not at work either; with the honourable exception of when I am on holiday, or out on a ramble.

There are two pubs within walking distance of where I work now, but I seldom visit either of them. If we have customers visiting, then it’s not unusual to take them for lunch at the larger of the two pubs. This is accepted and nobody bats an eyelid. I also know that should I wish to call in for a swift pint at either of these pubs, no-one would say a word. It would be different if I was to return the worse for drink, but I wouldn’t do it, and in fact don’t like going back to work after just a single pint.

I don’t know if it’s down to advancing years, but I find it difficult enough staying awake after lunch when stone cold sober. A couple of pints therefore would probably find me nodding off in front of my computer screen, so unless there’s a particularly good reason to go for a lunchtime beer (visiting customers, someone retiring etc), it’s nothing stronger than tea for me these days.

As I said above, I don’t miss going out for a lunchtime drink and, without sounding too sanctimonious, I feel my health and definitely my bank-balance are all the better for my abstinence.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Last Night at the Punch

It may not have been the wisest of moves, especially as I am still struggling to shake off this cough and cold, but last night I decided that a stroll down to the pub would do me good. My local West Kent CAMRA Branch were holding an open business meeting at the Punch & Judy in Tonbridge, so I thought I’d go along, get some fresh air and enjoy a pint or two in the company of friends.

It wasn’t too cold out, and after a fifteen minute walk down the hill, I arrived at the Punch; a former Whitbread pub tucked away in a side street at the back of the town’s Police Station. There was a fair mix of customers milling around the bar, and I could see my friends sitting around a couple of tables on the raised area at the rear of the pub. My heart leapt when I spied the pump clip advertising Harvey’s Old, as this rich dark seasonal ale was just what I needed to lift my spirits on a damp January evening.

I ordered myself a pint, and walked over to join my friends. My presence brought the number in attendance up to eight, and I sat listening as the various branch officers went through the salient parts of their reports. I noticed that most of the members sitting round the table were also enjoying the Old; a good choice on a winter’s evening, made all the better by the beer being in excellent condition.

Apart from the various reports, the majority of the discussions centred on the local pub scene, with news of one imminent re-opening and also of an inevitable closure. I won’t give further details of either at the moment, as things could go either way in both cases, but I will say that getting a pub listed as an ACV is no guarantee that it will remain open, and certainly no measure of its viability in remaining as a public house. Changing demographics and social habits will inevitably lead to the loss of more and more pubs which rely solely on their “wet trade”, and many will need to re-think their game if they wish to continue in business.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, although the attendance at branch socials continues to give cause for concern (changing social habits again?). When the meeting ended, the Tunbridge Wells contingent departed; no doubt to continue their drinking on home turf. The three of us remaining ordered more beer and sat chatting, putting the world to right and pouring our scorn on the Chief Medical Officer’s recent report that there is “no safe level of alcohol”.

Two of us are work colleagues and also scientists, so can see through the crooked thinking and manipulation of statistics which characterises this report. On top of this deliberate slanting of the truth, we all agreed the report fails to take any of the health benefits associated with moderate drinking into account. Socialising with one’s fellow human beings, in a relaxed and friendly manner must surely be good for body and soul, and consuming a beverage, brewed from wholesome and natural ingredients, rich in B vitamins and soluble fibre, must also be beneficial.

There were a couple of other beers on sale in the Punch, last night. Local favourite, and “must have” beer, Harvey’s Sussex Best naturally topped the bill, but here was also a new seasonal beer from Tonbridge Brewery in the form of Winter Solstice. This 4.8% chestnut coloured ale, "combines rich malt flavours and subtle cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger notes"; or so says the brewery’s promotional material. I stuck with the Harvey’s Old, but my two companions both gave the beer a go.

It was good to see the pub busy on a Monday evening. Apart from our presence, the numbers were boosted by participants in a local darts match. There were also quite a few people sat at the bar; the main topic of conversation unsurprisingly being the sad and sudden passing of rock legend David Bowie.It was also good to see a pub taking a chance and selling a couple of dark ales. According to the landlord,  both were selling well, thereby proving what most of us already know, that there is a market for dark ales; especially in winter.

I didn’t feel quite so good at work today, and this was nothing to do with the moderate amount of beer I drank. This bug/virus does appear to take some getting over, and apart from work I will not be venturing out again until the weekend, when I plan to attend a social at a former branch favourite pub, situated at the northern extremity of our area. All will be revealed next time.