Tuesday, 29 March 2016

My First London Pub Crawl - Part One

Not on this crawl, but still one of London's finest
I wrote the piece below some 20 or so years ago, when things were much fresher in my mind. I have re-visited it several times since; the last time being the Easter weekend just gone, when I thought it should finally see the light of day. Obviously there have been many changes in the world of beer and brewing, and also the Capital’s pubs and I have tried to reflect some of these changes whilst remaining true to the original article.

The post describes seven landmark London pubs; five of which are still trading, but the important thing for me, is that pub-crawl I undertook, back in 1974 represented the first time I had visited these pubs and I have tried to convey both the sense of joy, and the thrill of discovery that I experienced at the time.

I won’t go so far as to pretend that visiting these pubs proved a life-changing experience, but it did open my eyes to the variety and diversity of public houses available in London at the time. It also bears witness to the emergence of “real ale” as both a force to be reckoned with, and an attraction in its own right; something several of the Capital’s pubs were quick to seize on.

My intention is also to provide the reader with an interesting narrative and to provide a “snapshot” of what a small selection of London pubs were like 40 years ago. If I have managed to convey some of the excitement I felt at the time, then this article will have done its job.

Lovely old Bass mirror
In the summer of 1974 I embarked on a crawl around some of the leading pubs of London’s burgeoning Real Ale scene. Several of these pubs were quite famous and well-known in the capital, and some have remained as personal favourites to this day.

My companion and guide on this tour was a school friend who, like me, had just completed his first year at university. We had met up again during the summer vacation, and had both ended up working in the same summer job. I owe this particular friend an enormous debt of gratitude, as he was the person responsible for sparking in me, what has remained a life-long interest in beer, pubs, brewing and all things related. He was also instrumental in my joining CAMRA, but that's another story!

We discussed the idea of a London crawl, and even though it meant taking a day off work, we decided that a break would do us good. My friend had managed to obtain a copy of the first CAMRA Guide to Real Ale in London, so armed with this vital source of information we set off for London, by train, from our home town of Ashford, alighting at Waterloo East for the first stop on our itinerary.

Hole in the Wall - Waterloo
The pub in question was the Hole in the Wall, a pioneering free house occupying a railway arch, opposite Waterloo Mainline station. Here we both renewed our acquaintance with Youngs Ales, although some forty years later I am uncertain whether it was the Ordinary or the Special that we sampled that day. I described the pub as “pioneering”, and for its time it certainly was, offering beers which weren’t widely available in Central London. For example, just over a year after my first visit to the Hole in the Wall, I got to drink Brakspears beers there for the first time.

Forty years on and it’s good to know the pub is still trading; even though it's many a year since I last set foot in the place. There are mixed reviews on-line, but the Hole in the Wall retains its obvious appeal for homeward bound commuters, wanting a quick pint before their train home.

The second port of call was a Charrington's pub, called the Goldsmith's Arms. The plan was to make our way towards London Bridge in order to visit one of the capital's most ancient and historic pubs, but after consulting my friend's guide, we decided to break our journey approximately halfway, at this typical south London local. The warm summer weather, plus the brisk walk involved, had ensured that we worked up quite a thirst.

During the mid 1970's, Charrington's supplied the bulk of the Real Ale in London; with hand pumps relatively common throughout their tied estate. This was at a time when most of the other big brewers had removed them from their pubs, in favour of top-pressure forms of dispense. The fact that Charrington's had retained hand pumps was probably due more to inertia on their part, rather than a genuine desire to continue selling the real thing, but so far as the drinker was concerned it represented a welcome bonus.

Charrington's famous Toby Ale trademark
In 1974 Charrington's were still brewing at the Anchor Brewery; their original home in London's Mile End Road, but that situation that was to change a year later when that historic plant closed and production was switched to Birmingham. This was a great pity as the London brewed IPA was a vastly superior drink to the imitation version produced, until its final demise, at various Bass breweries in the Midlands. From what I remember, it was much paler in colour (as an IPA should be), and was considerably more bitter, with a good hoppy nose to match.

Our first pint at the Goldsmith's slipped down a treat, and having sparked the landlord’s interest by showing him his entry in the guide, we were persuaded to stop for a further pint. This was contrary to our aim of sticking to one pint per pub, and only having more than one when a pub had several different beers on tap. The beer however, was in tip-top form and we ended up having an interesting chat with the typically “old school” guvnor who ran the place. Forty years on and the pub has undergone a few changes, and is now known as the Goldsmith Pub & Dining Room. It has had a contemporary makeover, but looking at the website, it all looks very nice. My friend would be pleased to know that the Goldsmith's still served traditional beer, but not Charrington’s IPA!

That was to be my first and only visit to the Goldsmith's; subsequent visits to London never seemed to take me near the pub. Besides, as mentioned above, Charrington's IPA took a turn for the worse following the closure of their London brewery; a situation which was partially compensated for by the company significantly increasing the availability of Draught Bass throughout their estate in the South East. Given my well known appreciation of this classic Burton-brewed ale, I regret to say I never missed IPA as much as I might otherwise have done.

George Inn, Southwark
The subject of Draught Bass leads nicely on to the third pub on our itinerary, namely the George Inn, situated just off Southwark High Street. The George is famous for being London’s last surviving galleried coaching inn, although even this splendidly preserved old pub is incomplete. The George was just one of the many such inns which once graced the capital, and it was from inns, such as this, that the mail coaches set out daily. The George is now owned by the National Trust, and is a popular tourist attraction, perhaps even more so today than it was back in the mid 1970's, when I first visited it.

I was instantly impressed with the George. It was like stepping back into a bygone age, with its picturesque, galleried upper stories overlooking the courtyard and with its narrow entrance leading to the busy thoroughfare beyond. I thought I knew London reasonably well, but was surprised that such an ancient old building was still standing, given the ravages of the Great Fire, the Blitz and modern day property developers!

Interior - George Inn
Stepping inside the pub too, for the first time, was equally impressive. With its bare wooden floors, low-beamed ceilings and the serving hatch for a bar, the interior was every bit as good as the exterior. The beer was dispensed from an unusual set of beer pumps resembling a cash register. They were reputed to be over 200 years old. The pumps dispensed two different draught beers, namely Draught Bass (or Bass Pale Ale as it was then called) and London-brewed Whitbread Bitter. However, the splendid surroundings must have made more of an impression on my memory than the beer itself, as I fail to remember which of the beers we sampled, or whether we did actually try them both.

I was reluctant to leave the George, but was determined to return as soon as possible. For quite a few years after I managed to achieve this when in the vicinity of London Bridge Station, but today the pub seems to have become even more of a tourist trap. The ancient “cash-resister style” beer pumps have been taken out (presumably they were either beyond repair, or were constructed from “non-approved” materials such as leather or brass), but despite this, the George is still worthy of a visit, especially if you are a lover of old inns.

After our lengthier than planned stopover at the Goldsmith’s, my companion was anxious to press on. This was ironic as it was his decision to stop for a second pint there! Nevertheless, even with the generous lunchtime opening hours which prevailed at the time in the capital, closing time was drawing ever closer. We therefore left the George, crossed Southwark High Street and found our way to the legendary Becky's Dive Bar.

This establishment, as its name suggests, was a basement bar. It was situated below a rather dingy looking building, which I later found out was the London Hop Exchange. According to my friend's guide, Becky’s was a rare outlet for Thwaites Bitter, all the way from Blackburn, and we were both looking forward to sampling this Lancastrian beer for the first time.

We were somewhat taken aback by the Dive Bar itself. The steps, which led down to it, seemed to have an unnatural springiness to them; as if their timbers had rotted and were about to give way. The bar itself was dimly lit, furnished with a number of worn out chairs and littered with umpteen up-turned casks. To make matters worse, the air smelt dank and reeked of tom cats. We were to be disappointed in our quest for Thwaites, but not by the beer on offer in its place, namely the legendary and revered Ruddles County.

Hop Exchange - London
Despite the reverence attached to this beer, the Ruddles County my companion and I drank, for the first time that day in the Dive Bar, was not exactly in the best of condition. Mine pint was rather cloudy, whilst my friend's glass appeared to contain an inch or two of sediment! I discovered the reason for the cloudy beer on a subsequent visit to the Dive Bar (about a year later to be precise), when, if anything, the place seemed even more down at heel.

I was on a similar crawl to the one I am describing, with a friend from university, but one which was somewhat more limited in scope. Becky’s was quite unusual for a city-centre outlet in that all the cask beers were dispensed direct from casks perched up on the bar. As my friend and I sat at the bar that night, we noticed that one of the casks had run dry. We then watched, fascinated as the barman removed it and replaced it with another, taken from the customers’ side of the bar. The replacement cask had been left standing up-ended, with the tap already in place. It was heaved, unceremoniously, onto the bar, manhandled onto a stillage and then, more or less straight away, the barman began serving from it. It had obviously received a considerable amount of disturbance by this treatment, with the ensuing effect on its contents. At this point, my companion and I decided it was high time to drink up and leave!
To return to the main story, I finished my pint of Ruddles, whilst my friend wisely left the bottom third of his before departing for the final port of call of the lunchtime session. Before describing the next pub, it’s well worth mentioning that veteran Beer Bloggers, Boak & Bailey posted a lengthy and very informative article about Becky's Dive Bar back in 2012, which drew on interviews with people who drank there along with detailed and extensive research which the pair conducted into this legendary establishment. You can read their article here.

Our next pub was a tube ride away, so we took the Underground to Hyde Park Corner, and then made our way, past the various foreign embassies and consulates which abound in Belgravia, to what is still one of my favourite London pubs. It is, of course, the Star Tavern, and it is hidden away off Belgrave Square. It is reached via an archway which leads into Belgrave Mews West. The Star at the time, was a lone outpost in Central London for Fuller's excellent ales, and what was even better was the fact that the beers were dispensed by hand pump, rather than the more usual top-pressure system favoured by the brewery at the time.

Star Tavern - Belgravia
I have returned to the Star Tavern on many occasions, and have spent some really good times in there. What appealed to me at the time, and what still does today, is the Star's location; one simply does not expect to find a gem of a pub like this in such a salubrious neighbourhood. It is also the sort of pub I’m sure my grandfather would have liked visiting. He worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy Hampstead businessman, until forced to retire through ill-health, and I can imagine him enjoying a drink in a pub like the Star whilst waiting for his employer to emerge from one of the smart houses nearby.

What we didn’t know was that a decade or so earlier the Star was the haunt of some of London’s most notorious master criminals who hob-knobbed there with various stars of stage and screen. It is said that the planning for much of the Great Train Robbery took place in the pub, but this recent (at the time) history was unknown to us as we sat near the window, enjoying the excellent Fuller’s beer. We of course had to sample both the London Pride and the renowned ESB. The latter, at the time, was the strongest draught beer available on a regular basis, anywhere in the country.

We had now reached the end of the lunchtime session, and “Time” had been called at the Star. There were now two hours to wait until the pubs re-opened at 5pm. This then seems as good a place as any to break off the article, and to resume the story of the evening session next time, in part two of this narrative.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Marston's Revisionist California Steam Beer

We don’t often shop at Tesco’s; there’s nothing wrong with the chain so far as we’re concerned, it’s just that there isn’t a branch close to where we live. Last weekend though, we were shopping in Maidstone, and mindful of the weekly shop, decided to call in at Tesco’s large Leybourne store on the way home.

As is my wont during food shopping trips, I leave my wife to do the bulk of it, and nip off to collect a few items of my own. My wife prefers to do things this way, insisting that it “Only takes one person to shop”. I am also happy with this arrangement, and apart from re-appearing at the checkout, to help with the packing, the rest of the time is my own.

I normally have a look in the beer section to see what is on offer, and as Tesco is a supermarket we don’t often visit, I was bit like a kid in a sweet shop. One beer which caught my mind was the Revisionist California Steam Beer, “Craft brewed by Marston’s exclusively for Tesco”. Retailing at just £1.00 a bottle it seemed to good a bargain to miss.

California Steam Beer was a hybrid style of beer popularised during the Californian Gold-Rush. Basically Steam Beer is brewed by using bottom fermenting lager yeasts at ale temperatures. This results in a distinctive flavour profile which includes characteristics of both ale and lager. It was a beer born out of necessity, as there was no ice, or other means of cooling available in that part of West Coast America at the time.

The most famous brand of Steam Beer today, is brewed by the well known Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco. Although today’s Anchor Steam Beer is a modern beer, brewed using modern techniques, the beer is still fermented in shallow open vessels at typical ale temperatures, just as it would have been back in the 19th Century.  Today's Anchor Brewery can proudly, and quite justifiably, claim credit for having sparked off the American Craft Brewing Revolution, for it was back in 1965  when Fritz Maytag  rescued the brewery from bankruptcy, and re-constituted the company in its present form; eventually spawning a whole host of imitators all eager to produce their own "craft beer".

Marston’s have obviously decided to get in on the act, with their own version; although I imagine the use of the word “Revisionist” in the title is to get round the fact that Anchor have trademarked the term Steam Beer.” The use of the term “Craft-brewed”, is  pretty meaningless, unless it's a cynical attempt to cash in on the burgeoning "Craft Beer" market.

So what of the beer itself?  Well its strength is 4.7% ABV, and is a copper-coloured beer. There are definite fruity esters in the taste, which are indicative of fermentation at elevated temperatures. Marston’s describe the beer as “An amber-coloured, lager/ale hybrid beer with a warming fruity flavour”, which basically agrees with my summation.

For a beer retailing at such a give-away price it’s good value; although I’m not sure I would want to drink too many. It’s also an interesting experiment in trying to recreate an old style of beer, and given the comments above regarding Anchor’s own version, this beer from Marston’s is a pretty good attempt.

I’m sure this is just a “one-off” special promotion between Marston’s and Tesco’s, but if you see it on offer at your local store, it’s well worth picking up a few bottles.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Good Friday 2016 - Annual Ramble

It was that time of year again; namely the annual Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA Good Friday ramble. Apparently this was the 40th such walk, and the 39th mapped out and led by veteran ramblers Dick and Pam Wilkinson.

North Kent was the area chosen for this year’s walk; a gentle 5 mile circular stroll from Newington station, to the Three Tuns at Lower Halstow and back. As is often the case over the Easter weekend, train travel was disrupted by engineering works, but for once the disruption and the rail-replacement buses laid on by the train company worked in our favour (or at least it should have done).

As the work affected a large chunk of North Kent, there was a bus running from Maidstone East, via the Medway Towns, all the way to Faversham. As this bus also stopped at Newington, we were able to take advantage of this direct service, rather than travelling half way around the county in order to reach our destination. For my friend John and me this was a simple case of catching a train from Tonbridge to Maidstone West and then walking across town to the East station and jumping on the bus.

That was the theory; but unfortunately our driver took a wrong turn in Rainham, which then involved a long detour to get back on track. The bottom-line was we were about 40 minutes late reaching our destination. Around half of the group had driven to Newington, so a quick phone call from those of us on the bus, told them to get going and we would see them at the pub. As it happened we caught up with the stragglers in the other group before we reached Lower Halstow.

The weather was sunny and surprisingly warm. I didn’t need the thick coat I had set out in. The walk followed a mainly northerly direction towards the Medway Estuary, and we were rewarded with some spectacular view across the river, towards the Isle of Grain as we mounted what must have been the only hill on the walk.

We made our way towards the river, the ground gradually sloping downwards. The countryside was looking good in the bright sunshine; although the going underfoot was quite soggy in places, after the previous day’s heavy rain. It was somewhat disparaging to learn that Friday was going to be the best day of the Easter weekend, but it was good to be out in the fresh air enjoying the sunshine.

Halstow Creek
Eventually we reached the edge of Lower Halstow, and then took the scenic route round to the Three Tuns. The village is set at the end of one of the many creeks which are such a feature of this section of the Medway Estuary. Before the river empties into the Thames at Sheerness, it widens into a basin with numerous islands, of varying size, plus the aforementioned creeks. This is an area rich in wildlife, especially birds and, because of its sheltered aspect, is a stretch popular with those who like “messing around in boats”; as opposed to those who prefer the more challenging aspects of sailing on the open water.

On the path round to the creek, passes the picturesque church of St Margaret of Antioch. The church has parts dating back to the 8th Century; although it was largely re-modelled during the 12th and 13th Centuries. It is in a lovely setting, on raised ground overlooking the creek, and on the lovely spring day which we experienced on Friday, was looking at its absolute best. There was an old Thames sailing barge, moored in the creek opposite, and all the way out into the estuary, the water looked as calm as a millpond.

St Margaret of Antioch
And so to the pub, which is set on a bend in the heart of the village. The Three Tuns is a long, white-painted attractive looking building, said to date back to the 15th Century. It is a large pub, with a series of inter-connecting rooms, with walls of exposed brick-work, and the myriad of beams one would expect in a building of this age. There is a secluded and sheltered garden at the rear, where many of our party had already taken up residence by the time I arrived. I wouldn’t have minded joining them, but my friends John and Keith had saved me a space at one of the tables inside the pub and, more importantly, had got me a beer in!

The Three Tuns is a free-house, and on Friday had beers from Bexley Brewery, Brew Buddies, Canterbury Brewers and Goachers on offer. Unfortunately the German Twin Hop from Canterbury had just run out, but the un-fined house beer, produced specially for the pub by Brew Buddies of Swanley, was in good form. The Goachers Imperial Stout was also in excellent condition; mind you it needed to be, as sitting next to me at the dinner table were Phil and Debbie Goacher; owners and founders of Goachers Brewery. The Three Tuns is a regular outlet for the company’s beers, and often stocks their mild. Several of us complemented Phil on the quality of the stout, but he said that with winter now over, they would unfortunately not be brewing any more of the beer until the autumn.

The Three Tuns
I went to order a second pint, only to find that too had run out! The pub was obviously busy, with a crush at the bar at times. We did learn though that by timing visits to the bar, it was possible to avoid this. The fine weather had obviously helped bring lots of people out, and as well as good beer the Three Tuns offers excellent food. Being a pie-man, I opted for the pie of the day, which turned out to be steak and kidney.

When the pie arrived I was at first disappointed as it appeared to be the all too common pub thing of the meat and gravy in a small casserole, with a pastry lid on top. A closer inspection however, revealed that this was indeed a proper pie, as not only was the pastry short-crust, but it also extended down into the dish, completely enclosing the filling – just as a “proper pie” should! With new potatoes, vegetables plus a small jug of extra gravy, it was just what I needed after my walk, and with a pint of Imperial Stout to accompany the food, it was the perfect pub meal experience, so far as I was concerned.

A "proper pie", but in a dish
We left the pub shortly after 3pm, but not altogether. The group sitting out in the garden had decided to stay for another pint, but John, Keith and I departed along with a handful of others. We had a reason for sticking together, because Keith had also driven over and had kindly offered us a lift back to Tonbridge. There was a catch though, as desiring a longer walk, Keith had parked his car some distance south of Newington, which meant a slightly longer walk back. This didn’t matter, as the ramble itself had not been particularly challenging distance wise, although with a cracked heel to contend with, I could, on this occasion, have done without the extra mile and a half!

Our walk back from the pub followed a different route, and given the warm weather, I could definitely have done with a thinner coat. It was a steady uphill climb from Newington, but eventually we reached the golf-course where Keith had parked his car. It was nice being driven back to Tonbridge, instead of having to rely on the vagaries of the rail-replacement bus service, and we were back home an hour earlier than we would have been otherwise.

Once again the Good Friday ramble had proved a most enjoyable day out; affording the opportunity to catch up with old friends whilst enjoying a walk in the lovely countryside of a part of Kent I don’t get to see that often. The attendance was 23 persons; although I’m not sure it included Dick and Pam’s two grandchildren. Oddly enough there were no dogs this year, but it was not because our canine friends would have been unwelcome in the pub; far from it. Next year will see Dick and Pam leading what will be their 40th yearly ramble, so we will wait and see whether the couple have something extra special in store for us.

I would also recommend a visit to the Three Tuns. According to WhatPub, the pub is close to a bus route; presumably one leading out from the Medway Towns. Even better is the fact the Saxon Shore Way* long-distance footpath, runs through Lower Halstow, so it would be good to combine a visit to the pub with a gentle walk along the coastline.

*The Saxon Shore Way is a long-distance footpath in England. It starts at Gravesend, and traces the coast of South-East England as it was in Roman times as far as Hastings; a distance of 163 miles (262 km) in total

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Black Lab Brew-House & Kitchen, Barcelona

Black Lab Brew-House & Kitchen, Barcelona
Craft Beer has obviously taken off in a big way in Barcelona. The city now boasts an impressive number of breweries, and a growing number of well-regarded brew-pubs. Whilst most of the latter are home-grown establishments, international chains, in the form of Brew Dog and Mikkeller have also opened bars in the Catalan capital, but I like to stick with more local stuff when visiting somewhere new.

Given all that was going on with the Barcelona Beer Festival, plus a spot of sightseeing, it’s hardly surprising that I only managed to visit one brew-pub during my short stay in the city. However, I was well impressed with what I found in the form of Black Lab Brew-House & Kitchen. The company have only been trading since 2014, but despite this they have established an excellent reputation for both their beer and their food. Their restaurant-cum- brew-pub took a bit of finding, but the ironic thing was I had walked past the front of the building where the pub is housed, earlier in the day.
Take your pick!

I stopped by for lunch on the Sunday, but I had first started my day with a Mc Donald’s breakfast at the Maremagnum Shopping Centre which overlooks the inner harbour; known as Port Vell. I walked back along the other arm of the harbour, pausing to admire some of the extremely flash and expensive looking yachts moored there. After this I headed for the seafront, after first walking through a neighbourhood of densely packed, high-rise apartments.

It seemed as though much of Barcelona had decided to join me; and why not? It was a beautiful early March day. The sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky, but there was a brisk wind blowing which helped keep temperatures down. The locals were wrapped up against the chill, but to me, whilst obviously not shorts and T-shirts weather, it was just perfect. I strolled along the promenade, covering virtually the entire length of the seafront, and ended up on the periphery of the Olympic Village. 
A stroll along the seafront

I had no firm plans, but the idea of some locally-brewed beer, plus a bit to eat seemed particularly appealing. I found a seat overlooking the beach and sat down to view the map. I also had a downloaded copy of a guide to Barcelona’s Top Ten Brew Pubs. Relatively close to where I was currently situated was the Black Lab Brew-House & Kitchen, so I set off to find it.

I say relatively close, but I needed to head back inland in order to make my way to the inner harbour where I had been earlier in the day. It was quite chilly in the shadow of the buildings which form part of the city’s hospital and university complex; especially as the strong wind was being funnelled along the gaps between them, but eventually I reached the main thoroughfare which led back towards the harbour.

Before looking for the Black Lab, I decided to re-visit the Estacio de França railway station, which was just a short distance away. I was last there in the summer of 1975, when I made a fleeting stop in order to change trains. I was travelling around Europe by Interrail with a friend from university, and we had journeyed, virtually non-stop for several days, from the town of Split in former Yugoslavia. Our destination was the well-known resort of Benidorm, where my then girlfriend was living and working at the time.

Our connecting train was due to depart from Barcelona shortly before midnight, but it was already full and an over zealous conductor wouldn't let us board. We managed to sneak on at the last minute, and the following afternoon we were in Valencia. Franco was still in charge of Spain back then, so this might not have been the wisest thing to do, but when you’re young life’s a big adventure and you don’t really think about these things.
A touch of nostalgia 40 years on!

The Estacio de França seemed a lot quieter this time round, and had been spruced up since my last visit. It is no longer Barcelona’s main station, as it has been eclipsed by the larger Estació de Sants. Unlike França which is a terminus station, Sants offers through services, following the construction of a series of rail tunnels beneath the city. I was pleased I stopped off at França station, but my reasons weren’t completely nostalgic. Having reached a certain age, I find my bladder capacity is no longer what it was, so the need to find a suitable drain-off point becomes more pressing. I knew there would be public toilets at the station, and the lavabos there were clean, free and above all most welcome!

After walking around the busy Plaça Pau Vila, I found the Black Lab located in a section of the imposing Palau de Mar; a block of old warehouses which has now been converted into a series of shops, restaurants and bars. I made my way inside and was greeted by one of the friendly staff. I was shown to a small table, suitable for one person. The pub interior is bright and modern-looking, and at the rear, behind some glass screens, are a series of fermenting vessels. The actual brew-kit is housed in another part of the pub, and I was able to get a closer look when I used the facilities; just before leaving.
Beer List
There were around 13 different beers on offer, and these were displayed on a prominent chalkboard. I started with the 1480 American Pale Ale, which at 5.5% was just about right. Well-hopped, as one would expect, the beer slid down well after my morning stroll along the seafront. I followed it with a glass of Terraplane Porter; a tasty and well-balanced dark beer, which weighed in at 5.2%. I also treated myself to a substantial and rather spicy Chicago Hot Dog.

There was a young-looking group sitting in front of the fermenters, and judging by their attire they were from the Beer Festival. After they left, a group of around half a dozen English women turned up. They were obviously NOT from the Festival, as none of them chose beer, to go with their food, with most going for either water or wine. Talk about letting the side down!
A little light lunch

As I said earlier, the brew-kit was on the way to the Gents. It looked shiny and new, which is hardly surprising since the Black Lab has only been open just over a year. It is definitely a place to return to though, with friendly and knowledgeable staff, a nice setting, good food and great beer. I could have stayed longer, but I wanted to get along to the Beer Festival to see what was happening.

I’d had a most enjoyable morning, walking around the harbour and then along the seafront. I had indulged in a spot of nostalgia as well, before ending up at this excellent brew-pub, where the beer and the food rounded off the first half of what turned out to be a perfect day.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Worthington White Shield

It’s a long time since I last tried Worthington White Shield, but I picked up a couple of bottles in Waitrose before Christmas, and have only now got round to cracking one open.

The company have obviously improved the yeast strain, as although the beer is still bottle-conditioned, it poured bright virtually right down to the last drop. I remember drinking White Shield back in my late teens, when pouring the beer was a real art; especially if you wanted a clear beer in your glass. Back then there was always a much thicker, and often more looser, layer of yeast sitting at the bottom of the bottle, and if the beer was particularly lively, your chances of ending up with a bright beer were virtually nil.

The improvements which enable today’s White Shield to be poured bright are down to the use of different yeast strains for primary and secondary fermentation. A yeast which drops to the bottom of the bottle and then stays there, forming a thin tight layer, has obviously been selected, and it reminds me of another famous bottle-conditioned beer which uses a similar highly flocculant and sticky yeast; namely Fuller’s 1845.

Back in the late 1970’s White Shield was brewed by Bass-Worthington, at their historic brewery in Burton-on-Trent. The beer was a real life-saver, as it was often the only beer worth drinking in a pub where all the other beers were keg. It was available in half-pint (275ml) bottles only; unlike today where it is presented in a very stylish looking 500ml bottle, with an attractive label depicting the Worthington trademark of a sword set against the background of a red shield.

As far as I know the recipe and the strength have remained unchanged, but to me today’s White Shield is a far less complex beer than the one I remember drinking back in the 70’s and 80’s. The White Shield from 40 years ago had a distinctive “nutty” taste which, although still present in today’s version is far less pronounced. The modern version is still a very good beer, but it is not quite the same.
Burton Union system
It may be that White Shield lost some of its character when the Burton Union system of fermentation was abandoned back in 1982. As production volumes fell the beer went through a period of being shunted around various different sites in the Bass Empire, including the old Hope & Anchor plant in Sheffield and the former Mitchell & Butlers Cape Hill Brewery in Birmingham.  Its darkest moment came in 1998, when production was just a mere 1,000 barrels a year.

Bass announced plans to discontinue the beer, but there was such an outcry from beer lovers that they agreed to it being contract brewed at Sussex Brewers, King & Barnes. Unfortunately the latter’s Horsham Brewery closed in 2000 when the company was bought out by Hall & Woodhouse. White Shield was now a beer without a home. Fortunately Bass decided to bring the beer back in-house and White Shield returned to its Burton roots.

This homecoming saw the beer being brewed on a “pilot-scale” brewery, at the Bass Brewery Museum (now the National Brewery Centre), but as volumes increased production was moved to a dedicated plant, known as the William Worthington Brewery. In 2012, production volumes had increased sufficiently to justify a move to the main Coors Brewery in Burton-on-Trent.

White Shield was first brewed in 1829, by the Worthington Brewery in Burton-on- Trent. Its principal market was the large British presence in India, where the demand for thirst-quenching pale ales was particularly high. William Worthington was one of the leading Burton brewers but, in contrast to most of his competitors, he concentrated on bottled beer production. It shouldn’t be forgotten though that the company also brewed an interesting range of draught pale ales which were labelled simply A,B,C etc. It was Worthington 'E' in keg form that went on to become a major Bass brand in the 1970s.

Old style bottle label
In 1927, Worthington merged with their Burton neighbours Bass, but White Shield retained its separate identity and continued as a ‘live’ bottled product. This was at a time when most brewers were moving to filtered and pasteurised bottled beers. At its peak in 1952–53, 92,000 barrels of White Shield were brewed. After merging with Charrington United in 1967, Bass went on to become the UK’s largest brewers; but following the fall-out from the government’s Beer Orders, and the decision of the Monopolies Commission to block their proposed merger with Allied Breweries, Bass sold their brewing interests to Molson Coors in 2002. The American company are now the owners, and brewers, of the iconic White Shield brand.

As mentioned above, production volumes have now thankfully increased to a level which enables the beer to be brewed at a mainstream brewery again, but strangely I have only ever seen White Shield on sale at Waitrose, and not in any of the other major supermarkets.

Be that as it may, I at least know where to get hold of the beer. I have decided to lay the other bottle down until Christmas; just to see how it turns out, but I’m sure I will be buying a few more before then. You see, I’ve a vested interest in the beer and its fortunes, because as a former Bass employee, I’ve got a pension maturing with Molson Coors, so it would be nice to do my little bit towards increasing its value!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Wetherspoon's Spring Festival 2016

It had almost escaped my attention that Wetherspoon’s annual Spring Beer Festival is already into its second week, with not so much as a whimper about it anywhere in the blogosphere. I haven’t seen any of my CAMRA chums for a few weeks, so I’ve not had any feedback from them, but when I spoke to my old drinking buddy and walking partner on the phone the other day, he was very dismissive of the event saying, "It’s full of  beers  with strange flavours or with twigs floating in them!"

Now my friend is a die hard real ale drinker; even though he’s not a CAMRA member, so I sort of expected a comment like that, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I looked at the festival website to see what is on offer this year.

Before discussing the list further, it’s worth pausing to reflect that there was a time when the Spoon’s festival really was an event to look forward to and to even get excited about, so what has gone wrong?  The short answer is probably nothing, although I suspect that many writers and beer lovers, and I include myself here, have become blasé or complacent even about an event which showcases 50 different beers.

I must admit I was starting to think along the same lines as my friend, that the brewers were just adding things like orange peel or cinnamon to some of their bog-standard beers, just to pass them off as something special for the festival. Being exposed to the goings on in the world of craft beer hasn’t helped discourage the cynic in me, especially when I read about barrel-aged beers, Saisons, Double Imperial IPA’s, Gose and, heaven forbid the oxymoron which is Black IPA!

I’m sure that some of these beer extremes have started to filter down into the real pub world of boring brown bitter and cooking lager, if not physically then at least in name, so I can’t see your average Wetherspoon's John Smiths Smooth drinker being particularly enamoured by what is on offer. Most CAMRA members I know are a little different, and certainly a lot more discerning; discerning enough to give the majority of the festival beers a closer inspection.

As I say, I’ve been out of the loop for a few weeks, but the chit-chat which would normally be taking place amongst our WhatsApp group, just hasn’t happened this time round. I suspect that certain key individuals have their heads down due to work commitments; I have had a very busy few months at work, and things don’t look like easing up any time soon, but surely everyone’s not in the same boat? Have other Bloggers run out of things to say about the Spoon’s festival? Is it just so old hat these days that no-one bothers?

Moving on to the festival itself; there are 50 beers available which include 11 medal-winning brews, from last years CAMRA Great British Beer Festival. As the website says, there is something to suit everyone, from best bitter to port stout, from wheat beer to cask lager. The company have also continued their practice of inviting a handful of overseas brewers over to brew a version of one of their own beers at a UK brewery.

The overseas beers have been sourced from brewers in Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, the Republic of Ireland and the USA. They all look interesting and I’ll certainly be looking out for the Dutch and Italian offerings. On the home front the Vienna Lager from Hawkshead, the limited edition, strong version of Trooper from Robinsons plus the seldom seen Revelation from Dark Star. In addition, amongst the GBBF winners is West Yorkshire-based Saltaire Brewery’s speciality stout Saltaire Triple Chocoholic; definitely a worthy winner in its class at last year’s festival.

All in all then a pretty good line up, and certainly not one to be sniffed at. I probably won’t be making a special trip down to my local Spoon’s, but I’ll definitely call in if I’m passing. You can get full details by clicking on the Wetherspoon’s website here.

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Chiddingstones - Part Two

Part Two - Chiddingstone Village 

In the first of what will be three posts about “The Chiddingstones”, I wrote about the small village of Chiddingstone Causeway; home to the company I have worked for these past 10 years. As I mentioned in that article the village is a relatively modern one which sprung up around Penshurst station, on the Tonbridge to Redhill railway line. It takes the first part of its name from the nearby village of Chiddingstone; a much older settlement which dates back at least to Anglo-Saxon times, and possibly before. It is Chiddingstone village that we are going to look at in this article.

The Chiding Stone (N Chadwick) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Chiddingstone lies in the Weald; the ancient forest between the North and South Downs. During mediaeval times the Weald was the centre of the English iron industry, but Chiddingstone’s history predates this period by several centuries. Legend has it that the name of the village is derived from the Chiding Stone; an ancient and mysterious-looking large sandstone rock formation, situated on the edge of the village. Rumour has it the stone was once used by ancient druids as an altar or place where judgments were made; or where offenders were punished.

These stories persisted in medieval times where folklore has it that nagging wives, wrongdoers and witches were brought to the stone to be chided as punishment by an assembly of villagers. This is where the most recent name for the stone comes from and with it possibly the name The Chiding Stone still holds a sense of mystery and has become an attraction that still draws interest to the village.

It is more likely though that the stone was used as a boundary marker by the local Saxons, and that Chiddingstone means "the stone or homestead of Cidda's family" - Cidda being a local Saxon leader. The name of the village was recorded as Cidingstane in the 12th century and has now changed to Chiddingstone.

Chiddingstone High Street (N Chadwick) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The village grew slowly over the years, until the middle of the 16th century when the history of Chiddingstone became intimately connected with the Streatfeild family, who were major landowners in the area. The first Richard Streatfeild made his fortune as an Elizabethan ironmaster and his descendants were squires and patrons of the village for over 450 years. The curious square stone building in the churchyard, with a pyramidal roof and a wooden door, is the entrance to the Streatfeild family burial vault.

The church of St. Mary also contains some handsome memorials to the Streatfeild family, and has a fine tower with a peal of bells. After a fire in 1624 much of the church was rebuilt, with the roof of the nave replaced at a lower level - the original higher roof level is still visible.
Chiddingstone Castle (not a real castle!)

In 1584 the Streatfeilds, purchased a dwelling in the High Street which was later to become Chiddingstone Castle. In the early 1800s Henry Streatfeild changed the face of the village forever. The old Manor House on the High Street was demolished and Chiddingstone Castle was built in its place. He then blocked the High Street at the Castle Inn and diverted the road around the Castle Lake and garden to prevent any villagers from gaining access to his land. During the 1930s the whole estate was sold off, and the house was occupied by the Army during the Second World War II. 

After a period as a school, the house was purchased in 1955 by Denys Eyre Bower, a passionate collector, as a home for his collections of Egyptian and Japanese antiquities. The house and collections are now owned by a trust and open to the public. The gardens include a park with woodland areas, the ruined Orangery, and the octagonal Gothic Tower of the old well-house.
Castle Inn

The National Trust has owned Chiddingstone Village almost in its entirety (excluding the school, the castle and the church) since 1939. It is described as the best example of a Tudor village left in the country, and its perfectly preserved buildings have been used in several period television programmes and films.

With all the history attached to the village, it comes as no surprise that Chiddingstone has an equally ancient pub in the form of the Castle Inn. The building dates back to 1420, but it didn’t become an inn until three centuries later. Like many of the buildings in this impossibly attractive village, the Castle is constructed in typical Kentish style, with half-timbered sides, gables and a red, tile-hung frontage and roof.

In common with the local tearooms, the village shop and post office the pub is owned by the National Trust who, as previously stated, bought these properties in 1939; along with other nearby houses, as "an almost perfect example of a Tudor one-street village". The Trust leases these properties out as businesses to suitable tenants, and after many years under one such leaseholder, the Castle changed hands a few years ago, and seems to be doing equally well under its new management.

Castle Inn - Public Bar
The Castle is that rarity these days in so much as it still has two separate, but linked bars. I usually head for the public, which occupies the right-hand third of the building, as not only is this bar unspoilt; it is also where the village characters congregate. Stepping into this bar really is like stepping back in time to a simpler age. With its quarry-tiled floor, low-beamed ceiling and log burning stove, the public bar is the haunt of proper country types, such as farm workers, gamekeepers and foresters who visit in their working clothes, often accompanied by their (working) dogs.

It is a place where the world gets put to right and where the cares of everyday life can be forgotten for a while over a well-kept pint of Larkin’s beer, brewed just a few hundred yards down the road. Larkin’s owner, Bob Dockerty, numbers amongst the locals here, but not normally until the day’s work at the brewery is finished.

Local beer at the Castle Inn
Although the Castle has the appearance that time has stood still, it is bang up to date in many other respects, not least of which is the high standard of food and drink on offer there. A free Wi-Fi connection is also available - other pubs please take note! It is many years since I set foot in the much larger saloon bar, but from memory it is more comfortable and more genteel; in fact it reminds me somewhat of a dainty 1930’s tearoom. The fact it is considerably more expensive than the public bar; and that isn’t exactly cheap either, is probably the main reason I haven’t ventured in to the saloon in recent times.

Still, you get what you pay for, and what you are getting at the Castle are the genuine attractions of a centuries old village inn, combined with modern standards of first class food and drink. The other attraction is that during the winter months, the Castle is one pub where the chances of obtaining a pint of Larkin’s Porter are practically guaranteed.

It is therefore well worth making the detour to Chiddingstone, and its unspoilt street of original Tudor houses plus, of course, the equally unspoilt Castle Inn. It will be a detour though, as Chiddingstone is well off the beaten track and some way from the nearest B road; let alone a major road. Perhaps it is this isolated setting which has helped keep the village in the condition it was centuries ago.

Monday, 14 March 2016

BBF Brewers Pack - Barcelona Beer Festival

There were a series of behind the scenes activities going on in the background at last weekend’s Barcelona Beer Festival, which whilst separate from the main festival, were still an integral part of it. These “activities” were intended to both complement the event, as well as enhance it, and were divided into three separate categories. There were “professional” sessions, aimed primarily at PR People and journalists, “Meet the Brewer Sessions”, which understandably were very popular and had to be pre-booked, and there were also a number of lectures, held in the adjoining auditorium. These were open to the public, and were on a range of cultural and gastronomic topics related to the brewing industry.

I received an invite from festival organiser Joan-Villar-i-Marti to attend the BBF Brewers Pack session on the Friday evening. This involved presentations from each of the four local brewers responsible for the four, limited-edition beers produced specially for the festival. Each beer was brewed to represent one of the four main ingredients used to produce beer; namely water, malt, hops and yeast, allowing people to appreciate the importance of each individual ingredient, and its place in the overall picture. As well as listening to the presentations, we had the opportunity to taste the individual beers, and to make thing really interesting, each brewer also brought another of their beers along for us to try.

The presentations were made in the local Catalan language, and whilst some of the brewers spoke English, we relied on Joan to translate quite a bit of what was said. Therefore, if what I write makes even less sense than normal, let’s just say “things got lost in translation”. I ought to add that I have written about the breweries in the same order as the presentations; it was one of those occasions where the audience was split into four smaller groups, and the brewers moved around, from group to group.

First up was Edge Brewing who were established in Barcelona in 2013 by two Americans. Combining finely engineered American brewing equipment, the best ingredients available and many years of brewing experience, they are now making fresh, genuine, American craft beer for the local market. The brewery is situated in the Poble Nou district of Barcelona. Have a look at the company’s excellent English language website here.

The person giving the presentation was an amiable, ex-pat Englishman. I thought he’d given me his business card, but if he did I appear to have lost it, so unfortunately I can’t tell you his name. We tasted two beers; a 5.0% Bavarian-style Hefeweizen and a 4.5% American IPA. The Hefeweizen represented “yeast”, and had a touch of lemon juice added to counteract the phenolic banana and clove notes normally associated with Bavarian Wheat Beers. The IPA had been hopped with Cascade hops throughout the brewing process, and had also been dry-hopped.

Next up was Quer; a micro-brewery producing small batch beers in the town of Berguedà, which is about 100 km north west of Barcelona. Their contribution to the BBF Brewers Pack, was a 6.0% Smoke Beer, representing “malt”. This dark, copper-coloured beer was brewed using Rauchmalz from the world-famous Weyermann maltings in Bamberg. It certainly reminded me of one of the Rauchbiers produced in that city.

Quer certainly like to push the envelope, and to give local drinkers in Berguedà, most of whom are used to typical golden lager-style beers, something to talk about. This experimentation was evident in the other beer they brought along; a 9.5% Russian Imperial Stout called St. Berian Black. Presented in a wax-sealed bottle, this thick dark beer has a bitterness level of 60 ibu’s, which performed well against the strong, roast malt base.

The third brewery to give a presentation was Cerveses La Pirata. I came across this brewery, and its beers, on my previous visit to Barcelona, in November 2014. The company had a presence at the Biercab gastro-pub, which was close to our hotel. After sampling a few beers there I popped next door, to the adjacent beer-shop, where I bought a few of their beers, plus a rather impressive T-shirt, which I wish I’d worn now to the presentation. What I didn’t know was that at the time of that visit, La Pirata were a “gypsy brewery”, and had been so for over two years; but last year they finally bit the bullet and invested in their own brewery, which opened in September 2015.

The company are based in the town of Súria, which is to the north of Barcelona. The beer they produced for the festival represented “water”; arguably one of the most important ingredients used in the brewing of beer. This was presented in the form of a Gose; a top-fermented beer that originated in the German town of Goslar. The style migrated to the city of Leipzig, where it was something of a local speciality. Gose’s popularity waned during the 20th Century and by the end of the Second World War it had nearly died out.

 In recent years the style has seen something of a revival. Gose is brewed from a grist containing a minimum of 50% wheat and belongs to the same family of sour wheat beers which were once brewed across Northern Germany and the Low Countries. The beer is characterised by a lemon tartness, plus a pronounced herbal character. This is because coriander is used alongside hops, to provide flavour. Gose has a strong saltiness; the result of either local water sources or added salt, and acquires its characteristic sourness through inoculation with lactobacillus bacteria after the boil.

La Pirata’s Gose, was the first example of this once, almost extinct style I have tried. At 4.5% ABV, it proved a refreshing drink. Salt is added during the boil, and additionally prior to bottling. I didn’t manage to discover whether coriander was used in the beer, but going on the taste, I would say no. The company also brought along some bottles of their 7.8% Super Oatmeal Stout for us to try. They described this as a “dessert beer”, but by this time, not only were my taste buds becoming a little confused, but the alcohol from all these strong beers, on top of those I had already consumed at the festival itself, was starting to kick in.

We ended up sampling the last beers of the session, courtesy of AS Cervesa Artesana (AS for short). AS are another Catalan brewery, based at Montornés del Vallés, near Barcelona. Their website is in Catalan only, so there is little point in including a link to it, but the nice young couple doing the presentation, were enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. They brought along a rather nice 7.8% Double IPA, which represented “hops”. Orange in colour and with citrus aromas, this was a well-balanced and very enjoyable IPA. We were told that American Chinook hops were used for bitterness, with Simcoe for flavour and aroma. The beer is continuously hopped throughout the boil, and then dry-hopped additional Simcoes, during maturation. For some reason the beer is fermented using an Australian yeast.

The second beer from AS, and the last of the session, was a 9.0% Imperial Stout, called Ace of Clubs. My notes were getting rather sparse at this stage, and all I have written down is “Really strong aroma”, “Simcoe hops again.”, and “Italian liquid yeast”. Make of this what you will.

Although a lot was crammed into this session, for me it provided a valuable insight into the craft beer scene in Catalonia. I liked the informal presentation style of the breweries concerned, and whilst there were obvious language differences, the appreciation of good beer transcends national boundaries and beer speaks its own language. I am really glad therefore, that I attended this presentation.

I was joined at the BBF Brewers Pack session by fellow blogger, Martin Voigt. Martin is originally from Frankfurt, but now lives and works in Vienna where he produces the excellent proBIER site. Described as “Der Bierblog aus Österreich” (the beer blog of Austria), Martin’s blog is a professional site, with informative and in-depth write-ups, plus some excellent high quality photos. Take a look here at his report on the Barcelona Beer Festival, and you will see what I mean.

Whilst on the subject of photos, I didn’t manage to take any decent ones at the presentation so, where appropriate, I have lifted a few from the websites of the breweries involved. I’m sure they won’t mind, given the free publicity they’ll be getting, but if they do, then I’ll take them down.

A couple of final points: Martin and I were due at another session on the Saturday evening, where we would have an opportunity to meet the legendary Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the man behind Danish Mikkeller Brewery. Unfortunately we both received an email early on Saturday morning from Joan, informing us that Mikkel was unable to travel to Barcelona, due to the illness of a member of his family, so the session had been cancelled. It was perhaps just as well then, that I didn’t take my copy of Mikkeller's Book of Beer with me, for him to sign.

The four special edition Festival Beers were available in a commemorative presentation bottle pack. It was pointless me buying one though, as I was travelling with cabin baggage only.