Tuesday 31 May 2016

The King's Head - Laxfield

Over the Bank Holiday weekend I made another trip up to Norfolk, not only to see dad, but also to assist my sister and my two nieces in clearing out my parents’ bungalow. We have found a buyer for the property, as it seems senseless keeping on a place which stands empty for most of the time. Dad’s condition is unfortunately worsening, so there is no chance of him being able to return and live there independently on his own.

The sale of the family home will go towards keeping dad safe and comfortable in the care home, where he has settled in nicely, but  it was still a heart-wrenching couple of days, having to rake through our parents possessions, deciding what to keep and what to dispose of. I travelled up on the Saturday evening, with my son, having first collected him from work, and with an arduous weekend ahead, it seemed a good idea to stop for some sustenance on the journey up.

Where better then than to cross another pub off CAMRA’National Heritage list, and looking at the map, the unspoilt King's Head at Laxfield seemed the ideal stopping off point. The pub might have taken a bit of finding, but this time we had the benefit of my recently acquired Sat Nav, and this device saved countless stops to look at the map and potentially several wrong turns.

The King's Head is also known as the “Low House”, probably on account of its long low profile, which is topped by a thatched roof. It is a timeless, multi-roomed pub, and is one of two hostelries in this attractive, mid-Suffolk village. It takes a bit of finding, as it is tucked away down a narrow lane, at the back of the church, but fortunately modern technology took us straight there.

We arrived, shortly before 8.30 pm and found the car park, and most of the lane outside already full with parked vehicles. Fortunately we managed to squeeze the car in just below the church, and soon discovered the reason for the pub’s popularity; the King's Head was hosting its annual May Bank Holiday Beer Festival. Featuring over 35 Real Ales, Craft Beers and Ciders, together with food and live music, this would have been a great place to spend the evening (or possibly even the weekend), had we not had further to travel. 

The high-backed settle, designed to keep the draughts away.
It seemed that most of the village thought likewise, but as the festival was taking place in the secluded garden, at the rear of the pub, we made our way inside, keen to see for ourselves exactly why the Kings Head had made its way onto CAMRA’s Heritage Pub list. According to the website, “The main room at the King’s Head, features listed high back settles set around a small fireplace.”  The pub also has the added attraction of gravity served beer, which is kept in a small tap room to rear.

We found our way into this room, pausing for a look at the high-backed settle which takes up much of the space, before proceeding to the aforementioned tap room, at the end of the corridor. Here we could see a row of casks racked ready to dispense a range of Adnams beers. We asked about food, only to be told that all tables were booked, but fortunately there was some space in the smoking shelter, out in the yard adjacent to the tap-room.

We grabbed a couple of spare seats then I went off to the serving hatch to order our beers and also our food. As I was driving I opted for the ordinary Adnams Southwold Bitter (NBSS 3). Matt on the other hand, opted for a pint of Adnams Dry- Hop lager. To eat we both went for the steak and ale pie option, served with chips and peas. Service was quick, despite the crowds, and our food arrived promptly. The pies were not “proper” pies, but the steak was juicy and tender, and the gravy filling was suitably thick and tasty. After a two and a half journey, the end part of which was through a series of winding lanes, we were both famished, and our meals were gratefully appreciated.

Whilst we were eating, we could see people coming and going to the beer festival. Entrance was £5 a head, with a wrist-band for re-admittance, and most of the customers seemed to be people in their 20’s or 30’s. It was pleasing to see a significant proportion of them were women; something which soon caught the attention of my twenty-something son; although I confess I gave several of them more than a passing glance as well.

As I said earlier, it would have been nice to have stayed longer. Had we been better prepared, we might have found somewhere to stay in the village for the night, and then made more of our time at the King’s Head, but having found it, and experienced the pub first hand, I know I will be making a return visit sometime in the not too distant future.

Apologies for the quality of some of the photos; particularly the interior shots. My phone doesn’t really do justice to the pub; although in mitigation it is not easy taking photos “on the hoof”, when there are people scattered all around you.

For some proper “professional” photos, take a look here on the Heritage Pubs website, although it must be said, their photographer had the benefit of an empty pub, plus time on his side!

Saturday 28 May 2016

The Demise of the Local Pub Guide

About a week ago, Essex-based beer writer, Justin Mason wrote an interesting piece bemoaning the disappearance of the local beer guide. Once an essential tool when visiting an unfamiliar part of the country, and a vital piece of pre-planning, prior to any trip, whether it be business or pleasure, local pub guides have all but disappeared.

In an attempt to look a little deeper into this, I checked out the CAMRA website, but could find no specific town or county guides listed at all. To be fair, the Campaign has recently launched an excellent series of guides detailing pub walks in popular tourist areas, such as the Lake District, the Peak District, Yorkshire and, surprisingly, London. However, these guides though are aimed at people like me, who enjoy a lengthy walk in the countryside before arriving at the pub, and are not the same as the old-style local guides, which tended to be comprehensive publications, listing all real ale pubs in a specific locality.

There are several reasons for the disappearance of local guides, not least of which is the amount of work involved in their production. The number of boots on the ground needed to carry out surveys of all the pubs in a given area is beyond the reach of many CAMRA branches, and on top of this is the significant amount of man hours necessary to complete the various stages involved with the design and layout. And all of this is BEFORE the guide even goes to print!

Then there is the often horny issue of finance. CAMRA HQ will normally provide a loan, but branches need to submit a proper business plan and then wait for approval. Given the often complex committee structure within CAMRA, this can sometimes take longer than you think, as my CAMRA branch discovered seven years ago.

It doesn’t end there of course, as once your guide arrives back from the printers; you’ve then got to get out there and start selling copies! West Kent CAMRA produced a guide in 2009, in conjunction with two neighbouring branches. It was a massive undertaking, and I’m pretty certain at least one of the editors came close to being divorced by his wife, due to the inordinate amount of time spent on the editing, layout and design of the guide!

On the plus side, the Gateway to Kent Guide won best local CAMRA guide for 2010, but there are still some outstanding accounting issues to be dealt with before a line can finally be drawn under the project, and a number of guides remain unsold. It is highly unlikely that the branch will be producing a follow on, as the will and the drive necessary for such an undertaking just isn’t there.

On the subject of editing, a couple of CAMRA colleagues involved with entering the Good Beer Guide survey information have told me what a thankless and at times soul-destroying process this is. There are considerable variations in the standard of written English used by surveyors, and it is not unusual for what is written to make little sense. Information such as telephone numbers, website addresses, opening times often needs re-checking as well; so remember this next time you’re thumbing through your copy of the GBG, as the guide owes its freshness and appeal to a small handful of unpaid volunteers, rather than the paid staff at St Albans who claim all the credit!

As if the above reasons were not enough, the rise of electronic guides is undoubtedly responsible, more than anything else, for the demise of paper and ink ones. The ease by which virtual or e-guides can be created and distributed, knocks spots of the printed version, and the beauty of electronic guides is they can be updated, without the need for a full re-print.

CAMRA’s WhatPub has probably got the whole e-guide market sewn up now; even though the system, and the associated database, involved a massive amount of work to begin with. However, now WhatPub is up and running, it is easily updated, and is thus far more current than any printed guide – including the GBG, which is surveyed in December and January, before hitting the book shops at the back end of September. It is not uncommon therefore for pub entries to be at least six months out of date by the time it is launched.

Contrast this with WhatPub where, should I find some changes have occurred to one of our local pubs, I can fill in the new details on-line knowing the system will pass then straight to our guide webmaster, who will then update the entry for the pub concerned. Yet again electronic guides win hands down compared to printed versions.

Of course CAMRA doesn’t have a monopoly on pub guides, and other organisations, such as “Which” and the Good Pub Guide publish their own version, usually annually. Brewers, such as Greene King and Whitbread – in the past, have also published guides, but these only featured pubs tied to the company concerned.

I still miss local printed guides though, as there was something special in choosing and ordering one and then waiting for it to arrive. If it was a good guide, and most tended to be, it helped set the scene as to what the visitor could expect. Our own Gateway to Kent Guide contained features on local breweries, cider, hop-picking, brewery history and beer festivals, as well as essential tourist information such as how to reach many of the pubs using public transport, on foot or by cycling. It was also lavishly illustrated with dozens of colour photos of our most striking pubs, scenic views and other items of local interest.

Justin ended his article with a plea for guides which would complement the Good Beer Guide in its championing of real ale. The national guide is, by nature, limited for space, so a series of more local guides could point visitors to other successful pubs which stay the course, and continue to thrive and grow year on year, alongside places which are up and coming. He claimed these guides could direct visitors to the best places today, whilst serving as reference guides for the next generation of drinkers, who, might look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Things sometimes end up going full circle, so there may still be a possibility of local guides re-appearing sometime in the future. If they do, they will probably be in electronic form, rather than traditional pen and ink, but at least they will be there pointing people in the right direction to find that elusive combination of the perfect pint in the perfect pub!

Thursday 26 May 2016

Tonbridge Cider Festival 2016

Tonbridge Old Fire Station
As I mentioned in the previous article I popped along to Tonbridge’s Old Fire Station last Sunday afternoon, following a quick look around the Tonbridge Food & Drink Festival which was taking place in the grounds of Tonbridge Castle. To coincide with the event an enterprising group of individuals banded together to run the town’s first ever Cider & Perry Festival, and where better to hold it than Tonbridge's renovated Victorian fire station?

The festival kicked off last Thursday evening, and ran through until late on Sunday afternoon. There were around 40 different ciders and perries on sale; the majority dispensed from either “bag-in-a-box” type containers or the ubiquitous poly-casks. The event was run on similar lines to a CAMRA festival, with tokens in lieu of cash the bar, plus a rather attractive plastic tumbler, with a frosted appearance, which visitors got to keep.

Poly-casks with internal cooling
Although I am no cider buff, I do know a little about this historic old drink, but I have to say I have always been a little wary of both cider and perry. This is chiefly because of their often deceptively high alcoholic strength. Both drinks are packed full of rich mellow flavours, and because most of them are served flat, rather than sparkling, they slip down just that little bit too easily.

As I was on my bike I limited myself to just a couple of halves, but the second of these weighed in at 7% ABV, and went to my head far quicker than I realised. The ones I tried were Oliver’s Perry 5.5%; a medium-sweet perry from Herefordshire, plus the previously mentioned seven percent job - a medium-sweet cider produced by Gwynty Ddraig in Wales. The latter was served on a stall manned by the well-known gentleman who looks after the cider bar at the Tonbridge Juddian’s beer festivals. He is normally dressed the part, complete with an old farmer’s smock and a straw hat!

The extensive list of ciders and perries
He told me that him and the other organisers were pleased with the turnout at the festival, but the thinking was the majority of them were not drinking that much. Consequently, there was a fair amount of stock left, but the un-opened containers could obviously be kept back for another time. Having said that, the photo posted opposite, indicating which ciders and perries were available, does show a lot of “striking outs”, so I think they probably still sold quite a bit.

One of the main festival organisers was Phil Turner of locally-based Turners Cider. Turners is a family business based in the village of Marden, in the Kent Weald, which makes a range of craft ciders in the "Eastern counties" style. For the uninitiated this is cider made from only dessert and culinary apples, rather than the traditional “bitter-sweet” cider apples, used in traditional West Country cider-making counties, such as Devon, Somerset, Hereford and Worcester plus, of course, Wales.

The comment about people not drinking much did make me laugh though, as how many people can neck more than a few pints of 6-7% ciders and still be left standing? I bumped into three friends from CAMRA who, like myself, “just happened to be passing.” After a catch up on what had been happening, I left them to try a few more ciders and perries. They were on foot, whilst I was on two wheels and I wanted to get home in one piece!
"Bag-in-a-box" dispense

It is early days yet, but I imagine the Cider Festival will be repeated, although with perhaps a little less stock. A spokesman for the Old Fire Station,  quoted in the local press, said: “The festival just came out of a conversation we had with Phil Turner and it has turned out to be a really popular event. We’ve found that around 90 per cent of people say they are not actually cider drinkers, but this festival has proved that people do like it once they have had the chance to try it.” This bodes well for the future, although next time I will make sure I arrive and leave by shank’s pony rather than on two wheels.

Tonbridge Old Fire Station is a renovated late Victorian building which, as its name suggests, was formerly the town’s fire station. The last fire engine departed back in 1986, when the Fire & Rescue Service moved to a modern and purpose-built facility on the town’s industrial estate, and now, following extensive renovation work, the iconic building has been given a new lease of life as a multi-purpose venue which can be adapted for a range of different purposes. The philosophy behind the Old Fire Station, is to provide space for a variety of pop-up bars, restaurants and shops; thereby giving businesses which are new to the area the opportunity to trade in the town.

The Old Fire Station is tucked away in the streets behind Tonbridge’s imposing 13th Century castle. There is no website for the building, at present, but it does have its own Facebook page.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Tonbridge Food & Drink Festival

Festival overview
The weekend just gone, saw Tonbridge holding its first ever Food & Drink Festival. The event took place on the lawns of the 12th Century Tonbridge Castle and was designed to showcase some of Kent’s best food producers, alongside items from further afield. The festival was spearheaded by the Tonbridge Town Team; a group established as a result of the Portas Review published in 2011. The team’s aim is to help make Tonbridge a vibrant and exciting place to live, work, visit and do business.

A spokesman for the group said, "The whole thing is about promoting Tonbridge as a great food location. We have this ambition to make Tonbridge like a modern market town." He added that, “Town traders and borough producers were the team's priority, but businesses from throughout the south-east would be invited to ensure there was something for everyone.” The event’s aim was to bring in people from across the district and south-east London to see what Tonbridge has to offer.

The River Medway approaching Town Lock
Like most towns-people, I was pleased to see something positive happening in Tonbridge, as for too long the town has lived in the shadow of its larger and better known neighbour, Tunbridge Wells. I was unable to attend the event until the final day; due to the combination of a busy weekend on the house and garden front, plus a concert by the excellent tribute band, the Counterfeit Stones, which my wife and I attended on the Saturday evening.

Come Sunday afternoon I decided it was time to show my support for the event and take a look at the Festival. Consequently I cycled down to the Castle, after a quick detour along the bank of the River Medway, primarily to take a look at recent improvements carried out around the Town Lock area.

The event was in full swing when I arrived, and was busy; mainly with families. After a quick peruse of the beer tent, and deciding to give it a miss because of the lengthy queue, and plastic glasses, I made my way along the aisles to see what was on offer at the various stalls. Despite the publicity, there didn’t seem to be many local traders present.

Aptly named?
I noticed a large stall selling French Cheeses, a stand titled “Samovar Foods”, selling Russian fayre, albeit made from Kent-grown produce, plus the ubiquitous German Sausage stand, but apart from a stall specialising in home-grown and homemade chilli products, there was nothing which struck me as particularly local, and certainly not Kentish.

I did see a stall selling cider, but the only beer I saw, apart from the bar, was a stand selling bottled beers under the banner, “Giving Good Beer a Bad Name”. With juvenile names such as Old Fart, Grumpy Git, Cat Pee and Big Cock, this  seemed little more than a novelty (and a rather poor one at that), designed to part people from their hard earned cash; although at £4.50 a bottle, the stall unsurprisingly wasn’t doing a lot of business! At least the people behind this were honest with their banner, but gimmicks like this have as much appeal as the poor-taste sexist and xenophobic T-shirts which used to be on sale at GBBF. The company has its own website; which you can check out here, but there is no indication as to who actually brews the beers.

Gatehouse - Tonbridge Castle
With nothing in the way of food and drink to tempt me, and no take-away bottles to persuade me to part with my cash, I headed instead for the nearby Old Fire Station, where there was a separate Cider Festival taking place. Now this was more like it; but to find out more, you will have to wait until the next post.

Footnote: I may have come across as rather churlish and somewhat dismissive of the Tonbridge Food & Drink Festival, but only because we have been spoilt here in Tonbridge by the town’s excellent Farmers’ Market, which takes place on the second Sunday of each month. Here, you will find a much wider range of local produce ranging from organically-raised meat to vodkas flavoured with locally-grown fruit. There is at least one cider stall, plus Sussex brewers, Hepworths, normally have a stall. I usually buy sufficient stock of their excellent bottled Old Ale to see me through the winter, but their entire range of bottles is normally available.

I would imagine that given this is the first such event, the organisers of Tonbridge Food & Drink Festival will have taken note of what worked and what didn’t, and that next year’s event  will see a few changes and an overall  improvement. Full marks though to Tonbridge Town Team for their vision and determination in getting this year’s festival off the ground.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Toad Rock Retreat - Rusthall

It was a disappointing turnout for last Thursday night’s CAMRA social, with just three of us making the trip over to the village of Rusthall, near Tunbridge Wells, for a visit to the recently refurbished Toad Rock Retreat. Later on we were joined by two other members, one of whom lives locally; but it was still a poor show for a branch which can boast over 500 members!  However, the bulk of West Kent CAMRA members who, for whatever reason, couldn’t be bothered to turn out missed a really good evening, in a nice pub whose appeal is added to by its unique setting.

Rusthall is located approximately 2 miles to the west of Tunbridge Wells, in what is really a continuation of Tunbridge Wells Common. Much of the village is hidden among trees and is surrounded by some quite impressive sandstone outcrops. The latter became quite a tourist attraction in Victorian times, when visitors were brought up from the station in coaches or “charabancs” to see the rocky outcrops.

The most famous of these outcrops is the “Toad Rock”, a natural rock formation which looks like a sitting toad, resting on an outcrop of sandstone, and what makes the “Toad Rock” appear even more impressive is its setting in the natural amphitheatre created by the surrounding rocks. The rock formation is not man-made, but was eroded into its current shape by action of both wind and frost during the last Ice Age. The first known record of the rock's name is in a guide published in 1823; although the rock itself was first popularised in a local guide published a decade earlier. The fencing around the rock's base was first installed in 1882 and was renovated in 1993-94.

The Toad Rock
The Toad Rock Retreat is literally just a short hop from the famous rock formation which gives the pub its name, and whilst I have been there on several previous occasions, I hadn’t realised quite how close it is to the main A264 road out of Tunbridge Wells.  The 281bus provides a convenient half-hourly service into Rusthall from the centre of Tunbridge Wells, and just one stop along Rusthall Road is a footpath which leads down to the area known as Denny Bottom, where the Toad Rock is situated.

The Toad Rock Retreat was refurbished at the beginning of 2016, and has taken on a new lease of life under the stewardship of experienced licensees, Nick and Shelley, who were previously in charge of the Dovecote at Capel. I am unsure as to the age of the pub, as it was completely rebuilt, after being destroyed by a disastrous fire in 1998, but it is an attractive-looking building, nevertheless.

The pub was re-constructed in a style which matched the original, and consists of a brick structure, which is part tile-hung. Internally there is a double open-sided wood burning fireplace which separates the spacious main bar area, from a peaceful snug section containing comfy leather seating set around the fireside. There is a dining area to the left, which includes cosy tables lit by fairy lights intertwined around internal branches attached to the walls.

Local scenery
There were three cask beers on sale; Harvey’s Sussex Best, Taylor’s Landlord, plus a slightly unusual guest ale from Hartlepool-based Camerons. Sleeping Brew Tea is a 4.4% amber coloured pale ale, infused with “Sleeping Beauty Green Tea”. This, according to the pump-clip, gives the beer a gentle raspberry and rose taste and aroma. Two of our party tried it; I stuck with the Harvey’s which was in such excellent condition that it stood out as the pint you could drink all evening (NBBS 4).

We spent around two and a half hours at the Toad Rock Retreat, chatting and enjoying the beer. The pub had been quite busy when we arrived, but towards the end of our stay, people (mainly diners), began to drift off. The food on offer looked good, which is no surprise as Nick and Shelley were well-known for providing good fayre at the Dovecote. Nick was genuinely pleased to see us, but it was a shame there were so few in our party. Still, the couple are happy with the way the pub is developing; as are I’m sure the locals, after the period of uncertainty under its previous tenants.

A few of the beers available at the Bedford
We departed just before 10.30pm, this time walking up the aptly named, Harmony Street to the bus stop. We had around half an hour to wait in Tunbridge Wells for our connection back to Tonbridge, so we nipped in the Bedford for a “quick one”. My drink of choice was Pig & Porter, Slow Black Stout, which turned out to be a cracking beer and just right for ending an excellent evening’s supping!

Footnote: There is another part to Rusthall which is distinct from the Victorian era tourist resort created around Toad Rock. The other section lies to the north-west, and is set around Lower Green; the oldest part of the village and said to date from around the 8th century. There are many attractive walks across Rusthall Common, towards either Speldhurst or Southborough; both walks completely avoiding the built-up areas of Tunbridge Wells

It is quite easy to get lost around here though; even with the aid of a good map, as my friend Eric and I found out when we were walking the Weald Way, six years ago.

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Ideal (for the) Home

My last post, about drinking at home, was an attempt to inject a sense of realism into the argument that enjoying a few beers in the comfort of one’s own house, is one of the main reasons that pubs are dying on their feet.

I don’t wish to go over the ground already covered in that article but instead, as I sit here in front of my computer bashing away at the keys, I want to tell you about the beer I am drinking, and really enjoying. It is a beer which has become my beer of choice for drinking at home, and it may surprise you to learn that it is a well known brand, and one which is becoming much more widely available.

The beer I am talking about is Pilsner Urquell, and it is the world’s first golden lager. It is brewed in the Czech Republic, in the Bohemian city of Plzeň (Pilsen).  In Czech, the company and its beer are known as Plzeňský Prazdroj, but the brand is better known by the German name of Pilsner Urquell.  The words "Prazdroj" and "Urquell" both mean “original source" in their respective languages, and with a history dating back to 1842 Pilsner Urquell really can justify its claim to be as the “Original Pilsner”.

Pilsner Urquell Brewery
In 1840 the burghers of Plzeň had had enough of the dark, cloudy and often inconsistent top-fermented beer, which was pretty much the norm in Bohemia. The city council had already ordered 36 casks of poor quality beer to be dumped, and frustrated by this state of affairs they invested in a new, state-of-the art brewery, the Bürgerbrauerei (Town brewery: Měšťanský pivovar in Czech).

They commissioned a Bavarian brewer called Josef Groll, to develop a better beer for them, using the bottom-fermenting techniques which were common across the border in neighbouring Bavaria. Groll set to work and the beer he came up with was set to revolutionise not just Plzeň and Bohemia, but the whole world. The new beer was first served at markets held to celebrate the feast of Saint Martin, on 11th November 1842. The beer’s eye catching golden colour and clarity was immediately successful, and became the inspiration for more than two-thirds of the beer produced in the world today. In homage to the original, most of these beers use the names pils, pilsner or pilsener.

The beer has an ABV of just 4.4%, but it drinks like one of a much higher strength. A peppery hop bitterness, derived from the prize Saaz hops, is to the fore, but lying underneath is the most delectable toffee maltiness. As well as imparting bags of flavour the malt gives body to the beer. With this sort of combination it really is one of the most satisfying and thirst –quenching beers around.

The prominent maltiness is a direct result of the triple-decoction mashing regime still practiced at Pilsner Urquell. Most continental breweries still employing the decoction mashing system, practice the less intense double-decoction version, and many have now abandoned decoction mashing altogether, in favour of the more energy efficient (but less intense, flavour-wise) infusion mash – as traditionally practiced in the British Isles.

I won’t go into the technicalities of these different systems, but essentially decoction mashing evolved to cope with continental strains of barley and their associated high levels of nitrogen (essentially protein). If used with the simpler infusion mash, the nitrogen would carry over into the finished beer, resulting in unacceptable levels of haze. Pilsner Urquell claim they are one of the few breweries still using this system, and as if this was not enough they still use wort kettles constructed out of traditional copper.

Today, for the moment at least, Pilsner Urquell is owned by global giant SAB Miller, and although the old system of fermentation in open-top wooden vats followed by a long maturation period deep underground in huge, pitch-lined wooden barrels, has long been abandoned in favour of more modern methods, it is still a first class pint.

Most of the major supermarkets run a promotion on Pilsner Urquell from time to time, meaning it is normally possible to pick up a 500ml bottle for around £1.50. This is a real bargain for such an excellent beer, but I hinted above that SAB Miller might not be the owners of the brewery and the brand for much longer.

Yours truly enjoying a beer with Brewmaster Václav Berka
In November 2015 the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev agreed the terms of its £71bn takeover of SAB Miller, in a deal that will combine the world's two largest beer makers. The deal is still to be approved by regulatory authorities in Europe, the US, China and South Africa, despite the companies agreeing deals to sell several SAB businesses such as Peroni and Grolsch, in order to satisfy competition worries. Pilsner Urquell are reported to be amongst these disposals as well; something which will bode ill for the beer as SAB Miller have proved to be good custodians of this iconic brand, and have invested heavily in both the brewery and the beer.

It really is a case then of watch this space, and keep your fingers crossed that whoever ends up as new owner of Pilsner Urquell leaves well alone, so that beer lovers across the globe can continue to enjoy this pioneering, world classic beer in its present form.

Friday 13 May 2016

"A Safely Controlled Drinking Environment?"

 One of the arguments put forward by organisations representing the licensed trade, is that Pubs provide a regulated and controlled drinking environment, making them safe and enjoyable places to visit and socialise with like-minded people. Few would disagree with this viewpoint, and as someone who obviously enjoys a few pints in a pub, I would be the last to argue against the continuance of this great British institution.

The main protagonists of this point of view are the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), the Campaign for Real Ale and the Morning Advertiser. Now I fully understand where the BBPA and the MA are coming from, as both organisations represent the pub trade, and CAMRA’s commitment to the great British pub is based on the fact that apart from a few specialised outlets, pubs are the only places where drinkers can enjoy a pint of “real ale.”

I have no problem with the position taken by these organisations, and obviously wish them every success. Pubs are an important part of our national heritage, and need nurturing, especially when viewed against the background of an increasingly powerful anti-alcohol lobby, made up of health officials, certain members of the medical profession and fake, government-funded charities, such as Alcohol Concern.

However, what I do take exception to is organisations, whose stated aim is to look after the interests of the licensed trade, being somewhat disingenuous by contrasting the “safely controlled” drinking which takes place in a pub, with drinking at home. They claim that consumption of alcohol anywhere apart from on licensed premises is dangerous, as it takes place in an un-controlled environment. The implication is that without the benevolent supervision of the friendly publican, and the atmosphere engendered by his/her welcoming pub/bar, people will drink to excess with all the associated social and health problems this brings.

This comes across as a rather patronising “nanny knows best” type of attitude, as it is based on the premise that people have no self control and need someone watching over them, just to make sure they don’t have “one over the eight”! It is also a very dangerous and ultimately futile argument to put across, as it plays straight into the hands of the anti-alcohol brigade, at a time when the drinks trade should be maintaining a united front.

Let’s take a closer look at both the off and the on trade – people who prefer a drink at home versus those who prefer a few pints, in the company of others, down at their local boozer. These days, I fall into the former category, as I drink at home on far more occasions than I do in a pub. However, I tend to drink far less over the course of an evening at home, than I would during a comparable evening in the pub. It is also pretty rare for me to have more than one 500ml bottle of beer during the course of an evening; especially during the week.

Yet if the BBPA, CAMRA and the MA are to be believed, the home does not provide a “controlled environment” for the consumption of alcohol, and therefore I am placing myself in mortal danger. I would say to them, “How on earth do you know what goes on in peoples’ private houses? You haven’t been round to mine to check how safe and controlled it is. And how can you possibly assess whether I am in danger of drinking myself to death, if you aren’t there watching over me!”

Actually, there are quite a few times when I’ve been in a pub, in the company of people, who quite obviously have drunk more than is good for them. Hand on heart I have never seen any of them refused service, because of the amount they have already consumed. I have never seen any member of the licensed trade suggesting that perhaps they have had one too many, and that might it not be a good idea if they either slowed down, or switched to soft drinks? Surely, if pubs were the safe, supervised premises their supporters claim them to be, these sorts of things would happen.

I must emphasise here that I am not talking about people who are rude, aggressive, unsteady on their feet or slurring their speech; but people in whose company I have spent the day and witnessed them drinking considerably more than me. Having said that, I haven’t seen that many people who fall into leery, staggering or talking b*ll*cks category refused a drink either. I therefore take issue with the claim of the pub providing a supervised drinking environment.

A well-managed pub will, of course, largely police itself, and a firm indication from the licensee that bad or drunken behaviour will not be tolerated, is often all that is needed. Again, in a properly run establishment, the pub regulars will assist the licensee in ensuring people behave in a proper manner, by acting as additional eyes and ears, so that any trouble can be swiftly nipped in the bud, before it has a chance to get out of hand. However, we are not talking about stopping fights breaking out, but providing a “safely controlled” drinking environment.

I therefore get rather cross when I see pubs being held up as paragons of virtue, whilst home drinking is regarded as the devil’s work. I know pubs are under threat, as never before, but to blame the off-trade for their demise I like attempting to treat the symptoms, rather than the root cause.

There are many reasons why people choose to drink at home, rather than in the pub, and I accept that whilst price does play a significant role, it is just one factor amongst a whole host of other socio and demographical considerations to be taken into account. There are many other forms of entertainment and ways of spending one’s leisure time, which are distraction enough to keep an increasingly large proportion of the population out of the pub; and there is also the problem that many pubs fail to offer the things which people are actually looking for.

Fuggles "pop-up" bar
Not everyone wants wall to wall TV and Sky Sports; neither do they want karaoke, fancy dress evenings or quiz nights The fact the majority of pubs in the town I live in, all offer these things in varying degrees, is the main factor why I do most of my drinking at home. Many Tonbridge townsfolk feel the same; as demonstrated by the success of the recent “pop-ups” run by Fuggles and Sankey’s in the town’s Old Fire Station. These events saw dozens of people out enjoying decent food and drink, in a pleasant, non-threatening environment, where they could actually talk to each other without having their eardrums assaulted by the latest gansta (c)rap being blasted out at 90 decibels!

I want pubs to survive; after all I invested enough time, and money, in them in the past, and I am keen that they continue to thrive so that future generations can enjoy them. Pubs have to evolve though, and they have to up their game. They need to remain relevant to both today’s drinkers, as well as tomorrow’s.  There are examples aplenty out there of pubs which are doing exactly this and are thriving. These establishments are
Tonbridge Old Fire Station
surely showing the way for others to follow, so look beyond the same old tired formula, do your research properly, be innovative and be bold. Whatever you do, don’t blame the decline of the on-trade on those people who drink at home. Instead examine ways in which you can attract these people back to your pub.

The BBPA and the MA,  are wrong in their condemnation of  drinking at home, and  CAMRA too, really should know better. To claim that people’s homes provide an unsafe environment, in which to enjoy a few glasses of beer, is patent nonsense and it is time this myth was debunked once and for all. If this article goes just a little way towards achieving this, then it will have done its job.
Change of Title
I wasn't 100% happy with the original title of this post (Drinking at Home), especially as the article is about the contrast between drinking in a home environment and enjoying a few bevvies in the local pub. I also wanted to highlight the "holier than thou" stance being taken by certain organisations, including CAMRA, whereby the pub is portrayed as a place of virtue, whilst cracking open a few bottles at home, is the start of the slippery slope to complete moral degradation and total ruin!

Monday 9 May 2016

The Plough at Leigh

The Plough at Leigh Powder Mills is a pub which has been on my radar for a long time; in fact I have been visiting it on and off for the past 30 plus years. It is an attractive, part tile-hung, 16th Century building, set on a bend a mile or two from Leigh village. It has gone through several changes of ownership over the past three decades, but has always been a popular place to visit for the people of Tonbridge and the surrounding area.

I don’t know that much about the Plough’s history, but I do know that up until the mid-1970’s, it was a simple country ale house, of the type which was once very common in this part of Kent. My wife remembers it from that time, as her parents used to walk out there with her and her siblings for the occasional drink in summertime. I recall that when I moved back to Kent in 1979, the Plough was one of several pubs in the area stocking Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter, and it was worth a visit for that alone.

Sam’s pulled out of Kent a couple of decades ago, and now confine their sales in the South-East, to the area within the M25 motorway; but the Plough was always well known for its beer, and was a regular lunchtime haunt for my colleagues and I when I first worked in Tonbridge.

Getting to the pub is easy; especially for those who are walking or cycling. The initial stage of the route follows the path across Tonbridge Sportsground and on towards Haysden Lake (see previous post), but by turning off to the right, along a tarmac path, one eventually comes out in the area known as Leigh Powder Mills.

From the middle of the Napoleonic Wars until 1934 the Leigh Powder Mills site was used for the production of various types of gunpowder and other explosives. Production at what became known as the "Tunbridge Gunpowder Works", reached its maximum output during the First World War, and in the 1920’s the business was acquired by ICI. The following decade, the company moved all its explosive manufacturing to the west coast of Scotland, where there was far less danger to the local population, from explosions.

The mills used to ground the powder were powered by water, and it was by water-borne barges that raw materials were brought to the site and the finished product shipped out. Little remains today of the former workings, although until five years ago, pharmaceutical giant Glaxo SmithKline (GSK), had their research laboratories and pilot-scale production facility on the northern part of the site. The final stage of the path to the Plough passes the former GSK site, which is now being developed for housing.

On this occasion though, I arrived at the pub by road; having cycled up through Tonbridge and then into Hildenborough. This was all part of my scheme to increase my fitness levels, and my original plan had been to cycle a fair way further, up to the Windmill at Sevenoaks Weald. I hadn’t bargained for temperatures in the mid-20’s though, and having left the house without any sun protection, I decided to divert to the Plough instead.

This was a smart move, as the lanes leading down to the Powder Mills are quite leafy, so there was ample shade, but even so I was quite parched by the time I reached the pub and looking forward to a beer. After locking my bike, I headed into the bar, eager for something cool and refreshing. The warm weather had obviously brought everyone out, and there was quite a queue to get served. I spotted Tonbridge Coppernob and Musket Trigger on cask, and was quite tempted to go for the latter until I saw the fount for draught Pilsner Urquell. I noticed several other people drinking it – easy to spot because of the distinctive barrel-shaped brewery-styled glass, so even at £4.90 a pint I opted for a beer which would really cool me down.

After being served I walked round to the substantial garden at the rear of the pub. Unsurprisingly, given the weather, all tables were taken; as were the tables at the front of the pub – or at least the ones with a bit of shade. I wandered back inside, and found a seat close to the massive, double-sided open fire place which divides one part of the pub from the other.

The Plough has the sort of low-beamed interior one would expect from a pub of this age, but I was just glad of the chance to sit inside, away from the heat of the sun. My beer was excellent, and just what I needed after my cycle ride. Being Sunday lunchtime, the pub was obviously busy with diners, and the food I saw being dished up, looked most appetising.

I decided to restrict myself to just the one pint, so after finishing my beer I paused to take a few photos, before retrieving my bike and heading for home. I followed the off-road route outlined earlier, which was not only much quicker than along the roads, but also much cooler. I’ve a feeling I’ll be calling back at the Plough this summer; now that my bike is back on the road.

Saturday 7 May 2016

The Way Forward?

Last Wednesday evening’s “Consultation Meeting” on CAMRA’s “Revitalisation Project”, was an interesting affair; even if I did arrive slightly later than planned. The latter was partially down to the all too familiar “signalling problems” which plague our over-crowded rail network. For me, this meant my train which, until then had been running to time, stopping at virtually every signal on the approach to London Bridge.

The other reason for my uncharacteristic late arrival was the trouble I had finding the venue. Now I can understand why a brewery might wish to maintain a degree of anonymity when it share’s its neighbourhood with the local scrap metal dealer and a boxing club, but for heaven’s sake, some sort of sign on the door would not go amiss! If Southwark Brewing Company’s delivery van hadn’t been parked outside, I might still be walking up and down the railway arches under London Bridge station, trying to find the place!

My late arrival meant I missed CAMRA Chief Executive, Tim Page’s introductory speech, along with that from Michael Hardman; one of the campaigns’s founding members. I know this because a friend from my local branch had arrived earlier; and on time!
The meeting in full swing

It was standing room only by the time I showed up, but I managed to find some space next to the bar where, not only did I have a clear view of the proceedings, but I could also order a beer anytime I chose. I would estimate there were around 30 people crammed into the front section of Southwark Brewing’s railway arch home. Perhaps not surprisingly, most attendees were middle-aged or older men, with just a handful of women. Two or three of the latter group were campaign staff from CAMRA’s head office, but by turning up, and I include myself here, all attendees proved themselves committed members keen to find out more about CAMRA’s plans and to make their views known.

The meeting took the form of a “Power-Point” type presentation, with bullet points displayed highlighting the various issues facing CAMRA today, and with the chance to vote on a number of them as well. Voting was achieved by issuing each person present with an electronic keypad. People could then vote, when asked, on a number of key issues. The beauty of this system was the results could be displayed, almost immediately, on the screen. This system is a really clever innovation called “clikapad”, and CAMRA will be making extensive use of it, as these consultations meeting are rolled out across the country.

CEO Tim Page, conducted the meeting well, using just the right degree of firmness to keep things on track. However, as is often the case, when some people are more vocal than others, there was a tendency to get bogged down in the detail, and to drag in technical matters when they weren’t really necessary. To my mind many there just weren’t grasping the bigger picture, but were instead focussing upon their own particular niche or interest.
A selection of  Southwark Brewing's beers
To use just a couple of examples, we didn’t really need to have a full-blown discussion on the merits, or otherwise of “Key-Kegs”, particularly when CAMRA’s Technical Committee has already sanctioned their use at CAMRA beer festivals, and when the thorny issue of “Cask Breathers” was raised, I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu.

The main thing which came across from the meeting was the issues which members had been asked to vote on back in April, either online or by post, still seem to divide opinion, with no clear consent emerging as to the way forward. I think the team behind the “Revitalisation Project” will certainly have their work cut out in trying to unravel information gathered so far, and to find a common thread.
Tim did say that information, and poll results, from all these consultation meetings (and there are 50 planned at venues across the country), will be collated and assessed by the project team. There will almost certainly be further surveys and ballots of members; although he did say these would be online only, due to the horrendous costs involved in mailing out packs to all 178,000 members, and the relatively poor response received. 
Tim Page and Michael Hardman
All I can say then is “Watch this space”. From a personal viewpoint I am glad I went along. It was an interesting and informative evening, and it was nice to see a few familiar faces. It was particularly good to meet Tim Page, in person, but the highlight of the evening for me, was introducing myself to, and shaking hands with Campaign founder member, Michael Hardman. 

Footnote: If you are a CAMRA member and there’s a consultation meeting taking place near you, do try and get along. I’m certain you will find it an interesting, and potentially rewarding experience. In the meantime, here is CAMRA’s press-release about the meetings and the electronic, key-pad, voting system being used at them.

“We’ll be bringing a system called “clikapad” along to the consultation meetings so the participants can let us know what they’re thinking as the session progresses - and at the end vote on the big question: who should CAMRA represent?

And to make things even more interesting, you’ll be able to see the results of the votes as the meeting goes on. We’ll be finding out why people join CAMRA, why they remain members, what they like to drink and where they buy their beer from.

We’ll also be asking them if CAMRA’s vision and purpose is still valid in the current beer and pub world and exploring what the threats and opportunities for both the industry and CAMRA might be.
Your opinions and ideas are vital to the Revitalisation Project. As well as the results from the voting being fed back to the Revitalisation Steering Group, we’ll be taking notes of the discussions between the voting and using that as well.”

Thursday 5 May 2016

Looking Ahead With an Eye to the Past

I mentioned in a previous post that I was due to attend one of the consultation exercises set up by CAMRA as part of its Revitalisation Project. Well on Wednesday evening I duly found my way to the railway arch premises of the Southwark Brewing Company, a short hop away from London Bridge station, and listened to CAMRA Chief Executive, Tim Page and Michael Harman, one of the campaign’s founder members, present some of the reasons why CAMRA has launched this exercise. The evening also afforded the opportunity for attendees to debate some of the issues raised, and to vote, electronically, on the more important ones.

There is a fair amount of material to relate; along with some slightly disturbing side issues associated with Wednesday’s meeting so, as soon as time allows, I intend to produce a rather more comprehensive report. For now why not sit back and enjoy this YouTube clip about the Red Lion at Snargate.

The clip was sent to me by a CAMRA colleague, and shows recently deceased landlady, Doris Jemison, and her daughter Kate,  in happier times, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Apart from Doris’s sad passing, nothing much about the Red Lion seems to have changed, since the film was taken, back in 1992. Enjoy!

Tuesday 3 May 2016

A Brief Update

My trusty steed
It’s been a bit quiet on the beer and pub front over the past couple of weeks, mainly because I’ve been busy on the home front, working to get a number of projects off the ground.I’ve also been steadily working on improving my fitness levels. It’s long been my habit of going for a stroll at lunchtime, and thanks to a clever App on my phone, I can now record things such as distance walked, number of calories used, pace, route and elevation.

Over the course of last month, I upped the distance I walk from a mile to a mile and a half.  Occasionally I follow a two mile route, but that involves dodging traffic along a busy road which some motorists regard as a racetrack. In addition the two mile walk means there is precious little time for a cup of tea and to eat my sandwiches, when I get back to the office. I pass two pubs on my normal route. They are the Little Brown Jug and the Greyhound. I wrote about them here, but it is very rare that I call in, as lunchtime drinking doesn’t make for a very productive working afternoon.

I overhauled my bike at the end of last autumn, and after some finishing touches and a few last adjustments, I’m mobile on two wheels again. I like cycling, as you can cover far more ground than on foot. The bike allows me to nip down to the centre of the town, pick up a few bits and pieces and then have a cycle around the excellent park we’ve got in Tonbridge.

Haysden Lake
Tonbridge Racecourse Sportsground, as it is correctly known, is located right in the heart of the town, next to Tonbridge’s 12th Century Castle, and is set between two meandering branches of the River Medway. It is a large 69 acre site that benefits from a large open area and a wide range of sports and leisure facilities. There are lengthy hard-surfaced paths circling the whole of the park; both along the banks of the river and through nearby woodland. The Eden Valley Walk and the Weald Way Walk national trails pass nearby the site, making the park the perfect base for longer walks out into the countryside, including the nearby Haysden Country Park.

The path out to the latter forms part of the Tonbridge to Penshurst Cycle Route, and this section is one of my favourite cycle rides. On Sunday, I took my newly re-vamped bike for a ride out to the Country Park; an old gravel pit which has been landscaped and partially returned to nature, since the local council first acquired it in 1988. There are paths around the lake, and also further along the River Medway – right up to the Leigh Flood Barrier; a combination of defensive earthworks and sluice gates designed to protect Tonbridge from flooding.

The sun was shining as I rode through the Sportsground, and it was good to feel some warmth at last, following the cold north-easterly winds which have been plaguing us for the past two weeks. As might be expected, there were lots of people about enjoying the belated, but very welcome spring sunshine.

The former Royal Oak - now private housing
It felt good to be back on the bike, and pleased with my efforts after cycling to the far end of Haysden Lake, I decided it was time for a pint. Less than a decade ago, the Royal Oak pub, a short distance away from the road entrance to the country park, would have been the ideal spot for a welcoming beer. Unfortunately this late Victorian public house closed some time around 2010, and has since been converted into two private dwellings. The landlord claimed that not enough people were using the pub, and whilst he may have been right the Royal Oak was ideally situated to capitalise on its proximity to Haysden Lake, so I can’t help feeling an opportunity was lost, somewhere along the line.

Instead I turned around and headed back into town, and made for the Humphrey Bean; Tonbridge’s JDW outlet. With its garden overlooking the river and with the backdrop of the castle walls on the other side, I could think of few pleasanter places to enjoy an al fresco drink in Tonbridge.
This was my first time inside the Bean in ages, and fortunately I timed my visit just right, as I was served more or less straight away. There was a range of different beers on; several of which I was unfamiliar with, but the two which caught my eye were from Tenterden-based Old Dairy Brewery. I opted for the 4.1% Copper Top; a highly quaffable best bitter which isn’t as widely available as the 3.8% Red Top, which was the other Old Dairy beer on tap.

The Humphrey Bean - formerly the town's main Post Office
I took my pint out into the garden and managed to find a seat in the sun. The lunchtime rush was over, which explained why I was served so quickly, but there were still plenty of families, and other groups enjoying the sunshine. I only had the one, as I didn’t want to wobble around too much on the cycle ride home. Besides, it’s all uphill to where I live and I remembered, from my experiences of walking the South Downs Way, that too long a lunch stop, and one too many pints, makes it very hard to get going again!

I’m heading up to London after work on Wednesday, to take part in one of the consultation exercises set up by CAMRA as part of its Revitalisation Project. The venue is the Southwark Brewing Company; a fairly recent (2014) arrival on the burgeoning London Brewing scene, house in a railway arch close to London Bridge station. The company’s range of beers looks interesting, especially as there’s been some involvement from legendary former Rooster’s Brewery Brewmaster, Sean Franklin. 

The meeting has a serious side to it though. I have already submitted my views regarding the way forward for CAMRA electronically, and as the online consultation exercise is now closed, it will be interesting to see what form the meeting takes.

That’s about it for the moment. With no overseas trips due until August (European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference in Amsterdam), I will be knuckling down and getting stuck in with the various projects which are planned on the house and garden fronts. Until next time, then.