Wednesday 27 July 2016

Carpenter's Arms, Tonbridge

It’s said that people don’t notice things on their own doorstop, and this is often true when it comes to pubs. People will sometimes travel miles to drink, missing out on the fact there’s quite often something equally as good closer to home.

The Carpenters Arms, in Three Elm Lane, isn’t exactly on my doorstep; in fact it lies just off the Hadlow Road in a rural setting on the northern fringe of Tonbridge. However, it’s a pub I don’t visit that often, being too far to walk to from my house; although it is just a short hop from the nearest bus route.

My wife and I took a taxi out to the Carpenter’s last Saturday evening. One of the building firms she does book-keeping for were hosting a summer get-together for their workers, so Eileen and I were invited along. I had driven past the pub many times during the 30 plus years I have lived in Tonbridge, but for some reason had rarely ventured inside.

This may have been due to the Carpenter’s having once been a Courage pub; or it may just have been due to the fact it was always a place we passed en route to somewhere else, and never a destination in its own right. I knew a lot of money had been spent on the place; in fact I remember a customer telling me, back in the day when we had our off-licence, that it was a decent place to go for both food and drink, but as I just said, it was never somewhere to stop off at.

Well I have to see we were both really impressed with what we found after the taxi had dropped us off, as the pub has a Tardis-like interior, which has been tastefully fitted out in a style which is just right and not over-powering. We were the first couple to arrive, so we grabbed a drink, before going to sit outside on the front terrace, which had been reserved for our party.

After a baking hot afternoon, it was just right sitting outside under the shade of the large, square parasols as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. My beer (Harvey’s Sussex Best) too was nice and cool. The other cask ales were rather safe and predictable, in the form of Greene King IPA, Old Speckled Hen and the dreaded Doom Bar; but the pub did have keg Brew Dog Punk IPA on tap.

I was tempted to try a pint, but with a strength of 5.5% ABV, combined with a long evening ahead and an open tab behind the bar, I decided it would not be a good idea. A couple of other guests did try it though, and reported it was very good.

As well as plenty of decent beer (Harvey’s), there was plenty of decent food to go with it, in the form of mini-burgers and those posh fresh-cooked scotch eggs, with the bright yellow yolks that are so beloved by all trendy craft-beer bar owners, and their hipster customers. There was also a really nice platter of salade niçoise, which went well with the rest of the food.

It was nice to meet with Eileen’s boss, his wife; the company’s associated workers and sub-contractors. They seemed a good down to earth bunch with a number of real characters amongst them, and keen to let their hair down, metaphorically speaking.

We left sometime after 11pm, after Eileen had persuaded our son and his friend to pick us up. It had been an excellent evening, with good beer, good food and good company. We also discovered that the Carpenter’s Arms is well worth a return visit, which we plan to make in the not too distant future.

It is also worth noting that the pub offers accommodation and also serves breakfasts which, looking at the menu, are very reasonably priced. I gather booking is essential; especially at weekends.

Footnote: The Carpenter’s Arms is constructed in a rather unusual “Dutch Barn” style. Whilst sitting outside the other evening I realised that the building reminded me of another similar pub at the other end of the county; the World’s Wonder, in the village of Warehorne, on the edge of Romney Marsh.

A spot of research revealed that the latter pub was rebuilt in this rather distinctive style in 1932, by the former Maidstone brewers Style & Winch. The new building replaced the two old cottages, which had formerly housed the pub.

The former Bell Inn, at Coxheath – to the south of Maidstone, was another pub constructed in this “Dutch Barn” style. The pub is now a curry house, but the distinctive style of the building is still very evident.

Style & Winch were bought by the London brewers, Barclay Perkins shortly before the Warehorne pub was rebuilt, but the company continued brewing their distinctive “Kentish Farmer” brand beers until well into the 1950’s when Barclays merged with their Southwark neighbours, Courage. The Maidstone Brewery then switched to producing Courage beers, until its closure in 1966.

The site was used as a bottling and distribution site for a further decade, before the whole area was redeveloped to make way for a second road bridge over the River Medway. I can just about remember the old brewery, during its last years of existence as a bottling plant.

Monday 25 July 2016

Putting it into Practice

After my last post about the benefits of  walking, I took the opportunity on Sunday to join three friends on a ramble to the Windmill at Sevenoaks Weald; one of our favourite pubs and West Kent CAMRA pub of the year. I have previously walked to the pub from either Hildenborough or Penshurst railway stations, but Sunday’s ramble followed a different route as it started off from Sevenoaks station.

We caught the 11.10 train from Tonbridge and 10 minutes later alighted at Sevenoaks. We exited from the opposite side of the station to normal, and after ascending a series of steps found ourselves heading towards the Kippington area of the town. Now if you thought Sevenoaks was posh, Kippington is posher still, and as we followed the road steadily upwards, in an approximate south-westerly direction, the houses became larger and more and more ostentatious. One particularly large pile had formerly belonged to Winston Churchill; as a plaque on the wall outside testified.

Who lived in a house like this?
This was new territory for me, but two of my companions knew the area quite well. It was certainly interesting to see how the other half live, even in a town which I thought I knew quite well! After climbing some more steps, and passing through the churchyard of the Victorian Kippington church, and walking past yet more grandiose properties, we eventually passed into more open countryside.

We followed an underpass under the main A21 trunk-road, before passing into Mill Bank Wood; an extensive area of mature pine trees. A slightly winding path led us steadily upwards in a southerly direction allowing us to slowly ascend the dip-slope of the Greensand Ridge. It was nice and cool walking through the pine forest, although there were more open areas where the sun was able to penetrate. In one such sunlit glade we even noticed a dragoon flies buzzing delicately around.

What goes up must come down, and after reaching the top of the Greensand Ridge, we began the steep descent of the scarp slope, passing a few more substantial looking properties; each blessed with spectacular southward looking views across the Weald of Kent.

I hadn’t really been following the map, as I was relying on my companions for guidance, so I was quite surprised when after a further mile or so, we suddenly emerged in Sevenoaks Weald, virtually opposite the Windmill. We walked in through the open door to find the pub practically deserted, but soon realised most people were sitting out in the garden enjoying the fine weather.

Licensees Matt and Emma were behind the bar and greeted us in their usual friendly manner, as we perused the beers which were on offer. At the lower end of the scale were Larkin’s Traditional and Rockin’ Robin – Robin Reliant; whilst at the top end was Fellowship Porter from Redemption Brewery. In between were two beers which none of us had come across before; Lytham Brewery Gold 4.2% and North Cotswold Shagweaver 4.5%. (Both 3.0 NBSS).

I started on the Lytham before working my way upwards to the North Cotswold offering, preferring the later out of the two. We joined the majority of the pub’s customers out in the garden, which is a real suntrap. None of us were sufficiently hungry to warrant a main meal, but we noticed from the menu that the Windmill offers smaller portions of most of the mains options, as starters. I opted for the pulled pork, with new potatoes and salad, which was just about right, but I must say my companions’ scampi and chips also looked rather appealing.

Apart from one member of our party who was knocking back the 7.0% Turner’s Sweet Cider, we decided to end with the Redemption Porter, but after bringing it back from the bar we realised it was on the turn, with a definite sourness lurking in the background. I took mine back and Emma changed it changed it straight away. Matt then came and found us in the garden and apologised for the beer, and offered us the excellent Gun Brewery Extra Pale, by way of replacement. Now if only more licensees were as honest and accommodating as that, a beer drinker’s life would be a lot easier!

We decided to walk back to Hildenborough station, along the well-trodden route of Egg Pie and Philpots Lanes and arrived with plenty of time to spare before our train arrived. There is only an hourly service from Hildenborough on a Sunday, so we had allowed ample time for the walk back.

Wherever I lay my hat......
I enjoyed both the outward and return walks, but as the former was through unfamiliar territory and along paths I had not trodden previously, that was the best part of the day for me. I logged it on my “Map My Walk” phone-App at just under four and a half miles. A walk like that through the lovely Kent countryside certainly takes some beating, and when there’s a top notch pub waiting at the far end, then what more could a rambling beer lover want?

Saturday 23 July 2016

Staying Healthy

A few months ago comments surfaced on a number of different blogs which got me thinking about the health issues associated with excess drinking. One comment in particular read, “Anyone who reads as many CAMRA branch obituaries, for blokes in their 50s and 60s, as I do will know that not all committed drinkers make it to their 80s in good health.”

This unfortunately is only too true; as these days it seems hardly a month goes by without yet another obituary appearing in the pages of the CAMRA newspaper,. “What’s Brewing”. Given that the Campaign has approaching  180,000 members, this perhaps comes as no surprise, and it could also be said that whilst CAMRA started out primarily as a young persons’ organisation, many of those original members have now reached an age where the statistical odds of them shuffling off this mortal coil have significantly increased.

I was 19 years old when I first joined CAMRA, back in 1974. I celebrated my 61st birthday a few months ago, so I not only fall into the category of someone who has spent the majority of his adult life as a member of Europe’s most successful consumer organisation, but I am reaching a time in my life where it would be prudent to pay more attention to my health and general well-being.

I don’t feel old, and I certainly want to carry on enjoying a few glasses of beer for as long as possible. So, given the gloomy comment in the opening paragraph, how can I achieve this modest desire whilst at the same time live to a ripe old age?

I would like to think I am sensible enough to not abuse my body and put my health at risk by over-indulging; but would imagine that more than a few of those sadly departed CAMRA members thought the same thing. So without turning this into some kind of moral crusade about the adverse affect “heavy” drinking has overtime on the human body, I want to take a different tack; one which I believe is equally important when it comes to ensuring longevity.

I have enjoyed walking since my early teens. Living in a small village, with poor or non-existent public transport links, meant it was quite often necessary to resort to shank’s pony as a means of getting about. I’ve also got the leader of the youth group I was a member of to thank for taking us on Youth Hostelling holidays to places like the South Downs, the Peak District and North Wales. These holidays involved a fair amount of walking and, whilst it may on occasion have seemed hard-going at times, just being out in the fresh air and enjoying the local scenery, instilled a love of the great outdoors which I still have today.

Several years ago a friend and I walked the entire length of both the South Downs Way and the Weald Way, and I still enjoy a ramble whenever the opportunity arises - especially if a stop at a country pub is involved en route!

About a year ago, I heard an article on the radio entitled, “It’s the sitting down that kills you”. Apparently research has shown that sitting down in excess of six hours a day makes you up to 40% more likely to die within 15 years than someone who sits for less than three hours. This applies, even if you exercise.

Fortunately, as stated earlier, I’ve always been fairly active and my current job allows me to walk around the factory on a regular basis. I also go for a walk most lunchtimes, covering between a mile and a mile and a half. This allows me some exercise before getting back to my sandwiches and a cup of tea. I really enjoy being out in the fresh air and getting away from the factory, whilst the rural setting surrounding my workplace adds to my enjoyment. Following a small number of set routes also allows me to appreciate the changing seasons; something which is obviously far more noticeable in the country than it is in a town.

Taking regular exercise is just one of a number of ways to improve one’s chances of remaining fit and healthy into old age. I touched briefly on the importance of moderating one’s alcohol intake, but of equal importance is the food we eat and the type of diet we follow.

A discussion on nutrition is beyond the scope of this post, and possibly even this blog, so to end I would like to return to the subject of walking, and mention one regular and prolific blogger whose efforts don’t just put my lunchtime strolls to shame, but positively dwarf them.

I am referring of course to Retired Martin whose excellent blog chronicles his quest to visit every new entry in the current CAMRA Good Beer Guide, whilst combining his visits with as much walking as possible. I have been an avid reader of Martin’s blog, since he started it a couple of years ago. During this time he has introduced readers to the delights of towns they would never have thought of visiting; places as diverse as Altrincham, Stourbridge, Weston Super Mare, Leicester and Wigan, to name but a few.

With an eye for the off-beat and even outright eccentric, which he captures with a dry sense of humour on his blog,  Martin often includes details of the walks he undertakes as part of these pub visits. So I take my hat off to this fellow pub-lover and walker, and trust that once I am work and mortgage free I too will be able to emulate him, albeit in a slightly smaller and less intense way.

For those wishing to read further about the perils associated with a sedentary lifestyle, the following website provides useful information on how to change your routine in order to moderate, or even prevent these dangers.

Thursday 21 July 2016

Supplies Running Low

The other night I noticed to my dismay that my beer stocks are running dangerously low. Not the end of the world I hear you say, as surely I could just pop down to my nearest specialist beer shop or supermarket and stock back up. 

Well you are correct of course, and I will be doing just that, but what I wanted to illustrate is that over the course of a normal year I manage to build up quite a stock of different bottles. I acquire many of these on my travels, and last year, for example brought back quite a few bottles from Austria, the Czech Republic and Belgium. The latter visit proved a particularly lucrative source, as I was in the country for the European Beer Bloggers Conference and as well as bottles readily available in the shops (often at bargain prices), there were a lot of samples handed out by brewers eager to promote their wares.

The run up to Christmas is another time when I always accumulate a lot of bottles; not only stock I build up in the run up to the festive season, but bottles which family, friends and sometimes work colleagues buy for me as presents. Most of the major supermarket chains run promotions during December, and I obviously take advantage of these. Fuller’s beers are often discounted during this period, enabling me to build up stocks of beers such as 1845 and London Porter, but sometimes I get it wrong and go a bit overboard. For example, I still have a couple of 500ml bottles of Fuller’s Golden Pride, which I acquired the Christmas before last. I still haven’t found a suitable occasion to drink them, but I will be taking one, at least, with me to Amsterdam next month, for the bottle sharing session at this year's European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference which takes place in the city. 

Being left with an abundance of porters, strong ales, barley wines, Imperial Stouts and a few Trappist and Abbey beers, is part of the problem at the moment, as basically this is what my stock consists of. However, in over 30˚ of heat these beers have a very limited appeal, but at least they will keep until the weather turns colder again.

I will normally have a stock of paler, and slightly weaker beers to balance to balance the strong stuff, but the recent high temperatures have seen my stash of Pilsner Urquell almost vanish, and with just a couple of bottles of St Austell Proper Job remaining, I really do need to replenish my stocks as a matter of urgency.

There are, of course, other sources of bottled beers, including a couple of the growing number of companies which specialise in supplying bottles by mail order. In the past I have received, and reviewed bottles from both Beer52 and Beer Hawk, (disclosure time, just in case anyone’s bothered about such things). Both companies’ offering s were interesting and varied, with bottles from countries as far away as Iceland and Norway, as well as samples from closer to home. Beer52 even supply a well written and informative magazine, called Ferment, with each shipment.

Goodies from an overseas trip
Probably the granddaddy of all the mail order suppliers is Beers of Europe, who operate out of a large unit on the edge of Kings Lynn in Norfolk. The company also supplies the licensed trade and customers can also turn up in person to browse the shelves and make their own selections.

Finally I want to cover the question of long to medium term storage, and where best to keep your beers. The best place to store beer is in a cool area, away from direct sunlight, sources of heat, and in conditions of constant temperature, and relatively low humidity. To store a beer perfectly can be tricky, but a good rule to follow is higher alcohol beers need warmer temperatures, while lower alcohol beers require cooler conditions. This is why a cellar or basement is the ideal place to store beer, as the temperature generally remains fairly constant.

Unfortunately few modern houses in the UK have cellars, although many older ones do. My first house, a two-up, two-down Victorian terrace cottage in Maidstone had a large and roomy cellar which extended under both front and rear parts of the house, but my current home, a 1930’s semi does not. In fact, very few properties in Tonbridge possess cellars, because until quite recently, the town suffered from regular flooding.

Someone else's beer cellar
I keep my bottles in the shadiest and coolest room in the house, which just happens to be the ground floor of our extension. They are stored in stackable cardboard boxes, with integral dividers, which I acquired from the aforementioned mail order companies, Beer52 and Beer Hawk. The boxes provide protection from light; which along with heat is the main source of spoilage and premature ageing of a beer.

It’s obviously rewarding building up a stock of different bottles to drink and enjoy at a later date, and if the range includes a variety of different types and styles, then there will surely be a beer available to suit every occasion. Even my own current situation of virtually only strong dark stuff left, is not the end of the world, as these beers will come into their own later in the year.

If you’re a craft aficionado then the sky’s probably your limit, given the huge variety of different bottles (and cans) available these days, but if like me, you prefer something a little more traditional, then even better as you’ve got the whole world to choose from.

Happy Beer Hunting!

Sunday 17 July 2016

Under Pressure

Bar-top boxes for Top-Pressure dispense
In my previous and rather lengthy article about cask-conditioning, I touched upon the limited shelf life of cask ale. I also mentioned how careless handling and disgusting practices, such as returning “slops” to a cask, had led brewers to look at ways to improve and maintain the quality of the beer, as served to the customer in his or her glass. 

The development of “keg” beers, filtered, pasteurised and then stored in sealed containers, and dispensed, under pressure, using carbon-dioxide gas, was one solution, but it was expensive. The equipment needed for processes such as filtration and pasteurisation was not cheap, so brewers looked at an alternative “half-way house” solution in the form of “Top Pressure” systems.

Top Pressure dispense systems undeniably improved the keeping qualities of cask beer, and extended its shelf life. It stands to reason that if oxygen is excluded from the cask, then the contents will last longer, as oxidation cannot take place so, to many brewers and publicans, top-pressure seemed like the answer to a maiden’s prayer. 
As above
There was a downside however, as in order to force the beer from the cask and up to the taps on the bar, it was necessary to apply an appreciable amount of pressure. If there was a long pipe run from the cellar to the bar, a considerable amount of pressure was necessary in order to dispense the beer and due to some of the CO2 being absorbed and dissolving in the beer, this had the unfortunate side effect of making the beer fizzy. In the worst cases, the beer absorbed so much CO2 that it resembled keg, rather than cask beer.

When I started drinking in the early 1970’s (not at a legal age to begin with), top-pressure dispense was pretty much the norm; in fact seeing hand-pumps on the bar, and especially ones still in use, was quite a rare sight, apart from in Shepherd Neame pubs, and my friends and I tended to avoid those anyway. 

CAMRA too in those days, viewed pressurised dispense with as much disdain as it had for keg beer, as a look through the Brewery Section at the rear of the 1974 GBG reveals. Many of the pub descriptions in the main part also specifically refer to “pressure”, or the absence of it. The Guide goes out of its way to point out that “There is always a very high risk that the beer will become gassy, sickly and sweet it carbon dioxide is re-introduced artificially”. I understand the bit about the beer becoming gassy, but sickly? And as for sweet, well CO2 obviously possesses magical properties, hitherto unknown to chemists!

One could therefore be forgiven for thinking that top-pressure was an inherently bad system, and yet it was brought in by breweries to address a major concern regarding the poor quality of much cask beer. The brewers argued that as carbon-dioxide is a natural by-product of fermentation, its use as both a means of dispense, and in providing a protective “blanket” over the beer, should be considered beneficial. One could see their point, and almost sympathise, especially as they were trying to solve a problem which had dogged cask beer for many years.

The point about providing a blanket was taken further by a number of breweries in a hybrid system known as “blanket pressure”. Here, CO2 under low pressure was applied to the top of the cask, via the spile hole, in a similar manner to that of normal top-pressure systems. The pressure of gas was kept deliberately low, so as to just provide a layer of protection to keep air away from the exposed surface of the beer. Dispense would then be achieved by normal hand or electric pumps, or even by gravity.

As carbon-dioxide is heavier than air, the logic behind this works well but, as might have been expected, CAMRA were vehemently opposed to such systems, as they claimed the blanket of CO2 above the beer prevented normal conditioning from occurring, and if the pressure applied was too high, excess gas could dissolve in the beer making if fizzy like keg.

The so-called “Cask-Breather” was a device specifically designed to circumvent these alleged problems. Cask-breathers are, in effect, demand valves, which work on similar principles to the aqualung, used all over the world by divers; although the former operate at lower pressures. The principle is that as beer is drawn off from the cask, the inside pressure falls. Instead of drawing in air, the “breather" allows sufficient CO2 to enter the cask to fill the volume created. The beauty of it is that only just enough gas is admitted, so there is no chance of excess CO2 being absorbed by the beer. 

How the thing works
Despite the device having been evaluated and approved by  CAMRA’s Technical Committee, with an irrationality based solely on a rabid aversion to the dreaded “extraneous CO2”, the Campaign as a whole said “no”. The chance to improve the quality and longevity of cask beer was therefore lost due to the rigid dogma of a handful of “stick-in-the-mud”, diehard activists. Not that this opposition stopped brewers and publicans alike installing cask-breathers in their cellars; a move which didn’t go un-noticed by CAMRA purists, and which led to an insistence of the right to inspect pub cellars, when surveying entries for the Good Beer Guide.

This confrontational approach obviously upset a lot of people in the trade, and did little to enhance the standing of CAMRA as a responsible and professional organisation. The cask-breather debacle also marked the beginning of my long-standing disillusionment with the Campaign, and this insistence on cellar inspections was one of the key reasons why I no longer have anything to do with the Good Beer Guide.

Looking back, I can understand why brewers opted for the top-pressure system as a means of improving the keeping qualities of cask beer, but was CAMRA right in opposing it? Probably yes, due to the risks of altering the mouth-feel and drinkability of the beer due to the absorption of too much CO2. As for blanket pressure, I don’t really know. What I do know though is that had devices such as cask-breathers been around in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, then top-pressure systems would have been unnecessary, and cask ale could have continued pretty much as it was, without the need to switch over entirely to keg.

Cask-breathers in use
In my book, the brewers were definitely right to look for ways of extending the life of cask beer by preventing oxidation, for this is the Achilles Heel of “real ale”. All is well if a cask is emptied within a two to three day period, but as we all know to our cost; this is often not the case. Many pubs are far too ambitious in the number and types of cask beer they stock, leading to a slow turn-over, especially of the less popular beers or brands. Right from the start, CAMRA did recognise the inherent limited shelf-life problems associated with cask beer; that first commercial, pioneering Good Beer Guide which appeared in 1974 had a few lines in the introduction which read, “Another feature of real ale that you ought to welcome is that it can vary from superb to undrinkable; even in the same pub. Every brew has its good days, its bad days and its indifferent days. Learn to accept the off moment and revel in the times when you hit on a really excellent pint”. (I don’t know about you, but I’d be very wary of a pub where the beer was excellent one day, and undrinkable the next! Surely a case of someone not knowing what they are doing?)

The frustrating, and indeed annoying thing is that when a solution to this problem appeared in the form of the cask-breather, because of the influence of a small group of vociferous, die-hard activists, CAMRA chose to turn its back on it. For purely doctrinal reasons associated with past negative experiences of top-pressure, the Campaign went into overdrive in its opposition to this “beer saving” device. These reasons flew in the face of scientific facts and demonstrably repeatable tests which proved, beyond all doubt, that cask breathers had no adverse effect whatsoever on the beer.

Mind you if Carbon Dioxide really can make a beer taste sickly and sweet, then perhaps anything is possible and cask-breathers are the work of the Devil and the very end of civilisation as we know it!

Footnote: I wrote a similar post to this one, back in April 2014, highlighting the lunacy of CAMRA's opposition to cask breathers. You can read it here.

Thursday 14 July 2016

A Family Wedding

Hunters Hall
The main hall
The start of the new week saw me back up in Norfolk, but this time with my wife and son. We had travelled up for my youngest sister’s wedding, and with my other sister and her husband having flown over from the United States, along with a cousin up from Wales, the stage was set for a family get together.

We stayed at the wedding venue, a place called Hunters Hall, just a short hop from the village of Swanton Morley, where my parents had lived for the last 20 years. Hunters Hall is a wedding venue and farmhouse bed and breakfast complex, consisting of a large Victorian barn and associated outbuildings. 

The latter are grouped around a series of courtyards, and today form the bed and breakfast accommodation attached to the hall. It was a very agreeable and pleasant place in which to spend a few days, and with several other guests staying there, proved the ideal spot for a family wedding.

I am pleased to report there was beer available in the main barn, in the form of some well-kept Adnam’s Southwold; although on the night before the wedding, we joined the rest of the family for a meal, just down the road at Darby’s; one of Swanton Morley’s two pubs.

Regular readers will no doubt recall that my son and I were unable to obtain a meal there, on our previous visit, about six weeks ago. I wrote about it here, but fortunately there were no such problems on this occasion, as my sister had booked the cosy restaurant area at the far end of the pub.

According to Google Maps, Darby’s is less than a mile away from Hunters Hall, but trying to persuade wife and son to put one foot in front of the other and actually walk there was proving difficult. Fortunately salvation was at hand in the form of Matthew; one half of the husband and wife team who own and run the Hall. Matthew very kindly offered to run us down to the pub, along with my cousin Susan and her friend Ray.

The meal was excellent, and so was the beer (Lacon’s Legacy NBSS 3.5), but what was even better was to be in the company of family and friends. I didn’t really take that much notice of the other beers on tap, that
night in Darby’s, but I liked the way the cask beers are kept in a temperature controlled room behind the bar, and then dispensed by gravity, straight from the cask.As mentioned earlier, the bar at Hunters Hall served an excellent pint of Adnam’s, but is only open when a function takes place. The previous afternoon, not long after our arrival, we enjoyed a few lightly chilled bottles of Woodforde’s Wherry, whilst sitting outside in the garden chatting to my cousin and her friend.

This was a nice civilised touch, which sums up nicely the ambience of this rural retreat. Along with a hearty full-English breakfast in the morning, the excellent braised steak cobbler we enjoyed as part of the wedding breakfast and the size and comfort of the rooms, I would highly recommend a stop-over at Hunters Hall if you are ever in this part of Norfolk.

Finally, special mention should be made of my dear old dad, who managed to walk his youngest daughter down the aisle, and of course to my sister Phillippa and her new husband Peter. Congratulations to you both as you fly off to your honeymoon in the Maldives. I’m sure beer is the last thing on your minds, but I shall expect a full report on what was available when you return!

Sunday 10 July 2016

Tonbridge Juddians - SIBA South-East Beer Festival 2016

This weekend saw the annual Tonbridge Juddians – SIBA South East, Beer Festival taking place.This is now the 10th such festival to take place and, as in previous years, the event took place in a spacious marquee erected in front of TJ’s clubhouse.

My son Matt and I headed down there on Friday evening and met up with his cousin, her partner plus their two dogs. Because of the hounds we sat outside but, unlike previous years where it was necessary to either bring your own folding chair or sit on the grass, this year the rugby club had fortunately supplied chairs.

It was a fine summer’s evening, although it did get a little chilly later, and it was very pleasant sitting out watching the sun slowly sink behind the trees at the fringe of Tonbridge Sportsground. There were 186 different cask ale from 74 different brewers, to sample; all entries in the SIBA South East Region Competition. The tasting and judging of these beers takes place during the day, on Friday, and I do know several people who volunteer as judges each year.

This is a little too serious for me, as I prefer to drink and enjoy my beer, rather than analyse it, but it is obviously good for the brewing industry as a whole, and SIBA in particular, that these types of competition take place; especially as they help to raise standards. Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club provides the venue and the facilities and then, once the judging has finished and the winners announced, the festival is turned over to the club, and the paying public are admitted.

The place was humming when Matt and I arrived, but as the majority were sitting outside enjoying the fine weather, there was plenty of space inside the marquee and ample room to move about and peruse the rows of different casks. There were eight different categories, but I won’t bore you by listing them all out. All beers were priced at one token per half pint, which certainly made life easier for the mathematically challenged amongst us.

I didn’t go overboard on the sampling, but I enjoyed most of the beers I sampled and the ones which really stood out were: Five Points Brewing Co. Five Points Pale 4.4% and Railway Porter 4.8%, Brighton Bier Co. South Coast IPA 5.0% and Black Cat Tzar Imperial Stout 6.8%.

I finished on the latter, and found it a truly excellent beer; not overtly strong, but packed with loads of flavour. I believe it picked up an award in the Premium Strong Beer category. Both the Five Points beers were also excellent, and I’m pretty certain I remember beers enjoying from this Hackney - based brewery at last year’s event.

Matt’s cousin and her entourage left as dusk began to fall, so Matt and I headed inside where we met up with a few of my friends from West Kent CAMRA. The branch runs a small stall every year, handing out leaflets, membership forms as well as selling pub guides and similar publications. There had been some interest and quite a few guides had been sold. It was good to notice that quite a few casks were already stooped at a steep angle, showing that some were starting to run out.

I called in again, briefly, on Saturday afternoon, but confined my supping to a few swift halves, as my wife and I were going to a party in the evening, and I would have to drive. I would estimate there were more people present than on the previous evening, with many sitting outside. There were a number of live acts lined up, to entertain the crowds. I noticed that some of the casks had indeed run out; which is good news for the organisers.

Unlike previous years though, the festival will not be open on Sunday. This is understandable as the rugby club relies on its members and volunteers not just to man the bars and serve the beers, but also to take the whole thing down at the end. With all the cooling equipment necessary to keep the beer in tip-top condition, as well as the nearly 200 odd casks to remove, the whole operation is not only time consuming, but requires plenty of bodies to help. The Sunday finish has always meant members taking time off from work at the start of the new week, so I can fully appreciate why this session has now been abandoned.

As always it was a great festival, and is an event which has now become firmly fixed in the Tonbridge social calendar. The only slight gripe was there were no programmes this year; just a printed list of the beers. I heard that this was due to problems with one of the sponsors, but whether this is correct remains to be seen. Many people were asking for them and the guidance provided by the tasting notes in particular, was sadly missed. However, I am certain the organisers will address this for next year’s event.

I would like to end by thanking Tonbridge Juddians, and all their hard-working volunteers, for once again, putting on such an excellent and highly enjoyable festival, and also raise my glass to all the brewers who are members of  SIBA South-East  for providing such a fine range of beers.

Thursday 7 July 2016

Forester's Arms Tonbridge

Well it’s not often that I’m forced to eat humble pie, but I certainly was last Monday evening. My local CAMRA Branch, were holding one of their bi-monthly open business meetings in Tonbridge, and the venue they’d chosen was a Shepherd Neame pub. Now I’m sure regular readers of this blog are familiar with my well-known dislike of Shepherd Neame beers, but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and go with the flow.

The pub in question was the Forester’s Arms; a Victorian local situated at the bottom of Quarry Hill, on the main A26 out of town going towards Tunbridge Wells. Now I have known the Forester’s for many years; in fact ever since I first moved to Tonbridge back in 1984. For 10 years after that, my wife and I lived just up the road from the pub and would often pop down for a drink. The Forester’s was the pub of choice for when we had friends visiting, and I would also nip in for a swift one whilst picking up a takeaway from the Chinese restaurant just a few doors down. It was run by a young couple back then, who were just a few years older than us, and they served up a good pint and kept the place in good order.

In 1994 we moved to a larger house in a different area of Tonbridge; still in the south part of the town, but the best part of 30 minutes walk away from the Forester’s. There were other pubs close by, but by that time the pub had changed hands and Shep’s beer had taken a definite turn for the worse. More to the point, with a young toddler to look after, an increased mortgage and a daily commute to work of 30 miles each way, there wasn’t much time, or money for pub-going.

I continued for a while to keep an eye on what was going on with the Forester’s, but the pub seemed to go through a succession of different landlords, and eventually ended up with a bad reputation. For the last 10 years I have driven past the pub on my way home from work, and seen a regular stream of banners proclaiming a new licensee and a brave new world but the latest one, back in April, seemed a little different.

There was the usual skip parked outside and the notices advising “closed for refurbishment”, but the appearance of a fence and some plants, on the narrow strip of land in front of the pub signified that perhaps this time round, change was in the air.

New landlord, Tyson outside the Forester's
Not long afterwards, a splash in one of the local papers showed that experienced pub manager Tyson Marshall, had taken over the running of the pub. I recognised his photo straight away, as Mr Marshall had managed the Little Brown Jug in Chiddingstone Causeway, just up the road from where I work, for a number of years. Having explored several sites including pubs in the area he recognised the potential to revive the fortunes of the Foresters Arms

Originally from Melbourne, Tyson has extensive experience in the hospitality trade, having worked in bars all over the world since the age of 20. Speaking in the local paper he said, "I am passionate about bar tending, and it has been a dream of mine for several years to have my own place. When I found the Foresters Arms, it seemed perfect. It had lots of potential, and is in a fantastic central location, with Tonbridge station within a short walking distance." 

Since getting the keys to the Forester’s back in the Spring, Mr Marshall got busy giving the pub a fresh coat of paint and other improvements, including the aforementioned outdoor seating area. He went on to say, "My aim is to make the pub a friendly and comfortable place where people of all ages feel they can relax, so I have put artwork on the walls to generate conversation and interest, and introduced more games. I want to get people talking and interacting."

New look interior
The pub already had bar billiards, a darts board plus a pool table, and now table football game and a wide range of new and vintage board games have been introduced for people to play. Food, in the form of authentic pizzas, baked in a specialist oven, and featuring a variety of toppings, is available anytime the pub is open. Pizzas can also be ordered to take away.

Tyson added: "Changing the food offer is part of my overall aim for the pub, to keep things simple, and execute them really well. After years talking about it, it is awesome to finally be my own boss, and Shepherd Neame have been great, working with me to help fulfil my dream”.

I remained totally unaware of these changes until a couple of Fridays ago when, whilst out on our Tunbridge Wells Circular walk, my friend Don told me how good the pub was now and that it was well worth a visit. So, with the West Kent CAMRA branch business meeting providing the perfect opportunity for a closer look, I walked the relatively short distance down the hill to the Forester’s.

The place was heaving when I arrived, but I could see my friends sitting at a table on the bench seats adjacent to the window. I ordered myself a beer (Whitstable Bay Pale, served in a dimple mug), and went and joined them. I wasn’t that interested in the business side of the meeting, especially as I had difficulty in hearing much of the conversation due to the level of background noise. I did enjoy the beer though; much to my surprise!

Actually, I have drunk and enjoyed Whitstable Bay Pale before. It is definitely one of Shep’s better beers. Also on hand-pump were Spitfire and Samuel Adams Blonde Ambition. The latter is a collaboration brew between the Boston Beer Company (owners of the Samuel Adams brand), and Shepherd Neame, and is brewed to commemorate American Independence Day. This was rather appropriate as our meeting took place on 4th July, but as I was enjoying the Whitstable Pale I didn’t try any.

As I mentioned earlier, the pub was busy, with a good mixed crowd, and for a Monday night this was good to see. Keeping an eye on things from behind the bar was the larger than life character of Tyson, who looks every bit the archetypal Aussie surf dude. He must be very pleased with the way things are going, and it is good to see his efforts at turning the Forester’s round are proving successful.

The meeting ended shortly before 9.30pm. Most of those present decided to head off to the Humphrey Bean (JDW), but two other members and I were happy to stay put. I certainly didn’t want to walk down into the town, only to have a much longer walk back. The clientele changed a bit around this time, with a younger crowd turning up, but one which was happy to sit there playing board games!

I had one final pint of Whitstable Pale before leaving; making three in total. I must say I am extremely pleased to see my old local busy and thriving; especially now that it’s become a pleasant and attractive place to drink in.

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Worthington White Shield Offer

A quick heads up to all Worthington White Shield devotees; the beer is currently on offer at Waitrose with three bottles available for a fiver. This represents quite a saving on the usual retail price of £1.99 a bottle, and is the first time I have ever seen this iconic beer discounted. Needless to say, I’ve stocked up on a few bottles and will be getting some more before the offer ends.

I wrote quite a lengthy piece on this historic Burton Pale Ale back in March, so I won’t repeat myself, apart from saying today’s White Shield is a far less complex beer than the one I remember drinking back in the 70’s and 80’s. I suspect this is due to the brewers making the beer far more foolproof as, unlike the old White Shield, the current version pours bright virtually right down to the last drop. This is indicative of very little additional conditioning occurring in the bottle; but perhaps this is the price of fame?

Anyway, if you want to pick yourself up a little bit of history, why not take advantage of this special offer and grab yourself a few bottles of this iconic brand.

Saturday 2 July 2016


I was prompted to write this piece following an article which appeared on Tandleman’s blog, entitled “Improving with Age”. The crux of the post centred on the fact that cask-conditioned beer does actually improve when there’s a bit of time in the cellar for conditioning to actually take place. This is something I’ve always considered crucial to serving up a decent pint, but it’s something which is often over-looked particularly when it comes to maximising turn-over and keeping stock levels to a minimum.  

I’ve always been interested in the practical aspects of both brewing beer and looking after it once it’s been brewed and, without wishing to blow my own trumpet too much, I’ve had a fair amount of experience of both. With this in mind I decided to carry out a spot of research regarding the history and background to cask-conditioning, but surprisingly the various internet searches I conducted turned up very little. 

There are obviously publications and training manuals available regarding cellarmanship and cellar practice, many of which are the accumulation of many years experience in the field. In addition they are often specific to one particular brewery and its beers. But reasons why maturing beer in the cask became standard practice, and exactly how and when this process was first developed, seem lost in the mists of time. What follows therefore is very much my own take on this, and I would welcome input from other writers and industry analysts who will have far more knowledge than me on these matters. 

I strongly suspect the practice of cask-conditioning dates back to the time when beer, or even ale as it then was, was first kept in wooden casks, and that the maturation process was something which occurred almost accidentally. Many things improve with age, and beer is no exception. When “green” or immature beer is first racked into a cask, it still contains fairly high levels of suspended yeast cells. These would have continued nibbling away at residual sugars still present in the immature beer. In effect, fermentation was still continuing; albeit at a much reduced rate. The by-products of this process are a slightly increased alcohol content, alongside raised levels of CO2 gas within the beer. 

It is this dissolved carbon dioxide which gives condition to the finished beer, and this in turn provides much of the mouth-feel which is so desirable and satisfying to the drinker. It also contributes to the refreshing characteristics of the beer. As any beer drinker knows, a flat beer, totally devoid of condition, is not a pleasant drink and so this natural process and welcome by-product of continuing fermentation was something to be encouraged and indeed embraced.

As industrialisation increased and the use of glass drinking vessels became more widespread, the clarity of the finished beer became a far more important factor than it had hitherto been. Most beers will, of course, clear naturally left to their own devices, but depending on the yeast strain involved, this can sometimes be a lengthy process. Brewers therefore started to look at quicker ways to clarify beer.

The addition of isinglass finings was the first step along this path. Isinglass is a gelatinous protein prepared from the swim-bladders of certain fish. It works by attracting yeast cells, which carry a different electrical charge, causing the yeast cells to clump together and thereby dropping to the bottom of the cask by virtue of their size and weight. Other substances, such as gelatine have also been tried, but these proved less effective as, unlike Isinglass which has the ability to work several times over, they only work the once. As casks are normally shifted around several times between leaving the brewery and being handled in the pub cellar, this effectively rules them out, so isinglass remains as the default choice when it comes to clearing cask ale.

Wooden casks can even be used for lager
I would imagine that up until the mid-19th Century, all bulk packaged beers were treated in a similar fashion, and that virtually all were cask-conditioned. However, at some stage around this time, especially with the move on the Continent to bottom fermented beers, things must have changed. Bottom fermented beers are matured for far longer periods than the more traditional top-fermented ales; with both fermentation and maturation taking place at significantly lower temperatures. These beers would eventually have cleared naturally, and during this time an appreciable amount of condition would have developed in the beer.

The next steps in the evolutionary process, particularly of bottom fermenting beers, would have been filtration and pressurised dispense. The former ensures perfect clarity in the beer, making sure the customer gets a clear glass every time. The latter ensures the condition, which has so carefully been developed in the beer during the maturation process, is maintained in the finished product and the beer has that satisfying sparkle in the glass and that refreshing and satisfying mouth-feel the customer is looking for. 

Conditioning tanks
Both these processes take us away from the concept of cask-conditioned beer so, as this is the main subject of this post, let us return to the British Isles where the old traditional methods lingered, and indeed thrived.  Despite moves towards filtration and pressurised dispense across Europe, Britain in the 19th Century was in no mood to take lessons from its continental neighbours. Here cask-conditioning remained the main way in which beers were brought to maturation, prior to being served to the customer.

Cask-conditioning really came to the fore during the early years of the 20th Century, when there was a shift away from the heavily-hopped and rather potent India Pale Ales, which had made the fortunes of many of the Burton brewers several decades earlier, towards lighter and more quaffable pale ales. This was understandable as, nice though they are, a heady IPA with an ABV of 7.0% plus, is not really a session beer and is not especially refreshing.

These weaker beers were initially known as “running ales”, because they were deliberately sent out by brewers in an immature state in order to finish their maturation, and hence develop condition, in the pub cellar. They became known as “bitter”, or “bitter ale”, and like continental Pilsner-style beers, looked attractive and sparkling in the glass. This made them an immediate hit with the drinking public. 

For certainly the first half of the 20th Century, cask-conditioning was virtually universal in the UK, but the practice does suffer from a number of inherent defects, the chief one of which is the limited shelf-life of cask ale, once the cask is broached. This problem was exacerbated by the effects of two world wars which saw quite drastic cuts in the gravity of many beers (particularly during the Great War), due to the need to conserve ingredients during these times of national crisis. 

Weaker beers obviously don’t keep as well as stronger ones, and there was a further problem with cask beer in so much that it is quite easy to adulterate the contents. The disgusting practice of returning “slops” to a cask, (particularly the mild ale cask), carried out by quite a number of unscrupulous pub landlords, caused many drinkers to distrust draught beer, and switch to bottled instead. In fact there was a massive rise in sales of bottled beer, particularly after World War II, which took place at the expense of draught (cask) beer.

I won’t repeat the story of the rise of “keg” beer as the development of what effectively is bottled beer in a much larger container dispensed, continental-style, by CO2 gas, is well documented elsewhere. Whilst keg beers were embraced, certainly by many publicans for their ease of handling, and promoted by many brewers, because they ensured a consistent pint by reducing the chances of lazy or ignorant landlords spoiling the finished product, they were not universally welcomed by drinkers. Many felt that the filtration and pasteurisation processes necessary to ensure a stable product, significantly altered the taste of the beer, and the gas used for dispense, often accompanied by excessive cooling, had a further adverse effect on the beer.

Perfect combination
Customer dissatisfaction led to the emergence of consumer groups like the SPBW (Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood) and, of course, CAMRA. The success of CAMRA in particular, in promoting the undoubted merits of traditional draught beers, as opposed to heavily advertised national keg brands, led to a dramatic resurgence in the fortunes of cask-conditioned beer. This resurgence started off in quite a small during the late 1970’s, but really took off a decade later; so much so that sales of cask beer are still growing today. 

I suspect that a change occurred during the 1980’s, when brewers began to exercise a lot more care over their cask-conditioned beers than they had hitherto done. Whilst it once was considered normal practice to rack the beer straight into casks, virtually straight from the fermenting vessel, they now introduced an additional holding stage, whereby the “green” beer was allowed to condition, in bulk, in enclosed tanks at the brewery. Only then, after a sufficient time period had elapsed, was the beer run into casks.

Science would also have played a much greater role here, as brewers started to count and monitor the number of yeast cells present in the beer, again holding back racking until the count had fallen below a certain level. I suspect this process has been further refined, so that much of today’s cask-conditioned ale has a relatively low yeast count, with much of the conditioning having taken place in bulk. Casks racked in this fashion will drop bright fairly rapidly; often in a matter of hours, due to the low yeast counts in the beer delivered to the pub.

Cask beer has therefore become more consistent and far easier to handle, but like many beer drinkers, I feel it has lost something of its character along the way. Without that extra maturation taking place in the pub cellar, the beer is often served too young (green), and is missing some of the subtle nuances it once had. This is particularly true of many once revered beers which, having become victims of their own success and become far more widely available than they once were, now taste rather bland.

Isinglass finings
Before winding up this admittedly rather lengthy article, it is worth noting one cellar practice which has completely died out. These days it is universal for the isinglass finings, necessary to clarify the beer, to be added either just before the beer leaves the brewery, or at the end of the maturation phase when the beer is racked into casks. What many people don’t realise is it was once a quite common practice for finings to be added in the pub cellar, after the beer had left the brewery. This would have been in the days when many of the larger pubs, in particular, employed a “cellarman”, whose job was to look after the draught beer by bringing it into and then maintaining it in peak condition. 

I knew someone who had such a position, albeit in a part-time capacity. He worked for the Royal Mail in the Dartford area, but in order to supplement his postman’s salary helped out in a local pub at weekends and on the odd evening. He told me that certain beers, such as Bass and Worthington, were delivered un-fined and it was his job to add the finings prior to stillaging and venting the casks. This would have been during the 1960’s.

I didn’t know this chap especially well, but he was the father of one of my wife’s friends. He sadly passed away a few weeks ago, so the opportunity to question him further is now gone. It’s fascinating though such practices were still being carried out within living memory, and also proof of how much has changed when it comes to looking after cask-conditioned beer.