Sunday 30 October 2016

“Bringing It All Back Home”

“Bringing It All Back Home”, is not just the title of the new Nobel Literature Laureate’s 5th studio album; a release which contains, amongst others, classics such as Mr Tambourine Man, Maggie’s Farm, Subterranean Homesick Blues and It’s All Over Now, Baby-Blue, but also the practice of bringing a few goodies back home with you, when you’ve been away somewhere.

Visiting new places, or reacquainting yourself with a few familiar ones, usually provides the opportunity to sample and enjoy a few local ales or beers. For me, this is an important part of any trip away; whether it is at home or abroad, although I do find now that regional differences here in the UK, so far as local breweries are concerned, are nowhere as distinct as they were when I started drinking over 40 years ago.

Wherever possible I like to bring a few bottles of the local brew back home with me, to either remind me of a good holiday, or as an opportunity to try something new. This is easy, here in the UK, especially when travelling by car; but even if  you are taking advantage of cheap rail deals, providing you have a decent-size rucksack or a suitable wheeled suitcase, then bringing a reasonable quantity of bottles back with you should not present too much of a problem

Boarding the Eurostar to Brussels
Take your car abroad and the same applies; with added advantage of cheaper beer prices prevalent in much of mainland Europe. You can even travel by train (Eurostar), and enjoy the same advantages. However, if air travel is your chosen method of transport, you come up against a number of hurdles. If you choose to travel with hand-baggage only, then I’m afraid you are stuffed due to strict limitations governing carrying liquids in your bag. The smallest size beer bottle normally available is 250 ml, two and a half times larger than the permitted100 ml; and let’s face it, what beer lover would bother with such small volumes anyway?

Despite these limitations, travelling with just cabin baggage has several advantages, particularly if you are travelling with a budget airline. There are no baggage fees to pay, no bags to check in and collect, meaning you go straight to security before boarding the plane, whilst at the other end, you pass straight through customs and immigration and continue on to your destination. This is my preferred method, when travelling alone and taking a short break, even if it means foregoing beer to bring home. However, if I am going away for periods in excess of five days, or my wife is travelling with me, then I will pay the extra and go for the checked-in hold-baggage option.

How not to pack your case
It’s still not all plain-sailing though, as there are two other factors to be aware of. The first is weight, and the second is how to safely pack your precious cargo without any of the bottles breaking in transit, soaking and potentially ruining the contents of your suitcase. Dealing with weight first; all airlines impose weight restrictions on individual items of baggage. Excess weight costs money in terms of extra fuel, but there are also manual handling issues to take into account. Spare a thought for the poor baggage handler who has to climb inside the hold of the aircraft and stow your over-loaded bag, whilst trying to avoid giving himself a hernia in the process.

As a general rule, the cheaper the airline, the less weight you are allowed to bring; unless you are willing to pay the not insignificant excess baggage charge. You need to box clever here, and work out exactly how many bottles your suitcase can accommodate (always assuming there’s sufficient space), without exceeding the limit. When checking in for the outward flight, I always make a mental note of the weight showing on the display, when I place my bag on the belt. I then know within a kilo or so how much weight I’ve got to play with. You then need to know the weight of any bottles you are planning to bring back with you. With the aid of Google you discover that an empty 500ml bottle weighs in at around 300g, whilst a 330ml bottle comes in at around 200g. You then need to add the weight of the contents, which is easy, as 500ml weighs 500g and 330 ml equates to 330g. (Weights are based on the density of water, which is 1.00 g/ml; but as beer is approx 95% water, and alcohol is actually lighter than water, you won’t go far wrong if you use this conversion).

Hard-shell case for better protection
So a 500ml bottle of beer has a gross weight of around 800g (0.800 Kg) and a 330 ml bottle comes out at 530g (0.530 Kg). If your baggage limit is 20 Kg (Easy Jet/Ryanair), and you have 9 kilos to play with, you can bring back 11 x 500 ml bottles or 17 x 330 ml bottles. A word of warning though; don’t take these figures as gospel as beer bottles can and do vary in weight considerably, depending on the thickness of the glass. Modern practice is to make them as light as possible, whilst still providing sufficient protection and resilience for the contents. Older style bottles, such as the heavy swing-top bottles used for the Kloster Mallersdorf beer I am drinking at the moment, are noticeably thicker, and therefore significantly heavier. Always be mindful therefore, of local variations, from country to country and even between regions within a country, and ere on the side of caution.

Having determined the number of bottles you can bring back, you then have the task of packing them carefully, so that they don’t break in transit.  The really important points here are that bottles should be as immobilised as far as possible AND should not touch the sides of the case, or another bottle. Bubble-wrap is ideal for this purpose, but I often simply slide a couple of socks over each bottle and then partially wrap each one with a T-shirt, or similar item of clothing. Basically use whatever it takes to keep each bottle separate from its neighbour and away from the sides of the case.

A selection of goodies from a previous trip to Bavaria
By following these simple rules, and by taking a bit of care with my packing, I’ve successfully brought back dozens of bottles, without any breakages or leakage. Occasionally I’ve been slightly over the weight limit, but a sweet smile and an “Oh, so sorry” apology, normally means I get away with these slight transgressions. Downstairs in the cupboard I’ve got 14 bottles I brought back from August’s trip to the Netherlands along with eight from last month’s visit to Regensburg. So if you are prepared to apply a little extra time and effort, then you too can enjoy a few liquid memories from wherever you have been recently.
There is another way of acquiring exotic beers, and that is to order from one of the growing number of on-line beer agencies. It will cost you a bit more, as there are delivery charges to pay, and these can be quite steep. There is also the risk of breakages; although most agencies, these days, use reputable carriers to mitigate against this. Some beer agencies also welcome callers, and this is what I will be doing, next weekend when I make the journey to Norfolk, to visit my father. Beers of Europe have one of the largest selections of both British and foreign beers in the UK, at their warehouse, just outside Kings Lynn, and it will be well worth making a slight detour in order to pick up a few goodies for Christmas.

Cans can travel by air
One final point; I’ve been told that cans also travel without rupture in aircraft holds. Some of you may know I work for a company which is Japanese owned. We have regular visitors from Japan, and also have researchers seconded to us for lengthier periods of time. I count one of these scientists as a friend as well as a colleague, and it was he who told me about transporting cans of beer across continents.

Cans are very popular in Japan, for ecological reasons, so my colleague has been bringing some with him and taking others back with him on trips between Japan and the UK. I haven’t tried this yet, but my friend hasn’t experienced any problems. I would add here though, that cans are far more susceptible to crushing than glass bottles, so in this instance a hard-shell suitcase is essential.

Friday 28 October 2016

The "Portergate" Scandal

Larkin’s Porter is definitely one of my all time favourite winter beers. I say “winter” because this rich, luscious 5.2% dark beer only makes its appearance during the period from November to February. I would go so far as to say that the beer is one of the few things I actually look forward to during winter, and the sight of a Larkin’s Porter pump-clip on the bar turns an average pub into a definite destination one for me.

I called into the Greyhound at Charcott this lunchtime (Friday); something which is becoming a habit, but as I desire to support this threatened pub as much as I can, it can only be a good one! Larkin’s Traditional and Green Hop Best were the two beers on, but the third pump had its clip turned round. Without any prompting on my part, the landlord announced that Larkin’s Porter was the beer which would be available on this pump, and he was mindful of putting it on sale that evening.

Disappointed that I would have to wait another week in order to sample this excellent beer, I expressed my surprise that the Porter was available so early in the season. I was referring to the fact that for the last 30 years or so, Larkin’s brewer and owner - Bob Dockerty, has always waited until Bonfire Night before releasing the beer. “Ah,” said the landlord, “You obviously haven’t heard about the Portergate scandal.” Slightly amused, I confessed I hadn’t, but it appears that a well-known local pub, which I won’t name - but it has won several CAMRA awards (both local and regional), broke with tradition by placing the beer on sale a fortnight early.

This left several other regular Porter outlets slightly miffed; so much so that they too decided to break Bob’s unwritten rule by putting the beer on sale as well. This was why the landlord at the Greyhound, which is currently leased by Larkin’s, was also planning to join them.

You could, of course, argue that placing a seasonal beer on sale a couple of weeks early doesn’t really matter; and in the general scheme of things it certainly doesn’t, but embargoing Larkin’s Porter until after November 5th, was something of a tradition locally, and it seems a shame to have broken it. With the exceptionally mild weather at present, it also seems a little absurd, as today I sat outside the pub, without a coat and with my shirtsleeves rolled up, soaking up the glorious warmth of the late October sun and my pint of Larkin’s Green Hop Best in equal measure.

There will be time enough when a warming pint of Larkin’s Porter will be just what’s needed, after a chilly walk up from work to the pub or, on a cold and frosty night, huddled in front of the fire this beer will taste all the better and will certainly be much more appreciated. There are reasons for these traditions, you know, as even if they only date back 30 years, you know full well they are mimicking the perfectly sound practices of our forefathers.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Castle Inn to reopen in November

There is some good news at last regarding the fate of the historic Castle Inn in Chiddingstone. The National Trust-owned pub closed its doors back in April, when the former landlord abandoned his tenancy, claiming that the combination of the high rent, levied by the Trust, along with restrictions such as lack of car-parking facilities, had made the business unviable.

The closure decision came out of the blue, and caught customers and local residents completely by surprise. The fact that the pub was closed all summer must have meant a significant loss in income for both the National Trust and surrounding businesses, so the news that it will reopen next month, will delight everyone who is familiar with this lovely old inn.

The new owner is Nick Naismith, a director of Westerham Brewery, and the person responsible, a few years ago, for rescuing the ailing Wheatsheaf pub, a few miles away in Bough Beech. Mr Naismith’s association with Westerham might not be such welcome news to local brewers Larkin’s Brewery, who are based just half a mile down the road from the Castle; especially as Larkin’s were known to have supplied around 80 per cent of the pub’s cask beer, prior to its closure.

According to the local Times of Tonbridge newspaper, which first broke the story, there will be some significant set-up costs involved before the Castle can reopen, as the previous tenant is reported to have stripped the pub of all its fixtures and fittings.

Speaking on behalf of the National Trust, Richard Henderson, Assistant Director of Operations for both the pub, and other NT owned buildings in Chiddingstone village, said “We are delighted to have found a new tenant for the Castle Inn, after a period of temporary closure. Our first priority has always been to find the right person to care for this historic building, as well as having a successful plan to turn the pub back into a thriving business again.” He went on to say, “We look forward now to working with the new landlord to prepare the pub for reopening and welcoming locals and visitors back in the near future.”

Although no firm date has been set for the reopening, the appointment of a new and experienced licensee will be a welcome relief to both village regulars and thirsty visitors alike; particularly as back in the summer there were all sorts of dark rumours circulating about the possible fate of the Castle Inn.

I look forward to the pub reopening its doors, although it will be interesting to see which local beer the new licensee opts for. I’ve a feeling it will be a good old British compromise, and we will see both Larkin’s and Westerham beers adorning the bar. I will, of course, continue to report on developments concerning the Castle, as soon as I become aware of them.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Under the clock with Meantime

Last Thursday, for the second time in a fortnight, I found myself on a London-bound train. My destination was the Clock Tower at St Pancras Station, where I had been invited to attend a special beer presentation organised by Meantime Brewery. A week on, and I’m still uncertain about the purpose behind the event. The number “6” played a prominent part, as did “Time”, and it is this latter concept which appeared to be the main driving force behind the presentation.

Given the company name, and its location in Greenwich, close to the Prime Meridian, Meantime place considerable emphasis on time; claiming that Time is their “5th ingredient”. It takes six weeks to brew their beer; six weeks in which to brew a beer which is full of flavour.

The slogan “Make Time for It”, was therefore a very appropriate title for their recent advertising campaign, and as the ultimate tribute to the concept of time, they challenged six talented craftsmen from six cities to each create one element of a pop up bar. The craftsmen had six weeks to make something special and the brewery had six weeks to brew each of them a special beer; each inspired by the shared values of tradition, technology and time.

Meantime claim that this “pop-up bar” is the smallest in the world, with space for just two people, plus the barman/woman. The craftsmen contributed items like the pub sign, a specially-designed bench seat for two people, some elaborate screen-prints, plus several other elements. However, I wasn’t paying as much attention as I possibly should have, but the venue was packed, and we were hemmed in rather more than I would have liked.
The Tower Room

I mentioned earlier that the event took place at the Clock Tower at St Pancras Station, but we were actually in the tower itself; hence the crush! The Clock Tower is the apartment beneath the clock at St Pancras Station. The ornate Victorian building which fronts the station was originally constructed as the flagship hotel for the Midland Railway Company. It was designed by the renowned architect George Gilbert Scott as the accompaniment to the railway station shed, but the hotel only operated until 1935. It was then converted into railway offices and scandalously allowed to fall into decay; so much so that British Rail actually wanted to demolish it during the 1960’s!

Fortunately common sense prevailed, but only after a concerted campaign to save this iconic building, led by the poet, John Betjeman and a formidable lady called Jane Hughes Fawcett, who was the secretary of the Victorian Society. In 2005 the dilapidated former hotel was converted into a combination of apartments and a new hotel. The famous Clock Tower was included in this scheme, and the section we were in was the impressive Tower Room, with a ceiling rising some 10 metres above our heads.
After the crowds had left

This was originally a dark gloomy room, shut off from the outside world by sets of wooden louvres, mimicking those used in bell towers to direct the sound of bells to the streets beneath. However, the hotel clock never had any bells, and the bell chamber was a folly, designed by Scott to look like the tower on top of a gothic cathedral.Today the wooden louvres have been replaced by glass windows, and a number of other features have been added, including a gallery with its own small library.

The Clock Tower is now part of an apartment which consists of a Kitchen/Dining Room and two double bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. The latter are available to rent on an individual basis. The Clock Tower is available to hire for functions such as receptions, anniversary celebrations, drinks parties and special dinners and for events like photo shoots and beer presentations!

There were originally six beers scheduled for the evening’s presentation, but one wasn’t available. Again, I wasn’t really paying attention, so I can’t say what the beer was, or why it didn’t put in an appearance. I drank four of the other beers, and managed to blag a bottle of the fifth to take home with me. I haven’t opened it yet, but from the description it should be a cracker.

All six beers which originally featured in the “Make Time for It” project were brewed using Meantime’s pilot-scale plant. All were experimental in nature, which meant that some were better than others but, as with everything, it’s all a matter of individual taste.

First up was Luminor, a 4.5% ABV hoppy pale ale, brewed using a wild hop, harvested from a Sussex Hop Garden. This beer, for me, was the best of the evening. The 5.0% ABV Hourglass came next. This was a Pilsner with “fresh pressed apple notes”, designed as a sort of hybrid between a lager and a cider. Unfortunately, for me at least, it didn’t work at all, but I suppose combinations like this have to be attempted, even if it’s just to demonstrate that beer and cider aren’t meant to be mixed like this!

Next up was Time to Time; a 4.0% ABV “saison de nuit”, (black saison to you and I).  As with that bastardised stout/pale ale hybrid, known as Black IPA, this beer didn’t float my boat either (I’m a miserable old so and so, I know), but it did work a lot better than the Hourglass. I thought I heard someone say there were blackberries included in the beer, which would have been appropriate for autumn.

The last beer was The Tweedster, a 4.5% ABV wheat beer and passion fruit combination, packed full of “sweet and sour tropical fruit flavours”. Now somewhat surprisingly, this beer was really good; so much so that before the evening was out, I had a second glass.

There were some rather good pulled-pork, gourmet burgers to accompany the beer, and some not quite as good fish-burgers. There were plenty of people to chat to, including several luminaries from the world of beer and brewing. There were also several beer bloggers and writers I knew and it was good to catch up with them.

As far as the purpose behind the evening, I don’t think any of us came away much the wiser. The question was put to Meantime as to whether any of these beers were destined to become regular brews, but the answer was "no". The opportunity to spend some time in the iconic Clock Tower though, was not one to be missed, and the evening was worth that alone. It was also good to meet up with other beer enthusiasts and sample these unusual and experimental beers in some equally unusual surroundings.

The bottle I brought home is Maison Hop 5.9% ABV; a “rich and smoky barrel-aged black ale, with hints of smooth vanilla”. Sounds pretty good to me!
Addendum: I stated in the post that I came away unsure of the purpose behind the Meantime presentation. I also mentioned that I wasn’t really paying attention to what was being said; but fortunately BryanB, who blogs under the name BeerViking was. I remember seeing him taking notes, and asking questions of the various PR personnel who were present on behalf of Meantime.

Bryan has produced an excellent write-up of the evening, which goes into detail about the six craftsmen (and women), whose work not only inspired the new beers, but which also formed integral parts of Meantime’s “pop-up” pub project. You can read more, by clicking on the link here.

Sunday 23 October 2016

Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival - On Camera

I’ve picked a different format for this post, which is basically a series of photos I took yesterday at the Spa Valley Railway Beer& Cider Festival.

The sequence starts off with a few shots I took whilst walking through Tunbridge Well’s historic Pantiles area, on my way down to the event. Apart from a photo taken at the entrance, there are none of the main festival which was held in the Engine Shed at Tunbridge Wells West station. Things were just too manic there, to allow any time for photos.

Consequently the remainder of the photos were taken at Groombridge station, where I spent the afternoon, and much of the evening, serving beer to festival goers; most of whom travelled there by train.

It was a glorious late October day, with the Kent and Sussex countryside looking its autumnal best. The festival is coming to an end, as I write. The signs all point to it having been a success.

I will let the photos tell their own story.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

6th CAMRA Real Ale & Cider Festival and Autumn Diesel Gala

With just three days to go, here is a belated plug for my own local CAMRA branch’s Beer Festival. The 6th West Kent CAMRA Real Ale & Cider Festival, held in conjunction with the Spa Valley Railway (SVR), takes place this coming weekend (21st - 23rd October), at the Heritage Railway’s preserved Victorian Engine Shed at Tunbridge Wells West Station.

This year’s event will be bigger than ever, with 130 Real Ales, 27 Green Hop Beers, plus 15 Key-Key/Cask Beers and for the first time the festival will be featuring a number of Belgian Beers. There will also be 30 traditional ciders; most of them locally sourced from within either Kent or Sussex.

As in previous years, the beers and ciders will be spread out between the three stations at Tunbridge Wells, Groombridge & Eridge; although the majority will found at Tunbridge Wells. There will also be bars on two of the SVR’s train sets. To reach all the locations the organisers recommend a day rover ticket, which allows unlimited travel all day, up and down the line between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge. For CAMRA members there is a special CAMRA Day Rover ticket available for just £15!

I haven’t been involved with the organisation of this year’s event, but I will be there on Saturday, at one or more of the locations, serving behind the bar. So why not come along and treat yourself to a ride through the Kent and Sussex countryside, and stop and say hello.

Full details of the festival, including a list of all the beers and ciders, can be found by clicking the link here.

Monday 17 October 2016

The rise of "Craft-Spirits"

Although not beer related, the following post is still about alcoholic liquor, but in this instance we will be looking at a class of alcoholic drink which is considerably stronger than beer. I am referring of course to spirits, and in particular gin; a type of spirit once looked down upon as “mother’s ruin”, but which has now undergone a complete renaissance and spawned a whole new drinks sector in the form of “artisan spirits”.

This post was sparked by an article in the local press which alerted me to the recent opening of a gin distillery at a location just to the north of  my home town of Tonbridge. The Greensand Ridge Distillery, is the brain-child of Sevenoaks entrepreneur Will Edge, and is launching a range of different gins with the theme of “sustainability”. This will be achieved by using quality fruit, which has been rejected by supermarkets owing to issues of size and shape, and this will be enhanced with locally sourced “botanicals”, including such diverse items as cobnuts, gorse flowers and oak moss.

Mr Edge, formerly worked in IT, marketing and finance, took a Masters Degree in Brewing & Distilling, before going ahead with the plans for his gin distillery. Right from the start he was keen to promote the concept of “sustainability”, so much so that the company’s distillation plant is powered by 100% renewable electricity. In addition and the distillery is committed to using no chemicals (hot, recyclable, high-pressure water is used for cleaning), and zero non-recyclable waste. The company is named after the sandstone ridge which lies just north of the village of Shipbourne, where the business is located.

Greensand Ridge Distillery becomes part of a rapidly growing group of companies, as the number of gin distilleries in Britain has doubled in six years. Last year alone saw 49 new plants opening, after a huge growth in demand for “artisan gin”. The increase, up from 116 gin producers in 2010, is said to have been driven by "boutique distilleries" that are making small batches of the spirit.

“Artisan gin” first hit the market back in 2009, with the opening of the Sipsmith Distillery in London. The firm’s traditional copper distillery was the first such example in London for nearly 200 years, and it took a change in the law for HM Revenue and Customs to be able to grant the company their licence. Prior to this, gin tended to be produced on an industrial scale, rather than in small batches. The government said the quantity of gin the company was producing – 300 litres from the original still – was so small it was technically classed as "moonshine". It took two years of lobbying by Sipsmith, for the law to be changed.

It is not just gin which is undergoing a revival; other spirits such as vodka and whisky are also seeing a renaissance. The opening, in late 2006 of the English Whisky Company’s operation at Roudham, in the Breckland area of Norfolk; the first English whisky distillery in over 100 years proved the catalyst for a number of other distillers to set up shop.

Like Sipsmith, the English Whisky Company also fell foul of HMRC, who wouldn’t consider granting a license for anything smaller than an 1800 litre set-up. Unlike their gin compatriots though, the Nelstrop family, who own the business, decided to go for broke, and set up an operation which met the Custom and Excise people’s requirements.

I have driven past the turning to the English Whisky Company’s site many times on my journeys up to Norfolk and back, but as the turn-off is close to the end of my outward journey, and I am usually in a hurry, I have never found the time to stop there. Looking at the company’s website, it seems a visit would be well worth while, as along with a well-stocked shop, daily tours of the distillery and bonded warehouse are also available.

I said at the start of this post that it was not beer related, but in a number of ways it is. The initial stage in the production of malt whisky involves malted barley being mashed in a very similar way to making beer, with the extraction of sugars from the malted barley. Unlike beer there are no hops, or other flavouring ingredients added, and fermentation of the sweet wort is the next stage, followed by distillation and maturation.

In the case of malt whisky, the young raw spirit produced, must undergo maturation in oak casks for a period of at least three years, so setting up a malt whisky business from scratch is both costly and time-consuming.

The raw spirit used for both gin and vodka manufacture, is produced from a number of different and often diverse sources, including barely, wheat, rye and potatoes. There may be a maturation process, particularly if the end products are flavoured, and the production of enhanced gins and vodkas is another strong growth area of the market.

On a more general note, the massive rise in numbers of micro-breweries, followed by that of the craft-beer movement, not only proved the demand for more locally sourced and hand-crafted products, but also provided the perfect role models for distillers of artisan spirits to follow. The world of spirits then, finds itself owing much to the world of beer, and the rise of these distinctive and flavourful drinks is something to be valued and applauded, in the same way that the rise of so many diverse beer styles has.

I obviously welcome this new trend as even though I am not much of a spirits drinker, the increased variety of distilled beverages available is to be applauded. Speaking personally, the occasional glass of single malt whisky, Irish whiskey or Cognac is about my limit, although spirit-based cocktails are also enjoyable.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Regensburger Weissebräuhaus

Most German cities, and indeed many German towns, have a brew-pub; some larger cities will obviously have several. Regensburg is no exception, and on our first day in the city, following a full morning of sight-seeing and shopping, we found ourselves at the Regensburger Weissebräuhaus in search of a spot of lunch.

The sun was shining and the temperature warm, so we grabbed one of the tables on the pavement outside and sat down waiting for the waiter to arrive. Matt and I had been to the Regensburger Weissebräuhaus on our previous visit to Regensburg, back in 2008. 

The bar
On that occasion we had also sat outside, enjoying a couple of late night beers as hordes of crazy cyclists sped by, ringing their bells and shouting in delight at Germany’s win against Turkey that night, in the semi-finals of the Euro 2008 Football Tournament. Their excitement was to be short lived, as a few days later, the home team lost to Spain in the final, but for that night at least, the townsfolk had cause for celebration.

Returning to the present, we had a typical Bavarian lunch of Schnitzel with potato salad for Eileen and Matt, whilst I had Leberkaas (meat loaf) with Spiegelei (fried egg) and roast potatoes. Matt and I had a couple of half litres each of the house-brewed Helles, which was very good. It is worth mentioning here that most German brew-pubs follow a relatively “safe” formula of brewing a Helles, a Dunkles plus a Wheat beer, with perhaps the odd seasonal at certain times of the year.
Leberkaas & Spiegelei (the gravy's an unusual addition)

The Regensburger Weissebräuhaus is no exception, although as might be guessed at from the name, Wheat beer is the speciality of the house, with both light and dark versions offered, but as I am not a fan of German wheat beers, I stuck with the Helles. Using the excuse of needing a pee, I took the opportunity of a look inside. The attractive, polished copper brewing kit dominates the corner of the pub nearest the entrance, and extends up to the next floor, which coincidentally is where the toilets are situated.

The brewer had just finished the days brew, and was clearing up, but the delicious smells left over from mashing and boiling still permeated the building. For some strange reason, the upper floor was busier than the ground – perhaps people didn’t want their leisurely lunch being disturbed by the brewing activities taking place below, but I thought it was good to see the plant being used for its intended purpose.

We didn’t return to the Regensburger Weissebräuhaus, as there were just too many other places to eat and drink in the city, but if you ever find yourself at a loose end in Regensburg, you could do a lot worse than call in there.

Friday 14 October 2016

Greyhound Charcott - Update

It’s been several weeks now since I wrote about the Greyhound at Charcott, and the lifeline thrown to the pub by local brewers, Larkin’s of Chiddingstone. In case anyone missed the original article, the Greyhound is a pub owned by Enterprise Inns, in the tiny hamlet of Charcott, close to where I work in Chiddingstone Causeway.

The Greyhound is a pleasant bright and breezy local, with views across the fields towards the hills which rise to form the High Weald. There still seems to be three distinct areas in the main part of the pub, although the divisions that marked the former bars are long gone. During the winter months, open fires supplement the central heating. Like many country pubs it relied heavily on the food trade, and Tony, the former licensee was a trained chef. With a separate restaurant area the Greyhound was popular with the lunchtime car-trade; mainly retired people out for a drive in the country, although it did also attract a fair number of walkers.

Something must have wrong somewhere along the line, because just over two years ago, Tony and his partner Alison decided they’d had enough of the pub trade and tried, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to sell their lease. Owners Enterprise Inns had also been attempting to sell the freehold, but matters came to a head towards the end of August, when the licensees handed back their keys and left the pub.

This was when local heroes Larkin’s stepped in, with an offer to rent the pub, on a short-term lease, provided the lease was free of tie, thereby enabling the brewery to sell its own beers. I later found out that if Larkins hadn’t stepped in, the pub would have been closed and boarded up until either a new tenant or owner could be found. This would have been a disaster for a pretty little place like Charcott, so hats of to Larkin’s for coming to the rescue.

With six weeks having now elapsed I wanted to see how the Greyhound is doing, so I popped in this lunchtime for a look, plus a quick pint. I often walk past the pub at lunchtimes, and I noticed last week, following my return from Germany, that it is now closed  weekday lunchtimes, apart from Fridays, when it open between midday and 3pm.

I walked up from Chiddingstone Causeway and then followed the path across the old airfield, primarily to make sure I still got a decent lunchtime walk in. I arrived shortly after 1.15pm, and found the door propped open. To my surprise there was no-one in the pub, apart from the landlord. I was pleased though to see Larkin’s Green Hop Best on sale alongside the brewery’s Traditional and Pale Ale, so I ordered myself a pint.

I asked the landlord, who I later discovered is called Mike, as to how the pub is doing; particularly as the food side of the business has been dropped (for the time being at least). He told me the pub is well supported at weekends, attracting a good number of locals. As proof of this he walked over to the right hand section of the pub, after he’d finished serving me, and began making up the fire, in readiness for the expected evening trade.

Not long after, a second customer appeared. He was obviously a regular, as the landlord and he were on first name terms. I joined in the conversation which centred on village matters, but also included a chat about our railways. This was because landlord Mike had once worked for Railtrack – the predecessors of Network Rail. I managed to steer the conversation back to more local matters, as I was keen learn more about the still closed Castle Inn at nearby Chiddingstone.

It seems some progress is being reached made with the latter, as the National Trust, who are the owners of this unspoilt 15th Century Inn, are reported to be close to signing a lease with a new tenant. For the background to this disturbing story of greed, on behalf of one of Britain’s best known landowners, see my post here from June, this year.

Just over twenty minutes later, it was unfortunately time for me to leave and make my way back to work. The Larkin’s Green Hop Best had been excellent, with some rich pine-like resins present; from the generous hopping the beer has received. A couple of years ago, the same beer (or rather that particular year’s version), won the award for “Beer of the Festival”, at the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival; an event run jointly by West Kent CAMRA and the Heritage Railway. The beer will feature at this year’s event, which takes place next weekend (further details to follow).

There was a distinct autumnal feel in the air, as I made my way back to work. The air was still, and the sky over-cast; with the occasional brief glimpse of the sun trying to make its way through the clouds. I was thinking that in a month or so time, Larkin’s Porter will be available, and it will be good to see it on sale at the Greyhound.

In the meantime, I trust people will continue to show support for the pub. I certainly intend to set aside Friday lunchtime for a swift pint at the Greyhound, and look forward to others doing the same.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Klosterbrauerei- Mallersdorf and the Brewing Nuns

I feel it’s good when away on holiday to sometimes take a little excursion somewhere else; a “side-trip” as the Americans would say to a place or location not too far from the vicinity of where one is staying, but equally just far enough as to make the trip worthwhile, and something of an adventure.

My son and I have done this on several occasions; as have I, when I’ve stayed somewhere on my own. My wife, however, was not over keen on the idea of such an excursion, when I put it to her during our stay in Regensburg; particularly as she guessed (rightly) there would not only be beer involved, but a degree of walking as well.

I actually had two trips in mind, but as I had done the first of these (a boat-ride down the Danube, from Kelheim, to Kloster-Weltenburg) on a previous visit to Regensburg, I was keener to undertake the second excursion. This was a visit to another holy place, in the form of the abbey at Mallersdorf; the only remaining nunnery in Europe where the Sisters brew their own beer.

Sister Doris
Two years ago I wrote about Sister Doris, the legendary Brewster at Klosterbrauerei- Mallersdorf. For the past 45 years she has risen well before most of the other sisters on brewing days, in order to start work in the abbey brew-house by 3:30 am. She’s even allowed to skip the obligatory morning prayers in order to perform her tasks in the brewery. Most of the beers Sister Doris brews are for consumption within the convent, and as they are not sold elsewhere, it is necessary to journey to the abbey in order to sample them.

A visit to Kloster-Mallersdorf had been on my wish-list for some time, but it wasn’t until a week or so before our holiday that I realised the abbey was within reasonable travelling distance of where we would be staying. After looking into it further, I discovered it was roughly an hour’s train journey from Regensburg, and then a short walk (18 minutes according to Google Maps), from Mallersdorf station.  

The impressive Kloster-Mallersdorf
The only trouble was the convent is perched on a hill over-looking the village of Mallersdorf-Pfaffenberg, and this was the deal breaker as far as my wife was concerned. She did say though, that she had no problem with me going; either on my own, or taking our son along as well. Rather than walking half-way up a mountain, she was perfectly happy to spend the day in Regensburg, just chilling out

So come the next day, I said farewell to my wife and son and wandered down to Regensburg’s main station. Trains were timed at roughly 30 minute intervals, so there was no need to rush. The temperature had been a little on the cool side when I left, but by the time I boarded the train, the mercury had begun to climb and it was necessary to remove the thin fleece I had been wearing.

Mallersdorf station - by request only
I travelled on the 11:14 train south from Regensburg, and my journey involved changing trains at a town called Neufahrn in Niederbayern. From there it was just a 10 minute ride, up the valley, on a branch line train. It was very pleasant travelling through the Bavarian countryside, which was looking particularly good in the late September sunshine, and the fields of ripened sunflowers, waiting to be harvested, formed a memorable sight against the backdrop of the steadily rising hills.

I asked the conductor, when he came to check my ticket, about the branch-line service, as my pre-printed schedule from Deutsche Bahn stated that Mallersdorf was a “request stop”. He told me to advise the driver when boarding the train, but as things happened he was also leaving the train at Neufahrn and very kindly walked over to the other platform with me, and told the driver himself.

Abbey church at Kloster-Mallersdorf
There were one or two passengers boarding at Mallersdorf, so the train stopped anyway, but it was a nice gesture from the conductor, and an example of excellent customer service on behalf of the German Railways. The diesel-powered train left on time, and began its leisurely journey along the single-track line. Ten minutes later, I alighted at Mallersdorf and set off to reach abbey.

There was a street of quite upmarket looking houses close to the station, but at the end of Bahhofstraße I passed into open countryside. I could see the impressive bulk of Kloster-Mallersdorf, high on top of a hill overlooking the village, as I continued my journey. The road leading up to the abbey was quite steep, so I was pleased, in a way that my wife had chosen not to accompany me, as I would not have heard the last of how "I dragged her up a mountain”, for some time!

Fortunately, my regular lunchtime walks meant the hill was not too much of a challenge, and as I kept to the shady side of the road, I felt fine by the time I reached the top. Unlike many monastery breweries I have been to, there is no bar or restaurant at the abbey itself for visitors to stop for a drink or bite to eat. Members of the public may buy bottles to take away; as I discovered later, but fortunately the privately-owned and family run Klosterbräustüberl, adjacent to the abbey gates, does provide a friendly welcome to both locals and visitors alike; although it is worth remembering that it is closed all day Monday.

I made my way round to the small garden area, overlooking the abbey, at the side of the pub, as that seemed where most of the customers had gravitated to. On a glorious late September day, who could blame them, so I decided to follow suite, and after finding an empty table, waited for the waitress to come and take my order. 

The abbey brewery produces two beers; a Vollbier Helles and a Zoigl. Both are 5.0% ABV. I ordered a half litre of the former, but as it appeared quite hazy, I wondered whether I had been served the unfiltered Zoigl by mistake.

When the time came for a second beer, I asked the waitress if there had been a mix-up with my order. She assured me that there hadn’t, and brought me a glass of Zoigl which, if anything, was even hazier.

Now I have to be honest by saying that neither of these beers were stunning, or even classics; but they were good solid, workaday beers of the sort anyone living close to the abbey would be more than happy to drink For my part, I was just pleased to be there, sunning myself in the garden whilst enjoying this small idyllic corner of Bavaria.

The small beer garden - Klosterbräustüberl
It seemed the locals were happy to be there too, for as well as a couple of tables for diners, there was that most German of pub traditions, a Stammtisch, or “regulars table”. Now over the years I have become reasonably fluent in German, and like most people learning a foreign language find I can understand more of what is being said than I can actually speak, but I struggled to understand a word of what the mainly male group sat around the Stammtisch, were saying. They were obviously conversing in the local Bavarian dialect; something people from other parts of Germany find almost unintelligible – so what chance had I?

View from the beer garden
The menu at Klosterbräustüberl Mallersdorf looked filling and keenly priced (the beer was good value too at one Euro less than what we had been paying in Regensburg), but I was conscious that for the past few days I had been eating quite filling meals, along with the rest of my family. I had made a decision beforehand, not to eat at the pub, as I knew we would be having a heavy meal in  the evening, so the cheese and tomato roll, I’d bought in Regensburg would do just right; although I waited until I got back to the station before eating it.

Before leaving, I asked the waitress if the pub sold bottled beer to take away. She told me they didn’t, but pointed me in the direction of the abbey, just across the way, where she informed me I could buy carry-outs.

A glimpse of the brewery through the window
I settled my bill, and following her instructions walked through the archway entrance and into the main courtyard of the abbey. There was an incline leading down to the right, and there at the bottom of the slope I could see a parked car with its boot opened, with a nun supervising the loading of a crate of beer into the back of the vehicle. I made my way down towards this scene of activity, but not before a quick peep through the windows of what was obviously the brew-house, on the other side of the courtyard.

In my best German I asked the Holy Sister, who was serving the customers, if it was possible to buy single bottles of beer, rather than a whole crate. She told me it was and, asked how many would I like. I settled for two, but not before enquiring if they had more than Klosterbrauerei- Mallersdorf beer, one type of beer on sale. Unfortunately they hadn’t, but I came away with two handsome-looking, swing top bottles of complete with a smiling photo of Sister Doris herself, on the label; and all for the princely sum of € 2.50.
Where the locals come for their take-outs

Pleased with my purchases I made my way back down towards the station and caught a train shortly before 3pm. I had a bit of a wait at Neufahrn for my connection, so to kill some time I walked towards the town centre, primarily to buy a bottle of water. It was still very warm out, and despite the beer I’d drunk, I was feeling thirsty.

On the way back, I paused to reflect for a few minutes at a memorial garden dedicated to the dead of two World Wars. Reading just a few of the many names of servicemen killed between 1939 & 1945, brought home to me the terrible price paid by the German people for that horrific conflict; the seeds of which were sown in 1933, with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Reichs Chancellor, and which ended in 1945, following the deaths of almost 50 million people, and the utter destruction of the German nation.

Memorial garden for the war dead of Neufahrn
My train back to Regensburg was packed with students, returning to university in the city after the long summer break. I managed to get a seat in one of the old-style compartment coaches, and was rocked gently off to sleep by the swaying of the train and the warm air blowing in through the window.

Fortunately I awoke in plenty of time to depart the train, and then made my way back through the city, to our hotel. I plonked the bottles of Klosterbrauerei- Mallersdorf beer down in front of my wife, as I’m not sure she had quite believed me at first about the brewing nuns! It turned out her and Matt had spent an interesting day as well, exploring Regensburg.

Proof of my visit
Later that evening, we celebrated by going for a typical Bavarian meal at Weltenburg am Dom; a traditional restaurant in the shadow of the cathedral, with a small beer garden attached, run on behalf of the Holy Fathers at Kloster Weltenburg. After brewing nuns, it seemed only right we should try a beer or two produced by some brewing monks!

Footnote: the article attached to this link, includes an interview with Sister Doris, where she describes how she first became a brewer at Kloster- Mallersdorf, and how each of the nearly 500 nuns at the abbey contribute in their own special way to both life in the convent, and the outside world.