Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A difficult job

Every Friday, over the course of the past couple of months I’ve made a point of calling in at the Greyhound at Charcott for a lunchtime pint. Friday is the only weekday which the pub opens at lunchtime, so seeing as my regular lunchtime walks often take me right past its door, it seems rude not to pop in for a quick pint and a chat with whoever happens to be in.

I also feel that I am doing my bit, albeit in a small way, to help keep this rural pub open. For the background to the Greyhound’s current situation, please refer to my previous post on the subject. However, even with my presence I have yet to see the number of customers reach double figures.

The landlord tells me that trade is busier in the evenings; something I will find out for myself in a fortnight’s time, when my local CAMRA branch will be holding a social at the pub. Unfortunately, relying solely on wet sales (the Greyhound serves no food, but customers are welcome to bring their own sandwiches or rolls and eat them in the bar), does not appear to be a sound business model; certainly in the long term.

Larkin’s only have the pub on a short term lease, as owners’ Enterprise Inns, have the pub up for sale. The talk in the bar  has been that the only interest in the property has been from those wishing to convert the pub into a private dwelling, and the only reason this desire has not yet come to pass is the pub has no garden. If one wished to be pedantic, it does have a grassed area at the side, which is separated from the road by a hedge, but this “garden area” belongs to the house behind. It is currently leased to the pub.

So at the moment, the Greyhound is in a sort of limbo. It’s great that Larkin’s have taken on the lease so that the pub can remain open, but with its long term future uncertain, it’s understandable they don’t wish to invest in a full-blown catering operation.

For my part, I will continue to call in when I can, as there’s normally some friendly and interesting conversation at the bar. Last week whilst I was there, Larkin’s made a delivery and their drayman, whom I have known for years, popped in for a pint and a chat. He brought his canine companion in with him, and the dog amused us by begging for tit-bits (the pub sells crisps) and then got a little vociferous when no rewards came his way.

I enjoyed my ham roll along with an excellent pint of Larkin’s Porter. Walking back to work along the lanes, with the sun low in the sky, and full on in my face, I started to think that perhaps life isn’t quite so bad after all.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Going Dutch

I realised after writing my last post about Jopen Bier that in spite of spending five days in Amsterdam I hadn’t written that much about Dutch beer or the brewing scene in the Netherlands.

I came back from my trip in a reflective and slightly melancholy mood, made worse by the realisation that because of a reckless and unnecessary political gamble, followed by a misleading and at times completely untruthful campaign, the country I am proud to call home will be divorcing itself from a European ideal which offers far more than it takes, in pure monetary terms. Also, by cutting ourselves adrift from our friends in Europe we will lose far more than we will ever gain from a rather outdated nationalistic ideal of “controlling our own sovereignty.”

The fact that this year’s European Beer Bloggers Conference will be the last such event in its current form only served to increase my feelings of melancholia and isolation, but such is life and at east the latter  decision was one based on pure financial and logistical considerations, rather than highly charged and emotionally unsound ones. Such is life, and if these sorts of decisions do nothing else, they serve to remind us that there are no certainties in life.

However, angst over the direction the country is taking should not be allowed to detract from the thriving and rather interesting beer scene just the other side of the North Sea so here, somewhat belatedly, are some facts, observations, thoughts and comments about beer and brewing in the Netherlands.

Like us British, the Dutch were a great sea-faring and trading nation who established links and eventually possessions in the Far East; in particular with what is now modern day Indonesia. Following a hard-won independence from Spanish rule in 1648, Holland as the new country became known, entered a Golden Age during which trade, industry, the arts and sciences all flourished. For a time, Holland was the most economically powerful nation in Europe, although it was eventually eclipsed by Britain.

The story of beer in the country goes back much further than the 17th Century. I mentioned the Old Dutch beer style, known as Gruit in my previous post. In this medieval brew, herbs and spices provided the flavouring, rather than hops, but given the country’s position on the North Sea coast, and also the fact that Europe’s largest river, the Rhine, enters the sea via the Netherlands, it is not surprising that hops began to be used in brewing much earlier than they did in England.

The various cities of the powerful Hanseatic League played key role in the introduction of hops, and as early as 1325 many Dutch brewers had switched to producing hopped beers. The city of Haarlem, mentioned in my previous post, played a pivotal role here, but for centuries there were many indigenous and local styles of beer peculiar to the country. Beers such as Oud Bruin, Beiersch (a Munich-style dark lager), Licht and Gerstebier, were once common; as were local interpretations of British-style ales and porters; but it was the increase in the popularity of paler, bottom-fermented, beers which led to the dominance of Pils in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands remained neutral during the First World War, thereby avoiding the whole scale slaughter experienced by the warring parties, but neutrality came at a price, as the war virtually cut the country off from its normal trading partners. Brewing experienced a gradual decline, as did the number of different beer styles. Takeovers and mergers took their toll, leading to s situation where one company in particular came to dominate the Dutch brewing industry, eventually becoming the world’s third largest brewing corporation.

I am talking about Heineken of course, and it must be said that some clever marketing played an important role in this meteoric rise, which made Heineken one of the most recognised brands on the planet.

Dutch hopes of remaining neutral in the next conflict were dashed in May 1940 when German forces invaded the country. Five years of occupation did further damage to the country’s brewing industry, especially towards the end of the war, when the northern Dutch provinces were cut off from the advancing Allied forces, and many people died due to mass starvation. It is hardly surprising that beer consumption in the country nose-dived during the 1940’s, and took several decades to recover.

The Netherlands ended up being dominated by Pils, with just the occasional Bock-style beers being produced for consumption during the winter months. By the mid 1980’s only 17 breweries remained in the entire country, with the industry dominated by four large players; Heineken, Skol (remember the name?), Grolsch and Bavaria.

Slowly, inspired by the growing interest in beer observed in other countries and in particular the influence of close neighbour Belgium, things began to look up, and by 2001 the number of breweries had risen to 61. Many of the new-style breweries were dismissed at the time as “copy-cat” breweries inspired by neighbouring Belgium, and it took the arrival of American inspired “craft beers” before things really began to improve.

During the last decade, the Dutch brewing scene has really started to take off, and by the time Tim Skelton’s excellent “Beer in the Netherlands” appeared in 2014, the number of breweries in the country had risen to 200, producing in excess of 1,000 regular beers. This number has certainly been surpassed over the course of the last two years.

There is still much work to be done in order to educate Dutch beer drinkers and wean them off their addiction to Pils. Part of the problem is said to be the indifferent way in which many Dutch bars serve their beers. It is little wonder then that many Dutch people prefer to drink beer at home, rather than in a pub. However, drinking quality, locally-produced beer at home is not that easy, as the products of 9 out of 10 small Dutch breweries are reportedly never seen on supermarket shelves.

The picture I have painted so far is just a very brief snapshot of beer and brewing in the Netherlands, and doesn’t really do justice to a scene which is still very much up and coming. I would recommend visitors to do their homework, and to travel around away from the obvious tourist attractions of Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague.

To my own detriment, I did very little research, prior to my visit back in August, primarily because I arrogantly thought that having visited Amsterdam once, I knew sufficient about the country. This was despite having bought “Beer in the Netherlands”, and a "DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Amsterdam".

My complacency was shattered as soon as I jumped on the train heading south from Schiphol Airport to the charming town of Den Bosch in the province of North Brabant. The day which fellow bloggers and I spent in this unspoilt and attractive part of the country, proved a real eye-opener to what the Netherlands has to offer, and I’m equally certain that a trip to some of the Northern provinces would also pay dividends.

It is worth mentioning the religious divide between the Catholic south and the Protestant north of the Netherlands; a situation which has plagued much of Europe for centuries. The Maas and the Rhine rivers provide a natural boundary between these two halves of the country, and the influence of religion is reflected in the numbers of breweries in each region. Given the Protestant association between alcohol and sin, it is perhaps hardly surprising that historically there were far less breweries in the Northern provinces, than the more easy-going Catholic south, and to a certain extent, this situation still prevails today.

A visit though to some of the more isolated Northern provinces such as Friesland and Groningen certainly looks appealing, and is something I intend to do on my next visit to the Netherlands.

Like my brief look at the country as a whole, I only scratched the surface of what is available beer-wise in the Netherlands. Like other attendees at the EBBC, I was fortunate to have sampled some of the best beers the country has to offer; particularly with regard to those produced by Jopen and De Molen. Visiting the respective breweries of these two legendary producers was also a huge bonus, as was visiting the monastic La Trappe Brewery at Koningshoeven, during our stay in Brabant.

Other beers of note were those from the small Brouwerij Vandeeoirspung, in the village of Oirschot – which we cycled to from Koningshoeven,  Kompaan (based in Den Haag, who also provided me with a rather nice glass), and Amsterdam’s Brouwerij De Prael, whose 6.5% ABV, true to style India Pale Ale was, without doubt it was the best beer of my entire visit.

Well I trust I’ve now whetted your appetite, so the next time you’re looking you’re your next suitably beery adventure, why not hop over to the Netherlands and explore some of these places, and try some of these beers. Easy Jet operates several flights a day to from Gatwick to Amsterdam and, as I discovered after chatting to a couple from Essex on my last day, they also fly from Southend.

If you prefer to travel by train, take the Eurostar to Brussels, from where you can get a train to either Rotterdam or Amsterdam. For the real romantics amongst you, the night ferry still operates between Harwich and Hook of Holland, from where you can get a rail connection to many parts of the Netherlands. Anglia Rail will sell you a return “through ticket” from Liverpool Street to Hook of Holland, although you will need to book a birth on board the ferry. With this option, you arrive in the country awake and refreshed with the whole day ahead of you and with plenty of time for sight-seeing and beer drinking!

Friday, 25 November 2016

Jopen Bier

One of the excursions at this year’s European Beer Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam, was a trip to the neighbouring city of Haarlem. On what became an increasingly wet evening we were picked up from the conference hotel in a couple of vintage buses.  I would estimate their era as the 1960’s, but as I am no bus geek, I may well be wrong. From what I recall they were made by DAF, if that means anything, and for those of a certain age, a ride in these classic old buses brought back some pleasant memories

The purpose of our trip was a visit Jopen, Haarlem’s major brewery, which was founded in 1992. Jopen beer owes its existence to a group called "Stichting Haarlems Biergenootschap", whose aim is to re-create traditional Haarlem beers and then bring them to a wider audience by marketing them commercially. Two old recipes were found in the Haarlem city archives, and these were used as a foundation for the company’s first two beers.

The beers were initially brewed in the Halve Maan Brewery in Hulst, but then in December 1996 Jopen BV acquired the beers and put the company on a much sounder footing. The name "Jopen", incidentally, refers to the 112 litre beer barrels that were used in early times to store and transport beer in Haarlem.

The new owners switched brewing to the La Trappe Brewery in Berkel-Enschot, continuing very much in the vein of a “gypsy” brewery, relying on other companies to brew its beers. In 2001 brewing of the Jopen brands was transferred to the Van Steenberge Brewery in Ertvelde, Belgium.

Then, at the end of 2005, it was announced that the Jacobskerk, a redundant old church in the Raaks area of Haarlem, would be transformed into a brewery. On November 11, 2010, the "Jopenkerk" (Jopen church) opened its doors for the public, who must have been amazed at the transformation of this former church into a fully-operational, modern brewery. Here, visitors can sample the entire range of Jopen beers within full view of the brewing system.

The modern brewing unit forms the heart of the Jopenkerk, and was built and installed by BrauKon  from Germany. It has a 2 x 20 hectolitre brewing capacity. Depending on the type of beer being brewed, 12 to 20 hectolitres are brewed per batch. Two large gleaming copper brewing kettles stand behind the bar, alongside eight large lagering tanks. The Jopenkerk though, is not just a brewery, as there is also a café and restaurant on site. A separate room, called the Rectory, is used as a venue for meetings, social gatherings and other events.

Following fermentation, the beer is transported to the Waarderpolder Industrial Park in Haarlem. Here, the beer is lagered and dispensed into bottles or barrels, by means of an innovative and fully-automated bottling line. This impressive new facility was our first port of call. Unfortunately it had just started raining when we arrived, which was a shame, as the brewery staff had laid out the area in front of the brewery with picnic benches, ready for a barbecue. Fortunately the really heavy rain didn’t arrive until later on in the evening, so we were able to sit out, at least for a while, and enjoy both the beer and the food.

The former consisted of two Jopen beers; North Sea IPA and Koyt, both dispensed from wooden casks. The former is a strong, well-hopped 6.5% ABV IPA, whereas the 8.5% ABV Koyt is an Old Dutch beer style, known as GRUIT. Herbs and spices provide the flavouring, rather than hops. The recipe for Koyt dates from 1407, and is one of the original beers brewed by the Haarlem Biergenootschap, back in 1992.

The food was very good and was the perfect accompaniment to the beer. There were barbecued sausages, burgers, satay chicken with peanut sauce, plus ribs, with either pasta or potato salad as accompaniment, so it was rather unfortunate that the before we had properly finished, the rain came on much heavier and drove us all inside.

The Waarderpolder unit now houses it own brewery, as well as all the maturation and packaging equipment, but it is unclear from Jopen’s website as to which beers are brewed at which site. Of rather more interest to us beer enthusiasts was the well-stocked taproom, housed on the first floor. Here we were given free reign to pour our own beer from a selection of 13 taps. Not all the beers were Jopen brands, but a sizeable majority were. Unfortunately I have mislaid the notes I took at the time, so am unable to recount which beers I sampled.

It was back on the buses for the second part of the evening, which saw us driving the short distance into central Haarlem and then making a dash through the pouring rain to the Jopenkerk. Once inside we were ushered to the upstairs gallery, where a row of tables had been set out for us. Having enjoyed our main course at Waarderpolder, we were to be treated with dessert in the form of chocolate cake, crème brûlée and cheese. There were beers specially chosen to accompany each dish; all strong and dark, and I have to say that in the main these pairings worked well.

Again, the notes I carefully took at the time appear to have vanished, but I noticed a beer called Harlem (spelt the American way) Shake in a couple of the photos I took. Confusingly, the beer is not listed on the brewery website, although a strong, 9.0% ABV Double Bock called Johannieter is shown. This was probably one of the other beers alongside the 5.5% ABV Extra Stout.

After thanking our generous hosts, we traipsed out through the heavy rain, which was still falling, to the awaiting buses. One bus was allocated to take people straight back to the conference hotel, whilst the other would be dropping people off in central Amsterdam for a mini-pub crawl. I opted for the former, as I had no desire to be walking around in the pouring rain. Besides, I’d had more than enough beer for one day and was ready for me bed.

If you visit the Netherlands, and in particular the Amsterdam-Haarlem area, I’m sure you will come across Jopen beers. Do give them a try, and with such an extensive range there is bound to be a beer suitable for every taste.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

It comes in cans!

At the 2014 European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin, we were given some 500ml cans of Pilsner Urquell to try. (I also brought a few home with me). This followed on from a detailed presentation on the merits of the humble can as a means of storing beer and keeping it brewery fresh. The cans had some nice retro designs, based on old Pilsner Urquell adverts from the 1920’s and 30’s.

Two and a half-years on I have yet to see these cans on sale in any UK supermarket, so last weekend I was surprised to find these six-packs of Budweiser Budvar in my local Sainsbury’s. At £5.50 for six cans, the packs represent good value, for a quality Czech beer which has been lagered for am impressive 90 day period, so I picked up a couple. Compared to certain “craft” beers, which are also starting to appear in local supermarkets, these cans of Budvar represent excellent value.

Packaged in 330 ml retro-size cans, they fit nicely in the fridge and come in handy when you fancy a quick beer, but haven’t got time for a good session. The merits of cans have been discussed on several occasions, both on this blog as well as on others, so it is good to see a quality beer packaged in this manner.

I’m sure you don’t need me extolling the merits of BudweiserBudvar, so I will just say the beer is a premium lager brewed in the Czech town of České Budějovice (Budweis in German). It is produced using the finest Moravian barley, whole Saaz hop cones and local water drawn from deep artesian wells, before being matured in lager cellars for 90 days. I believe the Czech government retains a major stake in the brewery.

So, if like me you appreciate a decent lager and fancy a “cold one” from time to time, it’s well worth keeping a pack or two of these cans in the fridge.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Cowden and Mark Beech

I haven’t been to a social organised by my local CAMRA branch for a while now. This isn’t perhaps surprising, as because of the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival; the major event in the West Kent CAMRA calendar, there hasn’t been that many recently.

Saturday though saw half dozen of us taking the No. 234 bus from Tunbridge Wells and head out into the High Weald area of the county, close to the border with Sussex. Our destination was the picturesque village of Cowden, tucked away in an idyllic corner of the county. Cowden is home to one of the finest Harvey’s pubs in the area, in the form of the Fountain; an attractive, part tile-hung pub situated on a tight bend just down from the village church.

We have done this trip before, and I have posted about the pub as well, but this time around, the Fountain offered two main attractions for me on both the beer and the food front. Beer-wise I knew that the delectable Harvey’s Old Ale would be on sale, whilst food-wise the Fountain serves some of the best pies around, and they are proper pies as well!

Shame about the Trip Advisor sign!
If you don’t know what is meant by a “proper pie” take a look here at my post from 2014, but basically a proper pie should have pastry sides and a pastry bottom. In other words the filling should be completely encased in pastry, and short-crust pastry at that. Too many pubs, and even some restaurants, purport to sell pies which arrive at your table in an earthenware dish, topped with a thin crust of puff pastry. These are NOT pies, but rather casseroles with a pastry lid.

I digress! The 234 bus runs twice daily on Saturdays between Tunbridge Wells and Edenbridge, taking in the villages of Ashurst, Cowden,  Mark Beech and Hever en route. The plan was to alight in Cowden, stop for lunch at the Fountain, before catching the second outward service of the day. We would then leave the bus at Mark Beech, where there would be just enough time for a pint at the Kentish Horse, before catching the bus back to Tunbridge Wells on its final return journey.

On previous occasions some of us have walked between the two pubs, but whilst the weather was bright and sunny when I left home, the clouds were beginning to build by midday, and as we journeyed towards Cowden we could see the sky growing distinctly darker away to the south of us, across Ashdown Forest.

A trio of Harvey's finest
The driver was quite bemused as we boarded the bus in Tunbridge Wells, to find so many people wanting to travel to Mark Beech, but as he would be driving the same bus all day, promised to look out for us later on. En route to Cowden we passed four pubs which for various reasons have now all closed. The names and locations probably won’t mean much to non-local readers, but for completion’s sake they are: Brokers Arms – Tunbridge Wells, Bald Faced Stag - Ashurst, Sussex Oak - Blackham and the White Horse – Holtye. I have drunk in all of them during the past 30 years, and particularly miss the Sussex Oak; a fine old, brick-built pub situated on high ground on a bend of the main A264 Tunbridge Wells- East Grinstead road.

The assembled company
We arrived in Cowden at midday, and walked the short distance back towards the Fountain. Whilst most people hurried inside, a friend and I stopped to take some photos of the pub, which was looking very attractive in the late autumn sunshine. As my friend remarked, “Let the others rush in and have the first few pints out of the pumps, that way the beer will be the entire fresher for us!” There is much truth is this, as one of my pet hates is to be served that first pint out of the pumps. I know a good licensee should pull this through first, and I imagine the Fountain would do this; but why risk it?

Photographs taken, including some of a troop of riders on horseback, we ascended the steps and entered the pub. The much anticipated Harvey’s Old was on, alongside Best Bitter and IPA, but I opted for the former, and was not disappointed. The others had already grabbed a large table at the far end of the bar, so we went over and joined them. The Fountain has a good reputation for food, and having eaten there on several previous occasions I can attest to the quality of its cooking. The barman came over and took our respective orders, but not before we were joined by another couple who live locally.

I, of course, opted for “Pie of the day”, which was chicken, ham and onion – the latter constituent being in the form of a mild, white onion sauce, which went very well with the large chunks of meat. It arrived in the form of an individual pie, which met all the criteria outlined above, to qualify as “proper”. With a few new potatoes, and seasonal vegetables, it really was a dish fit for a king. It was also rather filling. Washed down with a few pints of dark and silky-smooth Harvey’s Old, it couldn’t have been bettered, and the food, drink, good company and fine surroundings of this lovely old village inn made the perfect combination of all that is good about the part of the country we live in. There can surely be few finer ways to spend a Saturday afternoon, in England during mid November, than this.

The former Crown Inn - Cowden
All good things come to an end though, so shortly before 3pm, we paid our respective tabs, donned our raingear and headed outside. The heavens had well and truly opened, so it was a good job the cross-country walk option had been dropped. We were joined at the bus stop by a group of very wet and bedraggled looking ramblers, who had been out walking, but were now looking for the bus to transport them to Cowden station. It is worth noting, the bus stop is sited outside what was once the Crown; Cowden’s other pub, now long closed.

The bus dropped us off in Mark Beech, right opposite the Kentish Horse, but we had trouble squeezing inside as the pub was absolutely heaving. I have never seen it so busy, but we discovered that several groups of walkers, caught out by the ferocity of the weather, had decided to take shelter in the pub. The small, games area at the far end, was showing the England v Fiji rugby game, so that too had pulled in the crowds.

Kentish Horse - alternative Christmas
Harvey’s Best, Larkin’s Traditional and Otter Amber were the beers represented on the bar. I went for the Larkin’s Trad, as at just 3.4% ABV I thought it a good idea to pace myself. There was a good atmosphere in the pub and some fine banter going on between the landlord, and a group of regulars leaning on the bar. It was too wet outside to take any photos and too crowded inside, although I did mange a couple of quirky shots which took my eye.

The return bus to Tunbridge Wells arrived more or less on time and we were glad to get out of the cold and the damp. Several of our party nodded off on the journey back, including me briefly, but once back in the town we all decided that a few final drinks in Fuggles would be a good way to finish the day.

Fuggles too was heaving, but we managed to find a small table towards the rear and sufficient chairs for us all to squeeze round. Downland - Hop Contract and One Mile End –Hospital Porter were the cask beers I tried, before finishing up with a half of the excellent Beavertown - Smog Rocket Porter on key-keg.

Various people came and went, and some drifted off – incredibly for another meal! My friend and I departed some time around half seven and made our way to the station, through the pouring rain, and the train back to Tonbridge.

Like with all these trips, it is worth taking advantage of public transport, and journeying out into the surrounding countryside. It is especially important to make use of local bus services and give them all the support we can, particularly when local authority spending is being reined in, and cash is tight generally. It is also good, of course, to be supporting our rural pubs in the best way possible - by drinking in them!

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

How I got into Beer Writing – Part One

I have been writing this blog since 2008, and apart from a bit of a hiatus due to illness in 2011, have posted on a pretty regular basis. What people may not know is I have been writing about beer and pubs for much longer than the past eight years. Strangely enough it was a complete accident as to how and why I became a writer in the first place, as I am about to reveal.

Back in the early 1980’s, I was quite heavily involved with the Maidstone & Mid-Kent Branch of CAMRA. I was living in the county town at the time, having bought my first house there. I had been a CAMRA member for around five years previously, but had not been actively involved with the Campaign in any shape or form; apart from drinking “real ale” and buying the Good Beer Guide.

"Draught Copy" - 21st Century style
Shortly after moving in, I took a conscious decision to play more of an active role within CAMRA, so got in touch with the local branch and attended my first branch meeting. I received a friendly welcome and decided to go along to future branch socials. The branch, at the time, produced a newsletter called “Draught Copy”. It is still going, but in a much enlarged and much more professional format; but that’s a different story. Back in the early 1980’s the branch were short of volunteers to deliver the newsletter to local pubs; particularly those in Maidstone town centre. I put myself forward, as not only would this be helping the branch, but it would also enable me to become better acquainted with Maidstone’s pubs.

I enjoyed my new role, especially as it got me out of the house and visiting pubs I might not otherwise have bothered with. The branch seemed pleased as well, as not long after I was asked to join the committee.  Again, this was a position I was pleased to fill and I found myself helping out in various ways, including helping to organise and run a beer festival.

Things were going well for the branch until sometime around 1982-83. Then, in a shock announcement, the then branch chairman, informed us that he and his family would be moving to Andover in Hampshire, where they would be taking over the running of a pub, on behalf of the recently formed Bourne Valley Brewery.

Now this was a good move on Dave’s part, as despite being a fully qualified personnel officer, he had been out of work for as long as I had known him; although he had filled his time by managing a couple of local pubs. The latter experience, coupled with his knowledge of beer and brewing, gained partly through CAMRA, stood him in good stead for the pub job. The fact that he knew Bourne Valley’s founder, James Lynch (again through CAMRA), was obviously another point in his favour – who says CAMRA doesn’t open doors to a new career?

From the branch point of view, as well as losing an excellent and highly experienced chairman, there was also the slight problem of the branch newsletter, as Dave was both editor and chief copy writer. At that month's committee meeting, a deathly silence greeted Dave when he asked the question,  “Would anyone like to take over the task?” It was one of those moments were everything changes in an instant so, stunned by my own boldness,  I raised my hand and said, "I wouldn’t mind giving it a go."

Dave and his family weren’t due to move straight away, so he was able to give me some assistance. Back in the early 1980’s though, there were no PC’s and no desk-top publishing programmes. Instead everything had to be typed out manually. The branch had sensibly invested in an electric typewriter, especially for the newsletter. Manual typewriters, for those who can remember, tend to produce very uneven looking print; the degree of inking being directly related to the force applied when striking the keys! Electric models produce a more even text, which is both pleasing to the eye and much easier to read. Typing up copy was therefore no problem, but headings and sub-headings were a different matter.

Hands up all those who remember Letraset? Letraset were best known for their dry rub-down transfer technique, which was used to create “camera-ready artwork”. Right up to the mid 1980’s, Letraset sheets were used extensively by professional and amateur graphic designers, architects and artists to produce affordable and attractive artwork of a professional appearance. I certainly used it to create headings and sub-headings for “Draught Copy”.

For many years, Letraset were based in Ashford; the East Kent town where I grew up and went to school. The company have since moved to Le Mans, in France. Rather than me trying to explain how the process worked, this short YouTube video gives a neat demonstration on how to use “Dry Transfer Lettering”.

I mentioned “camera-ready artwork” earlier. This is a common term used in the commercial printing industry meaning that a document is, from a technical standpoint, ready to "go to press", or be printed. In offset printing the term referred to where the final layout of a document was attached to a "paste up". Then, a “copy camera” was used to photograph the paste up, and the final offset printing plates were created from the camera's negative.

It’s worth mentioning that the term "paste up”, meant literally that! Columns and blocks of type-written print were cut up and pasted onto a paper or card backing, along with the relevant headings, sub-headings and any illustrations. “Cow Gum” or “Prit-Stick” were the favourite adhesives, but everything had to be lined up so it was level and square. One trick was to use lines drawn with a light blue crayon, as these would not be picked up by the copy camera. "Tipp-Ex", and other similar correcting fluids, helped to cover up any imperfections or paste-up lines.

Cut & Paste
The production of “camera-ready artwork” was a real labour of love, but that was as far as my involvement with the print process went, because the next stages were the responsibility of someone else; someone whose knowledge and contacts were invaluable to the branch in terms of both time and money.

We had a member who worked in the print trade primarily with the repair and setting up of printing presses. Because of the nature of the job, he worked mainly nights, so was normally unable to get along to CAMRA meetings, but by using his skills within the print trade he was able to provide the branch with a professional-looking newsletter for a fraction of the normal cost.

How this worked was as follows. Once I had produced said artwork, I would phone this individual and we would arrange to meet; normally in a car park somewhere between Maidstone and  the Medway Towns, which was where he lived. I would hand over the artwork, and then wait a week or so for his call. We would meet up again; I would hand over some cash in exchange for a neatly bound stack of around 500 copies of the latest edition of "Draught Copy".

Detail from a modern off-set printing plate
I never asked too many questions, but I gathered that having first produced printing plates from the artwork I supplied, he would use the plates to test the machines he had just serviced or repaired. This, of course, involved running off a few hundred copies of our newsletter. This helped him in his job, as well as us and, because he generally worked unsocial hours, I’m sure he was never rumbled. It all sounds very clandestine and underhand, but was really nothing more than a form of mutual cooperation between an organisation, keen to get its message across, and someone who wanted to help, by making use of the printing presses he was working on at the time.

This represented my first foray into the world of printing, but on the creative side, writing the bulk of the copy for the newsletter gave me a valuable insight into the world of writing, and has time went on, helped me to increase my confidence and become a better writer.

In 1985, for business and personal reasons, I moved to Tonbridge, some 15 miles from Maidstone, but in a different CAMRA branch area. By the time I got involved with the new branch (actually I was one of four people who resurrected what had become a moribund group), and helped set up a new branch magazine, things had moved on in the world of publishing and things were about to go digital.

We will leave the story there for the moment, apart from saying getting involved with desk-top publishing was every bit as steep a learning curve as the previous “cut and paste” method had been.

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Saturday, 12 November 2016

Beers of Europe

In a previous post I referred to Beers of Europe (BOE); a massive warehouse on the outskirts of Kings Lynn which carries what is almost certainly the largest selection of bottled beers in the UK. Although styled as specialising in European beers, BOE also carries an impressive range of North American beers, alongside a substantial number from these islands.

Our trip up to Norfolk last weekend provided the perfect excuse to visit this renowned beer specialist, and with Christmas fast approaching (there, I’ve mentioned the word!), this was the perfect chance to stock up on a few goodies  in advance of the festive season.

The birthday gift of a sat-nav, earlier in the year, meant we were able to navigate from my sister’s house in Dereham to BOE, without any difficulty. The company are situated in a place called Setchey, which is just to the south of Kings Lynn on the main A10 road.

Turning off along the aptly named Garage Lane didn’t fill me with confidence at first, but just a short distance along we noticed the BOE warehouse and turned off into the car park. There were several other cars there, which was a good sign, so after collecting a trolley in which to place our intended purchases, we headed inside.

On this particular visit, I was primarily after German beers, although my list did include a few proper, home-grown Christmas Ales (that word again!). The friendly gentleman on the front desk directed us to the aisles where the former could be found, and it was here that my pre-planned list came into its own. With hundreds of different beers stocked, I strongly advise making a list beforehand. This can be done on the BOE website, where you can search for beers on a country-by-country basis. 

Stepping inside the warehouse which, for obvious reasons is not heated is like stepping into an Aladdin’s Cave. For a beer-lover, it is the equivalent of being a kid in a sweet-shop. Walking up and down the aisles I was able to find virtually all the beers on my list, and even picked up a few more which weren’t. Son Matt, who is a bit of a lager-lout, decided that he too would also like to make a few purchases, so he quite commendably loaded a selection of Czech and German Pilsners and Helles onto the trolley. I was pleased to see him selecting something a lot better than the usual international industrial brands he usually goes for, so our visit there was not wasted on him either.

Amongst my purchases were several bottles of my favourite smoke beer from BambergAecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, including a bottle of the brewery’s Fastenbier, brewed specially for Lent. I also picked up a bottle of Gose; the speciality beer from Goslar, in eastern Germany, which a decade or so ago, had almost died out. The two Christmas beers which caught my fancy were Adnams Tally Ho (not brewed specifically for Christmas, but a fine, strong dark barely wine nevertheless), and Hook Norton Twelve Days. The latter is definitely a Christmas beer, and is one of my
favourites. No references to Santa, reindeers or elves, nor any appalling puns or double entendres. Instead a fine strong darkish winter beer, with a stylish label which reflects the countryside at this time of year.

Whilst perusing the aisles, we couldn’t help noticing, or should I say hearing, two North American couples, stocking up on some of their favourite craft beers from back home. Although not 100% certain, I would imagine they were probably serving US personnel from one of the large American airbases close by. We also noticed a steady stream of “home-grown” customers, proving that BOE is also well known amongst more local beer lovers.

If you are in that part of Norfolk, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to BOE. Alternatively, the company can supply via mail-order. Our visit only scratched the surface, and next time it will probably be a different category of beers I will be after; either that or a different country of origin.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Lewes Remembers the 5th of November

I had every intention of posting this article earlier. Last weekend would have been particularly apt, seeing as the Lewes November 5th celebrations are the topic of this post, which is really a follow-on from the two-part article about Lewes, which I published back in January. The post kicks off with some background information regarding the origins of Bonfire in Lewes and explains some of the traditions surrounding it. The article then goes on to describe my own personal experience of November 5th in Lewes.

Lewes Bonfire or Bonfire, for short, describes a set of celebrations held in the town of Lewes, Sussex that constitute the United Kingdom's largest and most famous Bonfire Night festivities,  with Lewes being called the "bonfire capital of the world."

Lewes is home to the largest and most celebrated of the festivities in the Sussex bonfire tradition. There are seven societies putting on five separate parades and firework displays on the 5th, and this can mean 3,000 people taking part in the celebrations, and up to 80,000 spectators attending in the small market town which has a permanent population of just under 16,000 people.

The event is organised by the local bonfire societies, under the auspices of the Lewes Bonfire Council.  Six of  Lewes's seven Bonfire Societies hold their celebrations on the same night (5th November, or when the Fifth is on a Sunday, 4th November). The remaining society, Nevill Juvenile, holds its night on a Saturday a couple of weeks before the Fifth.

Each Society has something different to offer. Nevill Juvenile Bonfire Society, for instance, is specifically for children. South Street used to be a juvenile society too, but over the years has changed into an adult one. Waterloo, while an adult society, is perhaps more family-oriented than some others, while the Cliffe, Commercial Square and Lewes Borough societies cling proudly to their respective ancient traditions.
On November 5th, a number of large effigies are drawn though the streets. Effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, who became head of the Roman Catholic Church in 1605, feature every year. In addition, each of the five main local societies creates a topical "tableau" (usually, but not always, representing a human figure or figures), and the Cliffe Society displays on pikes the heads (also in effigy) of its current "Enemies of Bonfire", who range from nationally reviled figures to local officials who have attempted to place restrictions on the event. Restrictions are generally ignored by the Societies.

As well as the effigies, 17 burning crosses are carried in procession, through the town in memory of 17 Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake in Lewes for their faith, during the reign of Queen Mary. The various Bonfire Societies congregate at the War Memorial in the centre of town, where a wreath-laying ceremony takes place as an act of Remembrance for the war dead of Lewes. Afterwards each society marches to its own fire site on the edge of the town, where there a large bonfire and firework display takes place and the various effigies are burned.

Whilst marching nearly all members carry torches, some ignite and drop bangers, locally known as "rookies", (short for rook scarers), and some carry the burning crosses, banners, musical instruments or burning letters spelling out the initials of the society. Many of the marchers wear "smuggler uniforms" (striped jumpers, white trousers, black boots and optional red hats), with each society having a different coloured jumper. Members have to make or buy their own costumes. Torch-making is a time-consuming process and begins in September, or even earlier, with many society members joining in.
A flaming tar barrel is also thrown into the river Ouse; this is said to symbolise the throwing of the magistrates into the river after they read the Riot Act to the bonfire boys in 1847, but may also be an echo of ancient Samhain traditions. Up to 80,000 people have been known to attend this local spectacle, coming from all over the South and sometimes further afield.

Despite being just an hour’s drive away from Lewes, for a number of reasons I have only attended its famous November 5th celebrations on one occasion. That was back in 1987, when two companions and I caught the train to Lewes in order to experience the Sussex town’s bonfire activities for ourselves. Instead of the more usual route via Redhill, we decided to travel via St Leonards, as one of our number was boarding the train at Tunbridge Wells.

After changing trains at St Leonard’s, our journey took us into Eastbourne before heading west towards Lewes. The journey from Polegate onwards is quite spectacular, as the railway follows a natural gap in the South Downs. The downs form an impressive and slightly foreboding backdrop to the scenery, and as we journeyed on through such delightful stations as Berwick and Glynde the late autumn sunshine and a cloudless sky only added to the beauty of the surrounding countryside.

Arriving in Lewes just after midday, we made straight for the Royal Oak; then a stylishly decorated Beards pub, situated at the top of Station Street. From here we went on to the Brewers Arms, an imposing red-brick pub originally built for the former Croydon brewers Page & Overton, as the moulded brickwork plaques at the entrance still testify.

The next port of call was the Lewes Arms where we were surprised to witness a group dressed as cavaliers sitting drinking at the bar. They were from one of the local bonfire societies, and were the first of many such groups of people in fancy dress that we were to encounter that day.

Finally, we ended up in the Black Horse, where we encountered a substantial number of revellers dressed as vikings. The "Beards" ales in this particular pub were especially fine, and it was a shame when time was finally called. Nevertheless we departed with good grace and headed off back towards the centre of town in search of some more solid nourishment.

As I mentioned earlier, that particular November 5th was a fine late autumn day, without a cloud in the sky and not a breath of wind either. Such days however invariably lead to cold and frosty nights, and as we left the Black Horse the air had a distinct chill to it, giving one the feeling that it would not be long before temperatures started to drop very rapidly. As we approached the brow of the steep School Hill that leads down to the River Ouse, we were rewarded by the sight of Harvey’s Brewery set against the backdrop of the South Downs. Steam from the brewery was rising vertically into the still cold air, and as we descended the hill the sun was already starting to sink in the sky, before finally disappearing behind the hills away to our left. You could feel it getting colder and see the mist beginning to rise from the river as we approached the Cliffe area of Lewes, and we were all glad that we had come warmly dressed and well wrapped up against the cold.

We found a restaurant at the far end of Cliffe High Street, passing Harvey’s Brewery on our way down and noticing, with some amusement, the banner strung across the street proclaiming "No Popery Here!"

They take Bonfire night very seriously in this part of Lewes, and of the five Bonfire Societies Cliffe is probably the most anti-papal of them all. The reason for the anti-Catholic feeling pre-dates Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators by over a century. It arises from the time when, during the reign of Queen Mary, 17 Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake in Lewes for their faith. This hatred for Rome and its church later found a new refuge following the discovery of the gunpowder plot, and numerous "Bonfire Societies" can now be found in Lewes, as well as many of the surrounding villages. The anti-papal theme is repeated in the "Bonfire Prayers" - the last verse of which reads:

"A penny loaf to feed old Pope,
A farthing o' cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him!
Burn him in a tub of tar,
Burn him like a blazing star,
Burn his body from his head,
Then we'll say old Pope is dead!
Hip, hip hoo-r-r-ray."

The bonfire societies meet throughout the year, holding various fund-raising activities to ensure both a spectacular display of fireworks on the night and also to provide money towards the costs of the elaborate costumes their members wear as part of the celebrations. Bonfire Night in Lewes itself is always celebrated on the 5th of November, except when the 5th occurs on a Sunday. When that happens, the festivities are held on the preceding Saturday instead. By tradition, Bonfire Night celebrations in the surrounding villages take place either side of November 5th, so as not to detract from the main event in Lewes, and also to allow members of other societies to visit, or take part in the town's celebrations. Bonfire night in the villages is usually celebrated on a Saturday, unless, of course it happens to fall on the 5th November.

I personally find it very re-assuring in these changing times that such time-honoured traditions not only still take place, but if anything are growing in their popularity and appeal. Long may this continue!

That particular November 5th, my companions and I finished our meal and then wandered back into town. We decided that by purchasing some fireworks we would be entering into the spirit of things, and consequently bought several boxes of bangers each, for later on. We had noticed that many shop windows had already been boarded up, and that workmen were busy attending to others. We later learnt that this was a public safety measure rather than a fear that rioting would break out. More to our dismay though was the discovery that most of the towns' pubs would either be shut, or “open to regulars only”.

The fear of public disorder goes back to the last century, when events often did get out of hand. Pitched battles were fought in the streets, on several occasions, between the police and some of the more high-spirited "bonfire boys". According to contemporary sources, "great rioting" occurred in 1838, whilst in 1847 "170 of the principal tradesmen and other respectable inhabitants" were summoned to be sworn in as special constables. On their way to a meeting on the night of November 4th they were attacked by Bonfire Boys in the High Street. The following night, the riot act was read by Lord Chichester from the steps of County Hall. In those days, bonfires were actually lit in the town’s streets, so one can imagine the chaos as well as the threat to life, limb and property in general. In these more "enlightened times" the bonfires and firework displays are properly organised, and take place in open fields away from the town centre.

To kill some time, we wandered down to the river and amused ourselves by letting off several of our bangers in a deserted car park. Unfortunately our activities attracted the attention of the local constabulary, and we were told by a couple of police officers, in no uncertain terms, that it was an offence to discharge fireworks in a public place. Furthermore, unless we wished to spend bonfire night in the cells, we were to refrain from further such activities!

Feeling suitably chastened, we adjourned to a nearby cafe, where over a warming and very welcome cup of coffee we waited for the festivities to begin. One tradition, that has survived to this day, is that of hurling a blazing tar barrel into the River Ouse. In former times, lighted tar barrels were rolled along the High Street and down School Hill, but this practice has now been outlawed by the authorities. Instead, the lighted barrels are now pulled along on sturdy metal carts.
After witnessing the blazing tar barrel being quenched by the waters of the Ouse, we made our way up the hill to the War Memorial, with the aim of getting a good vantage point. It is to this point that processions from each of the town's Bonfire Societies congregate, before marching off to their own individual events. According to the 1992 programme for Cliffe Bonfire Society, the following activities were scheduled to take place that year:

"At the Fire the Archbishop of Cliffe will deliver his annual address, specially composed for the occasion, during which high-flying fireworks will soar above the heads of the clergy. At around half-past nine o'clock effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V will be ceremoniously destroyed by means of fireworks. Also giant heads of personages deemed by the Society to be this year's "Enemies of Bonfire" will be similarly exploded by a Mammoth Aerial Firework Display, The famous Cliffe Bonfire Society tableau of mammoth proportions, built with an expertise mastered only by the firework experts of the Cliffe, will be detonated in an Extravagant Pyrotechnical Finale."

Exciting stuff! The programme also prints a warning to the authorities that "Bonfire is a force to be reckoned with", and that the societies will not tolerate attempts by the police and other authorities to "dilute the event into a tame carnival", this action coming under the guise of "public safety". It is hardly surprising then that past "Enemies of Bonfire" have included the Chief Constable of Sussex and prominent local politicians.

Prior to the start of the processions, we somehow found ourselves in the bar of the White Hart, an ancient old inn directly opposite the law courts. I remember convincing the barman that we were staying the night and thus qualified as “residents”, otherwise we would not have been served. It was a worthwhile deception though, as the Harvey’s Old was very welcoming on such a cold winter's night. Despite the good condition of the beer, we only stayed for the one as we did not want to miss the celebrations that would shortly be taking place outside.

Finding a suitable place to stand, opposite the war memorial and wrapped warmly against the cold, we watched procession after procession arriving to pay their respects to the town's war dead. The fact that November 5th is so close to Armistice Day means that the dead of two world wars are also commemorated, as well as the Protestant Martyrs of the 16th Century.

After the two minute silence and the Last Post, the various bonfire societies marched off to hold their own respective events. Watching them march off only served to remind us of how cold we were, so we nipped into the nearby County Hotel where the Gales HSB was very welcome indeed, as was the bar's central heating. We were however, advised against taking our drinks outside by a friendly member of the hotel staff. The police apparently take a dim view of people carrying beer glasses at the event, (full or otherwise), so given our previous brush with the law we decided to stay put and  enjoy the warmth of the hotel bar instead.

Shortly after it was time to leave. Rail journeys between Lewes and Tonbridge involve quite a roundabout route, following the truncation  of the direct line at Uckfield in 1969. This coupled with the closure in 1985 of the line between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge means that there is no longer a direct route between the two towns. The upshot of all this was that we had to catch the half eight train from Lewes in order to guarantee making our connection for Tonbridge at Redhill.

The station was absolutely heaving when we arrived; British Rail having lain on additional trains in order to cope with the night's huge influx of visitors. I don't remember much about the journey home, but I do remember having a king-sized hangover the next day.

This year (2016), there were no trains running into Lewes, due to the long running dispute between Train Operator, Southern and members of the RMT Union protesting over the changing role of guards on the train. This would undoubtedly have had an adverse effect on numbers attending the famous celebrations, but whether this was a good thing as far as the Bonfire Societies were concerned, remains to be seen.

If you do get the chance to attend next year’s Bonfire Celebrations, I can strongly recommend it. Assuming the rail dispute is settled, then travelling by train is by far and away the best option. If you do choose to drive, you will have to leave your car some distance away from the town centre, as the streets are closed to traffic. You will then have to walk into Lewes.

A better bet is to book a hotel or B&B room for the night. That way you can stay until the end, and also combine your stay with a look around this most attractive East Sussex town.

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