Saturday 31 December 2016

Happy New Year

So another year dawns, and it’s out with the old and in with the new. Whilst there have been some obvious highlights, 2016 was overshadowed by political events at home and abroad; events which we only begin to feel the consequences of as the coming year unfolds.

Tonight is not the time to reflect on these events, although I may touch upon some of them briefly when I present this year’s “Year in Beer”; my annual look back at the year just gone. So as the year draws to a close I would like to take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a Prosperous, Creative, Fulfilling, Healthy, and above all Happy New Year.

Man of Kent - Tonbridge

I have a soft spot for the Man of Kent; an attractive weather-boarded pub tucked away down a side road, just off Tonbridge High Street, as it was the first pub I ever popped into for a drink after I began working in the town. This would have been back in 1979 - thirty-seven years ago; a frightening thought if ever there was one!

I was living in Maidstone at the time, having moved to the county town from London, some three months earlier. My then wife and I had bought our first house there; a two-up two down terrace which, whilst habitable, required a lot of renovation and quite a bit of tlc. Although when planning our move to the country, we had both factored in the cost of commuting into London, where we both had jobs, my wife was finding it a lot easier, financially, than I was. She was working for HM Government which was far more lucrative than my job in the private sector, so I consequently started looking around for something closer to home. This is where the position in Tonbridge came in.

The Man of Kent was listed in that year’s CAMRA Good Beer Guide; a good enough reason for a visit, especially as most of Tonbridge’s pubs appeared tied to either Courage or Whitbread. I was still commuting by train back then, as it would be a few more years before a car became affordable, and my route into work from Tonbridge station, took me past the Man of Kent.

The Man of Kent under Bass Charrington ownership
During my first week in the new job I waited for Friday to come along, and popped in at lunchtime. The pub had two bars back then and I am pretty sure that it was the right hand bar I entered. This would have been the saloon bar, so I was following that age old, but now lost, logic which dictates that a stranger would feel more welcome and less uncomfortable in the saloon, than he would in the public bar; as the latter would more likely be where the regulars hung out. Public bars were also viewed as places where the “rougher” element could be found.

My choice of bar was the right one, and I found myself in a pleasant room with a low ceiling, complete with old beams, and an open fire burning at one end. There was bench seating running along part of the front exterior wall, and  it was here that I plonked myself down; having first obtained a pint.  The Man of Kent was owned by Bass Charrington at the time and sold Charrington’s IPA and Draught Bass; both on hand-pump.

I opted for a pint of the latter as it was (and still is, when I can get it), a favourite of mine. I made it a habit of calling into the Man of Kent on Friday lunchtimes and even managed to entice my co-worker, a young lad of similar age to me, away from his regular haunt of the Castle. The latter was a Courage pub, but as my colleague Ray was a Guinness drinker, he wasn’t too bothered, although I think he missed the chance to ogle the girls from the accounts department, who tended to frequent the Castle.

I spent six years working for the Tonbridge-based firm and during that time I continued to use the Man of Kent, but I also discovered a number of other pubs at the south end of the town. Towards the end of my time there, I moved to Tonbridge, having fallen for one of the girls from the said accounts department! After divorcing my first wife, I later married the company accounts manager, and 30 years later we are still together.

The company didn’t last anywhere near as long though, as in 1985 a substantial part of the business was sold off to a competitor, and most of the workforce was made redundant. I was one of the people who last their jobs, but my wife was kept on by the much smaller company which emerged. I ended up working in a variety of different places, for companies which were either taken over or sold on, but eventually I secured a job back in Tonbridge, only for that to disappear six years later, when the firm went bust.

There had been substantial changes in the beer market by the mid 90’s, when I started work in the town for the second time, but I do remember drinking in the Man of Kent, on a number of occasions and enjoying the Draught Bass. The pub had changed during this time, first with the two bar being knocked through into one, and then with the provision of a raised separate drinking area, behind the serving area at the rear of the pub.

Some time around the start of the new millennium, the Man of Kent was sold on. Bass had retreated from brewing primarily because the government of the time refused to countenance a merger with Burton-based Allied Breweries. Bass’s brewing interests were bought by North American giant, Molson Coors, and the pubs ended up in the hands of either Enterprise or Punch. Draught Bass did a vanishing act from much of southern England, but locally Harvey’s Sussex Best began appearing on the bars of former Bass Charrington pubs. Recently the Harvey’s has been joined on the bar of the Man of Kent by a rotating beer from Tonbridge Brewery.

Son Matt and I received an invitation on the day after Boxing Day to join his cousin and her partner for a few drinks at the Man of Kent. The reason the couple had chosen the pub was they have two dogs and the Man of Kent is one of the few “dog friendly” pubs in the town. We therefore strolled down to meet them, arriving at the pub shortly after 7.30pm.

We found them, complete with hounds, at a table in the raised area of the pub, so after grabbing ourselves a drink, sat down and joined them. There was no Tonbridge beer available, but the Harvey’s was in excellent form. It was so good that I scored it as a 4.0 NBSS. Heidi and Phil also thought the beer exceptionally good, which was praise indeed as neither of them are Harvey’s fans. The ingredients for a good evening were all there, and I was looking forward to an evening spent chatting whilst sinking a few more pints, when the spoiler came in the form of the landlord, who appeared round the corner to inform us the pub would be closing in half an hour! His reasons were that the pub had been open until 1am that morning and he was tired; but there was also a bit, which I didn’t properly catch, about him and some of the regulars disappearing off somewhere in a taxi. (Publican’s outing?)

I didn’t say anything to our less than genial host, as I didn’t want to spoil future trips out with the dogs for Heidi and Phil. Also, having worked in the licensed trade, I respect the right of any landlord to some time off; or to close early, but some advanced notice (a note on the door?), would have been appreciated. There wasn’t really time to get another round in, especially as none of us wanted to rush, so we drank up and left, and the evening ended on a downer.

We said our goodbyes outside the pub and Heidi and Phil walked home with their charges. Matt and I called in at the recently reopened Gatehouse, just around the corner. As this Stonegate Pub Company Inn is very much food-oriented, it was unlikely to welcome dogs anyway, so I didn’t bother asking. The pub was quite quiet, and the Taylor’s Landlord, whilst drinkable, was nowhere near as good as the Harvey’s we had been forced to leave behind.

I’m not sure there is a moral to this tale, but whilst I’m obviously pleased that the Man of Kent is still trading, it didn’t quite provide the enjoyable evening out it had promised when we first stepped through the door.

Friday 30 December 2016

A late December walk to the Windmill

My three walking companions

Boxing Day is the traditional day for going out for a walk and trying to shift some of the excess calories consumed over the Christmas period. A walk in the country to a nice rural pub therefore had an obvious appeal, but having checked beforehand as to what people’s family and other social commitments would be over the extended seasonal break, December 29th came up as the best day for most people within our circle of friends. Even so, a number of them were already back at work but we managed to muster four of us for a walk out to the Windmill at Weald; an old favourite amongst West Kent CAMRA branch members.
Wealden scenery

Two of us caught the train to Hildenborough; just one stop from Tonbridge, where we met up with two more fellow walkers. After the fog and gloom of the previous few days, Thursday morning had dawned bright and sunny, but very frosty; so much so that I nearly slipped over on several occasions on the way down to the station. This was despite wearing a decent pair of walking boots!  We followed our usual route, partially along roads, and partially over the fields. Fortunately the frosty weather, combined with the lack of rain, meant that conditions underfoot were firm, making the going nice and easy once we set off across open country.

Village sign
With hardly a cloud in the sky the countryside was looking its best in the winter sunshine. We passed several people out walking their dogs, but as we got closer to Weald village, it dawned on us that we would arrive at the pub a good twenty minutes or so before opening time. We therefore decided on adding an additional loop to the walk, which led us through a pleasant area of rolling countryside which I hadn’t seen before.

We arrived at the Windmill just after midday. There were a few customers there already, but an enquiry about a table for lunch brought the response that the pub was pretty full so far as pre-bookings were concerned, but they would be able to squeeze us in. As usual there was a good range of beers on offer, which included a couple of welcome surprises. Strangely enough, given the choice on offer, I opted for a pint of Adnam’s Southwold to start with. Not only was this the weakest beer on offer, it is also a personal favourite of mine. Southwold is also an Adnam's beer which we don’t see that often in these parts, despite the stronger Broadside being a regular feature on the bar of our local Wetherspoon’s.

Also on sale at the Windmill were beers from Kent Brewery, Rockin Robin, Springhead and Big Smoke. At the strong end of the range was Tally-Ho, a 7.4% dark barley wine from Adnam’s. I have a bottle of this beer sitting in my cupboard at home, but I had never tried the draught version before. I sensibly made Tally-Ho my last beer of the afternoon, but between the two Adnam’s beers I enjoyed the Pale Ale from Kent Brewery and Sunshower Extra Pale Rye 4.6% ABV, from Big Smoke Brewery. The latter company specialise in un-fined and un-filtered beers.

Some 90 minutes after our arrival, three other members of our circle turned up. They had driven over from Tunbridge Wells, for a spot of lunch, having gained news of our visit to the Windmill via WhatsApp; talk about the power of social media! We joined them for lunch; a last minute cancellation having left a large table free. I opted for the fish pie and found the Sunshower Extra Pale Rye to be the perfect accompaniment. 

As well as “pub-talk”, the main topic of conversation over dinner was the inordinately large number of famous people (I detest the word “celebrity”), who have passed away this year. With typical British “gallows humour” and, it must be said, in extremely bad taste, we drew up various short-lists from the worlds of film, entertainment, music and sport as to who would be the next to go. Matt the landlord came over and joined us for a while, as this was subject close to his heart. In his previous pub, a number of the regulars had run a book along the very same lines, with people paying in and betting on a certain person, from the worlds already mentioned, as being the next to depart. We know another pub where a similar ghoulish “book” called “Dead Pool” is kept by the regulars. Subscribers must have had a field day this year!

Moving on to happier and less controversial things, the Adnam’s Tally-Ho was excellent. Mellow, slightly sweet and with plenty of chocolate and coffee notes, it was the perfect beer to end on. Some brave individuals opted for pints, and seeing as the beer was on sale at just £3.50 a pint, it was tremendous value (the other beers were also keenly priced at £3.40). 

That would have been the end of our session had Matt not brought us over each a glass of the next beer due to go on. Arbour – The Devil Made Me Brew It, was a 5.5% “Dry-Hopped Stout”, which divided opinion amongst our party. Some thought it was that real abomination – a Black IPA, whilst others thought it was “as described.” I have to agree with the protagonist of the former viewpoint that the pronounced citrus hop aroma did make tick many of the boxes for a Black IPA, but another friend thought that as it lacked that harsh roast aftertaste, often associated with the style, it wasn’t a true Black IPA.

Both individuals left much of their complimentary glasses in favour of more Tally-Ho, so I ended up finishing what was left. The party from Tunbridge Wells had already left, and as we sat there watching the sunlight, reflected on the building opposite, starting to fade, thoughts turned to the homeward journey. One friend, who lives in Hadlow – a bus ride away from Tonbridge, phoned his wife, who agreed to come and collect him. He offered the remaining three of us a lift as well, and whilst we had come fully equipped with torches for a walk back in the fading light, we decided to take him up on this kind offer. With all of us squashed into his wife’s car, we were treated to some fantastic red-sky vistas as we headed roughly due south along, it must be said, some rather narrow roads.

The fog was starting to come down, along with a corresponding drop in temperature. It was more or less dark by the time we arrived back in Tonbridge, and the pavements were even icier than they had been that morning. I consequently made my way home carefully and managed to arrive back without slipping over. Despite the ice at both ends of the day, we had been extremely lucky with the weather. 

As I look out my window, exactly 24 hours after I’d set off the previous day, the contrast could not be greater. In place of blue skies and bright sunshine, all I can see is a dense wall of fog. I have already been out this morning, in order to drop my wife off at work. Fortunately the roads are quiet, so once I have picked her up, in  a few hours time, and we’ve done a bit of shopping, it will be time to light the log-burner, and curl up in front of the fire with a good book and a drop of something warming.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale

Regular readers of this blog will be only too aware that I am no fan of Shepherd Neame beers. I will qualify that statement though by saying I am not at all keen on most of their regular offerings. Sheps have been known though to turn out some quite decent bottled beers, which include an IPA and a Stout based on some old recipes found in the archives. They also brew a pretty mean Christmas Ale, but so they should, as they have a long and distinguished history of coming up with something good and warming for the festive season; a tradition which is longer than that of most UK breweries.

I remember Shepherd Neame producing a Christmas Ale back in the early 1970’s. I was still at school back then, but in the sixth form. However, during my time in the lower sixth and for my first two terms in the upper sixth, I wasn’t legally old enough to drink.  No-one seemed to bat an eyelid back then, as long as you behaved yourself; which of course we did. Every year Shep’s would make their Christmas Ale available to their tied estate, and of course if my friends and I were feeling brave we would try a bottle. Half pint bottles (275 ml), were pretty much standard measure back then; certainly in the on-trade. But at the time a half pint was sufficient. I’ve no idea how strong the beer was, as there was no legal requirement in those days to declare the strength of most alcoholic drinks, but the beer, which was a well-hopped pale ale, certainly had a kick to it – particularly for a 17 year old not that used to drinking. The beer was packaged with an attractive label showing a group of suitable attired carollers gathered beneath a lantern.

It should be said that whilst the tradition of producing a strong satisfying beer for the festive season dates back a long way, in many cases it had virtually died out. Changing tastes, plus the privations of two world wars had combined to ensure that all but a handful of the country’s breweries had stopped producing any beers which were remotely seasonal, let alone Christmassy. Sheps were thus unusual in this respect, as were Sussex brewers Harvey’s – although I was not aware of the latter brewery at the time.

Shep’s continued brewing their Christmas Ale on an annual basis, although they started to mix things up a bit by introducing fruits and spices, meaning that the recipe of the beer changed from year to year. Rather confusingly in recent years, they also brought out a much lower strength Christmas Ale for sale in discount supermarkets, such as Lidl, but with an ABV of below 4.0% this version wasn’t worth serious consideration.

It was with some pleasure then that I spotted some bottles of the proper strength, full-fat version on sale at a branch of Roy’s of Wroxham of all places. This was on my last visit to Norfolk, back at the beginning of November. I opened the beer appropriately over the Christmas season, and what follows are my impressions of it.

The first thing to note is the strength, which at 7.0% ABV is just right. The beer pours with a nice, bright amber colour, topped with a fluffy head. There are fruit notes in both the aroma and taste, and these are complimented by a spiciness which combines well with the refreshing hop finish. The relatively high alcohol content helps give the beer a smooth and rich mouth-feel, as well as providing a rewarding warming to the drink.

If proof were needed that Shepherd Neame can, if they put their mind to it, produce beers full of character that are well worth seeking out. It is also good to see the company continuing the tradition of brewing a “proper” Christmas Ale; a tradition they upheld right through the dark days of the late 1960’s-early 1970’s – a time when other brewers were abandoning such things in favour of standardisation. 

I am regretting now not buying another bottle, but I will certainly be looking out for this beer next year.

Christmas 2016

Well that’s Christmas over for another year, and I can’t say I’m sad to see the back of it. It’s the same every year, with Christmas becoming more and more commercialised, but on the plus side I was at least able to spend some time with the family which, when you’re all working, isn’t always easy. There hasn’t been much happening on the beer front either, which is another reason why I haven’t posted on the blog for the best part of a week, although there’s enough beer indoors to float a battleship. However, as I’ve said before, I never seem to drink anywhere near the amount of beer at home as I would do in a pub.

Christmas Eve kicked off with a Spanish-themed evening meal – tapas and tortillas, so to go with the food it seemed only right to have some Spanish beer. Strictly speaking Estrella Dam is Catalan rather than Spanish, but it brought back memories of two pleasant trips to Barcelona, and as the beer was on offer at Waitrose when I picked the turkey up the night before, that was the decision made. It’s difficult to miss the forest of conical fermenters and maturation vats, which form part of the massive Estrella Dam brewery, on the drive into town from the airport, and the ubiquitous brand can be found all over the Catalan capital. However, it’s pleasant enough for an industrial lager, and it went well with the food.

Later on in the evening, I switched to a bottle of Harvey’s Old Ale. A couple of work colleagues had combined together to buy me a crate of Harvey’s beers as a Christmas present, so I thought I’d give one of them a try. It’s always puzzled me as to why Harvey’s go against the grain and brew their bottled beers at a lower strength than the draught versions, but even though the bottled Old came out at just 3.6% ABV, as opposed to 4.3% for the cask version, it still tasted good, with the lush sweetness from the dark brewing sugars used in the beer coming through.

We all overslept the following morning, so much so that my wife and I didn’t surface until 10 o’clock. The turkey was late going into the oven, so Christmas dinner wasn’t served until 2.30 pm. No matter, none of us were in a hurry, and there were presents to unwrap and other preparations to be carried out first. It was getting on for two o’clock before I cracked open my first bottle, which was Worthington White Shield; a nicely balanced beer with a slight “nuttiness” from the residual malt sugars. The beer was a good aperitif and went well with our traditional roast turkey dinner. Not long after I stepped up a gear and switched to a bottle of Fuller’s 1845; a long-standing favourite of mine, and a beer I have enjoyed on several previous occasions with my Christmas meal.

We were all feeling rather full from our meal, so we passed on the Christmas pudding; we enjoyed it on Boxing Day instead, and it was a while before I was ready for another beer. Our son had disappeared to call round on a friend, so come the evening we started on the cheese and biscuits. We decided against opening the blue cheese, so stuck with the cheddar. The only problem was which beer would go with it? I’d left a few bottles of beer out on the back step to chill, and amongst them was a bottle of Westerham Audit Ale. At 6.5% the beer wasn’t too strong, and as I thought it went well with the mature cheddar we’d bought. After that it was a cuppa tea. Finally I finished the day with something light and refreshing – a bottle of Estrella Dam, left over from our tapas evening the night before.

Boxing Day saw my son and I disappearing over to Tunbridge Wells for a quick look round the shops. I wasn’t keen to go, but Matt had a voucher to spend. I ended up buying a CD, which is still in its wrapper, but when we arrived back home, my wife had prepared what for her, and me as well, is one of the best meals of the Christmas break; bubble and squeak (the previous day’s left-over vegetables), cold meats (primarily turkey), with a selection of pickles.

A bottle of Harvey’s excellent Tom Paine Ale 5.5% ABV, went down well with the meal and was sufficient until the evening. Some time around 9pm it was time to serve up the Christmas pudding which we had missed the day before. I had a special beer to accompany this, in the form of Temptation, a 10.0% Russian Imperial Stout from the Durham Brewery. This thick, oily and jet-black bottle-conditioned beer is described as being a good match for dark chocolate. I surmised that it would also go well with Christmas pudding, and I was right. The rich coffee, liquorice and chocolate flavours in the beer, balanced by generous amounts of Golding hops, blended well with the preserved fruits in the pudding, but at 10%, and a 500 ml bottle at that, one was enough!

Compliments of the season to everyone, and please bear with me whilst I catch up on my writing.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Tonbridge - New beginnings

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written that Tonbridge (the town where I live), is crying out for a decent pub. Now after countless years of moaning about pubs which only cater for people wearing football shirts, and who drink Fosters or Carling, it seems that things are about to change, as the pub trade in Tonbridge is definitely in a state of flux.

I will save the best piece of news to last; as although this could be the change which takes the longest to happen it will undoubtedly be a game changer for the town. In the meantime there has been a number of other developments, some still in the pipeline, one which has already happened, and one which has sadly fallen through.

First, the newly opened pub.  At the beginning of November, the Slug & Lettuce in the High Street closed for refurbishment. The word was it would be re-opening as a “craft ale” bar. I was never a hug fan of the Slug; although strangely enough my non-drinking wife was; something about the chips, apparently! I remember the place opening, in a fanfare of publicity, a couple of decades ago when, despite the paucity of its beer offering, it did bring something vibrant and new to the town. It even boasted a gleaming copper brewing kit close to the front window.

Now I don’t recall this kit ever being used, and thinking back it might not have been a complete set-up anyway, but what from what I remember the Slug, did offer a number of “house-brewed” beers.  As these were served under pressure, they were of little interest to local CAMRA members like me; certainly at the time. Today, I tend to take a much more relaxed and less dogmatic approach to dispense, and base my acceptance, or otherwise, on how the beer actually tastes.

 Before going any further, it is worth noting that the Slug & Lettuce is a branded concept chain of bars operated by the Stonegate Pub Company Inns. The same company offer four other concepts, ranging from Classic Inns to Yates, so this promise of “craft ales” deserves closer examination as, after all, “craft” is one of the most over-used words within the brewing industry at the moment.

The revamped “Slug” opened a few weeks ago, right in time for the Christmas rush. The bar is now known as the Gatehouse - named after the imposing medieval gatehouse, which is the most striking, and best preserved feature of the nearby Tonbridge Castle. I called in earlier today to take a look for myself. Being Christmas Eve, the bar was understandably busy. Despite this I managed to perch myself at one of the tall, “posing tables” close to the window; after first ordering a drink.

There were four cask ales on offer, namely Harvey’s Sussex Best, Taylor’s Landlord, Bank’s Amber (is this a new name for the mild?), and the biggest surprise of all, Draught Bass. Tempted though I was by the latter, I decided to play safe and went for the Landlord. My reckoning was that a new generation of Tonbridge drinkers would be unfamiliar with the Bass, ignorant in the knowledge that a couple of decades ago, the Man of Kent, just round the corner in East Street, served one of the finest pints of Draught Bass available anywhere.  

I was probably right, as the Taylor’s was in good form (NBSS 3.5), and I did notice several pints of it being pulled. As well as the usual big-brand stuff on the T-bar, there were a number of “craft offerings” chalked up on a board behind the bar. There was also a typical “craft” set-up, with a line of anonymous-looking chrome taps, set into the back wall. Unfortunately there were too many people crowded around the bar for me to take a photo of the list, but I did notice Meantime  Brewery featuring a couple of times. I did however, manage to photograph the Gatehouse’s “craft” bottle selection. 

The clientele seemed quite mixed, with a proportion of families, no doubt drawn in by the food offering, which looked well-presented and good value for money. I am sure the Gatehouse will prove both an asset to the town and a welcome addition to the local drinking scene.

Directly opposite the Gatehouse, and standing almost in the shadow of the 13th Century Castle, is the Olde Chequers Inn; an attractive, half-timbered, black and white painted pub. It is one of the oldest buildings in Tonbridge, with parts dating back to the 12th Century, although most of the pub is around three centuries younger

The Chequers has been a pub for centuries, and really ought to be a place which the town can be proud of; but somehow it has never realised its full potential. I first knew the pub as a work-a-day, down-to-earth Courage house, but despite several changes of owner, and a slight improvement in the beer range, it hasn’t changed much over the course of the past 30 years.  If anything it has got worse, as when a pub with this sort of pedigree, feels the need to hold regular karaoke evenings, then really it is doing something seriously wrong.  

So imagine then the excitement which grew as rumours began circulating that Sankey’s, a family business who own several establishments in nearby Tunbridge Wells, including a pub, restaurant, oyster bar and fish shop, had expressed an interest in the Chequers. Surely this was the time to give the Chequers the sort of attention it richly deserves, and surely too time for the pub to shine, after all those years in the doldrums.
Unfortunately the deal fell through; either that or the rumours were completely false to begin with. In the meantime, the Chequers seems to be soldiering on in pretty much the same vein as previously; although it does have a new team behind the bar. 

So a mixed bag so far and adding to the mix is the news that the closed Mojo’s, formerly a multi-roomed pub called the South Eastern, is to re-open as a Tapas Bar. This will be a vast improvement, as Mojo’s was the sort of place you went to if you didn’t value keeping hold of your sense of hearing. It also had an unsavoury reputation as somewhere to go if you fancied a punch-up. In fact I can think of very few redeeming features about the place, so in a way I was relieved to see it closed and look forward to its new incarnation. 

So what about the game-changing news I’ve been saving until last? Well, like the answer to a maiden’s prayer, Alex Greig, who runs the excellent Fuggles Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells, is planning to open an outlet in Tonbridge. Suitable premises have already been found, along with planning permission, plus that all important licence. With regard to the latter, I was one of several local residents who wrote to the local authority in support of Fuggle’s application.

As to the actual premises, well Fuggle’s will be occupying a handsome-looking, late 19th Century building at the northern end of the High Street. The place is currently home to an old-established furniture shop; a family-run business in fact. Bonner’s have been trading in Tonbridge for the past 70 years, and their flooring shop, at 165 High Street, is a former antique’s emporium, known as Lawsons.

I’m not sure why the business is ceasing trading, but it might just be because the current owner(s) wishes to retire. There are signs in the window advertising a “closing down sale”, but these have been there for some months now. I am therefore uncertain as to when Fuggle’s will be able to take possession of the premises, but when they do there is a considerable amount of internal building work to be carried out, before they can start selling beer. I have viewed the plans online, and am pleased to report the conversion will be carried out in a tasteful manner which is sympathetic to the obvious heritage of the building. The conversion also involves some sound-proofing work, as there are some residential flats on one of the upper floors.

This coming spring is probably the earliest we will see Fuggles opening, but I’m sure it will be worth the wait. It will be terrific to have a place in Tonbridge which will cater for real beer enthusiasts – sounds rather elitist, I know, but sometimes you have to stick your head above the parapet. 

I will, of course, keep you informed on the progress of this opening, along with updates on the continually evolving pub scene within the town. In the meantime, I would like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Prosperous and Peaceful New Year.

Sunday 18 December 2016

"Beer Burnout"

The end of the year is fast approaching and once again I find myself in a rather reflective mood. I will save the summary of “My Year in Beer” until January, but picking up on a recent blog theme, I see that I’m not the only one who’s feeling a bit jaded.

Over at Total Ales, Matt Curtis was complaining about “beer fatigue”, as it seems that sometimes you CAN have too much of a good thing. Well no shit Sherlock, but I’m not talking about over-indulgence here, and neither was Matt. I know what he was talking about, as I’ve experienced the same thing myself on several occasions in the past.

“Beer fatigue” is what happens when you no longer find beer enjoyable. You don’t dislike, but you do feel that it’s not giving you the same pleasure it once did. I found that these episodes usually coincided with my return from a foreign holiday, where I’d been drinking some fantastic beers. Back on home turf, I would find much of the local beer tasting dull and un-interesting; especially in comparison to what I had been drinking whilst away.

These episodes generally lasted a week or so, but sometimes a little longer. They always pass though, along with the mood associated with them. Personally I feel the term “beer burnout” is a more accurate description, and this I think has been Matt’s problem. On his own admission, he has spent much of the past year travelling extensively; primarily to major beer destinations where he obviously got to drink some truly amazing beers.

Coming back to Blighty is like coming back down to earth with a huge bump and “beer burnout” is pretty much inevitable. Matt even went on to say that after drinking all these world class beers, he didn’t think the majority of British beer is good enough to compete.

It took a response from veteran blogger Tandleman, to put things in perspective when he said, “As you get further along the beer journey you realise that the perfect beer, or even the next great beer, is just a will o' the wisp. Beer’s for enjoying and drinking.” I couldn’t agree more, as it seems that many beer lovers become so caught up in the “thrill of the chase”; that search for the elusive holy-grail of a “supreme” beer, that they miss out on what’s available on the way – often right in front of their noses.

As you get older you appreciate that life is much more about the journey than it is about the final destination. If you rush to get somewhere, without taking time to see and enjoy what’s available along the way, you will inevitably miss out on much of what life has to offer. This applies as much to beer as it does to life in general, but is often lost on the new generation of beer enthusiasts because of their rush to move onto the next “in thing.”

A post I wrote, back in September, made the point that like the Emperor’s New Clothes, devotees of the new, the novel and the downright bizarre, will sooner or later get tired and will inevitably end up suffering from “beer burnout.” Tandleman is right; beer is for drinking and enjoying. It is essentially a long drink best enjoyed in the company of friends or like minded individuals, and whilst beers at the cutting edge of what’s possible in a brewery will always have their place, the pursuit of something different, just for the sake of it, is a road which will eventually lead to nowhere.

By writing this I don’t wish to denigrate, in any way, the enthusiasm of the younger generation of beer enthusiasts in their pursuit of beer excellence. On the contrary I admire their keenness and zeal. I can remember acting with much the same sense of urgency in my desire to sample as many of the UK’s remaining cask beers, when I first discovered the delights of “real ale”.

I though am much further along the beer journey, described so succinctly by Tandleman, and I have learnt to savour the moment, rather than rushing on to try the next new beer, or the latest “in thing.” The younger generation will find this out for themselves, and my message to them is this doesn’t mean the end of trying to push the boundaries of beer. Instead you will find yourself appreciating beer all the more, and even beers you might consider as dull and boring, can have their place, given the right context or occasion.

To finish on a high note, Matt Curtis made the point, in his post, about the inherent value in a beer's “sense of place.” This is something I whole-heartedly agree with, as there is nothing quite like enjoying a world classic beer on its home patch. To use just a handful of examples, a nicely chilled glass of fresh, unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell, served up in the cavernous beer hall-cum-restaurant attached to the brewery in the city of Plzen takes some beating; even though I can enjoy the virtually the same beer in bottled form from my local supermarket.

Similarly, whilst I have a couple of bottles downstairs of the excellent Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen; Bamberg’s finest "smoke beer", I doubt they will taste anywhere near as good as the two Seidla’s (half litre glasses) I enjoyed, of the same beer, in the city’s wondrously unspoilt Schlenkerla Tavern, back in June 2015. 

Finally, a mug of Harvey’s perfectly balanced Sussex Best Bitter, freshly drawn straight from a cask, and served with its characteristic loose head, in the public bar of the Cricketers at Berwick, nestling in the shadow of the South Downs, is another of life’s pleasures, but this time much closer to home. The same beer, served up in one of Tonbridge’s pubs, somehow isn’t quite the same. All these examples surely represent the very pinnacle of beer enjoyment, and are for me what makes travelling and beer hunting such a joy.

Friday 16 December 2016

Sun, Sea and Sand in the Maldives

Sun, sea & sand
I have several posts that I’ve written recently, which haven’t been published  because they’re awaiting appropriate photos. I wrote a while back about the importance of illustrating a post with decent and high quality photos, which are relevant to the subject being discussed, so until the opportunity arises to get out and take a few shots, these posts will remain under wraps.

In the meantime, here’s an old article I came across the other day, whilst tidying up my growing number of Word documents. It’s about a holiday I took, nine years ago, to the Maldives. I’m not sure why I originally wrote it, although I do remember publishing a much truncated version on Trip Advisor. There is very little mention of beer in the post, but as this blog is as much about travel, as it is about beer, I thought it worthy of seeing the light of day.

Read on and see what you think, particularly if you’ve always fancied getting away from it all and relaxing in that special place in the sun.

Taking it easy
In March 2007 I spent a most enjoyable and relaxing week in the Maldives. This holiday followed a very stressful six months period where I was working full-time in a new job, whilst at the same time running my existing Off-Licence along with trying to find a buyer for the business. Although we received a firm offer for the shop in October 2006, it took a further four months for the various solicitors to sort out the legal side of things. There was a lease involved, which for us had to be wound up, whilst a new one agreed for the ingoing tenants. The business itself also had to be sold – goodwill, turn-over etc, the stock valued and the new owners briefed and trained on the various aspects of running the shop. I had hoped to complete the sale by Christmas but hadn’t planned on our solicitor disappearing for practically the whole of December! (Nice work if you can get it!)

Tropical sunset
A recently retired friend agreed to manage the shop during the day whilst I was at work. However, I still had to work evenings and weekends, manage all the ordering and make frequent trips to the Cash and Carry to purchase stock etc. Looking back I’m not sure how I managed it, but somehow I did, and by the end of January the sale was complete. We were absolved from our responsibilities under the lease, and after paying our legal fees and those charged by the business transfer agents for finding our buyer and selling the actual business, we were left with a bit of money in the bank. Not much money mind you, but at least we hadn’t lost on the affair.

A holiday was definitely in order and a lazy relaxing one at that. The Maldives seemed to fit the bill perfectly. One of my regular customers had holidayed there on several occasions and although he and his family were keen scuba-divers, he thoroughly recommended it as a place for just chilling out. as well.

Equator Village
Even whilst I was waiting for the sale to go through I had been searching on-line for the best deals to the Maldives. I found that unlike most of the other holidays I have arranged, the Maldives is one place where you really have to book a package, rather than trying to arrange the flights and accommodation separately. I had a budget figure in mind but found it quite difficult finding a package that fitted the bill. Eventually I secured what I was looking for through First Choice Holidays, but although I was online at the time it was necessary to speak to one of the company’s advisers by phone, in order to complete the booking.

The helpful lady at the other end of the line sorted me out an all inclusive package to a resort called Equator Village on the Island of Gan, in Addu Atoll. A quick look at the map revealed that this is about as far south as you can get and still be in the Maldives. The rep had already told me that I would be crossing the Equator, so that sounded worthwhile in itself. We agreed dates, she confirmed the price, I confirmed my credit card details and that was it. I had just over a month to wait before departing for seven days of sun, sea and sand.

The big day eventually dawned and I made my way to Gatwick leaving plenty of time to catch my early evening departure. The Monarch Airbus A330 plane was full, but left on time. Ahead was a 10 hour flight through the night, arriving at around 10am local time, but five in the morning by my reckoning! Fortunately, after the in-flight meal and in-flight film – Casino Royale, I fell asleep. When I was awakened for breakfast, at what by reckoning was three o’clock in the morning, sunlight was streaming in through the cabin windows, heralding the bright tropical day that lay ahead.

A couple of hours later the captain announced that we would shortly be making our approach to Male Airport. Male is the capital of the Maldives, but the international airport, which is the main entry and exit point for visitors to the islands, lies a mile or so off the coast on what is totally re-claimed land. It was hazy as we made our approach, so I didn’t see that much, but after making a faultless landing, our plane taxied back to the terminal and after the aircraft came to a halt we got ready to disembark.

Took my chances on a big jet plane.............
The first thing that struck me on exiting the aircraft was the extreme heat. Having left a damp and rather cold England behind, I wasn’t prepared for either the heat or the humidity. After disembarking we walked across to the main terminal which, thankfully, was air-conditioned. Our passports were stamped by a rather scary-looking immigration officer, and after that it was across to baggage reclaim.  It seemed to take ages for my suitcase to appear on the carousel, and I was beginning to think that it had not been loaded on the plane, when thankfully it turned up. After that it was through customs. We had been warned that it was prohibited to bring certain items into the Maldives. The list included alcohol (the Maldives is a Muslim country), drugs (that went without saying) and pornography – but their definition of pornography also includes most so-called “lads magazines”, as well as anything remotely “hard-core”.

As I had none of these items in my case I was not too concerned, and more to the point was not picked out to be searched anyway. Once through to the arrivals hall I spotted a man carrying a card bearing my name. “Mr Bailey, please come this way quickly”, he said “your transfer flight is waiting to depart”. Having just passed through arrivals, my guide hurried me back to departures. Fortunately it was only domestic departures, but he was correct, the twin-engine, propeller-driven plane was due to depart shortly. What followed was a piece of amusement, as after my main suitcase had been weighed and checked in, I was instructed to step onto the scales, complete with my hand baggage, to be weighed as well! After that, it was up the steps and onto the plane.

Never let them tell you that they're all the same.........
It was a 90 minute flight to Gan, and as I had a window seat I was rewarded with spectacular views of the hundreds of small, coral islands that make up the Maldives. The slight haze, and the high altitude for such a small plane, spoiled the view slightly, but as we approached our destination and came in low over the palm trees, I could see just what a tropical paradise awaited me. As I mentioned earlier, Gan is situated south of the Equator, so before landing, we were each handed a certificate to commemorate our crossing.

For many years, the island of Gan was home to the Royal Air Force, during the time in which the Maldives were a British dependency. A large concrete runway, capable of accommodating large transport planes had been constructed, because the base was once an important staging post in the supply of Britain’s far-eastern interests, such as Hong Kong. Although the RAF departed in 1976, the air-strip is still in daily use with two daily connecting flights to the capital. The authorities have constructed a large, modern airport terminal with the idea of allowing direct international flights between this remote, southern part of the Maldives and the rest of the world. The RAF connection did not end at the airport, as Equator Village, the resort I was staying at, was formerly the NCO’s quarters.

The bar
Myself, plus a few fellow Brits were picked up from the airport by the resort’s mini-bus. Once checked in and shown to my comfortable, air-conditioned, chalet room, I couldn’t wait to don my shorts and get out exploring the resort. I was just in time for lunch, and was shown to my table by Ibrahim , who would be my waiter for the duration of the holiday. Ibrahim asked me where I was from, and when I told him England, he said he would sit me with some other English guests at dinner that evening. He explained that most of the guests were from Germany, with only a small contingent from the UK.

I enjoyed a couple of cold beers with my buffet lunch of chicken soup, followed by tuna with saffron rice. Unfortunately the only beer available at the resort was a canned one, imported from Indonesia and brewed by a subsidiary of Heineken called Bintang.  Although I count myself as something of a beer connoisseur, I wasn’t really expecting much else. Instead I was looking forward to trying some interesting cocktails come the evening!

Swimming pool - minus the bats!
After lunch I walked along the beach before venturing out to one of the small souvenir shops, just outside the compound gate. I bought some postcards and sat out in the veranda area of the bar writing them out, trying to make the folks back home jealous. Later on I decided to give the resort’s swimming pool a try, which was a nice way to cool off. The water was just the right temperature, and afterwards, as I relaxed on one of the many sun-loungers around the pool, I was slightly alarmed to see what appeared to be some huge bats flying around the tall palm trees that fringed the complex. I later learned that these creatures were fruit bats, completely harmless, but possessing a wingspan of up to four feet! It was a good job my wife wasn’t with me as I know they would have really freaked her out!

At dinner that night, Ibrahim was as good as his word and sat me with a couple from Bristol called Tony and Anne. I recognised them from the flight over from Male. Tony had been stationed on Gan 30 years ago, during his time in the RAF, and was on a nostalgic visit back to the island. It was interesting to hear him describe over the next few days, what had changed on the island since he was last there. After dinner, I sat in the bar with him and his wife for a while, before retiring to my bed at 9.30pm to catch up on some much needed sleep.

I must have been tired, as I didn’t wake up until 8am the following morning. I hurriedly washed and dressed and rushed down to breakfast. I was pleased to see that the weather was hot and sunny as this after all, was what I had paid to come all this way for. The chef cooked me a nice omelette, which I enjoyed with some mushrooms and frankfurter-type sausages.

Afterwards I borrowed a bike from reception and set off to explore a bit more of the island. I was allowed to keep hold of this bike all week; parking it up on the veranda outside my chalet when it was not in use. It had a handy basket on the front, but no gears. This was not a problem though as the island is to all intents and purposes flat as a pancake, but it was extremely hot and humid. I purchased a sun hat from one of the souvenir kiosks, as well as a bottle of water. I cycled one way as far as the airport, before heading in the other direction across the concrete causeway leading to the neighbouring island of Fedhu.

The imaginatively-named Bushy Island
It was far too hot to cycle any great distance, so I returned to the resort and spent most of the day relaxing on a sun-lounger beside the pool, sliding in to the water every so often to cool off. The pool had its own bar which one could swim or wade out to, complete with submerged concrete stools. Sitting on one of these, whilst enjoying a cold beer, or fruit juice, was a great way to relax and was another reason I had come to the Maldives in the first place.

The resort’s management were certainly keen to ensure their guests didn’t go hungry, as between lunch and dinner tea and cake were on offer. Despite doing a fair amount of swimming, and taking care not to stuff my face too much, I still managed to pile on several pounds during the course of my stay.

Pick your own
I soon worked out that dinner each evening followed a theme; the first night had been barbecue night, with the second night being Asian night. Over the course of the week we also were treated to Italian and Chinese nights as well as “Pan-grilled flambé” night. That night, after an excellent chicken curry, we met up with another British couple from the Isle of Man. They too had been on the same connecting flight from Male, and were joking that my late arrival had nearly caused the plane to be delayed. This time I stayed up a bit later, in fact it was gone midnight by the time I left the bar.

I have mentioned a couple of times previously that this was a chill-out holiday, and that’s exactly what I did, spending much of the time relaxing by the pool, and leaving the bike riding until the sun was starting to set. I did do a bit of snorkelling, having borrowed a mask plus set of fins from the German couple in the adjacent chalet, but found it difficult to see much owing to the fact I need to wear glasses in order to see things that are more than a few feet in front of me!

Local street-view
So that was it basically. I spent most of my stay swimming, sun-bathing, eating and drinking, plus the odd bit of cycling and snorkelling. Included as part of the package were a couple of excursions; one was called “Island Hopping”, the other was a night-fishing trip. The first excursion was a trip in a flat-bottom boat, complete with canopy to shade us from the sun, across the still waters of the lagoon, to one of the other islands that make up Addu Atoll. The highlight of this part of the trip was encountering a school of dolphins, who entertained us by swimming right up to the boat and practically jumping right out of the water. We landed on one of the islands and were taken on a brief tour by one of the guides. All I remember was the intense heat and lack of shade, although we did walk to a beautiful and secluded beach.

Beach barbecue - note complete absence of shade!
After that it was back to the boat and a short voyage to the uninhabited Bushy Island. To reach this small sandy islet, we had to transfer into a smaller boat and were taken across in relays. A couple of people swam over with one of the guides, but  these people were obviously much stronger swimmers than me, besides I had my camera with me and I didn’t want to get that wet. The idea behind our visit was to enjoy a beach barbecue. A cut-down oil drum provided the barbecue itself, and I got the impression this was a permanent fixture, left on the island by the tour guides for this very purpose.  The guides had brought with them a whole tuna fish, caught and prepared the night before. They slowly roasted the fish over hot charcoals and served it up with some pasta in tomato sauce that they had also brought along for the occasion.

My chalet
Despite its name, there wasn’t a scrap of shade on Bushy Island, and most of us spent our time immersed up to our shoulders in the warm azure-coloured waters whilst waiting for the food to be prepared. Some large golfing umbrellas were provided in each chalet, presumably for the rainy season, so my two English companions and I had had the foresight to bring them along as sun-shades. We sat huddled under then for protection against the ferocity of the early afternoon sun, before going back into the water to cool off after our meal. Afterwards, the transfer back to the boat took place as on the outward voyage.

Enjoying a cold one!
The night fishing trip involved taking the same boat out across the lagoon, just before sunset, and anchoring just off the reef. We were then each provided with baited hook attached to a length of fishing line, wound around a plastic bottle to lob over the side and wait to see what took the bait. I had the usual luck I have each time I go fishing i.e. I caught nothing! Several people did manage to haul in some reasonably sized fish, including a rather nasty looking Moray eel that was quickly dealt with by two of the guides. Despite my lack of fish it was a great experience being out on the lagoon at night and trying to identify some of the unfamiliar constellations of the southern sky.

One thing I ought to mention is that my stay in the Maldives was just a few days away from the Spring Equinox. Gan is situated practically on the equator, and thinking back to my school geography lessons I remembered that at midday the sun would be directly overhead at this time of year. It wasn’t quite, seeing as the equinox was still a few days off, but at noon it was plain to see that the sun cast practically no shadow!

Homeward bound
After a fantastic week of rest and relaxation I had an early morning connecting flight back to Male, before boarding the plane back to the UK. The return flight seemed to take an age, and what’s more we were greeted with sleet showers when we arrived back at Gatwick – welcome to reality!

I would certainly recommend visiting the Maldives. Our winter and early spring (November – April) are the best times to visit when this is the dry monsoon season with blue skies and virtually wall-to-wall sunshine. Between May and October the hot days are frequently interrupted by storms and tropical showers. There are literally dozens of resorts to choose from, ranging from top-of-the-range luxury accommodation to more basic and down to earth resorts similar to where I stayed. In between there are places to suit all pockets and tastes. Most resorts are much closer to the Maldivian capital, Male, and transfer to then is often by boat, or sometimes sea-plane! I would definitely recommend going for an all inclusive package though; otherwise restaurant and bar costs will soon mount up. Wherever you stay though I am certain you will have a fantastic time.