Monday, 27 February 2017

A slippery slope?

I’m a little surprised that other writers haven’t picked up on last week's launch, by Fuller’s of an un-filtered, keg version of their flagship ale, London Pride. Described as the company as “the biggest beer launch in a generation”, Fuller’s have unashamedly pitched the new beer at the burgeoning “Craft Beer” market, and believe the new version of London Pride will open up the brand to younger consumers.

London Pride Unfiltered is brewed to the same recipe as cask London Pride, and maintains its current 4.1% ABV. It is then dry-hopped with Target hops for “added character and flavour”, before being centrifuged. The beer is not filtered or pasteurised, and Fuller’s claim this will maintain the taste, complexity and character of the beer, and will leave it as “natural as possible.”

This new variant on a classic beer, will be delivered in 30 litre kegs, and will be served at a teeth-numbing 4 - 6 degrees centigrade (ouch!). The result is a hazy, hoppy, tasty beer in a keg which, according to the company, “Will deliver the quality and flavour consumers expect from a Fuller’s beer.”

London Pride Unfiltered was launched at Craft Beer Rising, in the former Truman Brewery in London’s East End. It marks the first time, since its launch in 1959, that the London Pride name and recipe has been used to diversify the range, and offer a markedly different interpretation to Fuller’s best-selling cask ale.

Using typical marketing speak, a spokesman for the brewery said, “London Pride in cask is a truly great beer and cask ale is and always will be the backbone of Fuller’s beer range. Our excellent brewing team has taken the same great recipe and, by dry hopping the beer at the end, created a beer, in keg, that has balance, flavour and is true to the character of any Fuller’s beer.”

Fuller’s head brewer, Georgina Young, added: “Like London Pride, it still tastes great when you are on your third pint and it’s creating this balance that takes real skill. By only using a centrifuge, we get a hazy beer but retain additional flavour, to give London Pride Unfiltered more of the traditional character that you have in the cask beer than in the conventional London Pride keg version. I’m sure that even those with the hoppiest of taste buds will appreciate such a beautifully smooth and tasty addition to their repertoire.”

I’m not sure what’s meant by that last sentence, and I’m not sure about the whole idea. For starters, it seems strange to leave the beer looking hazy, as surely centrifuging should remove suspended yeast and proteins? I suspect the haziness is a deliberate ploy, to appeal to craft aficionados, used to cloudy pints, and I do question the science behind this.

Before condemning the new beer out of hand, I will at least try a few pints; even though 4 - 6° C is rather on the chilly side for English ale! So if Fuller’s want to invite me for a comparative tasting, they know where to find me!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

In search of the unusual in Munich

As anyone who has been to Munich will testify, the products of the city’s six large breweries are widely available throughout the town. For the record, Munich’s major breweries are Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten, and these six concerns have sole rights to supply the world-famous Oktoberfest with beer.

All is not quite as it seems with these companies as, like in the UK, mergers and takeovers have affected the German brewing industry. We now have a situation where Hacker-Pschorr beers are produced by Paulaner, whilst Spaten beers are brewed by Löwenbräu. Fortunately Augustiner remains privately owned and Hofbräu is owned by the state of Bavaria, and it perhaps no coincidence that beers from the latter two companies are regarded more highly than those from the others.

When I first visited Munich, just under twelve years ago, the chances of finding beers from other breweries were pretty slim; certainly within the city centre, but over the years I have noticed a slow, but steady creeping in of products from the surrounding regions. For example there are now several outlets in the city centre serving beers from, amongst others, Ayinger Bräu, Herzogliches Bräustüberl Tegernsee and Kloster Andechs.

Bräustüberl Tegernsee
On some of our latter visits to Munich, my son and I have enjoyed beers from these three breweries, and have travelled out to the village of Aying, reached by taking the S7 suburban rail line in a south-easterly direction from the city centre; the Alpine town of Tegernsee, with its setting overlooking the lake of the same name, and reached by means of the BOB (Bayerische Oberlandbahn) train from central Munich, and the picturesque setting of Kloster Andechs, on the Holy Mountain, overlooking the Amersee lake. At all three locations we have been able to enjoy Ayinger, Tegernsee or Andechs beers brewed at source; and in picturesque locations as well. An early evening return trip to Aying is quite feasible, but visits to both Tegernsee and Kloster Andechs are really all day affairs, and with time at a premium on our most recent trip, we weren’t able to do any of these trips. I was however, able to track down Ayinger Bräu’s excellent beer, in a couple of unexpected locations.

BMW Head Quarters
On a wet and windy Tuesday, we visited BMW Welt (World); as Matt’s friend Will is not only a car geek, but a BMW fanatic. We enquired about a tour around the factory, and after opting for the only one available – which began at 4 pm, had a bit of time to kill. There are only so many shiny new, ultra-expensive cars you can look out without feeling slightly overwhelmed; although Will would beg to differ, but in the end, even the two boys became restless, so with lunchtime approaching, the two youngsters decided to take the U-Bahn, and head back into central Munich.

Olympia Park
I, on the other hand, decided to stay local and to go for a walk around the nearby Olympia Park. I had read about Olympia-Alm; a small kiosk which originally opened at the time of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Today Olympia-Alm has been transformed into a small beer garden, and at 564 metres above sea level, it is the highest beer garden in Munich. I set off to find it, battling the elements as I walked through the rather windswept landscape of the Olympia Park. After walking the wrong way around the Olympia Stadion, I ended up approaching the artificial hill, where Olympia-Alm is situated, from the rear. Small matter as I was glad of the exercise, and with only dog walkers, plus the occasional runner for company, I was quite happy with my own company.

A wet and windswept Olympia Alm
I eventually found what I was looking for, and discovered that whilst the kiosk was open, there was no indoor shelter and no food available. There was beer though, and it was Ayinger Bräu as well! I already knew this, but good as the beer was, I was glad I hadn’t brought two exercise-averse, twenty some-things with me, or I would never have heard the end of how I made them climb half way up a mountain, just for a beer! The benches and tables looked wet and windswept, but there was a small amount of shelter underneath the awning in front of the kiosk. I shared this space with one intrepid hiker, plus a couple with their two dogs. The latter were drinking coffee, laced with “Bailey’s”, whilst the walker was enjoying a glass of Ayiner Weisse Bier. I went for the Helles, which was an excellent tasting beer with malt very much to the fore.

I only stayed for the one though, as I wanted something more solid inside me. I asked the man in the kiosk, for the quickest route back down to BMW Welt. He pointed me in the right direction and said it was only a 10 minute walk; rather annoying, seeing that it had taken me the best part of an hour to arrive! As I began to descend the artificial hill, I was rewarded with views across the Olympia Park and also across to the complex of buildings which make up BMW’s head office and motor works.

A warming and welcoming lunch
Before meeting back up with Matt and Will, I treated myself to a spot of lunch back at BMW World. A warming bowl of potato, vegetable and sausage soup was just what I needed after my exertions, and by the time I’d finished there wasn’t too long to wait before the factory tour commenced. The € 9.00 price was well worth it for a tour which lasted two hours, and which took in every part of the production process. This included the pressing, welding, painting and engine assembly workshops, followed by final assembly and testing. It also involved a fair amount of walking; 3.5 kilometres as our guide informed us, before we set off. I must have already walked that sort of distance around the Olympia Park before hand!

Hofbräuhaus in full swing
We did attempt to sample some more Ayinger Bräu beer later that evening. Ayinger am Platzl Speisen und Trank, opposite Munich’s world famous Hofbräuhaus, seemed a good bet. Matt and I had enjoyed a few beers there on a previous visit to Munich, but when we arrive the place was heaving. Instead we did the tourist thing and managed to find space for the three of us in the Hofbräuhaus, where the meal was actually very good, and quite reasonably priced, as were the two Maß Krugs of Hofbräu Helles I enjoyed. (The boys foolishly had three each, and were rather silly on the way back to the hotel, but you’re only young once, and sometimes it doesn’t hurt to learn the hard way!).

Wirtshaus Rechthaler hof
I had sort of given up on being able to sample any more Ayinger Bräu, until we spotted the Wirtshaus Rechthaler hof on our final afternoon in the city. I noticed the Ayinger Bräu signs on the yellow-painted walls of this establishment, opposite the Hauptbahnhof in Arnulf Straße, when we got off the bus; so after a spot of last minute shopping, we decided to pop in for a couple of final beers, before taking the coach to the airport. We were glad that we did, as the place was spotlessly clean and welcoming, with an interior decorated in a traditional Bavarian-style, with wooden barrel ends mounted on the wall, animal trophies and historical pictures. We chose one of the high tables close to the window, so we could sit and watch the world go by, whilst enjoying our beers. I sampled the Helles, plus the Altbairisch Dunkles; both were good, with the former being probably the best beer of the trip. Judging by the newness of the décor, I was wondering whether Ayiner Bräu have only recently taken over here. Given the central location of Wirtshaus Rechthaler hof, and the excellent quality of its beer, I would definitely recommend a visit.

If our last afternoon in Munich enabled us to enjoy an old favourite, our first afternoon afforded the opportunity to track down and enjoy a few beers from one of the city’s new breweries. Giesinger Bräu began production, on a small scale, back in 2007, and gradually increased production. We paid the brewery a visit in 2014, when we were last in the city, but this was only to pick up a few bottles. A few years ago, the company stepped up several notches, with a move to a new location and the opening of a new brewery, with a much increased capacity. The latter is combined with a restaurant or Bräustüberl, where it is possible to sample the beers, and have a bite to eat.

The wonder of "Woolies"
We took the U2 U Bahn line south of Munich, to Silberhorn Straße, from where it is a short walk to the Bräustüberl. I needed to withdraw some cash first, and opposite the bank we noticed a Woolworth’s store. Out of curiosity we popped in for a look, surprised to see that this once iconic brand is still trading in Germany. There wasn’t much of interest and, if anything, the range of mainly stationery, household items and cheap clothes, was even more “bargain basement” than I remember the company’s UK stores as being. It was worth a visit though, from a pure nostalgic point of view.

It didn’t take us long to find the Giesinger Bräu complex, which occupies two levels of a building, overlooking a yard, virtually opposite the impressive brick-built church which acts as the brewery logo. We sat in the bright and modern upstairs restaurant, even though we had decided not to eat, due to the fact we would be meeting up for a meal with Will later in the evening. The food looked good though, and because of this, and the excellent beer, it didn’t take long for the place to start filling up.

Beer list - Giesinger Bräu
There were around a dozen beers advertised on the board behind us, although as we discovered, not all of them were available; including unfortunately the Smoky Fox. I started with that rarest of German beer styles, a Märzen which was amber in colour and malt-driven. Matt went for the Feines Pilschen; an unfiltered Pilsner. I went for the Dunkles next, and had it been later in the day, I would probably have tried the bottled Baltic Rye Porter as well. We had a quick look at the brewery on the way out. This is housed on the ground floor, where there is also a facility for the sale of brewery merchandise, and beer for home consumption.

Brewing kit - Giesinger Bräu
That really sums up the interesting, quirky, or out of town beers available in Munich, although with effort it is possible to find others such as Brauerei Erharting, Maisaicherbräu, König Ludwig Schlossbrauerei Kaltenberg and Weihenstephan. If American-style craft- beers, or indeed American imports, are your thing, then a visit to Tap-House Munich, at Rosenheimer Str. 108, should be on your itinerary. I will have to leave my own visit to this establishment for a future trip; one which is more leisurely and one where I have more time.

Friday, 24 February 2017

“Unexpectedly re-available”.

A quick update on the Greyhound at Charcott, which is now unexpectedly back on the market. Last week, owners, Enterprise Inns, put the pub up for sale again, stating it was “unexpectedly re-available”.

The asking price of £360,000 seems a little steep; given the pub has no garden and no car-park of its own. Full details can be found on licensed property specialists Fleurets’ website.

The granting of ACV status to the Greyhound, by Sevenoaks Council, which also occurred last week, has of course, nothing to do with the pub’s “unexpected re-availability”!

Watch this space for further details.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Just back from Munich

Munich is on my list of favourite cities, not just because of its well-known beery delights, but because of its setting in southern Germany, its obvious cultural and artistic attractions, plus, of course, the friendliness of its people characterised by that most German of feelings – "Gemütlichkeit"; described as a space or state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer, but also a sense of cosiness, peace of mind, belonging, well being, and social acceptance.

I have been to Munich on five previous occasions, but always during the summer months; and for good reason. It is first and foremost a summer city, and I have many happy memories of sitting out and enjoying a few beers, under the shade of the spreading chestnut trees in its many and varied beer gardens. The whole city seems to come alive during the summer months, and there is a vibrancy and air of expectation about the place which is hard to put into words.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I accepted my son’s suggestion to accompany him to Munich, during part of his week off during February. The thought that the city’s obvious summer attractions would be replaced by the cold and grey drabness of late February really didn’t appeal, but I knew that Matt had been pushing himself rather hard at work, and would appreciate the chance to unwind, persuaded me; that and the thought that he would be very unlikely to head off there on his own.

I went ahead and booked a few days off work, booked the flights- cheap at this time of year and working out at just £84.00 return on Easy Jet, when travelling with just a cabin bag. I also selected the same hotel that we stayed in back in 2012 and 2014. Job done and with only the airport parking to sort out, everything seemed on track, until Matt’s best friend asked if he could join us.

I had mixed thoughts on this, but Matt was keen, so I said yes, and it was arranged that whilst we would be flying out on the Sunday afternoon, Will would join us the following day. We would all stay until the Wednesday evening before flying back home together. Whilst this wouldn’t quite be the father and son trip I had first envisaged, I still though there was plenty of mileage in it, so whilst waiting for our departure date to arrive, I gave some thought as to the types of places we would want to visit.

Munich’s beer gardens, of course, would be off the list. Those which function as stand-alone establishments would be closed, and whilst there was the possibility that places which are first and foremost pubs, of guest houses, with beer gardens attached, could still be good, I wanted to give a few other places a chance; places which we might not have even entertained during the summer months.

We didn’t stick to a rigid plan; preferring to go with the flow, but what we did find was a city which was far less crowded with tourists than it would have been during the summer months, and a city where we were able to discover a hitherto hidden side. Even establishments like the world famous Hofbräuhaus were far less busy than
we have experienced during previous visits, and we found that the city’s parks and public had a wintertime charm, all of their own.

We didn’t arrive home until very late last night, and with work first thing this morning, there hasn’t been much time to sort out photos or write detailed articles, but in the next post or two, I plan to convey something of the quality and charm we found in Munich, during what is normally one of the dreariest of months.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

A visit to Old Dairy Brewery

West Kent CAMRA had a trip out into the Weald of Kent yesterday, to the lovely town of Tenterden; home of the Kent & East Sussex Heritage Railway and also the Old Dairy Brewery. The latter attraction was the purpose of our visit to Tenterden, and we were there to present the brewery with the award for Best Green Hop Beer of the Festival.

Old Dairy Bullion Green Hop Ale won the award at our own Spa Valley Railway Festival, which took place last October, and as well as presenting the brewery with a certificate, the idea behind the trip was to say thank-you to all the volunteers who helped at the festival.

We didn’t hire a coach, as this means of travel seems to have become prohibitively expensive of late. Instead we made use of the regular 297 bus, which runs between Tunbridge Wells and Tenterden, several times a day. The only drawback is the length of the journey; around an hour and a half, depending on traffic.

Tenterden High Street
It was a perfect day for our trip though, and with the sun breaking through after some early morning mist we were treated to a real scenic journey as we travelled through the part-wooded, part farmland of  the rolling Wealden countryside. We passed through numerous picture-postcard villages; many ending with suffix “den” (Benenden, Horsmonden, Rolvenden etc), plus the odd small town – Cranbrook, before arriving in Tenterden shortly before 12.30pm.

Tenterden is known as the “Jewel of the Weald”; and deservedly so, as with its wide main street, and attractive tile-hung or weather boarded houses, it is one of the most pleasant small towns in this part of the south-east. A preponderance of independently owned shops, combined with an absence of many of the major retail chains, only adds to its charm.

We weren’t due at the Old Dairy until 1pm, so feeling a bumped around after our lengthy bus-ride, plus a little thirsty we headed towards the nearest decent pub. This we found in the form of the Woolpack Hotel; an attractive, part tile hung 15th Century inn, situated between the imposing parish church and its Town Hall. We only had time for one beer, but we liked what we found inside the pub, with uneven bare wooden floors, low ceilings and several different rooms, it was the pub I could quite have got comfortable in. Beer-wise there was Harvey’s Sussex Best, Timothy Taylor Golden Best, Old Dairy Up and Udder (brewed specially for the Six Nations Rugby), plus Sharps Atlantic Pale Ale. I went for the latter, as I only knew it as a bottled beer, and had not come across it in draught form before. It was very good, and certainly knocked spots off Sharp’s normal offering of Doom Bar.

After drinking up, we headed back off along Tenterden’s wide High Street, and then turned into Station Road. The road leads downhill towards Tenterden station, home of the preserved Kent& East Sussex Railway. The latter forms part of the original line, of the same name, which once ran from Headcorn down to Robertsbridge. Although the original line was closed to passenger traffic in 1954,  over the years, parts of the railway have been brought back into use by a dedicated group of volunteers, and it is now possible to travel from Tenterden, down to Bodiam. Work is progressing to restore the section down to Robertsbridge, thereby re-connecting the preserved railway with mainline services. The K&ESR were certainly busy when we walked past, as they were running one of their “Days out with Thomas” events, to coincide with the end of the school half term break.

Old Dairy Brewery occupies a couple of converted World War II Nissen huts, over-looking a yard on the other side of the railway. The brewery moved here in 2014, from their original former milking parlour home at nearby Rolvenden, where they had begun production in 2010. The move included switching from a 5 barrel to a 30 barrel plant, with all the scale-up problems this entailed. We were welcomed to the brewery by Sean Calnan, who is one of Old Dairy’s directors, and by the company's Head Brewer, Glenn Whatman.

Glenn gave us an informative and interesting talk about the brewery and its beers, as well as providing answers to some of the technical questions we asked him. For example, the brewery do not culture and reuse their own yeast; instead they use bought in, freeze dried yeasts, tailored to meet the characteristics of the style of beer they happen to be brewing. Most of the bottling is done off-site, at Eddy Gadd’s Ramsgate set-up; although Old Dairy have the capacity to handle bottle-conditioned beers, as these are produced in limited quantities. Glenn also told us about how he became interested in brewing and spoke with real admiration about Ed Wray, who was Old Dairy’s former Head Brewer, and said that many of their beers had been formulated by Ed during his spell with the company.

No brewery visit is complete without a tasting, or three, of the finished product. The bar, in the reception area, had Red Top and Dark Snow on hand-pump, plus Gold Top and a new brew, produced with New Zealand hops on key-keg dispense. Dark Snow btw, is a blend of Snow Top and Dark Side of the Moo. It came out at 6.5% and worked really well as a blend. The company had also laid on a buffet, for which there was a small charge, but the spread they put on was more than plentiful and certainly helped soak up the beer.

Old Dairy have won numerous awards for their beers, as evidenced by the number of certificates adorning the walls, and we were pleased for them to be adding ours to the collection. We had the obligatory photo opportunity outside, whereby branch chairman, Craig presented Glenn with the Certificate for Green Hop Beer of the Festival.

Glenn (left) recieving Old Dairy's award
Afterwards there was time for a look around the brewery shop, and I think it’s safe to say that most of us bought a few bottles to take home with us. After that it was time to thank Sean, Glenn and the other members of the team who had looked after us, and make our way back up to the High Street in time for the bus back to Tunbridge Wells.

Most of the party alighted outside the Halfway House at Brenchley, for both a comfort stop and a top-up. They were then planning to catch the last bus at around 6.20 pm. I would have joined them, were it not for the fact that later today I am flying out to Munich with my son and his friend to spend a few days unwinding in the Bavarian capital. Apologies therefore, if this post seems somewhat rushed, but I wanted to get it up on the blog before we dash off to the airport.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The message is getting through

Just a quick post to say I was really impressed with the pie I had in my local Wetherspoon’s last night. My son and I had popped in for a bite to eat, following a bit of late night shopping.

Although Thursday is Curry Night at JDW, we’d had a ruby the night before. Neither of us fancied the idea of another one, so Matt opted for a gourmet burger, whilst I went for the beef and ale pie which I’d spotted on the menu.

I was fairly certain that the pie would turn out to be a “proper” one, with the meat filling completely encased in pastry, rather than a casserole in a dish with a slice of puff-pastry on top. Fortunately my hunch was right, and my pastry-encased pie arrived, piping-hot, and complete with mash, peas, plus a small jug of gravy. The beef filling was plentiful, and the meat was nice and tender, and at just £6.29, it was a real bargain.

The Humphrey Bean (Tonbridge Spoons), was pretty full last night, but we still managed a seat in our favourite spot on the elevated section. The beer was good, with Tonbridge Brewery Old Chestnut as my beer of choice. I only had the one, as I was driving, but the beer was in good form and went well with my meal.

I’m pleased to see that the message about “proper pies”  is starting to get through, as this is the third establishment recently, where I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the “real thing”. With luck, the days of casseroles with a lid, are numbered!

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Never say "Never"

With acknowledgements to West Dorset CAMRA

Regular readers of this blog will know my antithesis towards CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide; an annual publication, a perennial best-seller, an important source of income for the Campaign for Real Ale and the inspiration for dedicated people like retired martin and Simon Everitt who heroically trudge the length and breadth of the country in order to “tick off” entries in the Guide.

For several years I have ceased to have any involvement in the, at times, quite fraught selection of pubs for the Good Beer Guide; a situation I am quite happy with after standing down from the committee of my local branch. Despite this, I surprised myself at last November’s Branch AGM when I volunteered to survey an isolated pub, which is relatively close to where I work.

My reasons for doing this weren’t entirely altruistic and were due more to a desire to visit this particular pub, rather than doing my bit to help the branch, but that said, I visited the pub, did the survey and then thought that was that. Last Sunday 12th February was the date chosen for the final selection meeting, and like all members on the branch mailing list, I received an email inviting me to the selection meeting. The email also informed recipients that a total of 38 pubs had been put forward for possible entry in next year's guide, but these need to be whittled down to 22 pubs, plus a possible three reserve entries.

The pub chosen to host the meeting was the Brecknock Arms at Bells Yew Green; a smashing little Harvey’s pub, which is easily accessible by train (just 5 minutes walk from Frant station). I have written about the Brecknock on many past occasions, most recently because it was the venue for our branch Christmas meal. It was considered the ideal pub to host the selection meeting because it is not within our branch area, being just over the border into Sussex. It therefore counts as “neutral territory”. The pub also has an area at the back which can be reserved for functions and, as previously mentioned, is easy to reach by public transport.

I should also add that the Brecknock serves excellent food, and the plan was that those who wished to dine first would arrive shortly before one o’clock, thereby allowing the meeting to commence at 2pm. I had toyed with the idea of going along for a bite to eat, plus a few pints of Harvey’s Old, and then drifting off before the meeting really got going, but as it happened, things worked out the other way.

My son and I are going away next Sunday for a few days, (more about that later). In addition the branch have organised a visit to Old Dairy Brewery the day before. I had put my name down for this trip some time ago, way before our planned short break, so in the interests of maintaining marital bliss and not wishing to forgo too many "Brownie points", I decided that going to the selection meeting might not be such a good idea. I emailed our new branch chairman and offered my apologies, along with my thoughts on the pub I’d been asked to survey.

The chairman replied thanking me for my thoughts on the pub, but his reply also included a comment along the lines that, despite my reservations about the GBG, he would have welcomed my input to the meeting. He also stated he had some views of his own concerning the Guide. Well flattery does sometimes work, so after giving the matter some considerable thought, I decided I would make the effort and go along to the meeting after all. My decision was helped by my wife and I getting the shopping, cleaning and other domestic chores largely sorted the day before. We not only finished this, but I also got most of my stuff sorted out for next weekend’s trips. I then spent the rest of the afternoon and all evening knocking out a couple of blog posts, alongside researching suitable winter-time watering holes in Munich.

By bedtime, despite having achieved a fair bit, I realised I was bored silly, and the prospect of spending another whole day stuck indoors, was not one I relished. So on waking on Sunday morning, I had resolved to go the meeting. The weather was still cold, grey, damp and miserable, meaning there was no chance of doing any work in the garden, so what better to do than take a train over to Frant for a few pints of Harvey’s Old at the Brecknock? Oh, and whilst I was there I could make the odd contribution to the GBG selection meeting.

Eileen wasn’t overly concerned at me going. She was up for a spot of “refurbishing”, and also had some cooking planned, so she didn’t really want me around getting under her feet, and certainly didn’t fancy going along to beer guide selection meeting. Consequently I wrapped myself up against the cold and walked down to the station in time for the 13:41 train to Frant. I bumped into some CAMRA friends on the platform, and we travelled together the three stops, down the line to Frant.

The advance party (those who’d chosen to eat), were already there when we arrived, but there were still a few seats available in the back section of the pub. On tap at the bar were Harvey’s IPA, Sussex Best and XXXX Old Ale. I, of course, opted for the latter, and whilst it would be churlish for me to say it was “sole purpose of visit”, it was in tip-top form, dark, cool and very drinkable There were around a dozen of us present, charged with the unenviable task of selecting 22 possible entries for the guide.

The meeting kicked off on time. In front of us was an A4 sheet listing all 38 pubs, together with their average NBSS scores, plus details of number of people who scored each pub. This would act as our guide, but only in conjunction with reports from the people who’d actually undertaken the individual pub surveys. All those present were free to add their comments or observations (positive or negative), if they wished. It goes without saying that only pubs which had been inspected, and for which a survey form had been filled in, could be considered, so I think this was about as democratic as a GBG selection meeting could get.

The chairman went through the list several times; the first time being where we chose the definite entries. These were the obvious candidates; the pubs which just had to go in and for which there could possibly be no dissent. Nine pubs were thus selected. We then went through the list again, picking out those worthy of further consideration and rejecting those which failed on criteria such as suspect or poor quality beer, change of licensee, rude or “surly” landlord (yes, they do unfortunately exist!), and not meeting CAMRA dispense guidelines (cask-breathers – controversial, but highlighted by the Revitalisation Committee as an area for change).

From the remainder, we then decided to select, by secret ballot, up to three “reserve” entries. As if by magic, once this had been done we were left with the remaining 13 pubs which the majority agreed were worthy of going into the 2018 Guide. It was all really rather painless and almost without controversy. I said almost, as it wouldn’t be CAMRA, and it wouldn’t be GBG selection time if there wasn’t one controversial decision. However, like a Freemason who’s just been inducted into the local lodge, I am not at liberty to disclose what it was, and neither am I free to reveal any of the entries until the Guide hits the bookshops in September!

So, “Never say never”, and on balance I’m glad I made the effort to go along. My overall opinion on the GBG hasn’t altered, although I do agree with our new chairman’s opening remarks, when he said that we need to be mindful of the people who buy and use the guide, and not let our own personal preferences and prejudices influence our decisions, and override the basic principle behind the publication.

As an aside, the importance of submitting NBSS scores was emphasised, as it really does help build up a picture on overall beer quality. This is especially true when it comes to some of the more isolated pubs, or some of the less popular ones, which we rarely get out to. A comment was also made that it is good to receive scores from visitors to the area, as these are likely to be more objective and less biased than those submitted locally. Members were encouraged to do the same when visiting pubs away from West Kent. Despite WhatPub’s relative ease of use, there were a few calls for a smartphone App to be made available.

This part of the conversation went completely over the heads of two people sitting round the table. Technology has obviously passed some people by, and I wouldn’t even have mentioned this if one of them hadn’t specifically asked me to write about it on my blog! I suppose if it brings you your  “15 seconds of fame” then there  is something to be gained from not always following the crowd and being a bit of a dinosaur!

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Interrail 1975. Part Four - Spain, France & Home

White Horses of the Camargue
The previous section of the narrative saw my travelling companion, Nick and I boarding a west-bound train at Marseille station. This would have been mid-morning. We had a lengthy journey ahead of us which would involve several changes of train before reaching our planned halt at the resort town of Benidorm, on Spain’s Costa Blanca.

Our train hugged the Mediterranean coast for some distance, before veering off inland slightly, as we passed through the area known as the Camargue. This area lies between the two arms of the River Rhône, and is Western Europe's largest river delta. It comprises large salt-water lagoons, which are cut off from the sea by sandbars and encircled by reed-covered marshes. It is home to the famous breed of White Camargue Horses, and as we travelled through this region, the hazy sunshine peering through the mists, reminded me of the children’s TV programme, White Horses. My sister, being three years younger than me, was a fan of this series, but all I remember today about the programme was its theme song, performed by a singer called Jacky (real name Jackie Lee).

 Border at Cerbère -
As the morning turned into afternoon and then became early evening, we reached the French-Spanish border at the town of Cerbère.  A change of train was essential here, as the Spanish Railways operate over tracks with a wider-gauge to the rest of Europe. I don’t know whether this was a result of Spain’s isolation from the rest of Western Europe because of its quasi-fascist regime, or whether it was a simple matter of economics, but due to the incompatibility of the rail networks, there were no cross-border trains. 

The change of train gave us a chance to stretch our legs, before boarding a local service bound for the next stop on our itinerary, the city of Barcelona; capital of the Catalan region of Spain; not that this area enjoyed the same degree of autonomy it has today. Generalissimo Franco, had put paid to that when his Nationalist armies had crushed Spain’s democratically elected Republican government in 1938, at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s Spain was very different to the country visited today, by thousands of British tourists; although as events were to prove, the Spanish dictator had only a year or so to live. We, of course, were oblivious to this and I have to confess I knew very little at the time of Spain’s troubled past.

I mentioned that we had boarded a local train, and it was just that – very local and stopping at every small village and hamlet along the way. It was also staggeringly uncomfortable, with hard seats with no head support. Along the way we caught glimpses of Spain’s northern Mediterranean coast, but by the time we arrived at Barcelona’s Estacio de França station, it was dark.

Estacio de França - Barcelona
I revisited the station, during my stay in the city, last March, and wrote about it here. At the time it was Barcelona’s main station, but during the intervening 40 years, a new station has been constructed on the other side of the city, allowing through trains to cross the town, by means of tunnels below the streets. As mentioned in my article, we had trouble boarding what was a very over-crowded train, and only managed to jump on board at the last minute. I don’t remember too much of our journey, apart from having to sit in the corridor for part of the duration.

Sometime the following day, we arrived in Valencia, after travelling through the night. This involved a further change of train, but not before we had ventured into the city to stock up on provisions (bread, water, cheese and tomatoes). Our next train took us high up into the mountains behind the city, as we travelled towards Alicante; our next destination.

It was early evening by the time we arrived and we were supposed to be taking a train on the narrow-gauge railway (FGV) which runs back along the coast to Benidorm. This railway was privately-owned, so was not covered by our Interrail ticket, so after unsuccessfully trying to locate the station, we decided to take a bus instead. Either way we would have needed to pay, and as it turned out the bus was by far the better option.

Benidorm - a lot more built upthan it was in 1975
It was dark when we arrived in Benidorm, and after hunting around, unsuccessfully as it happened, for a campsite, we headed for the beach. A group of pedalos tied up close to the waterline seemed a good place to lay out our sleeping bags and get some shut-eye, especially as my friend pointed out that with a rise and fall in the tide, of no more than four feet, in the Mediterranean, the risk of us getting washed away was pretty minimal. 

Before bedding down for the night we got chatting to a group of revellers who were walking along the beach. It was just as well we did, because shortly after a couple of Guardia Civil officers came strolling in the opposite direction and told us to “clear off”. Had we been curled up in our sleeping bags, I have no doubt we’d have received not just a rude awakening, but probably a night in the cells as well for vagrancy!

We managed to get our heads down, for a short while, on a hillside overlooking the sea, on the edge of town, and then come daylight, found a suitable campsite. I mentioned in the previous post that I had a girlfriend who was working in Benidorm. Like my companion Nick’s girlfriend, she was taking a degree in modern languages at the same university as us, and was spending six months in Spain as part of the course. She had landed a position as receptionist in a German-owned hotel.

From memory I believe we stayed for three nights in the town. I spent as much time as I could with my lady friend, when she wasn’t working and she kindly treated Nick and I to the odd meal, after taking pity on our slightly emancipated state caused by the paucity of our diet. Apart from my brief stop in Cologne, I probably consumed more beer there on any other portion of the trip. My girlfriend had to work one night, so I accompanied Nick to one of Benidorm’s many clubs – there were people handing out free tickets all along the seafront, and once inside the beer was free as well. We met a couple of rather attractive Dutch girls that evening, and whilst I don’t remember their names, I do remember us ending up on the beach. I will leave the rest to your imagination.

It was a sad goodbye when we departed the resort, as I was still rather “loved up”. I must have also been rather tired as I slept for much of the rail journey back through Spain to the French border. Once in France, we caught a fast train to Paris. Time was now close to running out on our month-long Interrail passes, but there was still sufficient left for us to enjoy a few days in the French capital.
We took advantage of a large camping site in the Bois de Boulogne. The sun shone and we spent three wonderful days in Paris, for who could not fail to enjoy this lovely city? We did all the sights, including a marathon visit to the Louvre. I’m also fairly certain we enjoyed some French beer as well. By this time money had well and truly run out. There were no such things as cash cards, or ATM’s back then, and after cashing my last remaining traveller’s cheque I had just about enough cash to see me to the Channel Ports and the ferry back to England.

After checking the ferry times, I sent a telegram (remember them?), to my parents, informing them of my planned arrival in Folkestone the following day. I said farewell to Nick, who was catching a later sailing, in order to squeeze in some last minute sight-seeing, and made my way to the Gare du Nord. I then took the train to Boulogne, and boarded the ferry. When I disembarked at Folkestone, my mother was waiting to meet me, along with a friend she had persuaded to drive her there in order to collect me. I think that after a month’s absence, with only the occasional post card home, she actually seemed rather relieved to see me!

Some background information:

My friend and I used the Interrail ticket to make our roughly circular journey around the continent, by train. The “ticket” came in the form of a small booklet, which was really more of a “pass”. There were various boxes to fill in and have validated. The idea was you entered both your departure and arrival destinations in the appropriate boxes, and then presented your “pass” at the ticket office, for it to be officially stamped, or “validated”.

In order to allow flexibility, it was preferable to complete each stage, one step at a time, and then to get the ticket validated at major railway stations; rather than at small, isolated rural locations. This was common sense really, and we had no problems whatsoever. When a ticket collector appeared on the train, you just showed him or her pass and all was ok. Back in those pre-Schengen Agreement days, there were of course border checks, where passports had to be shown as well; but again these presented no problems.

Today an Interrail ticket allows rail travel in up to 30 European countries, and offers far greater flexibility than it did 40 years ago. For example, you can limit your travel to 7, 15 or 22 days within the month, or you can travel every day during that period. Tickets are priced accordingly. You can also purchase a ticket for a single European country, which allows up to 8 days travel within a month; thereby offering an excellent way of journeying around a specific country, with the opportunity of spending several days in a number of different locations. You can discover more here.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that back in 1975, there was an upper age limit restriction of 26 years old, on Interrail availability. This was later raised to 29, and has now been abolished altogether. With this in mind, and with retirement looming in four to five years time, I might just buy another Interrail ticket and head off on another journey of discovery!


Saturday, 11 February 2017

What difference a penny?

I’ve been a member of CAMRA for over 40 years, and whilst I’ve broadly supported most of its aims over the past four decades, occasionally the Campaign gets it spectacularly wrong. A prime example can be found on the front page of this month’s “What’s Brewing” newspaper, which calls for MP’s to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and ask for a 1p cut in beer duty in next month's budget, which takes place on 8th March.
The campaign for a cut in duty is being spearheaded by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), but CAMRA has also thrown its weight behind it, and is asking members to lobby their MP in support of a 1p cut in beer duty.
British drinkers pay the highest rate of duty in Europe, but what difference would a cut of one penny make?
CAMRA national chairman, Colin Valentine stated that in previous years, the Campaign had been able to secure cuts to beer duty in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and last year, the Chancellor implemented a duty freeze. Mr Valentine highlighted that the UK is still paying among the highest rate of beer duty in Europe at 52.2p on the pint. This compares to other big brewing nations which pay a tenth less than UK beer drinkers such as Germany and Spain, who enjoy their beer at under 5p of duty on a pint.
He concluded by saying that the beer, brewing and pubs sector now supports nearly 900,000 jobs in the UK, and contributes £23.6bn to the economy every year, and that a further cut would help encourage investment, protect jobs and improve confidence in the sector.

Now I’m sure all this is true, and in an ideal world most drinkers would like to see a reduction in beer duty, but a penny off the average cost of £3.40 a pint is neither here nor there. If you will pardon the pun, it really is small beer, and is certainly not worth anyone’s time and effort in lobbying parliament over. I also understand that as a "campaigning organisation", CAMRA needs to be seen as "doing something", but there are other areas where the group's resources could be used to far better effect, than by pleading for beer drinkers to be treated as a "special case".
A lot on his mind
To put things into perspective, I’m pretty certain the Chancellor has far weightier issues on his mind than a trivial and rather pointless cut in beer duty. For a start there is a massive hole in public finances. There are "vanity projects" to be funded, (Heathrow expansion, replacing Trident and constructing hugely expensive nucler power plants*); all this whilst the NHS is in crisis, exasperated by savage cuts to the social care budget. Whatever one’s political persuasion is this really the time to be lobbying for a cut in beer duty? In addition, what difference would a penny make anyway? Especially when previous duty cuts have not always been passed on to customers, but have been pocketed by the brewers instead.
CAMRA then gets on to its other hobby horse, that of encouraging “responsible drinking”. According to the Campaign's logic, this can only take place in a pub, as responsible adults cannot be trusted to imbibe alcohol with any sense of responsibility in their own homes. Mr Valentine states that pubs offer the chance to socialise with friends whilst enjoying a pint, but high taxation is driving people away from community pubs and towards the supermarket and other stores to buy their beer.
This of course, over-simplifies the issue. No-one would disagree that the British pub is a great institution, but it is not just high prices which are keeping drinkers out of the pub, but rather a whole combination of changing demographics and changes in social habits.
The call, therefore by both the BBPA and CAMRA for a reduction of up to £5000 in business rates for pubs across England, in order to alleviate the tax pressure on pubs, is likely to fall on deaf ears, especially in the straightened times the country finds itself in.
I will not be lending my support to this campaign; not just for the reasons outlined above, but because, over the last few months, I have invested an appreciable amount of time corresponding and meeting with my local MP over an issue of far greater national significance. No surprises for guessing as to what this might have been; but from my own experience I found my Member of Parliament very approachable and wiling to listen; even though he was ultimately unable to offer the support I was looking for.
So don’t knock the parliamentary process, at least not at local constituency level (the over-bearing influence of political parties on how MP's vote on national issues, is another matter, and is one of real concern.). It's also safe to say that Members of Parliament do have slightly more important, and rather more pressing issues to deal with than trivial matters, like a penny off a pint of beer!

* Btw, I have no political axe to grind over any of these projects. They just have two things in common; one they are very expensive, and two, can the country actually afford them?