Monday 31 July 2017

Norfolk highways & byways - Part One

It’s nice to get away sometimes, especially when there’s been a lot going on both the work and domestic fronts, so a long-overdue trip up to Norfolk to see dad seemed a good idea. After selecting a free weekend, I booked Friday off; the idea being to spend two nights in the county and to make a decent break of it. Unfortunately my plans for an early departure were delayed somewhat as we ended up having to have a new washing machine installed, and that Friday was the most suitable day.

As it happened the “Know-How” team from Currys arrived reasonably early, and seeing as we’d ordered a built-in “integrated” machine to replace the one which had died, it was well worth paying for it to be installed by a professional team, rather than me crawling on my hands and knees trying to connect the various pipes.

After some clearing up and putting a few things away, it was 11am by the time I left; although it took me another 10 minutes to programme the Sat-Nav! Despite my reasonably early start, I still hit six miles of queuing traffic on the approach to the Dartford Crossing. This seems a regular occurrence, as I got caught in the same place on my previous trip to Norfolk, and on the way back on Sunday, I noticed the same lengthy, northbound queues.

Once through the tunnel, the traffic thinned out (where does it all go?), and I made good progress, but obviously not sufficient to make up for the 40 minute delay. After turning off onto the A12 (not my favourite road) just south of Ipswich, I made my way to the riverside settlement of Pin Mill, and the famous Butt & Oyster Inn; a pub I had wanted to visit for a long time, but had never quite managed to. It was here that the Sat-Nav really came into its own.

I am writing a separate post about this famous, National Inventory - listed pub, so I won’t elaborate further, but I was pleasantly surprised that my visit there only involved a deviation of 15-20 minutes both ways. I took the A14, towards Newmarket, before turning off onto the A140, just before Stowmarket.

For those unfamiliar with the A140, it is an old Roman road, so it is fairly straight, although most of it though is single carriageway, with speed restrictions along much of its length. This was always my least favourite route up to Norfolk, but needs must and all that. During the course of my journey I noticed there were a large number of pubs lining the road; some in quite isolated locations. The term “roadhouse” springs to mind, but most of these pubs looked much older than the “between the wars” establishments which sprang up to cater for the growing motoring trade.

I imagine that most were old coaching inns, which acted as staging posts along this ancient route towards Norwich. There are some quite famous old inns along this road, although not all have survived as pubs. Several appear to have been converted into upmarket gastro-pubs, or even restaurants. For example, the Yaxley Bull is now an up-market restaurant called the Aurberge, the Countryman was once the Bird in Hand and the former Dun Cow, is now the strangely-named Sugar Beet Eating House.

Fortunately traditional pubs, such as the White Horse, the Old Ram and the Walnut Tree still survive, and the Magpie at Stonham Parva, which had a gantry sign spanning the carriageway, has re-opened following a lengthy period of closure. I had noticed many of these establishments on past journeys, and in an effort not to doze off, I started thinking it would be interesting to do a pub crawl along the A140, stopping off at whichever of these old pubs took my fancy. Obviously I would need the services of a tame, non-drinking driver, but if I lived locally a min-bus trip with a group of friends, would be an idea worthy of serious exploration.

I arrived at my pre-booked bed & breakfast establishment shortly before 5pm; having stopped off at a Co-Op supermarket to stock up on a few items such as bottled water – for me and chocolate biscuits for dad. I’d had trouble finding somewhere at a reasonable price, that wasn’t booked up, but with the school summer holidays in full swing, this was perhaps not surprising. My chosen abode for the weekend (I was staying for two nights), was some distance from the Dereham area, where dad’s care home is situated and my sister also lives.

Fortunately I found the delightfully named Meadow Farm Cottage, a cosy and comfortable establishment just outside the village of Mulbarton. I checked into my room, with its view out across the garden and hen coup to the fields beyond, unpacked and then decided it was time to do some exploring.

I knew there was a large Adnam’s pub on the other side of the village, as I had already checked out the locality on Google Maps. The landlady had told me the pub was quite walkable, and that she and her husband quite often went there on foot. It should take around 45 minutes, so I decided to give it a go, and set off armed with a torch, a pre-downloaded route map on my phone and a shower-proof coat. The torch was important for walking back in the dark; not some much to see where I was walking, but to make sure any on-coming cars were aware of me. The coat was essential, because rain was forecast for later.

I found the pub without difficulty, even though it seemed further than I thought. The walk afforded me the chance of seeing Mulbarton close-up, and it reminded me of Swanton Morley; the village where my parents had retired to when they first moved up to Norfolk. Many of the bungalows were constructed in a similar style, and were obviously of the same era (late 70’s – early 80’). More than a few had that tired look about them, which characterised my parents’ bungalow in the later years. I also noticed that several were in the process of being renovated or even extended.

Mulbarton was also considerably larger than I expected, and there were a couple of new housing developments taking place. I noticed that some of these new dwellings were constructed in a Flemish-style, with those Dutch-looking gables which are quite prominent in parts of East Anglia. There is a reasonable sized Co-Op in the village, along with a separate Post Office and convenience store. The impressive, flint-built parish church is the other side of the expansive common area, and it is here that the World’s End pub is situated.

The pub dates back to the 1600’s, and in its time was an important Coaching Inn.  It has obviously been enlarged over the years and today offers fine locally sourced food and drink, along with bed and breakfast accommodation. Adnam’s are the owning brewery, and on entering the spacious main bar, I noticed Ghost Ship and Regatta on sale alongside the staple Southwold Bitter.

I opted for the Ghost Ship, which was in good form (3.0 NBSS), but rather pricey. £4.20 seems more like London prices than what one might expect for rural Norfolk. All the same, I had two pints along with a rather delicious fish pie which was every bit as good as the description on the pub menu.

There were various groups of diners seated in various strategic positions, but I managed to find a table close to the door to the attractive and well-laid out rear garden, where my eardrums wouldn’t be overwhelmed by other people’s conversations. There is also a games area at the far right of the pub, which seemed quite well used. The pub seemed quiet for a Friday evening, and I heard the manager remarking to his colleague behind the bar, that it was a bit of a contrast to the previous week.

Obviously the unseasonably cool weather, we are experiencing at present, hadn’t helped trade, and having to walk back in the pouring rain didn’t really help me either, but I arrived back at the cottage in one piece. I hung my trousers up to dry, although they were still a trifle wet the following morning. I slept like the proverbial log, until being wakened some time after 6am by the rather noisy chickens, in the coup at the end of  the garden.

To be continued…………………………………………..

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Carried away?

The subject of this post is not particularly about beer, although beer does play a part. What I am about to write about is one of the less pleasant sides of human behaviour, and whilst the perpetrators may not even realise  their actions show them in a less than favourable light, I feel it is something worth drawing people’s attention to, and also worthy of further discussion.

The subject is greed, and the context is people’s behaviour when presented with a “free bar”, or “open tab” at a function such as a wedding, firm’s do, or other event where the host will be picking up the bill.

Last Saturday evening, my wife and I attended a bash thrown by a firm of builder’s she does work for. My wife works as a book-keeper, on a self-employed basis, checking people’s accounts and helping them to file their tax and VAT returns. She only spends a few hours a week on this particular company’s books, but she looks after the payroll, and the boss obviously appreciate what she does for the firm.

Once a year, the boss throws a summer party, which he claims is a much better idea than a Christmas do. I wouldn’t disagree, as it is certainly nice to be outside enjoying some alfresco drinking and eating during the warm weather.

Last Saturday was the second such event we have been invited to. The venue was the same as the previous year, and was the Carpenter’s Arms; a slightly upmarket pub, just to the north of Tonbridge, on the road towards East Peckham. I wrote about the pub here, and this year I am pleased to report that this time around the beer offering was enhanced by the addition of Dark Star Hophead, to go with the Harvey’s Sussex, plus the ubiquitous Doom Bar.

We arrived a little late – 90 minutes late to be precise, as somehow Eileen had got the times wrong! It didn’t matter, as the party was in full swing and, more importantly, there was still some food left. The food was excellent, with mini-burgers and those posh freshly-cooked scotch eggs, with the bright yellow, runny yolks, some seriously good quiche, chicken drumsticks plus sausage rolls. The beer was good too, although the Hophead was rather on the cold side, even for my liking.

The guests had gathered on the walled patio, over-looking the road at the front of the pub. We sat ourselves down at a vacant table in order to enjoy our food, before moving over to join the rest of the assembly. We managed to squeeze on at the end of one of the tables, and after a few introductions, joined in with the conversation plus the general and, at times quite lewd, banter (we are talking builders here!).

I made a trip back to the bar to pick up a couple more drinks, and it is here that I need to point out that the company were running an “open tab”. I had another pint of Hophead, whilst Eileen, who doesn’t really drink, had a lime and soda. 

I returned with our drinks and sat back down again. It was then that I noticed the two pints of Becks (they were badged glasses), on the table close to where we were sitting, hadn’t been touched. Actually, that’s not quite true as both were around a third empty. What I should have said, they hadn’t been touched, or even claimed, all the time we were sitting there.

I also noticed a full bottle of Orange J2O, sitting there with the cap off, but otherwise untouched. When the barmaid came round collecting empties, I noticed quite a few other partially full glasses which were also unclaimed.

Later in the evening, the champagne was brought out and there was a rush for that. I didn’t bother, as I was quite happy with my beer and didn’t want to mix drinks either. Shortly before 11pm, the company boss called time on the tab. This seemed to induce panic in the two girls sitting opposite us, who rushed (staggered actually, as they were quite drunk), into the pub to “Get a few shots”.

To me this really was taking the piss, and a real abuse of the host’s generosity. Along with the umpteen drinks left unfinished on several of the tables, plus the partially drunk bottles of wine, still in their cooling buckets, these cost of these wasted items must have amounted to a fairly significant amount.

Don’t get me wrong this was a good evening out, and both Eileen and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The food was excellent and the company, on the whole, good. Drink wise I had four pints of Hophead, whilst Eileen had a slimline tonic, a lime and soda plus a coffee. Neither of us wanted, or indeed needed any more. Now I am not trying to be virtuous, as I’m certain had we wanted more drinks we could have had them, and that applied to everyone; but there does come a point where people’s greed takes over, and they start ordering more alcohol, just because they can. Given the amount of half-consumed drinks scattered around the place, I was glad it was not me picking up the tab, but I also felt annoyed that the host’s generosity had been taken for granted and abused in this fashion.

Back at work on Monday, I related Saturday night’s experiences, and my thoughts about people taking the piss, to a couple of colleagues. One said he had been a guest at a wedding recently where there WAS an “open bar”, but drinks were restricted to beer, wine or non-alcoholic ones. Those wanting spirits or shots were required to dip into their own pockets.

He said that virtually everyone was happy with this arrangement, which seemed eminently sensible to me. It mirrors the policy adopted in recent years by the company I work for. After putting up with people playing “drinking games” (usually involving shots), at the firm’s Christmas Party, a similar edict, limiting drinks to beer, wine and soft drinks, was issued. The result, less loutish behaviour and drunkenness, along with a greatly reduced bar-bill at the end of the evening.

It is this last point which is probably the most important, particularly in the context of last Saturday night. The company hosting the party is family owned, and like most small businesses sometimes struggles to pay its bills. Whilst it obviously makes for good employer, worker and supplier relations, at the end of the day these events have to be paid for out of company profits. It makes little sense for people to indulge in the sort of irresponsible or wasteful behaviour witnessed the other night; especially when such actions might place the future survival of the company they work for, in jeopardy.

I am all for people having a good time, but when they start taking advantage in this sort of fashion, I get rather annoyed. My wife who as previously mentioned, looks after the accounts, hasn’t yet seen the bill, but we were guesstimating that it would  be quite substantial. As with all these things there needs to be  limits set. My company has learned this over the years, and I’m sure others are starting to do the same.

People’s behaviour though, never ceases to amaze me and when there’s a heady mixture of alcohol involved, it is perhaps not surprising they sometimes end up getting carried away.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Beer festivals - a few thoughts

A few weeks ago, the Pub Curmudgeon posted an article on his blog, entitled “Festival Fatigue”.  Four years ago I also published an article, with an identical title, where I pursued a similar line that beer festivals are becoming two a penny, and their appeal is starting to wear a bit thin.

I would argue that the unique selling point of CAMRA-style beer festivals has definitely been eroded, especially as at this time of year they are two a penny. A friend and CAMRA colleague of mine compiles a regular update on branch socials, and other beer-related activities, and emails it out to local branch members, normally twice a month.

One of the largest sections on the mail out is the list of forthcoming beer festivals. During the spring and summer months, it seems like virtually every well-known free-house in the area is running its own beer festival; along with the ones organised by the local football/rugby or cricket team. It would be good to see a bit more communication between pubs and sporting organisations in order to avoid these events clashing, although you know full well that this isn’t going to happen.

Summer weekends in general, and Bank Holiday weekends in particular are obviously popular times to pick, but with so many festivals going on there’s a danger attendances will be diluted across the board, and the individual impact each one might have had will be lessened. 

I know from my own experiences that there’s an enormous amount of hard work which goes into running these events, so I wouldn’t knock them for one moment, but like Curmudgeon I do wonder whether the popularity of some of the larger festivals has now peaked. They have either become victims of their own success, or perhaps people just prefer something a little less formal and a bit more intimate.

This is particularly true in my case, as over the last few years I have become less and less interested in attending major events such as CAMRA’s flagship Great British Beer Festival, and  I have decided to give the 2017 event a miss altogether. I have also just missed this year’s Kent Beer Festival, preferring in both instances something a little more personal and more manageable.

The only beer-related festival I have been to this year was the recent SIBA South East Festival, which I wrote about here. I enjoyed this event because it was local; I could walk there, I could take my family along and I knew I would also meet up with quite a few other people who I know.

The outdoor setting also helped, as did the fine weather, as to me there’s nothing finer than sitting out in the fresh air, whilst enjoying a few beers in the presence of friends or family.  Two of the finest festivals I have been to in recent years also took place outdoors.

In 2013, by son and I attended Annafest, an event which takes place every July, in woods above the small Franconian town of Forchheim; a town which is situated roughly halfway between Nuremberg and Bamberg, and which is blessed with four breweries. Two years later, in June 2015, I visited Nuremberg itself for the Frankische Bierfest; a celebration of all that is best in beer from the local region.

Annafest fitted the pattern of most German Beer Festivals, with an emphasis on local beer. The four Forchheim breweries Hebendanz, Greif, Eichhorn and Neder all brew a strong Bock beer especially for the festival called Annafestbier, and a number of other local breweries supply brews of their own as well. The beer is only served in one litre Maß Krugs, which makes sampling more than a few different beers in the course of a session not really advisable. It is certainly a world away from the half, or even third pint measures, beloved by “tickers” at GBBF and other UK festivals.

There are however, other attractions such as fairground rides, various stalls, plus six stages which feature a wide range of different musical acts, to accompany the prolific beer drinking. The festival takes place at the “Kellerwald; a site occupying a wooded hillside, just on the edge of Forchheim. There are 23 Bierkellers (beer gardens really), most of which only open for Annafest, although a small number are open all year.

Fränkisches Bierfest, on the other hand, is different as it offers a choice of beers, from around 40 different breweries, drawn from all over the Franconian region. In this respect it more closely resembles a typical British CAMRA Beer Festival, rather than those found in other parts of Germany. The festival’s outdoor setting, in the moat which runs below the impressive bulk of Nuremberg’s Kaiserburg, or Imperial Castle, was also another plus point for me.

In 2015,  there were 38 breweries represented; all but one based in Franconia. Each brewery had its own stand, and virtually all offered between two and four different beers. There was plenty of seating (UK festival organisers please take note!), with the polished wooden tables and benches which are typical of most German beer gardens. There were also plenty of pub-type umbrellas, providing some much needed shade - essential in 30˚ of heat.

Food was the usual German fast food offerings of sausages (either Nürnberger or Thuringer) in bread rolls, grilled mackerel or pizza. On my visit I sampled 11 different beers, which included various Hells, Vollbiers, Landbiers, Kellerbiers, plus the odd Dunkles and Pils. All were good; with some served direct from wooden casks, although most were served from pressurised kegs.

There was a great party atmosphere, and whilst most festival goers were within the 20-30 year age bracket, there was still a good sprinkling of people from other age groups. What was particularly pleasing was the number of female visitors, and I would estimate that women made up roughly 35-40% of the attendees.

The central location, free admission and stunning setting, all added to the overall appeal of Fränkisches Bierfest, making it very much a festival I want to visit again. If you want a beer event which combines the best of both German and British festival traditions, then this one should definitely be on your agenda.

A number of UK Beer Festivals are also outdoor events; the best known one being Peterborough. I think I am correct in saying, Peterborough is the second largest festival in the country, after GBBF. It is certainly the largest such event in the UK to be held outdoors. I have never been, as for some strange reason I have always overlooked this festival. I will add it to my list, although I have probably left it a little late to attend this year’s event.

For many years, Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA have also held a very successful outdoor festival, and this event used to feature regularly on my calendar. In many ways, this one day, local festival may be better than Peterborough, as it is smaller and therefore more personal (see below).

I’ve gone slightly off topic, as the post started out as highlighting the large numbers of beer festivals, and the fact their appeal may be starting to wane. I also described my own growing dissatisfaction with some of the larger events.  I find it pointless to have several hundred different beers on sale (Olympia is boasting 900 this year), as the paradox of too much choice is actually less choice. Such festivals are just too large and too impersonal for my liking.

I went on to describe my preference for local beer festivals and my growing preference for outdoor events, both at home and abroad. I am also appreciating more the importance of socialising at these events; as opposed to just seeing how many new beers one can “tick off”.
Things are obviously changing in the world at large, and I think that over time we will see a shift away from the large-scale events, where the object is to cram as many beers in as possible, to festivals which major much more on beer appreciation as well as learning about the different styles of this multi-faceted drink.  

Thursday 20 July 2017

Not on a school night

I wouldn’t exactly say I have led a sheltered life, so it may come as a surprise to learn that the saying, presumably in fairly common usage, “Not on a school night” only pricked my consciousness a few years ago. The saying is often used in the context of having commitments the next day, especially in the morning; commitments such as work, important meetings or deadlines which prevent one from doing something (usually fun and sometimes even downright stupid) on that night.

“Not on a school night” is said to owe its origins to children having to go to bed early because school was the next day, but adults now also use this expression informally to describe the evening before a day when they have to get up to go to work.

Several posts ago I wrote a CAMRA-related article about the problems currently facing Europe's most successful consumer organisation which, despite rising levels of membership, is seeing active participation in the Campaign, falling to an all time low.

My own situation is that after 30+ years of involvement at committee level, with my local branch, I have taken a back seat and am just an "ordinary member", who can pick and choose which meeting or socials I attend, without having to feel guilty about "not doing my bit". I actually stood down two years ago, and whilst I was not as heavily involved as some, it still felt like a great weight having been lifted off my shoulders; liberating, if you like.

It is now, as an ordinary member that I can start to appreciate why attendances at branch socials are at an all time low (certainly within my own branch, that is). Historically, many branches held socials mid-week, during the evening, as this was when pubs were most likely to be at their quietest. This meant members could socialise without getting in the way of the pub’s regular customers, but a by-product was a welcome boost in mid-week trade for the pub.

When I first became actively involved with CAMRA, back in the late 1970’s, attending mid-week evening socials was not a problem. I was 40 years younger and a regular pub-goer. Having two to three pints of an evening was not a problem; sometimes I might stretch it to four and still feel OK the following morning. In addition, my job was not as arduous back then and neither did it carry as many responsibilities, all of which meant I could turn up at the pub in question, enjoy several pints and then be fine for work the following morning.

Times have changed, my body has obviously changed too and I find myself no longer able to consume the amount of beer I did 30-40 years ago. This is not a bad thing, and I’m certain I am healthier, and wealthier for it. I also fairly certain that I’m not the only person whose alcohol consumption has declined over the years; but one thing I’m not at all certain about is whether the thinking and the strategy behind many CAMRA branch socials has changed in keeping with people’s altered drinking patterns.

With this in mind, I am becoming more and more of the opinion “Not on a school night”, especially as I find that drinking more than a couple of pints, leaves me feeling nowhere near as bright and alert as I should be the following morning.

There is another reason though why I am not so keen to venture out on a weekday evening, and it boils down to having my dinner when I get home from work. We normally eat at around 6pm, which is the time our son is normally home from work. It might sound a lame excuse, but by the time we have finished eating, washed up, had a cup of coffee and then relaxed for a while, I don’t particularly feel like going back out again; especially after a busy day at work.

Meetings and socials, organised by my local West Kent CAMRA Branch, have traditionally kicked off at 8pm. This situation came about because the former branch chairman worked in London, so would aim to arrive at the pub straight off the commuter train.  Getting something solid inside him beforehand didn’t seem to matter.

I am the complete opposite, as I don’t like drinking on an empty stomach. Perversely, I don’t enjoy my beer as much either if I am too full up; so rushing out to a social,  straight after dinner, especially if it is a train ride away, is not my idea of fun. If I have a beer at home, I will normally wait until around 9pm, by which time my body has had time to at least partially digest my meal.

I have been known to turn up to socials at this sort of hour, but I tend to restrict my attendance under these circumstances to purely local locations. It certainly isn’t worth making a train journey that late in the evening, particularly when it’s an early start for work the following morning.

Now if other folk feel and act the same way as me, then it’s likely they too won’t be over keen to turn out on a cold January night, especially if there’s some travelling involved. So is it any wonder that attendances at CAMRA socials have fallen off, particularly if they fall on a weekday, or the location is a rural one.

In these sorts of situation, the saying, “Not on a school night,” seems to make more and more sense.

Sunday 16 July 2017

Greyhound romps home

Some good news to brighten up your Monday morning. The Greyhound at Charcott, which was closed back in January by owner Enterprise Inns and earmarked for conversion to a private dwelling, re-opened for drinkers on Saturday afternoon.

Regular followers of this blog will be aware that the pub had been bought from Enterprise, by local couple Richard and Fran Gilliat-Smith  back in April. The pair have spent the last 3 months carrying out an extensive refurbishment, and in some cases a restoration, following years of only basic maintenance by both Enterprise and previous owners, Whitbread.

Most days, my regular lunchtime walk takes me past the Greyhound, and judging by the number of builders skips outside the pub, plus the number of different tradesmen’s vans, it was fairly evident that the refurbishment was going to be very thorough.

On Sunday my son and I walked over to see for ourselves. We caught the train from Tonbridge to Leigh; calling in at the village shop to pick up a few bites to eat on the way. The Greyhound is only open for drinks at the moment, as further work is still required on the kitchen. Richard and Fran plan on having the kitchen open by the middle of next month, once the work is complete and they have found a suitable chef.

Our walk took us through Leigh churchyard, from where we picked up the path which skirts the perimeter of the Hall Place estate. Unfortunately, as the path turned into an area of woodland, we found the massive trunk of a recently fallen oak tree blocking the way. With a fence on the one side,  and dense undergrowth on the other, we were forced to make a detour, but with the aid of  an OS Explorer Map, this was not a problem, and some 90 minutes after leaving Leigh, we found ourselves in Charcott.

We were both looking forward to a pint when we reached the Greyhound, and after stopping briefly to say hello to friends Jon and Claire who were sitting outside, entered the pub. I must say the new owners have done an excellent job on the place; the bar counter and floorboards have been stripped back to reveal the natural wood, whilst the walls have been painted white, above a lower half of pale blue. The Greyhound always had a bright and airy feel to it, and the colour scheme has really enhanced this.

To tempt us there were three cask ales on the bar, in the form of Larkin’s Traditional, Tonbridge Blonde Ambition alongside Dark Star American Pale. I opted for the latter, whilst son Matt was tempted by a pint of the recently re-launched Hofmeister. The 21st Century version is a far cry from the ersatz lager brewed by Courage back in the early 1980’s.

Brewed at an unnamed brewery in the heart of Bavaria, using natural mineral water and locally grown barley and hops, the new Hofmeister Helles Lager is a vast improvement on its 80’s namesake. Matt is too young to remember the original, but I am not, and after trying the beer for myself, pronounced it genuinely Bavarian.

We took our drinks outside, and sat down with our friends. There was a good churn of customers, with the numbers slowly increasing as the afternoon wore on. Being a country pub, the Greyhound is dog-friendly, which was just as well when several people pitched up with their hounds in tow.

The garden at the side also appeared popular with families, and when landlord Richard, fired up the barbecue, there were hot dogs and burgers for all who wanted them; on the house!

The secluded side-garden
Our friends departed shortly before  3pm, but Matt and I stayed for another. This gave me a chance to try out the rather quirky gents toilets, with the urinals fabricated out of converted milk churns. I also managed a brief chat with Fran, who was obviously pleased with the way the pub has been received during its first couple of days being open. She  remarked that I’d now be able to pop in for a drink at lunchtime, instead of furtively peering through the window.

Just before we departed, we were joined at our table by the couple who run the nearby bed-and-breakfast establishment at Charcott Farmhouse. They were really pleased that the Greyhound has re-opened, as not only does it mean they have their local back again, but as soon as the kitchen reopens, they have somewhere close by to recommend their to guests for an evening meal, or simply just a few pints of locally-brewed beer.

I am also pleased to see the Greyhound open once more, and I’m certain it will do well under its new owners. The only thing is I might have to vary the route of my lunchtime walk, otherwise the pub could prove a trifle too tempting!

Wednesday 12 July 2017

SIBA South East Beer Festival 2017 - at Tonbridge Juddians

A festival of superlatives would be the best way to describe this year’s SIBA South East Beer Festival, which once again was hosted by Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club. This was the 11th such event and, as in previous years, the festival took place in a spacious marquee erected in front of TJ’s clubhouse.

For me, the best aspect has always been the family nature of the festival, with the club’s large marquee opening out onto part of the playing area, giving plenty of room for people to sit out and soak up the sun, along with the beer. I missed the opening Friday evening session, but on Saturday afternoon my wife and I headed down to the rugby club, where we met up with her two nieces, one of their partners, a few friends and the odd dog.

We brought our folding chairs along with various items of food to enjoy with the beer, and with the weather staying fair (wall to wall sunshine, in fact), it was a question of applying plenty of sunscreen and trying to stay cool. The majority of festival goers were sitting outside enjoying the fine weather, leaving plenty of space inside the marquee and ample room to move about and peruse the rows of different casks. There were also a number of live acts lined up, to entertain the crowds.

Before the festival throws its doors open to the public, the beers are judged. This after all is a contest for places in the SIBA SouthEast Region Competition.  The number of brewers exhibiting this year was 62; down slightly on last year’s total of 74. Between them they mustered 187 different cask ale across nine separate categories,  and were sourced from brewers in the counties of Berkshire, East and West Sussex, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Kent, London and Surrey, which together make up the SIBA South East Region.

The tasting and judging of the beers takes place earlier on Friday, and I know several people who volunteer as judges each year. I was asked to judge as well, but declined due to a combination of work commitments, along with the fact I prefer to drink and enjoy my beer, rather than attempting to pigeon-hole and assess it against others. Besides, I am not overly bothered as to which beers won awards in the various categories, although I am obviously pleased for the individual brewers.

As in previous years, all beers were priced at one token per half pint, regardless of strength, which certainly made life easier for the mathematically challenged amongst us. Tokens were priced at £1.70 each. I didn’t go overboard on the sampling, but I enjoyed most of the beers I sampled and the ones which really stood out were: 

Five Points XPA 4.0% – from Five Points Brewing; Skyline American Pale Ale 5.3% from London Brewing Co and Signature Pale 4.1% plus Backstage IPA 5.6%, both from Signature Brew.

The above were all pale, well-hopped premium bitters with that refreshing, citrus-like bite. With temperatures in the high twenties, these types of beer early hit the spot in terms of their refreshment and their thirst-quenching properties.

We stayed until around 9pm, just as the sun slowly began to sink behind the trees at the fringe of Tonbridge Sportsground. It was as fine a summer’s evening as one could wish for, and the perfect end to what had been a most enjoyable day. This annual beer festival really has come into its own, and has been taken to heart by the good townsfolk of Tonbridge. It is now firmly fixed in the local social calendar, and is talked about long after each event – surely the ultimate accolade!

As ever thanks go to Tonbridge Juddians, and all their hard-working volunteers, for once again, putting on such an excellent and highly enjoyable festival, and to the brewers from  SIBA South-East , who for provided such a fine range of beers.

Sunday 9 July 2017

It's more than just a numbers' game.

It’s back to the "numbers theme" for this second short post about the maxim “More is not necessarily better.” This time I want to talk about the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), and what appears increasingly to be a numbers game for an organisation once described as “Europe’s most successful consumer movement”.

In the previous article I referred to  “Channel Draught”, the magazine published by Dover, Deal and Sandwich CAMRA Branch. I picked up a copy of this excellent and informative publication, whilst in Dover last week, and in the “National News” there was a snippet about CAMRA and its growing membership.

West Kent CAMRA members - anyone under 50?
Apparently membership of the organisation continues to increase, and has now passed the 185,000 mark. CAMRA now has more members than any of the UK’s political parties; with the exception of the Labour Party. With an annual increase in members of just under 10,000 the Campaign now ranks amongst the country’s top membership organisations.

But is this fixation on numbers necessarily a good thing? Is CAMRA concentrating so much on increasing its membership that it has taken its eye off the ball in other areas? Most importantly, are the people who are rushing to join CAMRA in their droves, the type(s) of people CAMRA wants or indeed needs? Are they the people who will take the organisation forward, and will take up the mantle, and the burden, currently carried by an increasingly aging, and sadly dwindling, group of active members?

I had a conversation along these lines a couple of weeks ago, whilst attending a function in London. I was in a pub, with a group of beer writers, and I was leaning  against the bar talking to a person who, like me was a former activist within his local CAMRA branch. Unfortunately I can’t remember his name, but with a similar background we had much in common when it came to discussing the Campaign for Real Ale.

The new and the old. Tim Page (L), Michael Hardman (R)
CAMRA’s obsession with numbers cropped up on a number of occasions, but neither of us could quite pin-point whether this has arisen following the appointment, in November 2015, of Tim Page as CAMRA’s new Chief Executive, or whether the Campaign had embarked on its membership crusade beforehand. Tim, who has a background of working for various charities, does seem to be concentrating very much on increasing CAMRA membership, and his appointment does seems to have raise a few eyebrows and ruffled a few feathers. This may just be due to people not liking change, but there has been some criticism recently of a lack of direction within the organisation.

The much vaunted “Revitalisation Campaign” seems to have run out of steam, and kicked into touch. It’s findings, which were not exactly revolutionary, will be debated, and presumably voted on, at the 2018 Member’s Weekend & AGM, which will take place in Derby.
In the meantime, CAMRA seems to be struggling at grass-roots level, despite the large increase in membership. If proof were needed of this, the very same issue of “Channel Draught” contained an advertisement for a new Branch Pubs  Officer, to replace the current incumbent who will be standing down at the branch AGM. The ad also advised of a number of other vacant positions on the Branch Committee, including those if Treasurer and Social Secretary. It went on to warn that if these vacancies were not filled, the branch would struggle to operate and the branch might even “become defunct and close.”

Pensioner's outing? West Kent CAMRA  on a day out
Unfortunately my own local West Kent Branch are in exactly the same predicament. Our former long-standing chairman stood down at last November’s AGM, due to ill health, and his replacement has also advised, that because of business and family commitments, he will not continue as Chairman beyond this year’s meeting. We have also not had a functioning Social Secretary for the past six months; as again the former incumbent, who did an excellent job carrying out this vital, but often thankless task, also stood down last November.

With no-one to fill these key roles, the branch will be rudderless, and the danger is that West Kent CAMRA Branch could also struggle and ultimately fold. We have over 600 members on our books, but we are lucky to see half dozen of then at branch meetings and socials.

Where are all these other members who CAMRA have recruited recently? Are they just prepared to pay their subs, get their Spoons Vouchers and then flick occasionally through the pages of “What’s Brewing”? We could certainly do with some of them coming forward, although to be fair, we do get all sorts of people turning up to help at our annual beer festival, run in conjunction with the Spa Valley Heritage Railway each October.

So in the end, the Campaign for Real Ale is much more than just a game of numbers, and to draw this piece to an end, I wish to pose a couple of questions:

  1. “Will the findings of the Revitalisation Exercise offset the alarming decline in active members, due largely to increasing age, by inspiring the large numbers of younger people who have joined in recent years, to become more involved?” 
  2. “If this doesn’t happen, can CAMRA continue purely as an “armchair” organisation?”

I don’t want to pre-empt anything, but I’m fairly certain I already know the answers.