Thursday 31 August 2017

A perfect English summer's day

As I sit typing at my computer, whilst watching the rain lashing against the  window, it’s hard to believe that just a few days ago the country was basking in the heat of the warmest Bank Holiday weekend in 50 years.

Looking back on that all too brief glimpse of summer, it’s worth noting that there were plenty of beer-related activities taking place over the long weekend. With family visits taking priority on the Saturday, and playing catch-up on the domestic front on Bank Holiday Monday, Sunday was blissfully free of commitments, apart from joining some friends from my local CAMRA Branch on a walk to a rather lovely, but often over-looked country pub.

Four of us boarded a bus in Tonbridge to make the short journey to Hadlow;  a large village which I have written about before. Our plan was to walk to the tiny hamlet of Dunks Green, near Plaxtol, and to spend a couple of hours at the picturesque Kentish Rifleman pub, before returning to Hadlow. We would then have time for a drink at the Two Brewers; a Harvey’s pub, just a short hop from the main square, before catching the last bus back to Tonbridge.

The bus dropped us in Hadlow, at the far end of the village, from where we were able to take a footpath that leads slowly up towards the Greensand Ridge. We have walked this way on several previous occasions; the latest being exactly a year ago, but each time we notice something different. This time it was the walnut trees laden with still ripening nuts, on the slope leading up towards Oxen Hoath House. The latter is a Victorian mansion which now functions as a conference centre.

The former Artichoke Inn
A short while later we reached the sadly closed Artichoke pub at Hamptons, and couldn’t help reflecting on the loss of this fine old attractive inn. The pub is now a private dwelling, but in its time it was a really popular venue, despite its isolated location. I certainly have happy memories of the Artichoke, and remember enjoying a drink there with my wife, in the early days of our relationship; when we were still courting.

Crossing the lane in front of the pub, and skirting the grounds of a rather attractive property, we descended through woodland towards a ploughed field. At the bottom was a double row of very sad-looking poplars; their leaves prematurely brown and dry. Quite what disease had affected these magnificent trees was uncertain, but they were in a sorry state, and some had already been felled.

Before reaching the lane which leads up to Dunks Green, we came across a lady picking cobnuts. The area around Plaxtol was once the centre of Kentish nut-growing, and at one time there were some quite extensive plantations of Kent Cobnuts; a larger, and some would say tastier, variety of hazelnuts. The examples being picked were growing wild, but we noticed that this lady had gathered a decent amount.

This part of Kent was formerly a centre for paper-making, on a pre-industrial scale, and on the way to the pub we passed Roughway Mill; one of the former paper-mills. In nearby Plaxtol, the Papermaker’s Arms pub commemorates this once thriving industry.

We arrived at the Kentish Rifleman shortly after 1.15 pm. It wasn't a long walk, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was sufficient to work up a decent thirst. Waiting sat at one of the benches at the front of the pub, was our branch social secretary who, whilst unable to join us on the walk because of family commitments, had driven over to join us for a couple of beers.

The Kentish Rifleman is an attractive old building, which dates from the early16th Century. It has been well-restored following a serious fire back in 2007 which almost completely destroyed the roof, and caused extensive damage to the rest of the building. Apart from the photo’s hanging in the public bar, showing the fire at its height, you would never know that such a catastrophe had befallen the pub.

Stepping inside into the coolness of the public bar, we noticed the Rifleman had four cask beers on offer. These were the two regular beers - Harvey’s Sussex Best and Whitstable Native, plus Tonbridge Golden Rule and Westerham Endeavour Single Hop, as guests. Most of us opted for the Golden Rule, a well-hopped, pale golden beer with the relatively low strength of 3.5% ABV. It was cool and refreshing, and it well deserved a rating of  4.0 NBSS.

Later on I gave the Single-Hop beer from Westerham a go. This  slightly stronger, and slightly darker beer came in at 4.5% ABV, and scored 3.5 NBSS.  We had been at the  pub the best part of an hour, when we were joined by a member from Tunbridge Wells, who’d caught a later bus and had then walked over from Hadlow, following roughly the same route as us.

Spotted on the walk back
Two members of our party treated themselves to lunch. The rest of us resisted, having brought a few rolls with us for later on, but I have to confess the Rifleman’s roast dinner did look rather good, as did the dessert of Salcombe Ice Cream! Whilst we were sitting there, the landlord popped out for a brief chat. He knew we were from CAMRA and was pleased to see us. His beer certainly came out highly rated, if my scores are anything to go by. The pub had been quite quiet that day, but having said that there still seemed a steady stream of people coming and going.

We left just after 3pm, as we wanted to get back to Hadlow in time for a pint or two at the Two Brewers. We took a different, but still familiar route, following the course of the fast flowing River Bourne. The river provided a source of power for the mills which one populated this valley but nowadays, apart from the odd farm on the tops of the hills, the Bourne Valley is practically deserted.

We entered Hadlow from the west, finding our way through the maze of residential streets to the village centre. The Two Brewers was reasonably busy, although whether most of the punters had come for the live Premier League match being shown, is open to question. One rather tetchy woman, sat at the bar, moaned at my friend to get out of the way, as she couldn’t see the game; he was only trying to get a round of drinks in.

Fortunately the landlady was far more hospitable, and came over for a chat with us later. She even plonked a couple of bowls of roast potatoes, left over from Sunday lunch, on the table in front of us. She told us she was from Liverpool, but had spent a considerable amount of time living in South Africa. The Two Brewers  was her first pub, and by all accounts she is making a real success of this pub, which has had a something of a chequered history in the past.

The beer was in fine form and it was good to have a pint of Harvey’s XX Dark Mild in good condition; 3.0 NBSS. I ended up with a half of Lewes Castle Brown Ale, which was in reasonable condition, but a little warm; probably from having been lying in the pipes all day. Harvey’s Sussex Best and Hadlow Bitter were the other beers, for those wanting something a little more mainstream.

After drinking up, we wandered back along to the main square, in time for the last bus back. I can think of few better ways of spending such a fine English summer’s day, as a walk in the idyllic Kent countryside, followed by a few pints with friends at two equally idyllic pubs.

Monday 28 August 2017

It's a matter of taste

After a long period of what seems like never-ending experimentation, could it be that brewers are finally running out of inspiration? There does seem to have been a desire, amongst some, to shock by attempting to marry together totally different flavours in a way that simply doesn’t work; even with the best will in the  world.

Allied with this is a willingness amongst a significant number of beer geeks, to embrace some of the stranger concoctions with a sycophantic acceptance which borders on obsequiousness, even though they know in their heart of hearts that certain combinations are never going to work. To say that there is rather more of a hint of “the Emperor’s new clothes” about this, would be an understatement.

Most people could name the four main tastes which the human tongue is capable of differentiating; namely bitter, sweet, sour and salt. Certain tastes combine well, such as sweet and sour, and bitter and sweet, but others do not; the chief one being a combination of sweetness and saltiness.

I should perhaps have known this before picking up a bottle of  Maritime Salted Caramel Porter 5.5% in M&S the other day. Instead I had been looking forward to trying this beer, so imagine my disappointment after cracking it open to find that the added “Belgian-inspired twist of rich, salted-caramel” didn’t work at all. Combining salty and sweet flavours on this occasion, was a dismal failure, which did lead me to wonder, what  a respected brewer like Meantime, who produced this beer exclusively for Marks & Sparks, was doing?

Unfortunately this is not the first time I have encountered beers with an odd (off-beat is being too polite!), combination of flavours, but rather than something turned out in a railway arch, I have to say the culprits have often been some of the more mainstream and established brewers.

A while back, I purchased three bottles of Bateman’s “Craft Beer” from Morrison’s; a supermarket I rarely use, simply because the company have no stores in this part of Kent. I wouldn’t normally have bought them, as they looked rather "gimmicky," but as they were priced at just 99p each, I decided to give them a go.

I didn’t drink them straight away, but when I got round to opening them I made some notes. Unfortunately, I have to report that with the exception of one of them my initial feelings were correct. Anyway, here’s what I wrote at the time.

Bateman’s Orange Barley 6.2%. Brewed in small batches, and in small bottles, this beer forms part of the company’s “Sovereign Range”.  According to the label, “The beer is brewed with zesty oranges and natural cane sugar to deliver unabated sweetness, bite, body and charm”.

The beer was quite drinkable; not too sweet and with distinct orange over-tones. It was an enjoyable beer, which would go down well after a meal, but it wasn’t a beer I would go out of my way to drink.

Bateman’s Hazelnut Brownie 6.3%.  Another beer from the same range, which is described as “Deliciously fudgy, rich and nutty,” and contains Belgian chocolate, plus a hint of cinnamon.

This one was rather too sweet for my liking and, whilst not unpleasant, was again not a beer I would choose to buy.

Bateman’s Mocha Amaretto 6.5%.  Described as, “The perfect blend of coffee pot aroma, almond and chocolate indulgence with the sweetness of Biscotti. This delicately prepared beer is a true homage to all that is wonderful about Italy’s café culture”. This was the third beer from the “Sovereign Range.”

Well the marketing people certainly had a field day with this beer. It was truly awful; so much so that I couldn’t finish it. It was as though someone at the brewery had been playing around with the essences and flavourings, and that someone didn’t really know what they were doing! Although the beer had an air of amaretto, it was cloyingly sweet with a horrible clash of different tastes and aromas. 

Whilst the Hazelnut Brownie was drinkable, and under the right circumstances would not have been unpleasant, the Mocha Amaretto was absolutely ghastly; so much so that I poured most of it down the sink! It would seem that I am not alone in my dislike of this beer and my thoughts about just adding flavours for the sake of it, as an online search brought up this review from Pubcask.

The strange thing is that Mocha coffee flavours can work with beer, and Bateman’s are well aware of this; as witnessed by their  6.0%. Mocha Beer. This beer  is brewed using fresh coffee and chocolate beans which are combined with a rich malt base, and is definitely one of the better coffee and chocolate infusion examples.

On the sweet side, as expected, but with rich chocolate and coffee notes to the fore, this would make a good after dinner beer; or even one to go with the dessert. I would not want to drink more than one Bateman’s Mocha during a session, but it’s not a bad beer to round off the evening.

Dark Star Espresso 4.2%, is another coffee flavoured beer, and like the Mocha Amaretto is one which just doesn’t work for me. Brewed with roasted barley malt and bittered with Challenger hops, freshly ground Arabica coffee beans are added to the copper for a few minutes after the boil to provide a rich and complementary coffee aroma.

The brewery’s strap-line with this one is that “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea!” If you forgive the awful pun, I don't think it's anyone's cup of tea, as I haven’t found a single soul  who admits to liking it, and yet it’s one of the company’s regular beers, and has been part of their portfolio for quite some time. Somebody must like it then, as surely novelty sales alone would be insufficient to make this a viable brew.

The message to brewers then is clear; experiment by all means, but don’t be blinded by what you create. Above all, think things through carefully before launching. The message to beer geeks is similar and basically is don’t get sucked in by the marketing and the associated hype. Use your own experience of  knowing which tastes go together and which don’t and if you then try something, which isn’t really for you, don’t go around saying it’s marvellous, just because (insert the name of your own favourite hipster brewer), brewed it.

Thursday 24 August 2017

Three pubs rescued from closure

Having set the scene in the previous post, I would now like to reveal the three former Whitbread pubs which re-opened recently, after benefiting from having new owners who have lavished a lot of TLC, as well as hard cash, on their purchases.

The first pub, and the one which required a new roof and a major re-build, is the Kentish Hare; formerly the Hare & Hounds. It is located in the centre of Bidborough, a small village just to the north of Southborough,  which has given its name to the ridge on which it is situated. Bidborough Ridge affords spectacular views northwards across the flatlands which lie between the High Weald and the Greensand Ridge, and on a clear day it is possible to see for miles right across and along this attractive area of  West Kent.

There are quite a few large houses on the edge of the ridge, constructed in order to take advantage of the view. As can be imagined, they cost a pretty penny, but it’s hard to envisage somewhere with that sort of outlook. The main, and much older settlement which is Bidborough, lies further back towards the church, and here are the more normal and affordable houses. The 19th Century building which houses the pub, is situated right on the crossroads, next to the garage and opposite the village shop and Post Office.

As mentioned in the previous article, the former Hare & Hounds was bought and restored by a titled lady who lives in the village. This benefactor did not want to see Bidborough lose its only pub, which was also the place where the cricket team congregated after matches, and where villagers could meet up to socialise, and catch up with what is going on both locally, and globally.

The pub’s saviour realised that something more than just a village local was necessary to ensure a viable future for her investment, so she engaged the services of  experienced restaurateurs, Chris and James Tanner. The pair opened their first restaurant "Tanners" in Plymouth,  in 1999, which proved to be the start of a thriving family enterprise

As might be expected, the emphasis at the Kentish Hare is on food, and a step inside reveals that a considerable amount of money has been spent internally, as well as externally. However, with a number of different areas, including a separate restaurant plus conservatory, drinkers need not feel out of place. In fact there is a separate bar area at the front of the pub, where the rather brutalist-looking stainless-steel hand-pulls are the first thing to greet the drinker.

Harvey’s was the only cask beer I recognised, as “Kentish Hare” must be a so-called “house beer”. There is also provision for a “guest ale”. I didn’t find out the identity of the latter, as it was a scorching hot June day (remember them?), when I visited, so unashamedly I ordered a nice cool pint of Estrella Damm, from Barcelona.

I drive past the Kentish Hare each morning, on my way to work, and I also pass the next pub which is situated in the impossibly pretty, picture-postcard village of Penshurst. The village is home to the Leicester Arms Hotel, which is a fine looking, ivy-covered building, dating back to the 16th Century. It is right in the centre of Penshurst, and is just a short hop from the gates of the historic Tudor Penshurst Place; home to the Sidney family and former home of Anne Boleyn. For those old enough to remember vintage Hollywood, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, famously stayed at the pub whilst filming a period drama at the nearby Tudor property.

Penshurst Place attracts thousands of visitors each year, so one would imagine the strategically placed Leicester Arms would be an obvious draw for them. I’m sure that this was the case, but it didn’t stop the pub from being closed, and boarded up for quite a lengthy period.

Thankfully the Leicester Arms has now re-opened, but not before a substantial amount of money was spent on the building, putting right years of neglect by its former owners. Today it offers 13 well-equipped en-suite bedrooms, a restaurant and a function room, but happily the front, right hand side of the building still functions as a pub.

Here there is a bar, which is open all day, offering a warm welcome to locals and visitors alike; something I can personally vouch for. There are two roaring fires for those colder days, and a good array of drinks including local real ales. When I called in, earlier in the year, Larkin’s Traditional, Harvey’s Best, plus a guest ale (an offering from Isfield Brewery at the time), were available  The bar is also dog friendly; as befits a proper country pub.

Although there is a strong emphasis on food, this does not encroach on the pub part of the business, and the bar itself seems to me the same as it ever did. If you do fancy a meal the items on the menu are perhaps a quid or two more than I’d prefer to pay, but considering the surrounding and the location, are not unreasonable.

The final pub in our trio of former Whitbread pubs, is in the opposite direction from my workplace, and is situated in the hamlet of Bough Beech. Like the Leicester Arms, the Wheatsheaf was closed for quite some time. Both pubs were at one time run by the same couple; as mentioned in the previous post, but given the amount of work necessary to bring both buildings up to modern standards, it is perhaps not surprising that this husband and wife team decided to call it a day.

Fortunately a local businessman stepped in, and today is busy serving food and drink to the dozens of tourists who visit the nearby attractions of Chiddingstone and Hever castles. The benefactor in this instance is the same person who has recently taken over the tenancy of the historic Castle Inn, in the nearby National -Trust owned village of Chiddingstone. He is also reported to be a director of Westerham Brewery, which might explain the number of Westerham beers on the bar.

I have visited the Wheatsheaf on a couple of occasions since it re-opened; the last one being a couple of weeks ago. I had a half day off work, so I called in just before 12.30pm. The pub was quite quiet, but it was a Monday and the weather was not exactly what you would call summer-like. Even so I was brave enough to sit out in the rather splendid garden after I had bought my pint of Westerham Viceroy. Other beers on tap included Harvey’s Best, Larkin’s Traditional plus two other Westerham beers; slightly too many in my view!

The pub interior is divided into a number of smaller areas, each with their own individual charm, and has been renovated in a tasteful manner, sympathetic to the character of this old inn. The building is rumoured to date from the end of the 14th Century, and in Tudor times it served as a hunting lodge for nearby Hever Castle. Various clues to its age and previous owners have been uncovered during renovations, and some of these can be viewed in the pub.

Today the Wheatsheaf majors on food, much of it locally sourced. The pub even has its own “kitchen garden”, which the chef and the staff are rather proud of. Given it close proximity to the local historic attractions, it is understandably popular with tourists. The large car-park at the front of the building is testament to this popularity.

Like the other two pubs, there is an area where people can sit and enjoy a drink without feeling pressurised to order a meal. The staff were pleasant and friendly as well, which is always a good sign, so all in all the Wheatsheaf is definitely worthy of a visit.

Like I said at the end  of the previous post, these three pubs have become “destination” eating places, and one is also a thriving hotel. Whilst traditionalists might bemoan the fact they are no longer the simple country alehouses they once were, the fact they are still open and are continuing to welcome both casual and local drinkers, is definitely worthy of applause.

Monday 21 August 2017

New beginnings

Just over two years ago I wrote a post about the pubs of Hadlow; a large village in west Kent close to my home town of Tonbridge. In the article I bemoaned the closure of several of Hadlow’s pubs (three out of six, to be precise), and went on to say that the same thing has been happening all over the country.

Now I’m not saying that this part of Kent is bucking the trend, but over the last couple of years or so we have seen several pubs reopen, after what, in some cases, were quite protracted periods of closure. The fact which binds these pubs together is they are all former Whitbread pubs. This is not entirely surprising, as during the latter half of the 20th Century Whitbread bought up a number of local breweries, including Fremlins of Maidstone, Leney’s of Wateringbury and Kelsey’s of Tunbridge Wells, and in some areas of Kent, held a virtual monopoly on the pubs thereabouts.

Following the 1986 Beer Orders and the major shake-up in the brewing industry which followed, several major players, such as Allied, Bass and Whitbread, left the brewing game altogether. Most of their pubs passed into the hands of pub companies, such as Enterprise, Punch or Admiral. We are all familiar with the story of how these companies borrowed heavily to finance their purchases, and how they eventually ended up totally indebted to the banks.

The Pub Co’s tried to recoup some of this money from their hapless tenants, by charging rents way in excess of anything the likes of Whitbread and the other former brewing companies had been charging, so it is small wonder that many publicans threw in the towel, and decided to quit the trade all together. Two local pubs which fit into this category, were owned by the same husband and wife team. Both had been successful and thriving businesses under Whitbread’s ownership, but three to four years ago, both were forced to close as the owners could just not make ends meet.

The change of ownership revealed  another ticking time-bomb because a substantial number of the pubs acquired as a result of the Beer Orders, had been suffering from a lack of maintenance over the years. Many were centuries old and now required major renovation, not just to bring them into the 21st Century but, in some cases to stop them from falling down altogether.

I’m not sure exactly when the rot set in, if you will pardon the pun! I would imagine that a large brewery company, such as Whitbread, with its tied estate management division would at least have carried out some basic maintenance on their pubs. With the cash-strapped Pub Co’s though, there wasn’t the money for even this basic level of maintenance. Stories circulated locally about pubs requiring  major structural, or even new roofs. If under the terms of the lease, some of the cost of these works was down to the tenants, this would have been the final straw. The area. therefore witnessed a number of once thriving pubs being closed and boarded up; their fate unknown.

Fortunately, not all were lost for good. as in some instances a knight in shining armour, with deep pockets and a rugged determination to bring these former locals back to life, came to the rescue. Slowly, and in some cases very slowly, we began to notice building work going on at some of these pubs. Three specific, and quite prominent examples spring to mind; all of them former Whitbread pubs, and all rescued and restored by sympathetic new owners.

In one noteworthy instance, a titled lady living locally, bought the village’s sole remaining pub, paid for some quite major renovation work to be carried out; work which included a new roof, and eventually re-opened it. She installed a carefully-picked management team to run the place and whilst some might say the pub is far more up-market than it once was, at least it is trading again and providing somewhere for the local community to gather and meet.

Another re-opening involved a substantial pub-cum-hotel, situated right in the heart of a popular tourist village, and virtually next door to one of the region’s most treasured and historic houses which dates back to Tudor times. Again the property concerned required substantial renovation work, which led to its closure over a lengthy period, whilst a suitable buyer was sought, and the necessary work was carried out.

A similar situation applied to another historic old inn, a few miles away; a pub which had been owned by the husband and wife partnership I referred to above. This pub too required substantial work to bring it up to modern day standards, and I’m happy to report this has now been completed and the pub is open once more for business.

Now I am not going to reveal the names of these re-opened pubs; at least not yet, as I would like to write about each one in a little more detail. I will be doing this in a later post, although I’m sure sharp-eyed local readers will know the three establishments I am talking about from the photos.

The common factor which unites the three pubs is their reliance today on the food trade. All are “destination” eating places, and one is also a thriving hotel. Fortunately though, both casual and local drinkers are still made to feel welcome, so whilst they might not be the simple country alehouses they once were, at least they are still serving good beer to accompany the food.

To be continued............................................................................

Wednesday 16 August 2017

GBBF - in need of a little TLC?

Anyone who has been following this blog recently, will be aware that I didn’t attend CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), this year. I won’t repeat my reasons for not attending the Campaign's flagship event, but without wishing to sound smug, I’m rather glad I didn’t.

Last Friday, at Fuggles Tonbridge for their official opening night, I bumped into a friend, and over a few beers, the subject of GBBF cropped up. My friend had attended the festival two days previously, and he was not exactly brimming over with praise for the event. His two main gripes were both cost-related, and were the exorbitant entrance fee and the equally high price of the beer.

GBBF 2012
Now he is not strapped for cash, by any stretch of the imagination, so I was slightly surprised when he said, “I’m a CAMRA member, yet I still had to pay £11 to get in!” With programmes a pound each (£2 for non-members) and glasses £3 each (ok we know this cost is refundable if you don’t want to keep the glass), my friend complained that he’d coughed up fifteen quid before he’d even had so much as a taste of beer!

He then moved on to the price of a pint, saying he’d been charged the equivalent of £4.40 a pint, for a very ordinary, mid-strength stout. On the plus side, the festival wasn’t too crowded, which was perhaps not surprising for mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

Now I know it’s fashionable to knock CAMRA at the moment, but with GBBF remaining one of the largest and most successful beer festivals in the world, what’s not to like?

Food offerings
I went along to last year’s festival and after my visit made the following observations here on the blog. “The organisers have got the whole event off to a tee. Years of practice, and fine tuning, means the phenomenon which is the Great British Beer Festival is a slick, highly polished and ultra-professional event, which runs like clockwork to a well tried and tested formula.”

All good, positive stuff; I even went on to say, “I couldn’t fault it at all. There was plenty of seating; something the festival lacked just a few years ago. There was a huge variety of different food stalls, selling all manner of different foodstuffs - essential at an event like this for soaking up all that beer which people imbibe. There was adequate room in which to circulate and, for those of us who remember the greenhouse effect, back in the 1990’s, from that massive glass canopy at Olympia, air-conditioning! Consequently, customers remained cool as did the beer.”

So what has changed, and as someone who didn’t bother to attend, am I the right person to be asking these questions? Well over the years I’ve been to quite a few Great British Beer Festivals, including the first one at Alexandra Palace as well as the one held under canvas following the fire which destroyed much of that particular venue.

Earls Court 2009
I’ve also attended two excellent GBBF’s in Brighton, plus a disastrous one at the Docklands London Arena. Olympia was always a good venue, and the installation of air-conditioning, which was a real godsend when it eventually happened, makes it ideal. However, I was never keen on the now demolished Earl’s Court, which was more like drinking in an underground car-park. I was also present at the Covent Garden Beer Exhibition, which took place in 1975, and was the forerunner of GBBF.

In short, I’ve been to a fair few festivals, and have seen GBBF evolve from a slightly shambolic, and at times totally chaotic happening, to today’s slick and thoroughly professional event. And therein lies the rub, as having reached this state are the organisers now just content to rest on their laurels and lie back whilst the money rolls in? Is this strategy starting to unwind, and does GBBF offer sufficient to attract an increasingly discerning audience of beer lovers?

Champion Beer of Britain finalists 2016
On the face of it, an event which showcases 900 different beers might be exactly the sort of thing to bring in the punters; but ironically, this vast selection represents far too much choice.  My own observations from previous years, that there are just too many “samey” beers, have been backed up by other observers; one even pointed out, "There were far too many insipid golden ales from too many uninspired micros."

So where were the really interesting beers  and where were the really great beers? The answer appears to be on the foreign beer bars, with the American Cask Bar not only taking the lead, but proving so popular that it ran out of beer by the end of Thursday evening. Isn’t this a rather damming indictment of a festival designed to showcase the very best of British beer? The popularity of the American Cask Bar demonstrates there is a demand for complex and challenging beer, and there is no reason why such beer cannot be British real ale.

GBBF 2013
There were complaints about the live entertainment, which now seems to be made up of cover’s bands and tribute acts. A decade or so I saw the Acoustic Strawbs play an excellent set, and there have been other well-known acts, including Chas'n'Dave, Steeleye Span, the Bad Shepherds, and the band which featured the late John Bonham's sister.

Some have argued that this is down to cost; CAMRA is rumoured to be strapped for cash, and the decision to charge for programmes – especially when they are packed full of adverts which will have more than covered the cost of printing, seems another penny-pinching way of trying to reduce the reported deficit. I also saw a comment that the decor was “minimalist at best”, with just a few banners in support of CAMRA. The same observer claimed that the only splashes of colour and excitement were those provided by the brewery bars!

American Cask Bar 2013
These may sound like pretty minor points, but small changes can often have big effects, and also unforeseen circumstances. Charging what you think the market will stand, or what CAMRA thinks it can get away with, is not going to win the organisation many friends; especially when those prices are often in excess of those charged by many London pubs.

I appreciate the necessity of the entrance fee, given the prestigious nature of the venue and the fact it is in the heart of our capital city, but with the festival relying on an army of unpaid volunteers, surely the double figure entrance fee is unjustified. CAMRA is a large, powerful and influential organisation which is more than capable of putting on a much more inspiring festival if they chose to. With so many interesting and, at times, amazing home-produced beers available, it's disappointing that instead they appear to have kept with the same tried and tested “safe” formula of previous years.  

Foreign beers again finding favour
Playing safe, whilst trying to make as much money as possible,  surely isn’t what GBBF and the Campaign for Real Ale are all about, but it's not too late to turn the festival around. The Great British Beer Festival is a long-established event which commands a large attendance, a massive profile and an enormous amount of goodwill, inspired by the 1,200 odd volunteers who every year, give up their time to ensure the festival is a success. This side doesn’t need to change, but the thinking behind the event definitely does. 

With no overall strategy, or even an attempt to see the bigger picture, the inertia of years of doing things a certain way has left the festival floundering and unsure of its real purpose in an increasingly crowded beer market. So please, let’s  have less bland Golden Ales, Ordinary Bitters and “ordinary-tasting” milds, and let us really celebrate all that is good with British beer. 

If this means less involvement in the ordering process from local branches, with their politics and individual prejudices, and more input from people who really know about beer, then so be it. It may even mean the involvement of a company which specialises in organising events. There are plenty of them about, or is this a step too far?

Sunday 13 August 2017

A rather beery week

Several years ago I wrote a post in which I described my reasons for staying in, and doing my drinking at home, rather than venturing out and socialising with my fellow human beings in the surroundings of a pub. The main reason was there weren’t any decent pubs left in Tonbridge; the town where I have lived for the past 30 plus years. 

Things are changing though with the opening on Friday night of the beer café  Fuggles, as I reported earlier and there are reports of another exciting beer venture opening in the town, later in the autumn.

The past week though has seen me out on more occasions than I can remember for many a year. Monday started with a trip up to London for the British Guild of Beer Writer’s Summer Party. The event took place on the Tattershall Castle; a former river ferry, moored on the Thames, just off the Victoria Embankment. It was a good event, and despite doing my best in order to pace myself, bearing in mind I had to work the following day,  I still felt slightly jaded the following morning.

On Tuesday, I wisely had a day off the sauce, but come Wednesday, I had an invitation for the "soft opening" of Fuggles Beer Café in Tonbridge. Thursday was another alcohol free day, but on Friday lunchtime I called in at the recently re-opened Greyhound at Charcott.

The pub wasn’t overly busy, and seeing as I was on my lunch hour I only had the one beer; a very good pint of Dark star Hophead. The lull gave me a chance to chat to landlord Richard about how plans for the pub’s kitchen were progressing. The kitchen was coming along slowly, was his honest reply, but he has been careful to involve the local authority in the project from the start, thereby ensuring full compliance with the various requirements once everything is up and running.

I felt very rather tired that evening; the sort of usual end of week feeling after a busy time at work. Despite my tiredness I wanted to visit Fuggles Tonbridge again for what would be their official opening. So I wandered along to the north end of the High Street, arriving at around 8.45pm.

Fuggles opening night - photo by Jon Collins
The place was absolutely heaving, with customers spilling out onto the pavement, but I managed to make my way to the bar and even to find a seat alongside one of my CAMRA friends and his son, who were enjoying the excellent beer (and gin, in the case of my friend’s son), in the rather noisy, but good-natured atmosphere of this welcome addition to the town.

I only stayed for a couple; Kent Brewery Simcoe 4.5%  on cask and Burning Sky Aspire 4.4% on keg, but both were good. My friends left a little earlier, so I chatted briefly to the two couples who came and sat at the recently vacated table. They were from the same area of Tonbridge as me, and all were really pleased that the town at last had somewhere decent to drink at.

Saturday saw a friend and former work colleague visiting Eileen and I. Our friend moved to London twenty-plus years ago, following the closure of the company where we all worked. He is a Tonbridge lad though, although he said that after his mother died, he had little reason to visit the town.

We met at the station, and the idea had been to visit a few pubs and for our friend to have a look around the town. Unfortunately he had badly sprained a few ribs and was having difficulty in walking far, so we put  plan B into action and headed for the Punch & Judy; the nearest pub to the station.

Posing tables - naturally
I knew the pub had been closed for renovation, so was not overtly surprised by the smell of new paint which greeted us as we walked through the door; even so was rather surprised to learn from the landlady, that the Punch had only re-opened the night before. It had undergone an extensive re-decoration, on the outside as well as in, but the pub has been given a pleasing contemporary look without distracting too much from its 19th Century origins.

Our friend remembered the Punch as the Gardener’s Arms, and so do I – just about. Back then it was a small, two-bar, back-street local, but now the interior has been completely opened up, and the former conservatory area at the rear has been incorporated into the main pub. This, of course, happened years ago, and the recent renovation was more of a cosmetic paint-job than anything else.

As the sun was at last finally shining, we decided to sit out in the small, courtyard garden area at the rear. This also enabled Eileen, who doesn’t drink btw, to indulge in her own individual vice of a cigarette or two. There were two cask ales available; Harvey’s Sussex Best and Tonbridge Coppernob. I went for the Harvey’s whilst our friend opted for the more local beer. Both were in excellent condition.

We spent several hours catching up, reminiscing and putting world to right, but after a few pints were feeling a trifle peckish. I enquired about, but the Punch’s landlady said they not in a position to serve  food yet, as  they had only opened the night before. A quick look on line revealed that the Forester's Arms, just up the road, had pizza available at all times, so given its proximity to the Punch, we decided to give the place a go.

Eileen didn’t join us, as she had some shopping to do, but my friend and I wandered up to the Foresters, which is the only Shepherd Neame pub in town. Neither of us were strangers to the pub, although my friend’s association with the place goes back 50 years or more.

I had been in the Foresters much more recently; in fact I wrote about my visit here. My friend was impressed by the alterations which had taken place, turning what was once an ordinary two-bar pub, into a bright and airy pub, with a friendly welcome and something for everyone.

We ordered some beers; Whitstable Bay Pale Ale, served up in dimple glasses. We also ordered a pizza each; a small one for me plus a large one for my friend. The pizzas are specially prepared by landlord Tyson Marshall, and were delicious. 

We had one final beer before it was time for my friend to depart, and this time we went for the Whitstable Bay Blonde, which was rather good. After finishing our beers I walked back to the station with my friend and said goodbye. I am sure I will be meeting up with him again, but in London’s Kentish Town, next time.

So ended a rather beery (for me at least), week. Today was spent doing housework, gardening plus a spot of shopping, and tomorrow it is back to work.