Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Eleven - Fremlins of Maidstone (& Faversham)

I was prompted to resurrect this article, which I first wrote some time ago. It appeared, in part, in the “Gateway to Kent Pub Guide”, produced by my local West Kent Branch of CAMRA, in conjunction with the neighbouring Maidstone and Gravesend branches. It concerns Fremlins of Maidstone who, in their heyday were the largest of the breweries in Kent.

The story begins in 1861, when Ralph Fremlin acquired an almost derelict brewery, in Earl Street Maidstone, from the executors of Mr John Heathorn. Ralph was a deeply religious man and his beers were produced for the family trade only. This was because his principles ruled out the purchase of public houses. Ralph Fremlin became a pioneer in the supply of beers in bottles and gallon jars, and the brewery's range of products was remarkable. 

Fremlins main product was pale ale which became an increasingly popular drink, as public demand changed away from the dark porter style beer, and in order to facilitate the sale of the company’s beers, branch offices were opened in London and other towns in the South-east of England. By 1881 Fremlins had stores in London, Brighton, Rochester, Hastings and Guilford, and had a workforce stood of over one hundred including eight coopers.

New up-to-date premises were built in 1883 and a few years later Fremlins began supplying pale ale to the Courage brewery in London, becoming one of the largest brewers of pale ale in the country. From the 1890`s the firm were also brewing lager and this became a success in its own right.

In the mid 1920’s the company, which was now known as Fremlin Brothers Ltd, started to acquire its own public houses. This began with the lease of the tied estate of Leney & Company of Dover and Flint & Company of Canterbury. This was followed by the acquisition of their Maidstone neighbours, Isherwood, Foster & Stacey in 1929.

Fremlins then cast their net further afield, taking over Adams' Brewery in Halstead, Essex in 1939 and Harris, Browne's Hadley Brewery at Barnet a year earlier. Their biggest acquisition though occurred in 1949, when they purchased Faversham-based George Beer & Rigden, and adopted the company’s slogan of “Kent’s Best”. The former Rigden brewery in Faversham was closed in 1954, with all brewing taking place in Maidstone, but the plant reopened in 1961 to meet increasing demand.

In 1960,  following a deal with Whitbread, Fremlins started supplying the 189 pubs belonging to Frederick Leney & Sons of Wateringbury, although Whitbread remained in control of  the Wateringbury brewery. 

The Fremlins elephant  lost its freedom seven years later, when Whitbread bought the business with its 800 or so licensed properties. Fremlins, in common with many other regional breweries, had gone in under the “Whitbread Umbrella”; the organisation set up by Whitbread to offer security and protection from takeover. In 1967, Whitbread acquired a controlling role, and the company assumed the title of Whitbread Fremlins.

Whitbread had began a policy of association with local and regional brewers ‑ the so‑called "umbrella" policy, a decade or so earlier. Under this arrangement companies concerned about the possibility of take‑over became associates by offering Whitbread a minority share-holding (usually between 25 and 35 per cent). Whitbread were normally asked to nominate a representative to sit on the company's board, and in return for the protection offered, together with technical and marketing advice, the company agreed to stock certain Whitbread products, notably bottled beers.
Having to stock Whitbread bottled beers had an immediate effect on Fremlins own range of bottles which, at the time of the takeover numbered nine bottled beers. The range of draught beers was also cut back (more on that later), although for a while things continued much as they were before. 

The brewery entrance 1980
It therefore came as a bit of a shock when, in 1972 the closure of the Pale Ale Brewery in Maidstone was announced, along with the transfer of all brewing operations to the former George Beer & Rigden Brewery in Faversham. The reasons behind this decision were unclear, but in his autobiographical account of his fifty years at Fremlins, entitled “Under the Elephant”, former brewery worker, Percy Jeffrey writes that the original plan had been to re-build the Maidstone brewery. This was later cancelled in favour of transferring brewing to Faversham.

In 1977, the brew-house and much of the infrastructure connecting the Pale Ale Brewery to the River Medway, was demolished, in order to construct the A229 diversion around Maidstone town centre, along with the new St Peter's Bridge. Then in 1981, the fermenting block; the remaining sizeable building, was demolished.
Fremlins Maidstone Brewery - in its heyday
I was living in the town at the time, and was saddened to witness the demolition work in progress, as the Pale Ale Brewery was, to my mind at least, an attractive late Victorian building. A modern distribution warehouse occupied the site for a while, but his too was pulled down to make way for a shopping mall known, somewhat ironically, as Fremlin Walk.

At the same time as the transfer of brewing to Faversham the range of Fremlins beers was drastically cut back. Most of the bottled beers disappeared, as did virtually all the draught beers. The latter were replaced by Whitbread Trophy. The idea behind Trophy was that it was varied from region to region, supposedly being brewed to suit local tastes and palates. The Trophy produced at Faversham, for example, was loosely based on the former Fremlins Three Star Bitter.

In its heyday though, Faversham-brewed Trophy was an excellent beer; the phrase “well-balanced” springs to mind, but would not really have done the beer justice. On form it was one of the finest session beers around. I remember knocking back eight pints of it in the village local one night, and feeling as right as rain the next day!

I spent the years 1974-1979 living away from Kent; initially as a student in Greater Manchester, and after that living and working in London. When I returned to the county I was pleased to discover that Whitbread had re-styled their Faversham-brewed Trophy as Fremlins Bitter, in an effort to promote a more local image. Pubs were re-painted in Fremlins livery, and the famous Elephant trademark was brought back. Finally a new stronger beer called Fremlins Tusker (named after the elephant) was introduced to compliment the bitter.

Tusker was a superb beer, being full-bodied and malty, yet well-hopped at the same time.  Unfortunately sales did not live up to expectations. A combination of high-pricing, a recession, plus resistance to strong beers from consumers, especially in rural areas where it was often necessary to drive to the pub, led to slow turnover of the beer in many outlets. This in turn led to poor quality beer and hence even slower turnover. Tusker became increasingly more difficult to find, especially in good condition. Eventually the beer was discontinued, barely five years after its launch.

A few years later, Fremlins Bitter also went through a bad patch. The brewery blamed the brewing water, but eventually the problem turned out to be one of yeast infection. By the time the problem had been sorted out, the beer had become a shadow of its former self. Things got so bad that at one stage most Kent drinkers, myself included, refused to touch it.

In 1991 the closure of the Faversham Brewery was announced. The reasons trotted out, by Whitbread, at the time were the usual big-brewery double-speak, and probably had more to do with the property value of the quite substantial town-centre site, than anything else. Once again I felt extremely saddened by this act of corporate vandalism, especially as I had been privileged to have toured the brewery twice. On both occasions I had seen for myself what an interesting place it was, with some very traditional brewing plant and equipment.

The closure of the Faversham Brewery not only deprived Kentish drinkers of a favourite local brew, but also brought to an end Whitbread’s own direct involvement with the county’s brewing industry. For Fremlins, the closure marked the final chapter in a history that began during the latter half of the nineteenth Century and which at one time, saw them achieve the distinction of being Kent’s Premier Brewers.

The brewing of Fremlins Bitter was initially transferred to Cheltenham, and then to the former Nimmo’s brewery at Castle Eden, County Durham. During the latter half of 1997, the brand was dropped altogether, along with a number of other “local” Whitbread beers. The beer that was promoted as “A part of Kent life” was thus no more.

It is one of my biggest regrets that I never managed to sample the original Maidstone-brewed Fremlins beers. The 1972 closure of the brewery took place at a time when although I was becoming more appreciative of what constituted a decent pint, I still had much to learn about beer and brewing. I have talked to several older drinkers, all of whom remember Fremlins. Some even remember County Ale.

According to a guide to Kent Pubs, published in 1966, as well as Three Star Bitter, Fremlins produced an ordinary bitter, a mild, a Four Star Bitter, plus the revered County Ale. This was a strong beer which surely would have given its namesake from Ruddles a good run for its money!

Fremlins County Ale did continue as a bottled beer for some years after the closure of Maidstone, but according to one local report was produced in Portsmouth. This hardly made it worthy of the title Kent’s Best” - the advertising slogan  Fremlins inherited, along with the brand, from George Beer & Rigden, the former owners of the Faversham brewery.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Something to whet the appetite

You come across all sorts of interesting things on blogs, and quite often the most fascinating can come from a single paragraph, or even just a couple of sentences.

Take this snippet which I came across on Pub Curmudgeon’s blog, “I’m a regular buyer of the Good Beer Guide, and the main purpose for which I use it is to find interesting pubs to visit when I’m away on holiday or out on day trips. One of the key things I’m looking for is pubs to have lunch when out and about. It can be very valuable in taking me to pubs that I wouldn’t otherwise have found.”

Now the main article was a mild ticking off for those CAMRA branches who select pubs for the Guide, based on their own personal preferences, or are sometimes influenced by internal branch politics, rather than choosing pubs which are of benefit to those who buy and use the GBG It was also a rallying cry for branches to remain focussed on what the Guide is all about.

My main point of interest though is the fact Mudgie obviously likes his pub-grub, especially at midday; and so do I. The daytime trips which my own local West Kent CAMRA branch arranges from time to time, will inevitably include a suitable pit-stop, so that members can get a decent bite to eat, and it goes without saying that careful thought will be put into making sure the lunchtime stop is at a pub which offers good food, alongside equally good beer.

This is well in tune with my own thinking, as when I am drinking, I like also to have something more solid to soak up the beer. In short, I don’t like drinking on an empty stomach. Evenings are a little different, in that I will normally have my dinner when I arrive home from work, and then ideally will allow a couple of hours to pass before heading off to the pub.

Holidays are again different as the evening meal will invariably be in a local bar or restaurant, where I can enjoy a few pints with my meal. I have written previously about how, during the week I normally shy away from a pint at lunchtime, particularly during the working week. This is largely due to the soporific effect which even a single pint can have on me when I return to the office, but at weekends, and especially whilst on holiday, I still prefer something solid inside, even if it is just a couple of rolls or a pie.

I’m not sure where this habit came from, as neither of my parents were drinkers, and both were certainly not pub-goers, but being despite being the “black sheep of the family” something must have clicked, relatively early on in my drinking career, which brought on the hunger pangs if I was to sit down in a pub at lunchtime, for anything more than a pint.

Some might argue that beer stimulates the appetite, whilst others would say that the distending of the stomach, by all that liquid, is the stimulus responsible for the feelings of hunger.

Not everyone feels the same of course, and I know some drinkers who remain content to enjoy lunch in a purely liquid form. The two people I am thinking of in particular, are both heavy drinkers, and I get the feeling that stopping to eat some how interferes with their drinking.

This may be true, and each to their own of course, but for me, especially when I am off on a CAMRA outing, or have spent the morning walking around a picturesque or historic town, there is nothing finer than stopping for a few pints, along with a bit to eat. The same applies when out for a ramble, and probably more so, as the combination of exercise and all that fresh air, are guaranteed to have worked up an appetite as well as a thirst.

I am certain I am not alone in thinking this, and would be interested to hear what other people’s thoughts are, on this matter.

ps. Having met Pub Curmudgeon in person, I can vouch for him being a far more amiable and affable soul than the persona he sometimes projects on his blog. I am particularly pleased to learn that, like me, he enjoys a bite to eat with his lunchtime pint.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Spa Valley Railway Beer & Cider Festival 2017

Well that’s the Spa Valley Railway Beer & Cider Festival over for another year, and no doubt once everything’s been totalled up, the suppliers paid and the accounts all balanced, the branch (West Kent) will be getting a full report on how it all went.

I did a stint behind the bar on Saturday, and apart from a half hour break to grab something to eat, worked pretty much non-stop from 2pm through to 10.30pm. To say it was manic in the engine shed at Tunbridge Wells West, would be an understatement, but it was a great team effort put in by all those present, which ensured everything ran as smoothly as possible and there were no hold-ups or indeed hiccups.

I say this because as well as the obvious front-facing roles of serving the hordes of thirsty customers, there were other equally important jobs, all essential to keep the place running. There was a constant stream of new arrivals at the glasses stand, and the same could be said of the cash desk; where the folding stuff is exchanged for tokens, to enable people to buy their beer or cider.

Then there were the people constantly re-filling and then emptying the glass washer, plus the equally important job of collecting the high denomination tokens from  behind the bar and ensuring there were sufficient low value ones to give in return as “change”. The whole thing was a continuous cycle which, as I said above, worked well.

Despite being extremely busy, I actually enjoyed my time behind the bar and my interaction with the paying public. I didn’t have a single awkward customer, and whilst some did dither by asking for too many tasters, I was able to leave them to deliberate for a short while whilst serving those who knew exactly what they wanted.

I was able to offer recommendations to those unsure exactly what they were after, or those disappointed to find their chosen beer had already sold out, and in the main people were pleased with my suggestions. Beers running out became an increasingly more common occurrence as the afternoon rolled on into the evening, and I was disappointed to have missed Larkin’s Porter and Harvey’s Bonfire Boy.

Both beers were on sale by special dispensation of the brewers; Larkin’s Porter is not normally released until November 5th and the same applies to Bonfire Boy. The story circulating amongst the organisers was that sanction had to be obtained from Harvey’s MD Miles Jenner, in order for the supply of the latter; and then it ran out before I could enjoy so much as a sip!

It was that busy behind the bar that there was literally just time for a quick glug, before the next thirsty punter appeared waiting to be served. Now I know many CAMRA festivals have a policy of not allowing staff to drink behind the bar., but fortunately West Kent CAMRA have always followed a more relaxed approach, and providing people don’t "take the piss", staff are allowed a beer or three whilst on duty.

I think this is only fair, as we are all volunteers who have given up our time to help but, as I pointed out above, things were that busy there wasn’t time to even re-charge one’s personal glass, let alone drink much of the contents!

I mentioned  being able to assist people in choosing a beer which suited them, and I think this is one of the most important parts of a CAMRA-run beer festival. Of course there were the people who went straight in on the loony juice, but the festival policy of restricting the sale of the few 10% ABV and above beers, to third of a pint measures only, paid off and ensured these casks lasted longer than they might otherwise have done. More importantly, this stopped the loony brigade from becoming inebriated too quickly.

I made a point of wearing the hat I brought back from Oktoberfest behind the bar, and this acted as the perfect ice-breaker and conversation starter with many customers. A number of them, and especially the ladies, confused it with the hats worn by pupils at Hogwarts, so I had  a little bit of explaining to do!

As well as the main bar selling cask-conditioned ales (including Green Hop beers), there was a craft-keg bar opposite, offering domestic and imported key-keg beers. This was operated by local Beer Café proprietors - Fuggles, but as things were so hectic, I never got the chance to visit this bar.

There was also a good selection of traditional ciders and perries, all sourced locally from producers within a 40 mile radius of the festival. Food was provided in the form of a barbecue (burgers, hot dogs and bacon rolls), plus a Thai food stall which served me up a most welcome vegetable chow mien, drizzled with hot chilli-sauce.

Unlike previous years, I didn’t get the chance to journey down the line and try some of the beers on sale at either Groombridge or Eridge stations, but the reports were that both locations were equally busy. There were a couple of live bands playing in the engine shed from late afternoon until 10pm, and these helped to really get the party atmosphere going.

Things had quietened down by the time the band stopped playing and I was finally able to enjoy a few beers. The photos, scattered throughout this post, illustrate those beers I was able to sample. The ones which really stood out, included Burning Sky Plateau 3.5%,  Elland White Prussian 3.9%, Black Edge India Pale 4.7%, and Brentwood Chockwork Orange 6.5%.

By close of play on Saturday, I estimated that three-quarters of the beers had been sold, and many other casks were close to running dry. I understand that the Friday had been nearly as busy, although Sunday was reported as quiet.

From the point of those who attended, as well as those working at the festival, it’s safe to say the event was a success. We will find out at the so-called “wash-up” meeting, which will take place later next month.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Green Hop Judgement

On Thursday night I acted as one of the judges in the Green Hop Beer Competition, the contest which acts as the prelude to the Spa Valley Railway Beer & Cider Festival. I was sort of press-ganged into it, but reluctantly agreed, primarily because I didn’t want to let my CAMRA colleagues down.

Now I’d far rather be drinking beer than judging it, and this is borne out by the fact that despite having completed a “Beer Tasting Course”, last night’s event was only the second official tasting I have participated in. Despite this, I was determined to give the contest my best shot, so I left work early, and made my way over to Tunbridge Wells,.

Green Hop Bar
I  arrived at the restored Victorian engine shed at the former West Station, which acts as SVR’s headquarters, shortly before 6pm. The shed is where the bulk of the festival’s beers and ciders can be found, and the sight of row after row of casks, all stillaged, tapped and spiled in readiness for the weekend’s event, was quite awe-inspiring.

Several local CAMRA members were behind the bar, affixing the cask labels to the barrel ends. After months of planning, it was good to witness everything coming together for what is now one of the largest beer festivals in Kent and neighbouring Sussex.

The judging took place in a covered area just in from the railway’s booking office.  Four tables had been laid out in readiness for the competition; each with seating for six people. With 24 Green Hop Ales in the competition there were 24 judges to start with, although as the contest progressed, this was whittled down to 12, and then finally just six judges.

Roger giving his talk
My fellow judges included the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells, plus two other distinguished guests. The first was Sophie Atherton, who is a journalist and beer writer; and was the first female to qualify as a Beer Sommelier. The second guest judge was the veteran beer writer, Roger Protz who has just stepped down as editor of CAMRA’s award-winning Good Beer Guide, after editing 24 editions of the publication.

Before the completion started, Sophie talked us through the basics of beer judging, telling us what to look for with regard to appearance, condition, aroma and taste. This was a welcome refresher, even to those of us who thought we knew all about beer judging.

Getting serious
Roger gave a short talk afterwards reminding us that back in the days of the first Good Beer Guide, when CAMRA was in is infancy, there were only around 150 brewers in the country, and the choice of beers from these companies, was almost exclusively mild or bitter, with sometimes a best bitter plus the occasional winter offering around Christmas time.

The beers were judged in a series of “blind” tastings, with each judge tasting six different beers in each session. We were asked to score each beer out of 10 points, on appearance/condition, aroma, taste, after-taste and finally our overall opinion. The latter criterion was worth up to 20 points. This was much more difficult than it sounds, and whilst we were allowed to confer, we weren’t supposed to see the scores our fellow judges had awarded. I was in good company on my table, as I shared it with Sophie, Robin from Pig & Porter Brewery, John from the recently established Engineer Brewery, the head-brewer from Cellar Head and Russ whose family farm and grow hops at St Michael's, just outside Tenterden.

A short interval then followed, during which the tables were cleared, the glasses were washed, and new scoring sheets issued. The process was then repeated. As mentioned above, the number of judges was then halved. I was one of three people who stepped down on my table; leaving Sophie, Russ and the gentleman from Cellar Head, whose name escapes me, to tackle the semi-final.

This process trimmed the remaining 12 beers to just six finalists, and the winner was then selected from this half-dozen, by a panel of six “senior “ judges. These included Sophie and Roger, plus local pub landlord and restaurant proprietor, Matthew Sankey.

Vanessa from Dark Star receiving the top award
Once the scores were all in and everything had been double-checked, Dark Star Green Hop IPA was declared the worthy winner, with Downlands Green Hopped Root Thirteen in second place and Cellar Head Poledancer in third.

Certificates for third and first place were then presented to the respective brewers by West Kent CAMRA Chairman, Craig Beeson. There was no-one present from Downlands Brewery to collect the runner-up award, but I'm sure we'll be visiting the brewery in due course.

The competition for top Green Hop Beer of the Festival, has been named in memory of Iain Dalgleish; West Kent CAMRA's former long-serving chairman, who sadly passed away in August, after a long battle with cancer. I am sure Iain would have approved of this move, and also of the winner.

Despite my initial reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and it was good to listen to the thoughts and opinions of my fellow judges. One thing which did come out, and this is an observation which has been made by friends and other CAMRA members over the past fortnight, is that none of the beers had a particularly hoppy aroma. This is rather surprising considering the use of freshly harvested hops in the brewing of them.

My own experience, and again this is something I share with fellow branch members, is that Green Hop beers tend to leave a coating of resinous oils on both the tongue and the roof of the mouth, and this may actually act as a barrier to both taste and smell. I consequently found it refreshing to go for a few “normal” beers afterwards.

I was able to do this because the organisers (SVR & CAMRA), had opened the bar, although payment was taken for beers consumed. I chose a few beers which I thought might disappear quite quickly, once the festival opened to the public, and these included, Imperial IPA 7.4% from Outstanding Brewery and Baltic Trader 10% from Green Jack Brewery. I also enjoyed California Common, a 4.6% “Steam Beer” from Knops Brewery.

I departed just before 10pm, and walked up through the pouring rain to Tunbridge Wells mainline station. I got equally wet at the other end, and arrived home looking like a drowned rat!

It's late on Friday evening, and as I finish writing this piece, the festival will have just called time after the first full session of the event. Judging by the messages floating around on WhatsApp, it has been a reasonably successful day, although some concern has been expressed about the number of strong beers which make up this year’s order.

Unfortunately I had had to go into work, as two members of my department were away on business, but I shall be over at Tunbridge Wells on Saturday, to do a stint behind the bar and see how things are going. A report will follow in due course.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Going loco down in Tunbridge Wells

Well after the excitement of Oktoberfest, which was followed by a relaxing few days in Regensburg, it was back  to earth with a bang. I’ve been back at work two and a half weeks now, and have been catching up on  both the work and domestic fronts.

I have spent the past two weekends tidying up the garden, and getting things put away ready for winter, and Mrs PBT’s and I have had the unenviable task of selecting tiles (far too many to chose from), and a new bathroom suite, for our latest home-improvement project.

This coming weekend is a little different though as I will be involved with the 7th West Kent CAMRA Real Ale & Cider Festival, held in conjunction with the Spa Valley Railway (SVR). The event runs from Friday 20th to Sunday 22nd October, and   takes in the preserved Victorian Engine Shed, at the Heritage Railway’s Tunbridge Wells West Station headquarters.

This year’s event will feature 160+ Real Ales, 25+ Green Hop Beers, various Key-Keg/Cask Beers, a selection of Belgian Beers and 30+ Ciders. As in previous years, the beers and ciders will be spread out between the three stations at Tunbridge Wells, Groombridge & Eridge; although the majority will found at Tunbridge Wells.

There will also be bars on two of the SVR’s train sets. To reach all the locations the organisers recommend a day rover ticket, which allows unlimited travel all day, up and down the line between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge. Tickets are just £20 per adult or £10 per child. For CAMRA members there is a special CAMRA Day Rover ticket available for just £15!

I haven’t been involved with the organisation of this year’s festival, but I will be there on Saturday, at one or more of the locations, serving behind the bar. So why not come along and treat yourself to a ride through the beautiful Kent and Sussex countryside, and stop and say hello.

I will also be at Tunbridge Wells West tomorrow, as I’ve been asked to help judge the Green Hop beers which will be on sale at the festival. I’ll be keeping illustrious company, as we will be joined tomorrow, by two luminaries from the world of journalism and beer writing. I can’t reveal much more, at present, but I promise a full report in due course.

The Spa Valley Festival has become one of the largest events of its kind in both Kent and Sussex, and is well worth a visit. It has good public transport links, and can be reached by trains to Tunbridge Wells Mainline, followed by a 15 minute walk along to the West station, via the town’s  world famous Pantiles area. Alternatively, SVR trains depart from Platform 2 at Eridge station, which is served by mainline trains to and from London Bridge. Please check National Rail Enquiries before travelling.

Full details of the festival, including a list of all the beers and ciders, can be found by clicking the link here.

ps. Apologies to Retired Martin for the tenuous link in the title, to a well-known music track.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Three go to Oktoberfest - Part Two

Continuing the narrative from where we left off last time, we were now  inside  Oktoberfest, and it was still only 11.30 am. The grounds were relatively quiet, and visitors were just trickling in slowly, so what to do next?  Well a beer wasn’t the first thing on any of our minds. Coffee plus something to eat seemed a far better idea, especially as breakfast wasn’t included in our hotel booking.

Salvation came in the form of Bodo’s Backstube, a “tent” decked out in the style of an Alpine chalet, serving coffee and various cakes. Eileen went for a large slice of Apfel Strudel, whilst the lad and I chose a Kirschwasser (Cherry Schnapps) Donut. Not exactly the healthiest of breakfasts, but something at least to line the stomach with.

Inside Bodo's
We sat inside Bodo’s for twenty minutes or so, polishing off our cake and finishing our coffee. When we emerged, the festival grounds were starting to fill up. We had a good wander around, taking in the Augustiner “tent”, the Ochsenbraterei; a large “tent”, specialising in roast oxen, along with Spaten beer. The outside Biergarten area of the latter looked pretty full, so we thought we perhaps ought to head for a “tent” ourselves, before all the seats were taken.

A bit more information, plus some handy tips here. The “tents", referred to in parentheses are not really tents at all; certainly not in the traditional meaning of the word. They are large and spacious, semi-permanent structures, constructed mainly from wood, along with various other materials. They are erected each year, specially for Oktoberfest, and then at the end of the event, are dismantled, removed from the site and stored in various warehouses, ready for the following year.

The festival site - before the tents are erected
The word “Zelt” means a tent in German, and the one we were heading for was the Hacker-Festzelt. This “tent” has been at Oktoberfest since 1907, and is particularly popular with young Bavarian drinkers. Nearly all of them are decked out in traditional costume, or “Tracht”.  This means Lederhosen, checked shirt and white or beige socks for the men, and Dirndls for the women. With the latter, the skirt should come down to just below the knee, rather than above it, and there is a whole etiquette, mainly relating to marital status, surrounding which side the bow should be tied.

Now some important information, so please pay attention. Unless you have a seat; either inside or outside one of the tents, you will not be served. There is none of the vertical drinking common at UK beer festivals, and you will not be allowed to wander around carrying your mug of beer. By “seat” I mean a long bench, in front of an equally long wooden table. Typically there will be room for 10 average sized people, on each table (five along each bench.).

If, like us, you visit mid-week and arrive early, you will not have a problem finding a seat. If your visit is planned for the evening, or at the weekend, then it is almost essential to reserve a seat in advance. This is particularly important if you are part of a large group, as with a bit of patience, “couples" can normally be squeezed in somewhere – especially if  you ask nicely.

Reservations normally open in April for the upcoming Oktoberfest, and must be made to the individual tents. Full details can be found online, here. The reservation itself is free of charge., but it is usual for each person to buy vouchers for a certain amount of beverages and food (in most cases two litres of beer and one roast chicken). These are valid only for the current Oktoberfest and have to be paid in advance. The vouchers can be redeemed inside the tent.

Of course, visitors are free to eat and drink more than the amount that has been paid in advance. It should be noted that reservations are not for a complete day but for a specific time-slot, which will be confirmed with the reservation. This is to allow more groups of people to celebrate inside the beer tent.

Back to the Hacker-Festzelt, and I am sorry to report that we were refused entry. This wasn’t because the tent was full, or that the seats were all reserved; the reason we were unable to gain access was we were all carrying bottles of water! To us, the water was a sensible precaution. We were going to be drinking some quite strong beer. The sun was shining and temperatures were forecast to hit the mid 20’s. Drinking lots of water seemed the sensible thing to do, but because water is available INSIDE the "tent" (at inflated coast, no doubt), the management weren’t keen for people to be bringing their own in.

I don’t know whether this applies to all the tents, or just certain ones, but all was not lost as, just in front of the tent was an outdoor beer-garden area, and there were some spaces available. We grabbed space on the end of a table, stuck our water bottles on the ground, by our feet and waited for the waitress to come and take our order.

This didn’t take long, but the lady, who came to our table was slightly more advanced in years than the young Frauleins I alluded to earlier. She was quick and efficient though, and I have to say that the staff who work the tables at Oktoberfest deserve every Euro they are paid. Treat them politely, tip them well – but not too generously, and they will see you alright. Our waitress brought two foaming Maβ Krugs of Hacker-Pschorr Festbier for Matt and I, plus an equal measure (and an equal price), of alcohol-free beer for Mrs PBT’s.

According to one survey at least, Hacker-Pschorr came out top of the Festbiers, but that’s just one survey. All the Oktoberfest beers will be good, full-bodied, well-rounded and with the right balance between malt and hops. Matt and I certainly enjoyed our Maβ Krugs, and Eileen enjoyed hers; even though I had to finish it, mixing what was left in her glass with what was left in mine.

It was very pleasant sitting out in the warm, late-September sunshine, taking in  the atmosphere and enjoying the general ambience. Our waitress returned and asked if we wanted anything to eat? Something solid inside, apart from a Cherry Schnapps Donut, seemed a good idea. Eileen and I both had a plate of local (Fränkische), sausages, with potato salad; Matt had roast pork in gravy, with one of those spongy potato dumplings (Kartoffel-Knödel).

It’s worth mentioning here that at Oktoberfest, you pay for your food and drink when they are brought to your table; unlike the practise in most German pubs and restaurants, where you pay before you leave. This makes perfect sense, given the high numbers of people coming and going, and I prefer this anyway, as it saves hanging around waiting for the final bill to appear.

One thing I did do before leaving, was nip inside the tent. With no water bottle in hand, and no bag either, I was not challenged and was able to wander around taking as many photographs as I wished. It was pretty hectic inside and was full of mainly young locals, the majority wearing "Trachten".

The Hacker-Festzelt can accommodate up to 9,300 people, which is a similar number to the other large “tents”. There are fourteen of these; seven of which are operated by the breweries, and the rest by independent landlords. There are also around 10 smaller “tents”.

We had a wander around afterwards, but didn’t have any more beer. I calculated that finding a “tent” with a free table, and then ordering  and consuming another litre of beer would take at least an hour, and as we were due to head for Regensburg, for the main part of the holiday, I also had the responsibility of guiding the family to the station, buying the tickets and making sure we boarded the right train.

We did a rough circuit of the site before making our way towards the exit, taking in such traditional fairground attractions as the “Haunted House”, the motor-cycle “Wall of Death” and one of those “try your strength” machines, where you have to bring a large wooden mallet crashing down on a “puck” in an attempt to ring the bell at the top of a tower. We also all bought ourselves an Oktoberfest hat, and I shall be wearing mine whilst working at next weekend’s Spa Valley Beer Festival.

The main thing we discovered about  Oktoberfest was just how accessible the whole thing is and,  having now “learned the ropes”, I would definitely go again but this time spend a bit longer there.