Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Cock Inn - Boughton Monchelsea

If like me, you're an avid follower of Retired Martin, as he chronicles his trips up and down the country in pursuit of yet another Good Beer Guide "tick", you'll know what a prolific blogger he is.

Several posts ago, but probably less than a fortnight in real time, Martin described his visit to Maidstone; a town I know well, having lived there for five years during the early 1980's.  Martin began his post with the line, "I have to be careful what I say about Maidstone; one of my top readers lives there (probably in the posh bit with a long name)".

This sparked my curiosity, so I asked him which part of Maidstone he considered the "posh bit", and what was its long name?  "Boughton Monchelsea and the Farleighs", was the reply, so I retorted that both places were villages in their own right, and as far as I was concerned, neither were  parts of Maidstone. I finished by saying that I might be heading over that way the following week.

As it happened those words were no idle jest, as there was an equipment supplier to the south of Maidstone that a colleague and I had planned to visit, and the opportunity to do this came about at the beginning of the week.

We were part-exchanging a rather essential piece of laboratory equipment for a newer model, and seeing as Maidstone is only around 40 minutes drive from our works, we decided to take the part-exchange item over ourselves, and collect the new piece.

My colleague said he drive us, so we set off shortly before midday to conduct the exchange. We encountered quite a few snow showers en route, but nothing too heavy. Although we had visited this particular company before, their premises still took a bit of finding. Fortunately Google Directions on my colleague's phone helped us navigate there without too much effort.

The exchange carried out and the business concluded, we set off back to work. Our outward route had taken us through West Farleigh and Boughton Monchelsea; both places Martin had mentioned in his post. I had pointed out a couple of pubs as we drove through these places, so with lunchtime looming, we decided to stop off at one.

The pub in question was the Cock Inn, at Boughton Monchelsea; an attractive former coaching inn, dating from the 16th Century, and said to have been  built to provide lodgings for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. It must have been over 30 years since I last set foot inside the Cock; probably when I was living in Maidstone.

Back then the pub belonged to Whitbread-Fremlins, but I distinctly remember it being acquired by Young's. I was somewhat surprise then to see that the Cock now belongs to Shepherd Neame.  Despite the intense cold, the sun was shining when we pulled into the car park, and the pub was looking particularly good.  I managed  to take a few decent  photos of the pub's exterior, before stepping inside.

As my last visit had taken place three decades ago, there was nothing inside the Cock which looked familiar. Instead my colleague and I were confronted with a dimly lit jumble of a pub with lots of interlinked areas, and the low, oak beamed ceiling one would expect of a building of this age. The bar counter was over to the right, and I noticed there were three Shep's beers on sale; Spitfire, Whitstable Bay and Bishop's Finger (tempting, as it's rarely seen on draught). There was also a guest ale in the form of Black Sheep Best Bitter, and this was my choice (3.0 NBSS).

The friendly landlady suggested we warm ourselves in front of the large  inglenook fireplace. My colleague grabbed himself a steak baguette, but as my sandwiches were waiting for me back at work,  I resisted.  The sun was streaming in where we were sitting at the front of the pub, which belied the cold wintry conditions outside. There were several groups of diners,  and I noticed on my way to the toilets that there was a substantial restaurant area at the rear of the building.

I took quite a few photos, after asking the landlady's permission, of course. Even so, she asked me if I was an estate agent; as if? Looking back at some of these now, it is quite obvious that the Cock is a “foodies” pub. Not pretentious food, but it is still a pub with a strong emphasis on food. Drinkers though are still made welcome, and according to the write-up on Whatpub, so are walkers and dogs.

The Cock wouldn’t have been my first choice; that was the Tickled Trout (formerly the Chequers), at West Farleigh, (but only because I wanted to see what it is like now). As my colleague was doing the driving though, I let him decide, and in a strange sort of way I was pleased that we called in where we did.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Fumbling around in the dark

Following on from my post about last weekend's Good Beer Guide selection meeting, I thought it was worth taking a closer look at one of the issues which came up on the day. This issue was a major one, and more than anything else, had the potential to derail the whole selection process.  This fly in the ointment/spanner in the works, was the fact there was insufficient information available on many  prospective GBG entries, to make a properly informed choice.

We are probably in a better position than many branches in that we make every effort to get round as many of the pubs in our area as possible. The rural ones are the most difficult, for obvious reasons, but a combination of rural bus routes and the odd country walk does mean it is possible to get round more of our country pubs than you might think.

Despite what might be considered a firm base, there's only so much a handful of us can achieve, and it's on occasions like selecting entries for the Good Beer Guide that the full effects of a lack of active members really comes to the fore. The crazy thing is that a ready made solution is available, but like anything worth doing in life, it does require a little effort, especially at the start.

CAMRA's Whatpub data base not only provides the ideal means for members to enter NBSS scores, but also allows them to amended out of date information. The former acts as an indicator to the quality of the beer in a particular pub; although in order to provide a true picture scores need to be submitted over a lengthy period and by as many people as possible.

The latter helps the branch form an up to date picture of what the pub is really like, and whether it is worthy of a second look and a possible guide entry. Last weekend although we did have NBSS scores to go by, more often than not, they were from just a handful of members.

This is a pretty poor show, given that we have over 600 members in the branch, but the sad truth seems to be most of them can't be bothered to submit scores. Surely these inactive, "armchair" members go to the pub, even if it's only occasionally? If not, why are they members of an organisation like CAMRA?

If there's one thing they could do for CAMRA and their local branch then it's submitting NBSS scores for the pubs they visit. Just think how up to date our branch pub database could be if these people just went online from time to time and submitted the occasional score?

I suppose we are all guilty of not doing this from time to time, but it's not hard to get into the habit of inputting your beers scores following a pub visit; you can even do it on your phone or tablet, whilst still in the pub!

Persuading "armchair" members to get into the NBSS habit is probably easier said than done, so perhaps branches need a strategy where they can put this into practice. So whilst I am not particularly involved with the GBG selection process these days, I would still be interested from members of other CAMRA branches to learn what they do.

The bottom line though, is every time you visit a pub, especially if it is one you don't normally go to, then use Whatpub and submit your NBSS scores. The more data the Campaign can amass, the more accurate CAMRA's flagship publication becomes. The more accurate the Guide is, then the more it is likely to appeal to both new buyers and seasoned users. This can surely, only be a good thing.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath

A comment on my blog, by a character who goes under the name of "Greengrass", prompted me to make a fleeting Friday lunchtime visit to one of the pubs he was referring to. Mr Greengrass (I think I know who you are, btw), asked whether the branch had selected the  Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath for next year's Good Beer Guide, rather than the classic, National Inventory-listed Queens Arms, at Cowden Pound.

If you were paying attention you'll remember I rebutted our friend from “Heartbeat”, as like the rest of West Kent CAMRA I am sworn to secrecy, but checking out these pubs still seemed a good idea. Chiddingstone Hoath (hereafter referred to as the "Hoath"), is only a short drive from Chiddingstone Causeway; the village where I work, so yesterday I decided to forsake my usual lunchtime walk and take a trip up to the Hoath.

I say "up" because the Hoath is situated on high ground, to the south of the River Eden. It is a small isolated settlement, consisting of a few houses, huddled together on a sandstone plateau in the area known as the High Weald. The Rock is an old drovers inn, which has retained many original features. It is close to 500 years old, and is so named because it is close to one of several of the rocky outcrops which are a feature of this remote corner of Kent.

I have known the pub for nearly 30 years and despite its remote location have tried to visit it whenever possible. Three decades ago, the Rock belonged to Whitbread, but when that company ceased brewing, and started selling off its pubs, it became a free house. Not long after it was leased to local brewery Larkin's, who brew just down the road on the edge of Chiddingstone village.

There have been several changes of owner since then; the last occurring just over a year ago. This was shortly before my last visit to the Rock, which took place in March 2017. On that occasion I had walked to the pub with a group of friends, and wrote about it here. Renovation work was going on at the time. both inside and out, but as the pub was so crowded we only really saw the exterior. A return visit was therefore long overdue.

My drive from work took around 10 minutes. The sun was shining, but it was bitterly cold out. My route took me down and across the River Eden - little more than a large stream really, and then up past Larkin's Brewery. The road then begins to climb more steeply, through woodland and then up towards the High Weald.

The car park was full when I arrived, so I joined those who had parked out on the road. I stopped to take a few photos, before stepping inside. Despite the number of vehicles outside, the pub was not as crowded as I thought it would be. The first thing I noticed was the bar counter had been moved back and access had also been created to one side of it. This simple act has created some much needed space, and has probably increased the capacity of the pub by an extra third.

It seems as though I can't go anywhere locally without bumping into someone I know, and yesterday in the Rock was no exception. One of the people propping up the bar was the sales and office manager from Larkin's. I wasn't surprised to see him, as he is a regular visitor to the pub, but I was puzzled to see him without his faithful canine companion.

I assumed that poor Humphrey, the Labrador is no longer with us, but didn't like to ask. I was suitably castigated though for my choice of beer - Dark Star Hophead! I could have chosen Larkin's Traditional or Porter, but with a busy afternoon ahead the latter was too strong and the former is my least favourite from the Larkin's stable. Hophead then was the logical choice and it was in cracking form too, scoring 4 NBSS.

I also bumped into everyone's favourite "cider man", Bill who runs the cider bars at Tonbridge Juddians Beer Festival and Tonbridge Old Fire Station. Bill knows a good pub and yesterday was not the first time I have bumped into him on licensed premises.

He was there with his wife, having a spot of lunch. It was him who told me about some of the other alterations, including the relocation of the gents toilets, and the blocking off of the narrow passage which led to the old ones. This has created even more space, with a nice little window alcove at the far left of the pub.

The log burner was smouldering away gently in the substantial inglenook fireplace, overlooked by the stuffed horned head used for the "Ringing the Bull" game. There was group of women sat by the window opposite; "ladies that lunch".

Being a rural pub the Rock obviously attracts country folk, but they are proper work-a-day country people, rather than the green Wellington brigade. The floor of worn bricks means that muddy boots, and equally muddy dogs are welcome; although the latter were strangely absent on Friday.

I mentioned earlier that the Rock is centuries old, and this is reflected in both the exterior and interior of the building. It as been lovingly cared for over the years, and the recent alterations have only enhanced this. I didn't get a chance to see the menu, but I did notice that the raised area to the right of the main bar has not only been extended but is given over, not exclusively, to dining.

In view of the weather I also didn't get to see the garden at the rear of the pub. Whatpub describes it as a "secluded suntrap", and from memory I remember it was. I would have liked to have stayed longer, but regrettably, work called.

Before leaving I had a brief chat with the friendly girl behind the bar. I'm not sure if she was the landlady, although I have a feeling she might have been. She certainly seemed pleased at the way the things are going. One thing's for sure though, I will definitely be going back to the Rock, and next time I won't leave it for so long.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

A Dark Star for Fuller's

The story which broke on Tuesday morning about the acquisition by Fuller’s of  Dark Star Brewery, is old news by now. It will be even older by the time I post this article; such are the joys of combining a busy career with that of writing about beer in my spare time.

Every man, woman and their dog have already written about this takeover, which is the latest in a long line of acquisitions, which has seen brewers such as Camden Town, London Fields, Meantime and Sharp’s being snapped up by global conglomerates. Substantial sums of money have been involved in this process, with the new owners often paying way over the odds for their purchases.  For example, SAB Miller paid £120 million for Meantime whilst AB InBev splashed out £80 million for Camden.

To a large extent these acquisitions have been driven by declining sales of global lager brands and old-fashioned keg ales, but this takeover is subtly different. Fuller’s is not a global brewer and its beer sales are not in decline, but this doesn’t stop me expressing my thoughts and sentiments, and about the sale.

Under the deal Fuller’s will take a 100% stake in Dark Star,  which will give the latter access to the funds it says it needs to invest in new markets. It will also allow Dark Star to increase sales of its core brands; beers such as Hophead, APA, Dark Star Original and Revelation. Brewing will continue at Dark Star’s Partridge Green site, and Managing Director, James Cuthbertson will remain in charge. Basically, Dark Star will continue to operate as a stand alone business.

Although Camden, London Fields and to a lesser extent Meantime, could be described as “craft-brewers”, Dark Star never quite fitted that particular mold. Unlike the new wave of brewers, who looked across the Atlantic for their inspiration, Dark Star drew theirs from the rich brewing heritage of Britain and Europe. Being able to trace their roots back to the first wave of micro-brewers, inspired by CAMRA and the so-called “real ale revolution”, gave Dark Star a kudos with real ale drinkers, which most of the new entrants into the industry just didn’t possess.

So as a cask ale lover, Fuller’s buying Dark Star has struck quite a chord with me, so despite slight reservations, I fully understand the reasoning put forward by both companies, for the purchase, I think Fuller’s will on the whole, be good custodians of Dark Star and its beers. Simon Dodd, Managing Director of The Fuller’s Beer Company, certainly thinks so.

“Both Fuller’s and Dark Star are brewers with quality and taste at their heart. I just can’t wait to see how Dark Star innovates further with the support of Fuller’s and access to our expertise in brewing, retailing and business elements such as finance, purchasing and IT systems.”

To balance the picture James Cuthbertson said: “Since our inception in 1994, we have continuously grown from those early days in The Evening Star Pub in Brighton to the current brewery in Partridge Green. The partnership with Fuller’s, another independent brewery with fantastic heritage and great beer at its very core, will allow us to take the brewery to the next level”.

“The deal means we will continue to do what we do, but gives us huge opportunities to brew more one-off small batch beers hand-in-hand with exploring the export market and expanded bottle and can formats.”

Before winding up, it’s worth noting that Dark Star aren’t the first brewery to have been bought by Fuller’s in recent times. In 2005 the Chiswick brewer acquired George Gale & Co of  Horndean, Hampshire and closed the site a year later. Gales were on the market following the decision of one of the major family shareholders to cash in his chips, so the rest of the family saw Fuller’s as representing the best chance for the future of the Gales name and the Gales beers.

Although Fuller’s continued brewing several of the Gales brands, the Horndean Brewery was badly run down and in need of  substantial investment to bring it into the 21st Century. So whilst the closure decision was not taken lightly, the condition of the brewery itself, and the investment required, made it inevitable.

Dark Star is different; their brewery at Partridge Green is less than 10 years old, and there is still room for expansion at the site. Dark Star had been looking to grow their business further and Fuller’s seemed the natural choice. The latter had dabbled in a “craft” range, with only limited success, so between the two of them, they should come up with something which will help both companies expand and prosper.

Personally, I have a real soft spot for Dark Star, having watched them prosper and grow over the years, turning out some fantastic beers in the process. I have visited their Partridge Green brewery on two occasions; the latest one being last summer. So as for what happens now, we will have to wait and see, but for the time being at least, I remain optimistic.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Return to the fold

I can think of few better places for me to have emerged from my enforced exile and back into the world of pubs and beer, than the Brecknock Arms at Bells Yew Green. 

On Sunday the pub was the venue for West Kent CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2019, selection meeting, and whilst my interest in the Guide these days is rather limited, the meeting seemed the perfect occasion for me to turn up and re-commence my involvement in branch activities.

The Brecknock has hosted West Kent branch selection meetings for several years now, the main reason being the pub lies in neutral territory, just across the county border in East Sussex. It is also easily accessible by train (Frant station); an important consideration given the high quality of the Harvey's beer stocked there, and its obvious appeal to branch members. If this were not enough, the landlord allows us the use of the former saloon bar area, once the dining trade has petered off.

Frant station - just three stops from Tonbridge
Yesterday though, there was no food trade as the chef had called in sick. This was bad news for those branch members who had arrived early, in order to grab a spot of Sunday lunch prior to the meeting. I was unaffected because I would be eating at home, later that evening. Even so, I picked up a roll plus a coffee from Greggs, before boarding the slightly delayed 13:08 train.

I arrived at the pub shortly after 1.30pm, pleased to see a CAMRA contingent already present. This was the first time since before Christmas that I'd seen any of my drinking buddies, and rather ironically that last get together was our CAMRA branch Christmas meal, which also took place at the Brecknock. It was therefore good to catch up with all the gossip, over a few pints of Harvey's Old.

The main purpose of the meeting, of course was to select the branch allocation of 22 pubs for the 2019 Good Beer Guide. Eleven members were present, plus a couple of apologies, along with recommendations in absentia. The proceedings were presided over by branch chairman Craig, who did well in keeping the discussions focussed, and not too bogged down in the detail.

In order to speed up the selection process and cut down on possible areas for dissent, the branch committee had set out firm criteria for selection, in line with CAMRA's Policy Document on Good Beer Guide entries. The number of visits to each pub, as obtained from Whatpub, along with NBSS scores submitted, were all taken into account, along with general branch knowledge of each particular pub plus feedback from the surveyors. It was here that input from the meeting was especially useful, and was where I was able to voice my opinions.

In just under two and a half hours 22 firm entries had been finalised along with three reserves. The latter being ranked 1 - 3, depending on final allocation. This was from a total of 50 pubs nominated and surveyed. Some pubs (just under half ) were obvious candidates, and were selected without dissent, whilst others required re-visiting (metaphorically speaking), involving further discussion.

Without blowing our own trumpets too much, we all felt satisfied that we had approached the task as logically as possible, and had been as objective as we could. Obviously personal preferences can and do come into play, but we were all conscious not to let our feelings have too great an influence on the overall decisions being taken.

Being blessed with an abundance of excellent pubs in West Kent, we had the opposite problem to branches who struggle to fill their allocation; but this meant we were able to approach the task from a position of strength. Despite my limited interest in the Good Beer Guide, I went away feeling pleased with the final selection, and content that the pubs chosen would appeal to both regular and occasional users of the Guide.

Finally, a quick word about the Harvey’s beer at the Brecknock, which was in excellent form. The XXXX Old Ale was especially good and I scored it as 4.0 NBSS. I rated the Best at 3.0, having been spoiled somewhat when compared against the quality of the Old.

There was a small crowd of locals in the bar that afternoon, but the absence of the chef obviously decimated the Sunday lunchtime food trade. Our presence therefore, must have provided a welcome boost to wet sales, so I’m certain that Dave the landlord must have been glad we were there.

I too was pleased I’d gone along, and was equally glad I’d limited myself to just three pints. After nearly six weeks of limited or very moderate consumption, that was just the right amount to ease myself back into the world of pubs and beer.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

A brief taste of Romania

A short while ago I wrote about the beers I received as gifts for Christmas, and how some of them were “big-name” brands, purchased by well-meaning friends or family with little or no knowledge about beer.

Well there were a couple of rather unexpected beers I received after Christmas, from a work colleague, which turned out to be  interesting as well as unusual. My colleague originates from Romania, and travelled back to her homeland over the Christmas and New Year period to spend time with her family.

She hails from Cluj, which is in the north-western part of  Romania and is the fourth most populous city in the country. Cluj-Napoca, to give the city its full title, is considered the unofficial capital of the historical province of Transylvania, and unashamedly trades a little off the image of Vlad the Impaler. However, the  city is much more than vampires and bloodthirsty goings on, as it is one of the most important academic, cultural, industrial and business centres in Romania. It also boasts the country's largest university.

On her return, and knowing my fondness for beer, she brought me a couple of cans from her home-country; a gesture which was totally unexpected, but much appreciated. Given the events of the past five weeks, I have only just got round to drinking them.

Romania has never struck me as much of a beer  drinking country, so I was surprised to learn that the country has a long and proud history of brewing beer, going back to the early 18th Century. Even during the lean years of communism there were as many as 120 breweries in the country; a number which began to fall only after the revolution of 1989, dipping to as low as just 20 or so in 2012.

Since then there has been a slow, but steady rise in the number of small breweries, and there is now a burgeoning craft beer scene. The biggest problem these newcomers have had to face is Romanian law makes no differentiation between small-scale, craft breweries and those producing beer on an industrial scale. Costs which are marginal for the multi-nationals, can be crippling for smaller breweries, so their  success is testament to the passion of the brewers concerned.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
The beers my colleague brought back for me are two of Romania’s most popular brews; namely Ursus and Timișoreana. The former is one of the country’s best-selling and most loved beers. The latter is amongst the leaders in the premium beer sector, so before detailing what they actually taste like, it’s worth taking a closer look at the breweries themselves.

Ursus Breweries, is a subsidiary of Asahi Breweries Europe Ltd,  and is the market leader in Romania. The company is based in Bucharest and owns breweries in Timișoara, Buzău and Brașov as well as a craft brewery in Cluj-Napoca. It employs around 1,400 people.

Ursus is Latin for "Bear", and was founded in Cluj in 1878, and uses a bear as its emblem. In July 2011,  a craft-style  brewery opened on the site of the old plant. The  new brewery is named “Fabrica de Bere Ursus”, and drinkers can watch the beer being brewed.

Timișoreana (named after the city of Timişoara) is the capital city of Timiș Province, and the main social, economic and cultural centre in western Romania, and the third most populous city in the country. The Timisoara Brewery was established in 1718, at time when this part of Romania was ruled by Austria, and served an important need. The city’s water supply was often unfit to drink, so constructing a brewery  to supply the citizens with beer to drink instead, was a popular and profitable initiative.

So what about the beers themselves?

Ursus Premium 5.0% is, according to the can, a 100% malt beer, brewed in the lager style. It certainly has plenty of malt character, but it is rather lacking in hops for my liking. Still, I can imagine its appeal on a hot summer’s day, so it's easy to understand why it has become the most popular brand in Romania.

Timișoreana Nepasteurizata 5.0%, is an un-pasteurised beer; even I can understand that much Romanian. (Romanian is a Romance language, and has much in common with languages such as French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, so it’s relatively easy to recognise quite a bit of vocabulary).

The beer, whilst similar in style to Ursus, has a lot more character, with some earthy-peppery notes coming through from the hops. The fact the beer is un-pasteurised, imparts a freshness, which was missing from the other beer.  

It is packaged in an ornate can, which carries an old print of the brewery, plus some suitably attired 19th Century brewery workers. As with the other beer, the can is incredibly thin-walled; although this is only noticeable after opening.

I trust you have enjoyed this brief insight into the Romanian brewing scene. I certainly enjoyed drinking the beers, as well as discovering a little more about the breweries responsible, and the country in general. I have also abandoned my pre-conception that Romania is predominantly a wine-drinking country; even though my work colleague prefers the juice of the grape to that of the barley!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Wake up and smell the coffee

By David Edgar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4858312
Despite the furore and controversy surrounding the somewhat radical proposals put forward by CAMRA's much vaunted "Revitalisation Project", one important issue seems to have been glossed over.

It's actually more than important it's vital to the very survival of CAMRA as a campaigning organisation; certainly in the medium to long term. The issue is being glossed over, swept under the carpet if you like, and yet it really is the "elephant in the room".

Before I reveal all, I want to mention that I wrote about this subject last year, in a post entitled "It's more than just a numbers game", but at a time when CAMRA under its current CEO, Tim Page remain obsessed with chasing ever increasing membership figures, they remain oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of new recruits are just armchair members.

These are folk content to pay their subscriptions, enjoy free or reduced entry to CAMRA beer festivals (which is probably where most of them joined anyway) and take full advantage of the Wetherspoon's vouchers - almost certainly the reason why many of them signed up in the first place.

Beer festivals don't just run themselves, but take one hell of a lot of organising. Finding sufficient members willing to volunteer and offer their services to allow festivals to happen has been a problem for many years, but more recently has been exacerbated by an increasingly ageing active membership pool, and the problem here is the numbers in this pool is in free-fall as people either become incapacitated, or shuffle off this mortal coil altogether.

When I, and many of my contemporaries first signed up, CAMRA was very much a young person's organisation, with much of the membership either in their twenties or early thirties. Nowadays you will be lucky to find any active members under 50, and in many branches the age is more likely to be 60!

If this ageing issue was just affecting CAMRA-run beer festivals it wouldn't be too much of a problem, but far more seriously if the affect it will have on another main activity of CAMRA's. and that is collecting and collating information for the group's best selling publication, the annual Good Beer Guide.

I somewhat doubt as to whether regular users of the Guide, let alone casual users, appreciate the amount of legwork put in by ordinary branch members in ensuring the publication not only appears each year, but is as accurate and as up to date as a publication of this kind can be; especially when you consider the groundwork is carried out solely by volunteers.

Getting feedback from people out in the field is difficult enough; a good case in point being the exchange of comments between myself and a member from neighbouring North East Sussex branch, which pointed out I was the only person to have submitted beer scores for the Bull at Ticehurst, in over a year.

Performing this action is the easy part, and is something that less active members could easily do, if they could be bothered. What happens next is where the real work begins, and if anything it becomes harder as the process progresses.

Based on information received from NBSS scores, feedback from members, observations and findings from branch pub-crawls or rural outings, plus of course the previous year's entries, branches will draw up a short list of likely candidates for the following year's Guide. Volunteers will then be sought to go out and survey the pubs on the shortlist (in West Kent branch, we ask that members who recommend a specific pub, actually take the time to go back and revisit the establishment in question and fill out a proper survey form).

Anyone who has filled one out of these wretched forms will know just what a pain they can be. At one time the Guide was typeset directly from these forms, so they were supposed to be "machine readable". Filling in each square on the form in BLOCK CAPITALS was one of the most tiresome tasks known to man; I should know as I've still got the scars to prove it!

For some strange reason CAMRA still insists on these rather antiquated forms, even though entries are now made electronically onto the GBG database, by each branch. But here lies another problem; much of the information on the survey forms is incomplete inaccurate, or sometimes both.

The individuals tasked with inputting the information often have to recheck; a frustrating and time-consuming process. Even worse are the pub descriptions; often  written by people lacking a basic knowledge of English grammar, or indeed English itself. A friend who has been carrying out this thankless, and unpaid task for several years, showed me an example, written totally without punctuation of any description. As all the text was written in block capitals, my friend spent a frustrating afternoon trying to decipher this garbage and in the end had to re-write the piece himself.

Such occurrences are not uncommon, but I wonder whether CAMRA realise, let alone appreciate the effort put in by a small, but dedicated group of individuals in order to get their flagship publication ready for the printers.

The number of volunteers willing to give up their evenings or weekends, to act as unpaid typesetters, is already in short supply, and in my own branch one of them is now saying, quite understandably, that due to work commitments, he can no longer spare the time needed for this task.

So returning for a while to CAMRA's proposals to transform itself into an all-embracing organisation for anyone who appreciates good beer, regardless of the methods of processing and dispense. If these ideas are adopted by the Campaign as a whole, can we expect to see a surge in new members all willing to get off their backsides and get out there doing some legwork?

I think we all know the answer, but rather like our current government in relation to an impending major constitutional change, CAMRA's current leadership have their heads buried firmly in the sand. I would like to use the same analogy between those running the country, and the top people within the Campaign for Real Ale, and say to them "Be very careful what you wish for", as lurking somewhere in the background, and often hiding just beneath the surface, will be the Law of Unintended Consequences, known in more general parlance, as the "Law of Sod"!

To end, the Good Beer Guide won’t disappear overnight of course, but it will slowly become less and less relevant. Without up to date, and accurate information, which only local CAMRA branches can really provide, the Guide will lose its cutting edge and its unique selling point will become increasingly diluted.

CAMRA cannot ignore this truth for much longer, even though it likes to pretend everything’s fine and the sun won’t be setting on their flagship publication any time soon. I can only speak for my own branch, where I know we are having difficulty in keeping tabs on all of our pubs, but I’m certain there are other branches in a similar, or possibly worse position.

So stop chasing membership numbers and recognise there is a real problem within the Campaign, otherwise no amount of tinkering with aims and objectives will save the organisation from a slow and lingering decline.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Looking forward to the cakes and ale

Last Wednesday evening, exactly five weeks to the day from when she was rushed to hospital by ambulance, I turned up to collect my good lady wife from Hawkhurst Community Hospital, and brought her back home.

It’s been a lengthy and at times, very draining experience; obviously far more so for her than for me, but the effects of nightly hospital visits, combined with work and running the household, have all added up leaving me needing to recharge my batteries as well.

I therefore took Thursday and Friday off from work, partially to recuperate, but more importantly to help Mrs PBT’s readjust to life at home and get her used to being away from the hospital routine.

She didn’t need much encouragement with regard to the latter, and she is coping well with getting around again; although there’ll be no long walks in the country for a wee while. I’ve also taken this opportunity to get my car looked at, as it was knocking up an additional 200 miles a week! The bathroom project is also being dusted off, although it will be several weeks before either of us are ready to face the upheaval which goes with a major renovation.

I also want to reconnect with the world outside of immediate family and work, and get back out visiting a few pubs and attending the odd CAMRA meeting. It’s been eight weeks since I last attended a CAMRA function, and that was our Christmas meal at the Brecknock Arms, so I’m itching to get back into the swing of things again.

This weekend our local rugby club, Tonbridge Juddians held their annual Winter Beer Festival. With Eileen only a couple of days out of hospital, it would have been both inappropriate and rather uncaring for me to have gone charging off to the TJ’s clubhouse for an afternoon, but to be honest a crowded festival, with people jostling for space, and nowhere to sit down, is not the sort of re-introduction to the world of beer I am looking for at the moment.

Instead, a few quiet pints, in an equally quiet pub, with a couple of close friends is much  more in line with what I’m looking for at the moment, so I will try and arrange something along these lines for next week. In the meantime it’s just good to have the family unit back together again under the same roof.

Friday, 9 February 2018

A couple of unexpected surprises

One of the advantages, but occasionally one of the drawbacks, of being a beer lover is that friends and family are never at a loss at what to buy for you at Christmas, and the last festivities were no exception. Whilst not quite enough to float the proverbial battleship, there was still beer a plenty in the Bailey household.

I’ve only just got round to drinking some of it which, considering the events of he past five weeks is hardly surprising, but  whilst I remain truly grateful for all of the beery presents bought for me, some of the choices do show the power of mass-advertising, and the dominance of big brands.

This is especially the case when the selection has been made by a non-beer drinking friend or relative. Somewhat predictably there is a bottle of Doom Bar amongst the selection, along with one of Poacher’s Choice (oh the power of rustic-sounding names!), but as stated earlier I remain grateful for these gifts, and will even enjoy drinking them; just so I can remind myself what some of these “big-brand” beers are like.

One or two though have left me pleasantly surprised and have acted as a reminder to never pre-judge something, but instead approach it with an open mind. One such beer was Fuller’s London Pride; a beer I used to be very partial to on draught, but which I rarely get the chance to drink these days.

What I found particularly interesting is the fact that like several so called Premium Bottled Ales (PBA’s), the bottled version is stronger than its draught counterpart, so bottled Pride weighs in at 4.7% ABV, whilst the cask version is a more modest 4.2%.

Not a huge difference you might think, but it is still a half of one percent alcohol by volume, and it makes a surprising difference to the taste. The bottled London Pride had a fuller flavour, if you’ll excuse the pun. This allowed the rich “marmalade” notes, normally a feature of ESB to shine through and come to the fore; the result a much rounder beer, which I really enjoyed.

The beer which was a real surprise though, and a pleasant one at that was “Old Crafty Hen”; a Morland’s brand from Greene King. This 6.5% ABV beer is described as “Oak-Aged Vintage”, having been matured in the oak vats, used for the GK classic Old 5X.

Although initially sceptical, I found this beer rather good and definitely full of character. Given its high gravity, it could have been cloyingly sweet, but it wasn’t. Instead it was a well-balanced beer, with the fruitiness of the malt, off-set by some interesting vanilla notes, no doubt derived from the oak vats in which it was aged. The only slight grouse I have is the beer being packaged in clear glass.

Full marks then to Greene King’s “Master Brewer”, who gets a mention on the bottle, even though his/her name is not revealed. And a lesson as well to be learned about approaching a beer with an open mind, and not allowing any preconceptions you may have to cloud your judgment.