Saturday 31 March 2018

West Kent CAMRA Pub and Club Awards 2018

Well the news has been a long time coming, but now that the official announcement has been made, I am pleased to confirm that the West Kent Pub of the Year is the George, in Tunbridge Wells.

The runners up are the the Windmill in Sevenoaks Weald and Fuggles Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells, both themselves previous winners. The award for Club of the Year 2018 goes once again to the Tunbridge Wells Constitutional Club, where members and CAMRA guests can enjoy a range of four hand pumped ales, along with a friendly welcome.

Cider Pub of the Year 2018 goes to the Pantiles Tap, in the Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells for the third year running, thanks to its mighty “Great Wall of Cider” offering cider and perry from a wide range of producers.

The managers and owners of the establishments concerned have all been informed of their award wins and official presentation events will be arranged at each venue over the coming weeks. This will enable staff and customers to celebrate their successes alongside local CAMRA members, by raising a glass together.

This year's contest was extremely close, and there was very little separating the top three pubs. In the run-up to the contest local CAMRA members were encouraged to visit the six chosen finalists and then score each pub according to a number of different criteria.

As might be expected, the quality of the beer and cider served was  at the forefront, but other factors to be considered were style, décor, furnishing & cleanliness; service, welcome and offering; community focus and atmosphere; and alignment with CAMRA principles/overall impression.

The votes were then collected and analysed to establish the winner.  Much of the assessing took place when a group of branch members toured the nominated pubs, by mini-bus, over a one day to give their final assessment, but members were also able to visit the six finalists  over  a longer period, should they have wished.

Winning Pub of the Year 2018, is a particularly fitting moment for the George,  after the indignation of being turned into a rather tacky night-spot (Liquid Lounge, TN4), earlier this century. Fortunately this attractive old coaching inn, which can trace its history back to the Georgian era, has been lovingly restored to something approaching its former glory, and reverted, thankfully, to its original name.

The George is now a smart, friendly free house, which provides an exciting new venue at the "top end" of Tunbridge Wells. The pub has eight hand pumps, two of which are dedicated to real cider, whilst the other six offer a changing range of ales from far and wide. There are several distinct areas inside, with wooden floors and panelling, and plenty of comfortable seating. A couple of open fires provide a welcoming warmth in winter, and for the summer months there is a patio area in front of the pub, plus a hidden, “secret garden” down some steps at the rear of the building.

Manager Paul Fillis was delighted to receive the news from West Kent CAMRA Branch chairman, Craig Beeson. Paul recently made the news thanks to the opening of a microbrewery in a downstairs room of the pub. Here he doubles up as head brewer, producing small batch quantities of real ale to sell in the bar upstairs under the name Fonthill Brewing Company. At the moment the brewery is trying out a range of recipes and they seem to be receiving very favourable comments from customers.

Thursday 29 March 2018

Budweiser Budvar Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager 7.5%

“You are invited to attend a tasting of Budweiser Budvar Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager 7.5%  2017 Vintage. The location The Trading House, Gresham Street, London, EC2V; the date Friday 23rd March. 7.5% Czech Lager, food and Budvar Tank beer included

Well with an invitation like that I couldn’t really refuse, especially after missing out on sampling this special beer last year. I duly made my way to The Trading House, a former bank, close to the Bank of England, in London’s Gresham Street, in order to taste this legendary beer.

Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager is a very special beer, brewed once a year using freshly harvested Saaz hops on the day of picking. The beer is then matured for 200 days, with a limited number of kegs making their way to the UK each year! 

Along with a number of other beer writers and journalists, I’d been invited to this event by Budweiser Budvar UK. We were looked after by Josh Nesfield, the company’s UK marketing manager. Josh explained that the beer had been racked into kegs at the brewery in České Budějovice on Tuesday, and then driven across Europe to London, ready to be tapped for us to drink that Friday.

Fresh Hopped  Imperial Lager is brewed to celebrate the harvesting of the  hops, which takes place harvested in the Czech Republic each August. Fresh Saaz hops, picked by hand, are used to create this special strong beer which is brewed on the same day as the harvest.

Hop-picking festivals have been held in the Žatec area, which is the  home of the Saaz hop, since the 18th Century. Originally they were held in the surrounding villages, but after WWII moved to the town. The festival celebrates the moment at the beginning of September when the hop harvest is finished – earlier than in the UK.

Budweiser Budvar is owned by the Czech state, and the company still use whole cone hops; one of the very few large breweries to do so. The hops come from  the village of Strkovice, just outside Žatec, and after picking, are taken to the brewery straight away, so that this special beer can be brewed on the same day. Normally only one brew is produced, but occasionally two are made. Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager is a difficult beer to produce because the volatile hop compounds can soon disappear after harvesting. The timing required to bringing them to the brewery while still “live” is therefore crucial. 

The fresh hops add aromatic compounds which would normally be lost  during the drying process, and the uncertainty surrounding their use can mean a change in taste from year to year. Climatic conditions, together with the soil the hops are grown in, provides a unique link to the locality. Budvar know exactly where all their hops come from, and use the same farms and the same fields much like Harvey’s in the UK.

The “Imperial” part of the name comes from its strength, weighing in at around 7.5% ABV, and dates from a time when beers like this were brewed to last  right through the cold winters. To achieve the higher alcohol content and ensure the aromatic compounds are at their best, requires longer in the maturation tanks.

Budvar’s underground cellars usually play host to its beer for around 90 days. Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager gets an incredible 200 day stay in the maturation vessels. Over that time the beer has a chance to really develop in complexity. Few other beers in the world are matured for as long.

Because this brew is a one-off it also changes year-on-year to reflect conditions, climate or, to borrow a term from the wine world, “terroir” of the exact fields the hops were grown in. Where consistency and tradition is rightly everything to the taste of Budweiser Budvar’s other beers, with Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager there is a bit of room for change. That change continues in the brewery’s maturation cellars.

From the vantage point of small galleried private bar at The Trading House, high above the lunchtime diners below, I was given a glass of this excellent beer. For a moment I was tempted to use that awful American term “awesome”, to describe the beer, but sticking with typical British understatement  instead, I would say it was “a mighty fine drop”.

Burnished gold in colour and  with a full hit of aromatic hops on the nose, it had me drooling before I’d so much as tasted a drop.  The heavy malt profile, associated with a beer of this strength, offers a great counterpoint to the hops, and there’s a wonderful, almost honeyed sweetness on the tongue and palate. There’s none of “spirit-like” taste associated with many high alcohol beers, and the only downside, if it can be called that, is it’s dangerously drinkable.

Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager is a truly special beer made even more so by its individuality and changeability from year to year. Every discerning beer drinker and hophead should look out for it in spring when it’s released in limited quantities in the UK.

Disclaimer: Whilst at this event, I also enjoyed a tankard of Tankové Pivo; Budvar’s legendary lager in “tank” form. The Trading House is one of a small number of UK outlets which take the beer in this un-pasteurised form. The beer remains fresh because it is delivered in temperature controlled tanks, and has a smooth mouth feel  because the tanks are airtight and no air touches the beer.

In addition, I enjoyed some fine “finger food”, courtesy of Budvar UK. As well as Josh, I also had a chat with Martin Macourek, UK Director of the Czech Trade Promotion Agency, who are attached to the Czech Embassy. The Czechs take their beer very seriously, and rightly so!

Wednesday 28 March 2018

The Red Lion & White Horse - Kenninghall

It has been nearly five months since I last made the journey to Norfolk, in order to see dad, and quite a lot has happened since then. For a start my wife Eileen was hospitalised for five weeks at the beginning of the year, following a bout of pneumonia. Then there's the news that my sister and her husband have departed for pastures new in the East Midlands, leaving dad with no family members close by.

So for several weeks I have been struggling with mixed loyalties; wanting to go and visit dad, but mindful that my wife was still convalescing. Finally, at the end of last weekend, I felt able to make the journey up to Norfolk, safe in the knowledge that Eileen would be okay left on her own.

I have written before about finding a place to stay overnight on my trips to see dad,  so whilst looking for somewhere to lay my head, I came across the Red Lion at Kenninghall; a large village roughly halfway between Bury St Edmunds and Norwich.

The Red Lion is a CAMRA National Inventory pub, which has been on my list of pubs to visit for some time, so when the pub came up on at a very good price, I jumped at the chance of an overnight stay.

I drove up early on Sunday afternoon, surprised that the traffic, particularly on the M25, was so heavy. Once past Stansted I made good time, and with the aid of my sat-nav, arrived in Kenninghall shortly before 5pm. I  made a brief stop at the well-stocked village store, and post office, before parking up at the Red Lion, which lies in the shadow of the imposing St Mary's church.

I was shown to a cosy little room at the front of the building, with a door opening straight out onto the street. I was aware that the Red Lion wouldn't be serving food on Sunday evening, so had carried out some prior research to see what the alternatives were. Kenninghall is large enough to support two pubs, and right in the centre of the village, opposite the post office, is the White Horse.

I'd noticed the pub on my drive through, and although indications from the website were that it was more of a gastro-pub, it still fitted the bill. I took a slow wander down to the centre of the village, shortly before 6pm, pausing en route to take some photos and also for a look at the church. After studying the menu options, displayed outside the White Horse, I opened the door and stepped inside.

The White Horse is a 16th century coaching inn which has undergone a substantial renovation and the pub, whilst retaining its character and charm, now has a colourful and contemporary feel to it. There is a long counter, running the entire length of the rear of the spacious single bar. The bar itself is divided into two unequal parts by a large central fireplace and chimney.

Being early evening, the pub wasn't very busy, and as I approached the bar I noticed there were two beers from Woodforde's making up the cask line-up; Norfolk Nog, plus the ubiquitous Wherry. I opted for the former and it was pulled up by the pleasant and friendly girl behind the bar. Dark, sweet and luscious against a background of roasted malt, is how I'd describe the Nog, and I scored it a worthy 3.5 NBSS. Priced at £3.60 a pint, it was worth every penny as well.

I grabbed a couple of menus and sat myself down at one of the tables, resisting the barmaid's suggestion that I try one of the comfy, low sofas. Low, comfortable sofas and me are not a good combination, as once comfortably ensconced I find it very difficult to get back up again.

Once seated I perused the menus as well as a couple of local CAMRA branch magazines which were gracing the bar. "Norfolk Nips", which now covers the whole of the county, needs little in the way of introduction, whilst the other magazine, a publication called "Last Orders", is a joint venture between the Suffolk and  North Essex branches of CAMRA.

Food-wise, I opted for the "Battered catch of the day". This just happened to be cod (I wonder how often that happens?), and it arrived on a plate with some deep fried potato slices, which were described as "hand cut"  chips. I enjoyed my meal along with the Norfolk Nog, treating myself to a further half before leaving.

So why didn't I stay longer? Well if you're running an attractive old pub, offering good food and excellent beer, why on earth would you think it a good idea to have what can best be described as "lounge music", blasting out of  the speakers?  (By this I mean slightly off tone, jazz-oriented muzak of  the sort used to annoy people placed on hold when phoning a call-centre).

I was tempted to say something, safe in the knowledge I am unlikely to be returning to the White Horse,  but I thought better of it. Instead, as reporters on a certain, now defunct Sunday paper used to say, I made my excuses and left!

I wandered back up to the Red Lion, through the steadily gathering dusk, stopping off at my room to make a phone call home. I also bashed out part of this article on my lap-top, before popping back  next door for a couple of end of evening beers. There was no-one in the bar and the barmaid was thinking of shutting up for the night. It was only just after 9pm, but apparently Sunday evening was normally a quiet time.

Not wishing to deprive a thirsty man of his beer, the friendly barmaid pulled me a pint, It was Rockabilly from Shortts Farm Brewery, who are based just outside the Suffolk town of Eye . It deserved its 4.0 NBSS score, being refreshingly bitter, with citrus flavours from the use of North American hops.

As I got stuck into my beer the conversation turned to food. The barmaid had shown me to my room when I first arrived and knowing that the Red Lion's kitchen was closed on Sunday evenings, we'd already spoken about somewhere else to eat in Kenninghall.

I described my impressions of the White Horse, and added that I thought it more of an eating place than anything else. She said it had had a succession of owners in recent years; each one keen to stamp their own personality on the pub. According to Whatpub, the current owners are a family-owned "hospitality company", called. Foodsie 100Ltd.  

The conversation then turned to other matters, and I learned that Kenninghall was both a thriving village and a very pleasant place to live. I had sort of gathered that from what I'd observed from my walk down to the White Horse and also from the parish magazine I'd thumbed through earlier. I also learned quite a bit about the Red Lion, particularly that it was known for the quality of its beer and that it was much more of a locals' pub than its more contemporary counterpart.

As mentioned earlier the pub is on CAMRA's heritage pub list and has been beautifully restored after being closed for approximately seven years. It re-opened in February 1997, following extensive refurbishment. The building dates from the early 16th Century, and as well as a traditional public bar, has a pine panelled snug, which is one of only two of its kind in East Anglia.

At the other end of the pub is a 50 seater restaurant. laid out in the style of old stables. I enjoyed a satisfying full English breakfast there the following morning. In addition to the good, wholesome home-cooked food, the Red Lion has four guest rooms, and hosts regular live music sessions and other community events.

I was getting close to finishing my pint when another customer entered the bar. It turned out he was another guest. Seeing how quiet the pub was, the newcomer enquired if they were still serving. I could see the barmaid's face drop slightly, as she saw her desire for an early night vanish, but seeing as the new arrival was quite chatty, I too ordered another pint.

Motorbike racing was what had brought the other guest to Kenninghall. His son had spent the weekend racing at the nearby Snetterton Circuit, just down the road, and dad had travelled up from Somerset to act as support. Like me, he'd come across the Red Lion on

Whilst tucking  into my breakfast the following morning, I heard the landlady telling the cleaner that since registering recently with the booking site, she'd had plenty of reservations, so it was obviously paying off for the pub.

I would also recommend the Red Lion as a good place to base yourself in this less frequented south-east corner of  Norfolk. If like me, you are a lover of unspoilt "heritage pubs", then you can't really go wrong by booking yourself a short stay there.

Sunday 25 March 2018

Swiss Cottage Re-Visited

I made a trip up to London on Friday; my first visit since the summer. I'm not sure why I left it so long, but with Christmas and then the calamitous start to the year, it's perhaps not surprising. The attraction which drew me to the capital, was an invitation to taste Budvar's Fresh Hop Imperial Lager.

This is a very special beer, brewed once a year using freshly harvested hops, and then matured for a period of 200 days. I will be writing about this special tasting event later on, but as it wasn't scheduled to start until 1.30pm, I had a few hours free time on my hands.

I decided to use the spare time by making a nostalgic visit back to an area of London which I knew well from my childhood days. The area known as Swiss Cottage, is named after a famous landmark pub. My maternal grandparents lived just up the road; their house being situated in a small side street, off the Finchley Road. I have fond memories of visiting them and of staying with them during the school holidays.

My grandparents were regular pub-goers, and their local was an imposing Victorian pub called the North Star, situated opposite Finchley Road Underground Station. I imagine they would also have visited the Swiss Cottage pub as well, from time to time but, of course have no proof of this. Reading up on the Swiss Cottage I discovered it is now owned by Yorkshire brewers, Samuel Smiths, so this seemed a good enough reason to make a return visit.

I had been in the Swiss Cottage on a couple of occasions as a teenager. This was when a school friend and I had stayed at my Nan's place during one of the summer holidays. Neither of were legally old enough to drink, but that wasn't too much of a problem back in the early 1970's. Even so, we'd been refused service at a small pub just up the road from my grandmother's, so with only our pride to lose we decided to give the Swiss Cottage a go.

I remembered from earlier visits to my grandparents that the pub had been re-built just a few years previously, so when we stepped inside we were impressed with what we found. The Swiss Cottage was a free-house and, given its modernity, stocked all the latest keg brands. We were served without any trouble, and whilst I obviously can't remember which of these beers we drank, I have a gut feeling it may have been Worthington E.

We returned to the pub a few days later, this time with my Nan and her friend Kit in tow. It was a good evening, and my Nan really let her hair down, especially after she'd had a few G&T's. Pub visits would have been a rare occurrence for her, following the death of my grandfather who had passed away a few years previously, so it was good to see her enjoying herself. There was some good old fashioned singing on the way back to Nan's, including a couple of rather amusing and slightly risqué ditties.

That visit would have been in the summer of 1972, and until Friday, it was the last time I'd set foot in the Swiss Cottage. It was therefore with a mixture of excitement and nostalgia that I entered the pub. Before describing my visit, it's worth taking a look back at the Swiss Cottage, and its impact on the area named after it.
The Swiss Cottage was built sometime between 1830 and 1840; depending on which history you read. There was an earlier pub on the site known as the Swiss Tavern. This functioned as a coaching inn, and seeing as the Swiss chalet look was popular in the first half of the nineteenth century, it would have been no surprise for the  new pub to have been built in this style and given its current name.

During the latter half of the 19th Century the area grew up around the pub. In 1850 it was the terminus of the General Omnibus Company for their route to London Bridge, and in 1868 the underground railway arrived; the station being named after the pub. The current station, which today serves the Jubilee line between Finchley Road and St John's Wood, opened in 1939.

In the 1960s, the Swiss Cottage was redeveloped and extended as part of a local road widening scheme — a far cry from its roots in the fields surrounding London, but still maintaining its alpine charm. Today the pub is a chalet-style building, with wooden pillars and balconies. Shutters surround the windows and hanging baskets complete the alpine look.

This wasn't really how I remembered the pub, but then the surrounding area also seemed much altered and certainly much smaller than it did when I was a child. I arrived just after 11.30am to find the doors well and truly locked and no signs of life inside. I guessed that the pub would be opening at midday, so to kill time, I crossed the road and took a walk along Finchley Road.

Across the road I could see the aforementioned North Star, where my grandparents used to drink. The pub looked tacky and unloved; the Sky Sports posters plastered over the outside not helping its image. I then walked past the former John Barnes department store, where my mother had worked prior to starting a family. John Barnes was part of the John Lewis group, so it is not surprising that it is now a large Waitrose store. The upstairs floors, which were once part of the store, appear to have been converted into apartments.

It was time to turn round when I reached Finchley Road Underground station. Before doing so, I noticed the flower stall was still there. Back in the day, it had been run by my Nan's friend Kit, and then by her son Michael. My grandfather also operated a flower stall, up on Hampstead Heath.

The Swiss Cottage was open when I arrived back and there were already a couple of customers sitting inside. This was a good sign, as I hate being the first customer of the day/session. Any seasoned pub-goer will know the trepidation which comes from the thought of, has the beer been pulled through properly, or even at all! Will I be served a pint of dull-looking ditch water, or will that pint be the one I am looking for to quench my thirst and set me up for the day. It was then that I noticed the other customers all drinking lager, which wasn't such a good sign.

Being a Sam Smith's pub there was just the one cask ale on offer; the legendary Old Brewery Bitter. My pint took a fair bit of pulling through, but I don't know whether this was because the beer was overly lively, or it was the effect of pulling it through that tight sparkler which Yorkshiremen seem to love. When the beer finally settled in the glass it was slightly cloudy, but it tasted fine. I scored it at 3.0 NBSS. It was priced at £3.20 a pint, which although slightlymore than I remember for Sam's Smiths, was still good value.

I was spoilt for the choice of a table to sit at; choosing one within sight of the bar. It was quite dark inside the pub, and I had trouble reading in the dim light, but I sat there enjoying my pint along with the packet of Sam Smith's "own brand", ready-salted crisps. The lattice windows with an imitation oil-lamp on each window sill, added to the effect of a Swiss Chalet. I only stayed for the one pint, as I needed to get back into central London for the Imperial Lager tasting, so I left the pub and headed back down to the Underground.

I'm pleased to have made a return visit to the Swiss Cottage after four and a half decades, but having done so my curiosity has been satisfied and somehow I don't think I'll be going back for a second time.

Thursday 22 March 2018

Pub of the Year Tour - Part Two

Well the winner of the West Kent Pub of the Year has at last been confirmed, but I’ve been requested not to reveal its identity until the pub  has been informed. Fair comment, we will instead carry on from where we left off last time, by looking at the other three finalists.

Some time after 2pm, our chartered mini-bus headed back into Tunbridge Wells in order to visit the fourth pub on our itinerary. Finding a place to park on a Saturday afternoon was always going to be a problem, but fortunately there is a row of designated spaces on the edge of Tunbridge Wells Common, reserved for coaches and tour buses. Our driver decided our vehicle qualified in the latter category, so after parking up, we walked up the hill towards our destination.

On the way we passed the site of the old Kent & Sussex Hospital, now being re-developed as a collection of “high-end” houses and apartments. Just past this on-going development is the George, an attractive old coaching inn, which can trace its history back to the Georgian era, when Tunbridge Wells was first being developed as a town.

After an unfortunate period as a rather tacky night-spot (Liquid Lounge, TN4), the pub has been lovingly restored to something approaching its former glory, and reverted, thankfully, to its original name. The George is now a smart, friendly free house, which provides an exciting new venue at the "top end" of Tunbridge Wells.

The pub features a range of seven cask ales, most of which are from small brewers. There is also an extensive selection of "craft beers", along with a couple of traditional ciders. Two beers caught my attention, Marble Pint and 360º Stout. The first beer gave me the opportunity to utter the immortal words, "a pint of Pint, please"; the second was a very tasty half to finish up on.

There are several distinct areas inside, with wooden floors and panelling, and plenty of comfortable seating. A couple of open fires provide a welcoming warmth in winter, and for the summer months there is a patio area in front of the pub, plus a hidden, “secret garden” down some steps at the rear of the building.

After ordering our drinks, most of us opted for something to eat; my Cajun Chicken Melt was particularly tasty, and was just the right portion size so as not to impede further drinking. The stop-over also afforded a good opportunity to catch up with some friends who I hadn't seen since before Christmas. It was then back on the bus for the last leg of the tour; the final two rural pubs.

The first of these was the Windmill at Sevenoaks Weald, a pub which needs little in the way of introduction to readers of this blog. It’s hard to believe now that the Windmill was once under the threat of closure, but after being given a new lease of life six years ago following its acquisition by sympathetic new owners, it went on to become branch Pub of the Year. It kept this title for four years running, and in 2014 reached the final four of  CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year competition.

Licensees Matt and Emma have achieved this success through attention to detail and a strong emphasis placed on customer service. This, combined with their sensitive restoration of a fine old Victorian pub, has made this reborn village local a real destination pub. The Windmill's six hand pumps dispense a range of beer styles and strengths, alongside a number of real local ciders.

Unfortunately our visit that Saturday was not quite the full-on "Windmill experience" we’d been expecting. The England v France clash in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament was in full flow when we arrived, and the pub was packed with supporters, all cheering on the home side. It was therefore standing room only.

Now don’t get me wrong, under different circumstances a Six Nations rugby game would have grabbed my interest, so I am being unfair and just a little hypocritical to be moaning about it here, but I believe the packed pub interfered with my ability to judge it as objectively as I might otherwise. I didn’t mark it down, but being squashed into the lobby next to the restaurant didn’t exactly enhance our visit. This did mean there were certain areas where I had to rely on past visits in order to make my score.

I was somewhat relieved when we left, and headed in a south-westerly direction, up into the High Weald for the final pub of the tour; the wonderful unspoilt Queen’s Arms a.k.a. Elsie’s. The Queens Arms is listed on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, and a visit there really is like stepping back in time.

Nothing much has changed in this simple country ale-house since the 1930's, but its future had been under threat for some time after Elsie, the long-serving landlady, had to move into a care home. The pub was then run by a dedicated band of locals for nearly 5 years, until 2014, when it was bought and restored by its present owners.

Elsie is sadly no longer with us, but her spirit lives on in the pub she was not only born in, but had also lived in for virtually her entire life. It is worth noting that the Queens Arms has one of the last remaining totally unspoilt rural public bars, which dates from the Victorian era. Apart from the paintwork, this  step back to an earlier time has been almost untouched since the end of the nineteenth century.

It was this bar which accommodated our party, and it was a relief to be able to escape from the Six Nations rugby match being shown in the other bar. There was just the one beer on; Larkin’s Traditional, which was on fine form, but apart from the community spirit, there was little else in way of attraction, and no food apart from crisps.

This did lead several of us to query, at least to ourselves that despite its obvious historical, why was a pub like the Queen’s Arms included in the Pub of the Year competition? It may well be a “national treasure” but it is run as a “hobby pub”; the current owners both having full time jobs.

All the same it was nice to finish up there, but realistically speaking it was never going to win, and probably just as well given its limited opening hours. For a trip back in time though, the Queen’s Arms is well worth a visit, and further information regarding its history and character can be found here, on Whatpub.

It was around 7pm when the bus dropped us back in Tunbridge Wells. Several people went on to the Royal Oak, whilst a couple of others popped into the Bedford, next to the station With a busy family Mother’s Day event taking place the following day, I decided I’d had enough beer I called it a day and caught the next train back to Tonbridge,  after an enjoyable, but rather hectic day out.

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Pub of the Year Tour - Part One

With still no word from the West Kent CAMRA Committee regarding the winner of branch Pub of the Year, I can only assume that the news embargo is still in place. So not wishing to upset the apple-cart, I won’t be releasing the name of the winning pub until it’s officially announced.

What I can do though is provide a write up of the six pubs we visited 10 days ago and, for the time being at least, leave readers to draw their own conclusions. As the write-up is quite lengthy, I have divided it into two halves, with each part detailing three pubs.

The Pub of the Year tour got off to a sticky start. The plan was for the mini-bus to pick participants up outside Tunbridge Wells railway station, before setting off on a carefully planned out route. Well you know what is said about the best laid plans, and this one hit a snag right  from the off.

The station at Tunbridge Wells has two entrances; one on each side of the tracks. This meant a couple of people keeping lookout on one side, whilst the main part of the group waited on the other. 

The 11.30am pick-up came and went, and at first the non-show of the bus was put down to heavy traffic; not exactly an unusual occurrence on a busy Saturday, but as the time crept on, it was time for the group coordinator to phone the bus company. The office was closed, but somehow the driver's number was obtained.

There had been a mix-up regarding the pick-up time, and the driver was still making his way down the A21 from Bromley. An "executive decision" was  then taken to head up to one of the two Tunbridge Wells pubs on the list, and start judging. The bus would be able to catch up with us from there.

We walked up the hill towards Fuggles Beer Café, which was now the first pub, and ordered our first beers of the day. From our point of view it was good to find the place quiet. The opposite normally applies, but the lack of people milling around afforded a good opportunity to assess the pub, without any distractions. I liked the feel  which Fuggles had during this quiet period, as it allowed time to peruse the artwork and admire the display of enamelled Belgian beer signs.

There was the usual selection of six cask ales on, and whilst some of us might have been tempted by one of the "craft keg" options, this was a CAMRA competition and, for the time being at least, cask was the type of beer which the pub would be judged on. One member of our party, who is renowned for a love of strong beers, went straight in with a pint of Great Rift Milk Stout; a 6.0% beer from Wander Beyond Brewing. Knowing there was long day ahead I, rather more sensibly, opted for the Eponymous; a 3.2% “Table Beer” from Eight Arch Brewing.

Pale in colour, but packed with flavour, in spite of its low strength, this refreshing beer was just right to kick off what would prove to be lengthy session. Having dutifully completed our voting times there was precious little time to sit back and relax, because we received a call that our mini-bus would soon be with us. We dutifully filed outside, ready to pile into the bus as soon as it arrived.

Our bus headed out of town towards what should have been the first port of call. This was the Halfway House, an unspoilt, rambling old alehouse, just down the hill from the village of Brenchley. The Halfway is a previous winner of  Pub of the Year, and offers a wide range of gravity-served beers. It also holds two annual beer festivals; one in May and the other in August.

Local ales feature prominently amongst the range at the Halfway, so it was no surprise that I opted for a refreshing pint of Goacher's Fine Light, from Maidstone. Our party split into two groups, one choosing to congregate around the bar, whilst the rest of us sat up in a part of the pub which is on a different level, and almost cut off from the rest of the building. We sat and filled in our scores, and some members took the opportunity of re-charging their glasses.

I like the Halfway House, and have fond memories of the beer festivals I have enjoyed there over the years, but it is a real "mish-mash" of a place which never quite seems to fulfil its own potential. There wasn't much time to dwell on this though as before long we were marshalled back onto the min-bus to make the short journey to the third pub of the day, the Dovecote in the tiny hamlet of Capel.

The Dovecote is a small, narrow pub situated in a row of terraced cottages. It has the appearance of having been converted from one or more of these dwellings. Like the Halfway House, the Dovecote also serves its cask ales by gravity. This is no surprise to those who know the history of the pub, as the former landlord is now the licensee of the Halfway House

It was at the Dovecote that the landlord first perfected his unusual, but rather innovative method of storing the beer in a temperature-controlled room, and then serving it by means of "long-reach" taps, which poke through a series of strategically placed holes in the wall between the "cellar " and the bar.

The Dovecote is also noteworthy for selling Gales HSB. Although HSB is now brewed by Fuller's, it is a beer which brings back happy memories of a short break taken by a student friend and I, along with our respective girlfriends. My friend’s mother owned a holiday cottage, deep in the Surrey countryside, to the south of Godalming, and the four of us travelled down from Manchester to enjoy a long weekend in the country.

There was a Gales pub in the next village, stocking several of the company's cask beers, and it was here that I first sampled and enjoyed HSB. It may sound strange, but I can still remember how good that first pint tasted, so seeing HSB on sale at the Dovecote meant I just had to have a pint.

I wasn’t disappointed, but there wasn’t time to stay for another as the pub was packed out with diners, and there was nowhere to sit. Instead we clambered onto the bus and headed back into Tunbridge Wells for the fourth pub of the trip.

To be continued………………………….