Friday 30 November 2018

"For great lager, follow the bear"

It was son Matthew's birthday a couple of weeks ago, and along with the usual presents bought for a twenty-something lad, we thought we'd get him a case of beer.  Rather than the usual case of Stella though I wanted something better for him; something a little bit special, and something he could really enjoy, so what better than a beer he has taken quite a lot of interest in over the past year or so?

I'm talking about a beer which launched in the early 1980's, and which was promoted as having a German heritage. Despite having a Teutonic-sounding name, Hofmeister was brewed in the UK by Courage, (later Scottish Courage). It was pretty weak stuff as well, with an ABV of just 3.2% , but this was not uncommon for British lagers at the time.

Hofmeister was promoted with the help of a bear; a fake one of course, and one which having started life as a rather cuddly and slightly bumbling bear, morphed into a cheeky-chappy, Jack-the-lad sort of bear, whose name was revealed as George. George wore a shiny, yellow jacket and a pork pie hat

The brand was marketed with the slogan "For great lager, follow the Bear"; a  strap-line which appeared in both TV commercials as well as on billboards. Like many of these beers with a fake continental pedigree, the adverts were better than the beer itself.

After a slow, but inevitable decline, the brand was finally killed off in 2007, which was shortly after Scottish Courage had been acquired by Heineken. And there the brand might have remained, confined to the dustbin of history, until in 2016, when a small group of beer enthusiasts acquired the rights to Hofmeister from Heineken.

The re-vamped beer re-launched in October 2016 with new branding, a revised recipe and a genuine German pedigree. The new Hofmeister Helles Lager is a vast improvement on its 80’s namesake, and is brewed at a brewery in the heart of Bavaria, by a 4th generation family brewery.

It is brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot German beer purity law, using natural mineral water and locally grown barley and hops. The beer is lagered at a temperature close to zero degrees, for a fresh, crisp, award winning Helles lager with an ABV of 5%. It is light golden blonde in colour, with low carbonation and is imported from Bavaria for sale in the U.K.

Matthew is too young to remember the original Hofmeister, but I am not, and after trying the beer for myself, pronounced it genuinely Bavarian, eminently drinkable and a far cry from the "ersatz" lager I remember from the early 1980’s. After both trying the beer for the first time (last year, at the Greyhound Charcott), decided to track down some Hofmeister to enjoy at home.

The company behind the re-launched beer claim they are on a mission to bring back this iconic brand to an appreciative public, and asks devotees to follow their journey online and keep an eye out for Hofmeister coming soon to a pub near you.
Despite these laudable aims, Hofmeister is still hard to come by, particularly in packaged form (bottles). A growing number of pubs keep it on draught, but in bottled form Hofmeister seems as rare as hen's teeth.

This was where I did my super-sleuth bit by becoming involved with the search for bottled Hofmeister, but an online scan of all the major supermarkets (including both Aldi & Lidl), yielded no results. A Google search did show though that the beer was available from Amazon, but priced at £23.99 for a dozen bottles, it was a little on the pricey side. I was prepared to pay this for a birthday gift, until I noticed the £7.50 delivery charge,  and for me this was a red line.

I continued my quest, this time trying independent off-licences, and I thought I'd struck lucky with Oddbins, after a chance enquiry whilst en route to a CAMRA meeting in Tunbridge Wells. I discovered that Hofmeister is a beer stocked by the chain, and whilst the local store was out of stock, they would be able to order some for me.

I left the manager my card, and he promised to call me the on the following Thursday, when the beer was due in; although he did say he couldn't guarantee the stock would arrive. The Thursday in question came and went and of course, there was no phone call.

The phone call which is never made or never returned, has to be the number one let down of the 21st Century and the one thing guaranteed to piss more people off in life than anything else. Garages are the worst in my experience. How many times have you taken your vehicle in for a service or repair, and the service manager says they will phone you when the car is ready for collection?

How many times are they true to their word or, more to the point, how many times have you been left feeling let down? Most of us are resigned to this being just another sad fact of life, and I am no exception, but the following day I picked up the phone and called Tunbridge Wells Oddbins.

The manager remembered me, although there was no apology for not having called me, but the fact was the beer had not been delivered to Oddbins' central warehouse, so hence none had been despatched to the various stores. He then quoted me chapter and verse as to how this wasn't uncommon in the drinks industry. I enquired whether the beer might be available at a later date, but the manager told me he simply didn't know, and these best thing I could do was to try elsewhere.

This is where a work colleague came to the rescue. My workmate had overheard my conversation and decided to check whether his Amazon Prime account would qualify for free delivery. As it was Black Friday, there was no delivery charge payable, so the order was placed for delivery to Bailey Towers.

The beer was duly delivered a couple of days ago, much to Matthew's delight, although he hasn't given his old dad a bottle yet. But the mystery remains as to why such an obviously good product is not more widely available.

In the meantime, "For great lager, why not follow the Bear?".

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Naylor's Brewery Bar & Emporium

Some of you may remember that at the end of my piece about Saltaire Brewery, published at the end of September, I mentioned that after leaving Saltaire, the family and I called in at another brewery, on our way to Skipton.

We never actually made it to Skipton, for reasons I won’t bother explaining now, but we did make a very brief visit to Naylor’s Brewery and Beer Emporium, at Cross Hills, near Keighley.

The brewery is housed in an industrial unit, a short distance from the village of Cross Hills. Adjacent to the brewery is the company’s Brewery Bar & Emporium, and whilst this was closed at the time of our visit, the adjoining brewery office was open, and the very nice young lady in charge sold me a few of bottles of beer, and also allowed me to take a few photos of the bar.

The brewery began life in 2001 at the Old White Bear public house in Cross Hills. It was started by the pub’s owners, brothers’ Stephen and Robert Naylor, initially to brew beer for the Old White Bear. The brothers soon realised that their future lay in brewing, so in 2006 they made the decision to follow their passion and concentrate soley on producing quality, hand-crafted beers.

Naylor’s beers are brewed from British barley, supplemented by small amounts of wheat and rye and bittered using several varieties of hops, sourced from around the world. The brewing water used is pure and soft, and drawn straight from the Yorkshire Dales, with a traditional top-fermenting ale yeast used to produce the finished product.

The company brew a wide range of both cask and bottles beers, details of which can be found on their website. One thing which does puzzle me though, is the “rider” on the website which states that the Brewery Bar is now under “old management”, with the Naylor’s back in charge. I’m not sure what might have gone on there, so I won’t speculate further, but the bar did seem a nice little place to enjoy a few of the company’s beers, along with a bite to eat.

As I hinted at in the Saltaire article, we weren’t primarily in the region for a beer hunt, but after Google notified us of the proximity of Naylor’s, it seemed rude not to stop by and take a look. Ryedale Brewing and Beer Monkey were also quite nearby, but as we had a family meal planned, with Mrs PBT’s cousin and her family for later in the evening, we decided that two breweries were enough for one day.

Now, nearly two months after our visit, I have finally got round to drinking two of the three Naylor’s beers I brought back with me. Here’s what I thought.

Naylor’s Brewery Brewer’s Choice – Yorkshire Ale 4.0%. Described as a "Right, proper, traditional Yorkshire Bitter. Copper in colour, bitter to begin with, but mellows once you get to know it. Best drunk wearing a flat cap, (whippet optional)".

There is little I would disagree with in that description. Basically this is a very decent drop of beer, with a pleasant and refreshing bitterness, balanced by just the right amount of malt.

Naylor’s Brewery IPA 4.5. There is a nice plain-looking label, with some attractive-looking Celtic artwork on the bottle, and this sets the tone for what is a very good and very drinkable IPA.

The label states, “Our IPA is strong enough to last the journey and bold enough to stand out. Good bitterness and a pronounced aroma are supplied by the generous amount of hops”. It also informs the drinker that as well as wheat malt, the beer contains lactose, dark chocolate and natural chocolate flavouring.

I didn’t pick up the last three ingredients in the taste, but what did find is a very satisfying and thirst quenching beer, with lots of juicy malt, complemented by a real fruity background.

The beer is very pale in colour, and pours with a nice fluffy head. I would like to have sampled this beer in cask form, but as mentioned earlier, the brewery tap was closed at the time of our visit.

I still have a bottle of the 5.9% Old Ale, kicking around somewhere, but that can be a treat for another day.

Sunday 25 November 2018

The Beer Seller is coming to town

There’s a lot going on at the moment, so there’s only time for a quick post, and it’s one about Tonbridge again. I make no apologies for this, as the town is rapidly catching up as a "beer destination" with its larger neighbour and namesake - the place with the wells (spring actually).

You may remember me writing a while back about the proposed conversion of a former jeweller’s shop, into a beer pub-cum-café; a move which will bring another “destination” bar to Tonbridge.

I mentioned that the people behind the new venture are the Beer Seller Ltd, which currently runs the well-known Halfway House pub at Brenchley, near Paddock Wood. The Halfway House has built up a name for itself locally thanks to its well-kept "real ales" served straight from the cask, and the plan is to offer something similar in Tonbridge. 

In their submission to the local planning authority, the new owners stated they had been looking for a suitable location for a second establishment for some time. They went on to say that they felt the location to be ideal for a successful bar facility, which would be used by shoppers, office workers and the general public visiting the High Street, and also travellers using the station.

In approving the application Tonbridge & Malling planning committee said: “The application will enhance the viability and vitality of the town centre and contribute towards both the quality and quantity of the facilities available on Tonbridge High Street.”

Well after weeks when nothing much seemed to be happening, news suddenly appeared on the West Kent CAMRA Facebook page, stating that the owners plan to have the place open before Christmas. Company spokesman Sam Allen, said, “The Beer Seller, Tonbridge is coming soon. We will be specialising in all things local with a particular emphasis on real ales and ciders”.

He mentioned the location, at the old Angell's Jewellers site on the corner of Bradford Street and the High Street, and stated they were working to be open by mid December . He finished by saying, “They would love to see some friendly faces”. Interestingly, the company are also advertising for bar staff.

Last weekend, I took a walk along Tonbridge High Street and stopped to take a few photos, showing the new windows which have been installed in the former jewellers. This Sunday, I discovered, via the Beer Seller’s Facebook Page, that the bar had put on a “soft” pre-opening especially for the town’s High Street Christmas Festival, which took place today. This is the event where Tonbridge’s Christmas lights are switched on, there is live music, street stalls, followed by a lavish firework display at the end.

The photo on the bar’s Facebook Page showed they were offering Real Ale at £3.50 a pint, Turners Cider at £4, mulled wine or sloe gin & tonic, both at £4.50. I had planned on attending the event, but after an afternoon out in the garden, raking up leaves, decided to give the thing a miss.

I may have been tempted by the fireworks, but we get a much better view of them from the vantage point of our bedroom window. However, despite my aching legs and  shoulders, I would definitely have been tempted by a sneak preview of the Tonbridge Beer Seller, had I known in advance about their “soft opening”, but reading between the lines it does seem like opening might not be too far off.

Saturday 24 November 2018

We come from the land of the ice and snow

Well three months after my brief visit to Iceland, I finally got round to drinking the three beers I brought back with me. All three were from the Borg Brugghús Brewery, but before describing them in detail, I want to write about the Icelandic beer scene in general, especially because the country is a relative newcomer to the world of beer.

It is not widely know that owing to an extended period of prohibition, it has only been legal to drink beer in Iceland since 1st March 1989. That date is now celebrated as "Beer Day", but how did this strange situation come about?

A total ban on the sale of alcohol came into effect in 1915, following an earlier referendum; (plebiscites are never a good idea, as Britain discovered two years ago). The ban followed years of agitation by an alliance of temperance groups and total abstainers and, as with all such “well-meaning” legislation, was supposed to “improve the health of the nation”.

A century ago, alcohol in general was frowned upon, and beer was especially out of favour for purely political reasons. This was because at the time, Iceland was engaged in a struggle for independence from Denmark, and Icelanders strongly associated beer with Danish lifestyles. As a result, beer was "not the patriotic drink of choice", and for much of the 20th Century it was both unpatriotic and illegal to drink beer.

Looking back, not liking one’s Danish forefathers seems a very strange reason for wishing to ban beer, and to me is like "cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face", but then much closer to home, in both time and space, the United Kingdom has done pretty much the same thing by voting (narrowly) to leave the European Union.

Iceland’s total ban on alcohol only lasted until 1922, when the sale of wine was legalised in the country. This came about following economic pressure from Spain, which threatened to cease importing salted cod from Iceland (Iceland's biggest export), unless Iceland relaxed the ban on imported Spanish and Portuguese wines.

Then, following another strange turn of events, the sale of all alcoholic beverages, with the exception of beer with an alcohol content above 2.25%, was lifted. This was partly due to the medical profession prescribing strong alcohol (spirits) for all sorts of ailments and the fact that many Icelanders were either brewing their own alcohol, or smuggling it into the country.

Beer continued to be excluded, and the ban remained in force, even after Iceland gained full independence from Denmark in 1944. The spurious argument put forward by the anti-alcohol lobby, was that as beer was cheaper than wines or spirits, legalising it could lead to a big rise in alcohol abuse.

When I was a student I remember, there was a girl from Iceland on the same course as a friend of mine, and during her time at university, she certainly made up for not being allowed to drink beer at home. My friend's course-mate's case was not unique, and as international travel brought Icelanders back in touch with beer, bills to legalise it were regularly moved in the Icelandic parliament.  Eventually, in 1989, a full turnout in the upper house of Iceland's parliament voted 13 to 8 to permit the sale of beer, thereby ending prohibition in the country.

The legalisation of beer remains a significant cultural event in Iceland as beer has become the country’s most popular alcoholic beverage. In the years which followed the long overdue repeal of the ban on beer, standard lagers from both Viking Brewery, familiar  for their Gylltur golden lager, and the somewhat-more experimental Einstök Brewery, dominated the scene.

Slowly but surely, the influence, particularly of American craft beer brewers began gaining ground and by 2015, there were seven microbreweries in Iceland. By the following year the number of Icelandic breweries had risen to nine, and this year (2018), the country can boast 26 companies which brew beer.

One such brewery is Borg Brugghús, and this is the company whose beers I picked up at Keflavik airport. According to their website, “Borg Brugghús is a progressive craft brewery founded in 2010 whose principal aim is to incorporate Icelandic cultural traits and local ingredients into its wide variety of beers and pair with food”. They certainly produce an incredibly wide variety of different beers, with over 70 listed on their website.

I bought the bottles at the airport because the only place you can buy alcohol in Iceland, apart from in bars, is at one of the state-owned chain of liquor stores called Vínbúdin. My purchases certainly clocked up some miles on their way back to the UK, as they travelled to the US in my hand baggage, and then journeyed in my suitcase from Richmond to Chicago, by train, followed by a short flight across to Cleveland. 

The homeward journey saw then touching back down briefly in Keflavik, from where I caught a connecting flight to Gatwick. My bottles survived intact, which is more than can be said for some cans of Jever Pils, which one of my Japanese colleagues brought over on a flight from Hamburg. Finding the contents of your suitcase, swimming in beer is not an experience to be recommended, so the moral is, use plenty of padding and pack carefully.

So what of the Borg Brugghús  beers? Well, they are all numbered according to style, and there is then sub-numbering within a particular beer type. My examples were as follows:

Borg Brugghús Úlfur Nr 3. India Pale Ale 5.9%. Úlfur is an Icelandic take on India Pale Ale. Amber in colour, with a slight haze, this beer is dry-hopped with specially selected American hops (varieties not specified), to give it a “wonderfully fruity taste and aroma”. The beer has quite a harsh bitterness,  but I wouldn’t argue with the overall description.

Borg Brugghús Snorri Nr 10 5.3%. Very pale in colour, with a slight haze, and topped with a dense foam head. According to the label the beer is brewed from Icelandic barley and flavoured with Arctic thyme. It is named after Snorri Sturlusson, chieftain of the Borg estate.

I’m not sure whether the said chieftain is ancient or modern, but who really cares as the beer is certainly an interesting one, with the thyme complementing the hops rather than over-powering them.

Borg Brugghús Myrkvi Nr 13. Porter 6.0%. Described as an unfiltered, full-bodied Porter with a dark twist. The beer is “seasoned” with Colombian coffee, roasted in Reykjavik. Unfiltered and un-pasteurised, oats are also included in the grist.

The beer pours jet black, and is topped with a nice creamy head. Rich tasting with notes of roasted barely and coffee. Well-balanced and with a good mouth feel. This beer was definitely the show-stopper, as far as I was concerned, being satisfying and rather more-ish beer. I would be quite happy to sink several bottles of this excellent porter."Skal!

If you fancy sampling some of these beers for yourself, then Iceland is only three hours flying from southern England, and thus  is far closer than many people think.

There is obviously much to see and do, especially if the outdoor life appeals to you, and with some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, you certainly won’t be short of that “wow” factor.

You will also enjoy the night-life, especially if you spend a few days in  Reykjavik, as not for nothing is the Icelandic capital known as the "party capital of the north". You will get the chance of sampling some of these amazing beers, and you will get to enjoy them in some pretty cool bars.

I only spent a very brief amount of time in the country, but Iceland is somewhere I would like to return to, especially after my DNA analysis revealed an ethnicity which is 14% Scandinavian!

Wednesday 21 November 2018

The Ivy House - Tonbridge

I posted a short while back about the Primrose, an attractive looking little pub which is just a short walk from my house. As my article describes, the Primrose is now sadly boarded up and facing an uncertain future. Unfortunately it is not alone in the town, for at the north end of Tonbridge High Street lies a second closed pub which, until the other day, also seemed to be facing an uncertain fate.

The pub in question is called the Ivy House and it is one of the oldest buildings in Tonbridge. It is an attractive old tile-hung building which dates back to the 15th Century. Internally there are three cosy drinking areas featuring low ceilings and an abundance of wooden beams.

According to one source the  building started life a toll-house and this is entirely plausible, given the pub's position at a crossroads on the edge of what must have been the original town. It was known as the Elephant & Castle until fairly recently, and presumably acquired its present name on account of the ivy which may have covered the building at one time.

Although ale has allegedly been served at the Ivy House for nearly 350 years, the pub  has had quite a chequered history, particularly in recent years. When I first came to Tonbridge, the Ivy was known as a "biker's pub", but was none the worse for that. It was certainly popular in those days (early 1980's), but with such a lovely old building to work with, owners Whitbread, had other ideas for the pub, and decided to turn into a rather more upmarket establishment.

I have memories of the Ivy House a decade or so later, which was when I ended up working in Tonbridge for a second time, following a spell of being employed in various locations away from the town. Back then, the pub had a dedicated restaurant area in an extension to the right, and the company I worked for at the time made full use of this facility when we wanted to entertain customers or otherwise attempt to impress people.

For a while, the Ivy House was one of three Tonbridge pubs run by legendary licensee Colm Powell; he of the sleeping in a coffin fame, in the midst of his battle with pub owners Enterprise.

As far as I remember, the pub was closed for a while, as it was in need of substantial repairs. Years of neglect, first by Whitbread and then by Enterprise, meant that a significant amount of money was required to bring the building up to modern standards; a fact made more difficult by the Grade II listed status of this 15th Century pub.

After being closed for the best part of a year, the pub reopened in May 2009 after a £150,000 refit, after it was acquired by a company called "Kent Inns of Distinction". This is a privately owned restaurant and hotel operator that specialises in buying "challenging" sites around the county and transforming them into "exciting new dining destinations".

So much for the hype, but after a smart new refit, the pub opened its doors as the "Ivy House Dining Room & Bar". It was given the full "celebrity chef" treatment, and was managed by Daniel Martin, the son of the chain's owner's. I'm something of a Philistine when it comes to "exciting dining destinations", as whilst I appreciate good food, I don't like pretence, although to be fair to the Ivy House I never ate there, or even took a look at the menu.

I did find the beer in good form on the couple of occasions I ventured in to the pub, which was encouraging. One of those two visits was a for CAMRA social., when the Harvey's Sussex Best and the Pilsner Urquell were both eminently drinkable.

Despite serving a decent pint, a gastro-pub needs more than the occasional itinerant drinker like me to help cover its overheads, and for whatever reason Tonbridge never really took to the re-vamped Ivy House either. I was therefore not really surprised to see it closed and boarded up, back in the Spring, with a "To Let" sign hanging from the gable.

At the same time I felt it a loss for the town, to see such a lovely old, historic building looking so forlorn, rather than bustling and full of life. Last weekend, whilst Mrs PBT's was doing the rounds in Sainsbury's, I took a walk to the other end of the High Street in order to take a few photos of the Ivy House.

Imagine my surprise when that same evening I noticed a post on the West Kent CAMRA Facebook page to the effect that the pub has a new owner, who plans to re-open the building as a pub. That's all I know at present, but I will obviously keep people posted, as the story continues to unfold.

Sunday 18 November 2018

Rose & Crown Hotel - Tonbridge

You can usually tell something about a town from the quality of its principal hotel, and when high standards are combined with longevity and a prestigious pedigree, you know that both town and hotel are worthy of further exploration.

The fortunes of principal hotels have waxed and waned over the years, especially in provincial towns. I’m not going to go over the whole decline of the stage-coach trade following the arrival of the railways scenario, particularly as the advent of the motor car led to something of a revival in their fortunes, but you know what I mean.

There were two hotels in the centre of Ashford – the town where I grew up. The George and the County Hotel. When I was in the sixth form, and not necessarily old enough to drink, the George was a popular haunt of us youngsters. The County was much less so, being stuffy and very old-fashioned and, as far as I remember, I never set foot in the place, or even contemplating doing so.

The irony is that whilst both establishments are still trading, the County is now the town’s  Wetherspoon’s outlet. It no longer offers accommodation, although I’m pleased to report that the George, which is Ashford’s oldest coaching inn, still does.

I’m digressing a little, but I wanted to demonstrate the rise and sometimes the fall in the fortunes of provincial hotels, but before moving on I want to tell you about how I first became interested in such places.

Back in the early nineties, I read Charles Dickens’s  immortal novel, The Pickwick Papers for the first time. This timeless classic, with its narrative describing the adventures of the members of the Pickwick Club, requires little in the way of introduction, but for those unfamiliar with the book, the story recounts follows the experiences of  Mr Pickwick and his companions as they make their way by stage-coach, through the English countryside, to a number of provincial towns, stopping off at various old coaching inns along the way.

The work is considered an accurate portrayal of these old inns, and the characters often associated with them, and it was  reading this book which first sparked my interest in these now, largely vanished establishments which were, of course, the forerunners to our modern hotels. I read the book for a second time around ten years ago, and found it every bit as enjoyable as before.   

It’s time now to move closer to home and to the Rose & Crown Hotel which has been Tonbridge’s principal and most prestigious hotel, for the past 400 years. The Rose & Crown was originally a Tudor House, built during the 16th Century, and these origins are still apparent in parts of the hotel. An attractive brick frontage was added to the building some two hundred years later, along with an impressive porch.

The balcony, on top of this structure, was traditionally the place from which election results were announced, whilst the coat of arms above the porch are those of the Duchess of Kent, mother to Queen Victoria. They commemorate frequent visits by the Duchess and her daughter to the town.

In more recent times the hotel has been owned by a succession of different companies, including the Forte Group but in 2010 the business was acquired by R & B Hotels who carried out extensive refurbishment and renovation of the rooms, restaurant and meeting areas, so that today it has all the modern facilities one would expect from a hotel in the 21st Century. 

The Rose & Crown is now part of the Best Western chain of hotels. The hotel has always been an inn of importance and now has 56 modern bedrooms. Its various function rooms allow it to cater for meetings, seminars, lunches, dinners and weddings, for groups of between 8 and 80 people.

There is a decked and heated outside court yard at the rear of the hotel, but many of the former stable buildings have either been converted into staff accommodation, or removed to make way for car parking. I have been to several functions at the Rose & Crown in my time, but my fondest memories are of the quiet bar at the front of the building, back in the late 1980’s – early 1990’s, when hotel stocked a well-kept pint of Draught Bass.

Sitting there quietly, enjoying a glass or two of Bass, whilst watching the world go by, in the street outside, was one of life’s little pleasures, so it was a shame when the hotel’s owners altered the arrangement and swapped everything around. Today, the interior is much more open plan, which is a shame in some respects, but I can understand why, for operational reasons, the hotel management have done this.

The Rose & Crown remains a popular place today; both as somewhere to meet and dine, but also for its original purpose of providing a bed for the night.  When my firm’s Japanese directors come over for the their twice yearly visits, they insist on staying at this attractive old inn, despite the uneven floors, because they love its old world atmosphere and charm, with its old oak beams and Jacobean wood panelling.

On Saturday, the Bailey family joined with a group of friends for a meal. I’m not sure what the official excuse was for this celebration, but the date happened to coincide with son Matthew’s birthday. I won’t say how old he is for fear of embarrassing him, but he had a good time.

Our party of 12 had the “Oak Room” at the rear of the building, to ourselves. According to Mrs PBT’s, who has lived in Tonbridge all her life, this part of the hotel was once a separate business, and traded as a lady’s hairdressers during the 60’s & 70’s. It is sited at a slightly lower level from the main part of the hotel.

We had a few drinks, before sitting down to enjoy a rather nice meal. Shepherd Neame Spitfire and Harvey’s Sussex Best were the cask offerings, so I naturally opted for a pint of the latter. It was in good form, so I scored it at 3.0 NBSS however,  once the food arrived, I switched to wine.

My sea-bream in cream sauce, with potatoes and vegetables was excellent, and Matthew’s steak & ale pie, with chips, also looked good; especially as it was a “proper pie”. The meal was also a good opportunity to catch up with friends, discuss what we’d all been up to and just generally while away a pleasant mid-November afternoon.

We drifted off towards the end of the afternoon; probably once all the bottles of wine had been exhausted. Before leaving, a few of us had a chat to the manager who had been personally looking after our group, and or reason for doing so was because a cloud hangs over the Rose & Crown’s future at the moment, as I am about to explain.

Back in the summer, the hotel’s current owners placed the Rose & Crown on the market, with an asking price of £3 million. None of us are privy to why the business is up for sale, and according to the agent’s website the current turn-over is over £1.2 million. Whatever the reason in these straightened times it is worrying for a town like Tonbridge to face losing its principal hotel.

A possible clue for the sale might lie with a statement on the agent’s site, which says, “The business is mainly staff run with a relatively 'hands off' owner, allowing it to appeal to a staff/management run format, but is also suitable for a more 'hands on' owner”.

The current manager seems very much a “hands-on” person, and is certainly very enthusiastic. He explained he is relatively new to the Rose & Crown, having worked previously for a number of top-notch London hotels. He did tell us that the owners are extremely keen for the business to remain a hotel, rather than being turned into apartments or suffer the indignity of becoming an old-people’s home, so fingers crossed, all round.

As I said at the beginning, you can judge a provincial town by its principal hotel and for Tonbridge to lose such a prestigious, attractive and historic old building, would be a real tragedy.

Friday 16 November 2018

All washed up

On Tuesday evening I went along to the Royal Oak in Tunbridge Wells for a joint meeting between representatives of West Kent CAMRA, and officials from the Spa Valley Railway. The meeting was a “follow-up” to October’s hugely successful Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival; a joint venture between the Campaign and the Heritage Railway group.

The occasion was billed as the “wash-up” meeting; a phrase originally put forward by our late, and sorely missed former chairman, Iain, but basically it gives both parties a chance to get together, reflect on how the event went, and to examine which areas could be improved on for future festivals.

October’s festival was the 8th such event, and each year our two organisations learn a little more, and can see which areas still need working on. In total there were 18 members present from West Kent CAMRA, one of whom was Royal Oak licensee and festival organiser Craig, plus two representatives from SVR. One of the latter individuals is not only the SVR’s General Manager, but someone who is not averse to jumping up on the footplate and taking one of the locos out along the tracks. "Boys and their toys", as they say!

For me, the “wash-up” meeting was a welcome end to a rather hellish ten days at work, having to deal with some unpleasant personnel issues which basically involved a falling out between a member of staff from my department and a person from another section of the company.  I obviously won’t go into details, but it did necessitate a lot of work, and a lot of smoothing over by one of my fellow managers and myself. In short, it was something we could both have done without, but on occasion that's part and parcel of being a manager in industry today.

Enough said. I left work slightly earlier than normal, which allowed sufficient time for me to drive home, drop the car off, have a quick change of clothes before walking down to the station for the train to Tunbridge Wells. I arrived with time to spare, so I nipped into an independent off-licence to order a special present for son Matthew, whose birthday is this weekend.

I then crossed the road, before deciding to walk up through Calverly Gardens, where preparations for the ice-rink, which is an annual feature in the run up to Christmas, were well under way. It’s a shame that they hadn’t sorted out the lighting along the paths though, because at times I was walking in complete darkness, as one alarmed dog walker, heading in the opposite direction, found out.

I arrived at the Royal Oak shortly before 6.30pm.  Landlord Craig was standing next to the bar chatting to a group of regulars. Much to my joy I noticed one of the pumps was for Harvey’s Bonfire Boy. This strong, dark seasonal beer was voted “beer of the festival”, and proved so popular there was none left by the time I arrived for my stint behind the bar, on the Saturday evening.

I was therefore keen not to lose the chance of a glass or two, but with an ABV of 5.8%, it didn’t seem a good beer to start on. Craig informed me that it had only just come on, and we would be "sampling" it later, along with the food which he’d laid on for us. Instead, I opted for another, but his time slightly weaker dark beer, in the form of Tonbridge Brewery Ebony Moon. At 4.2% ABV, this “quaffable porter”, as the brewery describe it, was just right, so much so that before making my way along to the meeting, at the far end of the pub, I ordered myself a half, by way of a “top up”.

Craig and his team had laid out the tables in a square arrangement, with sufficient space to accommodate us all.  Just before the meeting got underway, various items of “hot food” were brought out, in the form of chips, chicken nuggets and cheese & onion rolls (pastry variety). Several large platters of sandwiches also appeared, placed at strategic intervals around the tables.

The meeting then commenced, although both Craig and the SVR representatives made it clear that final figures relating to beer sales and monies taken were still not available, due to a number of issues, which I won’t go into here. The good news was that most of the beer was sold, sales of glasses were up and, from SVR’s point of view, a record number of train tickets had been purchased.

The enhanced layout of the bar, coupled with the purchase of more durable and certainly more professional-looking stillaging, was a great success; as was shifting the glasses and tokens stand along to the other end of the train shed. This prevented the “log-jam” close to the entrance, which had been such a headache at previous festivals.

The food offerings had also been improved, with a stall selling Thai food, alongside the traditional burger and hot-dog stand. The live music had also gone down well, although some of us serving behind the bar would have preferred the volume turned down a little, just so we could hear exactly what customers were ordering.

With the general consensus that the festival had been a success, Craig then went around the table, asking each of us in turn to present three points, good, bad or a mixture of both, that we thought worthy of further discussion. This part didn’t take as long as it might, as we’d already reached agreement on most of the major issues.

Before this “round-robin” took place, a number of jugs of beer were delivered to a table the rear and, as Craig explained, these represented the two main winning beers from the festival. So, representing the overall “Beer of the Festival”, we had the aforementioned Bonfire Boy from Harvey’s, and for the “Green Hop Beer of the Festival”, we had Green Hop Bullion hops- 4.3% Black Session IPA from Old Dairy Brewery. Both were extremely good, but I stuck with the Bonfire Boy as, in my view, it’s one of the best seasonal beers which Harvey’s brew.

The meeting broke up around 9.30pm and people started to slowly drift away. I left shortly before 10pm and walked down the hill to the station, after first thanking Craig and his team for arranging such a good and uplifting meeting.

As I said earlier, the get together was just what I needed after a pretty fraught period at work and, more to the point, it afforded the opportunity of catching up with friends and CAMRA colleagues over several excellent pints of beer.

Footnote: The Spa Valley Railway Festival is NOT an official CAMRA Beer Festival; although it should be, especially as we comply with most, if not all, of CAMRA’s requirements for such events.

By this I mean we offer over-size, lined glasses, in three sizes (pints, halves and thirds), our  pricing structure takes into account the strength of the various beers, and this is reflected in the price.

We produce an informative and well-laid out programme, which gives information not only about the beers and the trains, but also about CAMRA itself. We also offer a wide range of traditional ciders and perries.

Most importantly, because SVR bank-roll the festival and, as all the invoices are paid through them, there is no financial risk to CAMRA. Ironically, this might be the reason why the Campaign do not recognise our event as an official CAMRA festival, as with backing from an external source, there is no requirement for us to submit a budget for head office scrutiny and approval.

This doesn't detract from the fact that with all this in place, you’d have thought the Campaign would have been more than pleased to list the event in “What’s Brewing” and give us some welcome publicity, but hey-ho!