Tuesday 29 January 2019

Preaching to the converted

Just over a week ago, a publication dropped through my letter box and I imagine the same situation would have occurred in many households up and down the country. The publication in question was a copy of “Wetherspoon News”, the quarterly house magazine of the ubiquitous chain of JDW pubs.

In the past I have often picked up a copy of the magazine, especially whilst having a coffee or some breakfast on my own. It’s a glossed up version of the folded news sheet type of publication which Shepherd Neame used to produce for their tied estate, but unlike the Shep’s version which is aimed primarily at the licensed trade, Wetherspoon News is much more a magazine for the casual reader. In other words its readership is drawn largely from Spoon’s own customers.

So far so good, and whilst much of publication’s content is given over to news about particular JDW outlets, and the events (charity-related or otherwise) they might have been running, there was usually at least one brewing-related article about a particular brewery or perhaps a certain  style of  beer. These were the articles which I found most appealing, and were primarily the reason for me picking up the magazine in the first place.

The Winter 2018/19 edition which dropped onto my door mat the other week, does contain a one page article about the South Wales brewery of Evan Evans, along with the usual splashes about various pub-inspired charity events, but a substantial chunk of the publication is taken up with page after page of pro-Brexit /anti-EU propaganda emanating from the pen of Wetherspoon’s chairman, Tim Martin.

Including amongst Tim’s often crazed rants is an instruction to boycott goods from France and Germany; two countries which tousle-haired Tim reserves particular ire for, with a warning that the UK public must take steps to drop imports from the above nations, to zero. He goes on to tell readers that, “A world of taste awaits as we scrap EU brands”.

Martin boasts that “JDW have scoured the world to banish drink brands purchased from within the European Union”. For example, Spoon’s no longer stock Jägermerister; instead they sell an English herbal concoction called Strika, and offer their "discerning" customers Strikabombs, rather than Jägerbombs. French Champagne has been replaced by sparkling wines from Britain and Australia, and German wheat beers have been replaced by home-grown varieties.

Martin seems especially proud of this small-minded,  pettiness, but if you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll soon discover that Guinness and Stella, both of which are produced in the EU, are not included in this boycott., so clearly Tim isn’t really putting his money where his mouth is.

If further proof were needed, Kopparberg cider is also excluded from the ban; the excuse being that Kopparberg have told JDW that they will be producing their cider in the UK, post-Brexit. In effect this is just empty gesture politics, especially as most Wetherspoon’s customers won’t notice the difference, but there’s nothing like a bit of publicity where good old Tim Martin takes up his cudgel, against the evil EU, on behalf of the poor oppressed Brits.

But Martin isn’t finished yet, as he follows in the footsteps of gormless Michael Gove, by berating “experts” . What do these captains of industry know, compared to Tim and his loyal, Brexit-supporting customers? We then see the JDW chairman lionising Boris Johnson; surely the biggest charlatan behind the whole sorry Brexit fiasco.

Obviously Mr Martin, as both founder and chairman of Wetherspoon’s, can express his views in whatever way he likes, although it is worth noting he has always been vehemently opposed to the European Union. However, Martin fails to take account of a referendum result that was much narrower than many Brexiteers would have us believe, and by bombarding customers with his political views in both his house magazine and with pro-Brexit beer mats (remember them?), he risks alienating a large chunk of his potential customer base.

Perhaps Tim is merely preaching to the converted, given the preponderance of over 60, stereo-typical male “gammons” amongst his clientele; that and the terminally work-shy all-day drinker.
Now there's no denying that Tim Martin is a successful businessman, and I'm certain that deep down he's a decent sort of bloke as well. But as a businessman he goes against the majority of his peers not just with his support of Brexit per se,  but for his advocacy of a disastrous, no-deal Brexit.

Leaving the European Union without some kind of a deal was not something contemplated at the time of the referendum, and neither was it advocated by the majority of Brexiteers. Yet somehow the crazy idea of crashing out of the EU without any kind of arrangements in place to deal with the ensuing chaos which would ensue, has crept into the debate over the past few months, and one of its biggest supporters is none other than Timbo himself.

Only the craziest of die-hard Brexiteers back such a scenario, but Mr Martin is one of them, and he is using his pubs and his house magazine to back such a move. As well as pushing the country off the Brexit cliff, Tim even claims the UK could withhold the £39 billion settlement, which has already been agreed with our European partners.

He conveniently forgets that withholding this money would put us in breach of our current treaty obligations, under international law, thereby demonstrating, at a time when our standing in the world is at an all time low, that the UK is a country which cannot be trusted to  keep its word. If we want all these magic, still to be negotiated “free trade” agreements, that our little pip-squeak of an International Trade Secretary has been clocking up the air-miles to secure (so far with little success),  Britain  is going to need all the friends it can get.

So as a direct result of "Little Englander" Tim Martin’s  xenophobic, anti-European rhetoric,  I will no longer be spending any of my hard-earned cash in any of Tim’s establishments. I have already destroyed my Spoon’s vouchers, and after 45 years membership, I will also seriously consider whether I wish to remain a member of CAMRA.

Instead I will spread my custom around independently-owned pubs and bars; places that are run by local people for the benefit of local people, rather than a multi-millionaire who, whilst berating what he calls the “urban elite”, conveniently forgets his fortune places him firmly within that exact same camp,

I know these are small gestures, but two can play at the boycott game. Wetherspoon’s recently reported a profit warning, blaming rising labour costs, higher utility bills and interest charges, so things are already not looking as rosy as Mr Martin might wish, and by continuing to back a no-deal Brexit, he is likely to find things getting  a lot worse.

Footnote: It seems that a growing number of Tim Martin's staff do not share his enthusiasm for a damaging, no-deal Brexit, and many are blatantly unhappy about having to dish out copies of  his biased magazine.

Saturday 26 January 2019

Selling off the family silver

It was a message yesterday morning on one of our West Kent CAMRA WhatsApp groups, which alerted me that something involving Fuller’s and Japan had taken place, so after quick Google search I saw the shock news that Fuller’s are selling their beer and brewing business to Japanese brewer, Asahi, for a sum of £250 million.

The sale includes the historic Griffin Brewery, close to the River Thames at Chiswick, all the Fuller’s beer and cider brands, plus the associated distribution business. Fuller’s will retain ownership of their 400 or so pubs and hotels, and will enter into a long-term supply contract with Asahi.

This news came completely out of the blue, and caught industry observers, as well as casual onlookers, completely by surprise. As a lifelong fan of Fuller’s and their beers, I find this story particularly sad as it brings to an end the involvement of both the Fuller and Turner families in a business which was established in 1845. Now Fuller’s and its beers, will be just another collection of brands.

Now given Asahi's track record so far with their other recent acquisitions (Meantime & Pilsner Urquell), I'm sure they will prove a good custodian of the Griffin Brewery and the Fuller’s brands; at least in the short term. But for the  purposes of this post I’d prefer to leave the fallout from this takeover to other writers, such as Pub Curmudgeon and Zythophile, both of whom put a different spin on the story, and concentrate instead on describing my own involvement with what, until yesterday, was the sole surviving, independent, family-owned brewery, left in London. (I am discounting of course, the 120 small to medium breweries which have set up in the capital, over the past couple of decades).

For this, we need to return to my sixth form days, back in the early 1970’s, in Ashford and a certain school friend of mine. I shan't reveal his real name as we lost touch a few decades ago, and I’m unsure whether or not he is still alive, so for the sake of this narrative, we'll refer to him as RG. Now RG was a friend who went against the grain, because, at a time when most of us were into Prog Rock, motorbikes and chasing after girls, RG preferred to spend his spare time drinking with his parents.

His parents were what I’d call proper Londoners, who had moved to Ashford when it was designated as a London "over-spill" town. Pub-going was a way of life with them and they spread their drinking around a number of rather traditional (old-fashioned) pubs, in Ashford. 

I had developed quite a taste for beer; a trait which, much to my mother’s horror, I probably inherited from my maternal grandfather. As I became increasingly interested in pubs as well as beer, RG seemed the obvious person to help me indulge my new found “hobby”. I therefore became acquainted with quite a few pubs, both in Ashford town centre, and in the adjoining suburb of Kennington, where my friend lived.RG's parents still had family and friends living back in “the smoke”, and my friend spoke glowingly of two London brewers, both of which I had never heard of.

The two breweries of course, were Young’s of Wandsworth and Fuller, Smith & Turner of Chiswick. I will leave the story of my initial experiences of Young’s beers for another day, but I first enjoyed a few glasses of Fuller’s beers when I accompanied my friend on a trip up to London, to visit his aunt. RG's aunty lived in Chiswick, in a house which was just a stone’s throw away from the Griffin Brewery, so this was the ideal opportunity for us to enjoy a few glasses of Fuller's.

I only have very vague recollections of RG’s aunt but I have much stronger memories of calling in at the George & Devonshire, close to the brewery and enjoying a few pints of bitter (known as Chiswick today) and London Pride. Both beers were dispensed by “top pressure” as was the norm in most Fuller’s pubs, at a time when only a handful of the brewery’s pubs used traditional, hand-pump dispense. We either stood or sat at the bar, but after 46 years it is difficult to remember which.

I don’t recall much else of what we did that day, apart from taking the underground back to Waterloo, and then the train back to Ashford, but a couple of years later, when both RG and I were home from our respective universities for the summer vacation, we took another trip up to London. We had both  recently signed up as members of CAMRA, and were armed with a copy of the first ever CAMRA Guide to Real Ale Pubs in London.

I have written previously about our little pub crawl, but for those who may not have read that piece, our last port of call, prior to the afternoon closed session (remember this was long before “all day opening”), we visited the Star Tavern, in Belgrave Mews West. This legendary Fuller’s pub had a slightly chequered past, as it was here, in an upstairs room, that the Great Train Robbery was said to have been hatched.

For the beer enthusiast, the Star was one of the few Fuller’s pubs which offered beer dispensed as it should be – by hand pump, rather than under gas pressure. As well as renewing my acquaintance with London Pride, the Star afforded my first opportunity to try the equally legendary Extra Special Bitter (ESB).

The four years I spent living as a student, in Greater Manchester obviously kept me well away from the capital, and Fuller’s beers, but I did make the occasional foray back south, and with a university friend who hailed from London, there was the odd opportunity to enjoy a glass or two of Chiswick-brewed beer. It was my move to the capital in the spring of 1978, which once again allowed me to drink Fuller’s, and the Star became quite a regular, after-work meeting place.

Fast forward to a move back to Kent, initially to Maidstone and later to Tonbridge, which saw a vastly improved local beer scene to the one I had left, back in 1973. Fuller’s beers were quite widely available in local free-houses, but I was also fortunate to visit the Griffin Brewery, on a number of occasions, with my local CAMRA branch.

The company’s beers are also now widely available in supermarkets, with the bottle-conditioned 1845, being a personal favourite. My other go-to Fuller’s beer during the winter months, is London Porter. I am enjoying a bottle of it now, as I write, and its blend of dark roasted malts, and the coffee and chocolate notes they impart, combined with just the right amount of bitterness, makes this beer one of the finest available examples of this style.

So it is with much sadness that I continue to digest the news about the sale to Asahi. Fuller’s claim that 87 per cent of their operating profits came from the pubs and hotels side of the business, so from a pure hard cash point of view I can understand the reason for the sale. But from an emotional one, selling your brewery, and your highly regarded beer brands, is akin to auctioning of the family silver – something the UK seems pretty adept at doing.

We will have to see how this pans out, once the dust has settled, although I imagine that, for a while at least, not a lot will change. The longer term concern is that the Griffin Brewery, which sits on a prime area of land in west London,  could be sold off by the new owners and thereby net them a fortune.

Somewhat ironically, I noticed a number of Fuller's bottled beers on promotion at Waitrose, this afternoon. So rather protectively, I picked up three bottles of London Porter for the bargain price of just £5.

Thursday 24 January 2019

Virtue signalling is killing the pub trade this January

It probably comes as no surprise to readers of this blog to learn that Dry January is hitting pubs and clubs hard. Some members of the trade are now suggesting that  Alcohol Concern, the charity behind this fad, should find a better way to raise money without hitting local businesses.

According to reports more than five million people in the UK claim they are going without a drink during January, a figure which is up by a million on last year. Not surprisingly many pubs, and even breweries, are struggling to cope with such a massive dip in trade, and with pubs closing at a rate of four per day - the highest shrinkage since 2004 - there are concerns that the number of people starting the year by giving up on the booze, could tip many businesses over the edge.

Dry January is just one of a number of campaigns to get people to give up alcohol. Others have included Go Sober for October and Dryathlon, but as one industry observer pointed out, "These are methods of reducing alcohol consumption in a part of the population where drinking is not a problem." 

Tom Stainer, CAMRA's new Chief Executive said: "As an organisation which helps to support pubs, we believe there are other ways in which people can be encouraged to support charities, without being a detriment to small businesses." He went on to say, "This is already a difficult time of year for pubs, and a few quiet weeks can sometimes mean the difference between surviving or not."

It is worth noting that the number of pubs has slumped from 69,000 in 1980 to fewer than 50,000 today. In 1979 pubs sold 29.2m pints of beer a day, but this fell to 10.9 million last year.

The Dry January campaign was founded four years ago by Alcohol Concern, a registered "charity" which also happens to be a front for the temperance movement. The latter of course are pressing for further restrictions on drinking and curbs on people’s enjoyment, so the news that this year's campaign is being backed by Public Health England, a quango affiliated to the Department of Health, is doubly unwelcome.

Martin Caffrey, of the Federation of Licensed Victuallers, hit back against this government-backed interference in the licensed trade, by saying "We know millions have signed up to go dry in January, but our argument is that as an organisation we promote responsible drinking right through the year. That's the way people should treat alcohol."

January is the worst month possible for people to be abstaining, especially as far as the licensed trade is concerned. I know from the personal experience of running an off-licence that whilst Christmas is undoubtedly good for trade, you definitely feel the flip-side come January. After the over-indulgence and massive over-spend of the festive season, trade in January falls off a cliff. This plays serious havoc with your cash flow, as the Christmas bills all start to come in.

January can be the month which breaks a publican’s business. This one month can undermine all the hard work of the year before and, at a time when most people are looking forward to the year ahead, starts the New Year off on a real low. If you really care about our pubs it is definitely NOT the month to be going dry!

Before ending, I wish to state I have nothing against people who, for genuine health or indeed personal reasons, wish to abstain from drink for a period of time, but it should be noted there are no proven health benefits from giving up alcohol completely unless, of course, one has a serious drink problem or is a registered alcoholic. Cut down, if you must and drink sensibly, and if it genuinely makes you feel good then fine; but please leave out the self-satisfied smugness and please don’t plaster your “achievement” all over social media.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

IT problems plus the threat of snow

I’ve experienced a few computer/internet problems recently. First there was my laptop, which has died a death. I mentioned this in my final post of 2018, but any thoughts I had of a work colleague being able to fix it were dashed by the news that the hard-drive is kaput.

My colleague asked whether I had dropped the laptop, and thinking back I do remember it sliding off a chair whilst we were on holiday, back in September. As it was in my rucksack at the time, I thought it was OK, but the fact that one of the corner clips broke off is indicative of possible internal damage, and would explain why the machine kept crashing.

Apparently, hard drives are susceptible to knocks and especially to sideways blows – something to do with the internal platens, but the long and the short is by the time I pay someone to remove the back (my colleague and I both tried, without success), and install a replacement drive, I’m not far off the price of a new laptop.

So that’s something to look into, as I miss the portability and flexibility which the laptop gave me, but it does also serve as warning to be careful when transporting these machines.

Moving on, it was a case of no internet connection when I arrived home from work this evening. I was confronted by a disgruntled wife and an equally unhappy son, both of whom seem incapable of living without broadband.

To be fair, Mrs PBT’s works from home, and much of what she does relies on being connected. Son Matthew, less so, although as his Smartphone has been playing up, he too was missing being online. Mrs PBT’s thought the problem may have been caused by the builders, who are in the process of re-vamping our bathroom. The power supply to the router had been disconnected for a while, and then after switching it back on, the device refused to boot up properly.

 I put my foot down and told them both that I would look at it after I’d had my dinner, which I did, trying first all the usual self-diagnostic solutions. Eventually I called BT, using the landline – which was still working.

To cut a long story short, I spoke to a very helpful lady in Stockport, who ran a series of diagnostic tests, to check that both the phone and broadband lines were OK. They were, which then pointed to the router. We’ve had trouble with this re-booting before, especially when switching the device back on after returning from holiday, but what I didn’t realise is there’s a re-set button at the back, which can be accessed using an opened up paperclip. This resets the device.

With the helpful lady on the phone, I did as instructed and held the wire clip in position for 30 seconds. The router re-booted and went through its usual sequence of coloured lights, but his time, instead of flashing orange, it changed to blue and stayed on blue. The end result, broadband back up and running and a happy wife and son!

Apparently, routers do need to be re-set from time to time, and I was was told that is wouldn't hurt to do this on a monthly basis, and certainly whenever the power is disconnected. (I wish I'd known this before).

So full marks to BT, and their helpful customer assistant. I can’t remember her name, but she told me it was snowing quite heavily in Stockport, as we spoke. I thanked her for her help and wished her luck for her journey home. I’m quite used to driving in snow, although it’s not something I relish. I imagine she must have felt the same.

As I type, I been told that It’s snowing down in Hastings, but so far there’s no sign of the white stuff here. However, with snow showers forecast for the weekend, I’m quite pleased that my visit to Norfolk has been postponed until the weekend after. I could think of worse places to be stranded though!

Saturday 19 January 2019

Lifting the gloom

It was pretty obvious from my post yesterday, especially after re-reading it in the cold light of dawn, that there was more than a touch of melancholy about me. But after a good night's sleep I woke up feeling refreshed, and with the sun shining through the trees behind the house my mood shifted and whilst I didn't exactly leap out of bed, I still felt fired up and ready to face the world again.

The sunshine didn't last, but we'd already decided to take a drive down to Bexhill-on-Sea, in order to visit Mrs PBT's sister and her husband. So shortly before midday, we headed off in a roughly south-easterly direction, along the A21.

Upon reaching the outskirts of Hastings, and before turning off towards Bexhill, we called in at the large Sainsbury's superstore, to pick up a few items of shopping and, more importantly, to fill the car up with fuel. Diesel is around 6p a litre cheaper in this part of Sussex than it is in Tonbridge, so it makes sense to take advantage of this price differential.

We spent a pleasant afternoon catching up on family news, before moving onto the subject of cruising. I probably mentioned in a previous post that the pair of us are looking at taking a short cruise this spring, so as my sister-in-law and her husband are avid cruisers it made sense to have a chat about the various options on offer.

Before heading for home, we rounded the afternoon off with some rather nice fish & chips, bought from a chippy just a short drive away, called Peter's Fish Bar.  The latter establishment is obviously a family-run business, with Peter doing the fish frying, and his son taking the orders and then wrapping them for customers. This meant that both the cod and the chips were freshly cooked, and all the better for it.

Now we're back home, I thought I'd share a few beer-related good news stories, to further help lift the gloom. The first story is a report from veteran beer writer Roger Protz, on the very welcome news that, after years in the doldrums, dark beers are making a comeback. As consumers rush to embrace the rich flavours of beers made with roasted malts, there were reports of some Tesco stores selling out of stout over the Christmas period.

You will need to click on the link to read the whole story about  porters and stouts coming into their own, but with winter still firmly in charge of our weather, there's still plenty of time to stock up on some of the fine dark ales available in local pubs and shops. My only regret is still not having sampled any of the delectable Harvey's XXXX Old Ale, this season.

Another positive story, albeit not a local one, is the news that the Black Sheep Brewery of Masham, have bought the York Brewery, thereby rescuing it from administration.. The move will safeguard  40 local jobs, and  will see York Brewery and its brands continuing in operation. The full story is again available on this link to Roger's site.

Kim Traynor [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons
The final item of good news is the fact that Scottish Brewers, Belhaven, will be celebrating their 300th anniversary, later this year.  Established in 1719, Belhaven is Scotland’s oldest working brewery, and has been making beers at its historic site on the outskirts of Dunbar, around 20 miles east of Edinburgh, ever since. It took its name Belhaven, which means “beautiful harbour”, from its attractive coastal location.

Belhaven has unveiled a year-long programme of celebrations to mark its tri-centenary, and amongst the events planned to mark the 300th anniversary are the opening of a £500,000 visitor centre, scheduled for this summer, a summer music festival plus 300 days of celebrations across Belhaven and Greene King pubs.

Greene King  pubs are involved because they purchased Belhaven Brewery in 2005. Prior to this, the brewery had a succession of different owners, and when I first read about the company - in Frank Baillie's pioneering "Beer Drinker's Companion", Belhaven was known as "Dudgeon & Co Ltd".

Jeff Alworth [CC BY 2.0] , via Wikimedia Commons
Back then the brewery only had a handful of pubs, but over the years, and prior to the Greene King  acquisition,  Belhaven had built up a tied estate which approached nearly 100 pubs. To their credit, Greene King have invested heavily in the Dunbar site, installing a new brew-house on the historic site, which was  officially opened by HRH Princess Anne in January 2013.

To mark the tri-centenary, Belhaven is launching a specially brewed birthday celebration pale ale, appropriately called 1719. The new beer incorporates three centuries of brewing expertise to create a modern session pale ale, which is triple-hopped using Centennial, Mandarina Bavaria and Galaxy hops. With an ABV of 4.5% , 1719 has notes of citrus and tropical fruit, and  will be available on cask, keg and in 330ml bottles throughout 2019.

The final word comes from Managing director Matt Starbuck, who said,  “We are continuing to invest in Belhaven with a new visitor centre opening this year, bringing tourism to Dunbar, and warmly welcome fans of Belhaven beer to join us in celebrating the brewery birthday this year.”

Friday 18 January 2019

Maybe it's the time of year, Or maybe it's the time of man

Perhaps it was a case of too much fresh air on last Sunday’s walk, but the annoying dry cough I developed that day turned into full-blown “man-flu”Mrs PBT’s words, not mine. I’m not normally one to take much notice of comments like, “There’s a lot of it going around”, but this particular virus does seem to have laid low quite a few of my work colleagues.

It’s left me feeling quite lethargic, and lacking in energy, sufficiently so to have skipped my regular lunchtime walk these past three days. Of more concern though is I've been off my beer as well, but with work on our much-delayed bathroom re-vamp finally underway, I’ve been understandably pre-occupied with other things. The immediate pressure at my work-place seems to have slackened off a little, but it's now a question of all change at the top, with the appointment, at last, of a replacement to fill the void left by the sudden death, last summer, our able and well-liked General Manager. The latter individual will be a hard act to follow, and we will have to see how things turn out.

Most people are creatures of habit, who resist change, rather than embracing it, but with some major changes in our relationship with the world's largest trading block, (the one right on our doorstep), looming on the horizon, it's no wonder many UK citizens are feeling confused at best, or angry at worst, with a mixture of sadness and regret, somewhere in between. The uncertain times we live in are a direct result of allowing  the egos of this world to run riot, throwing common-sense out of the window and now, following recent events in Parliament over the past few days, an even greater degree of uncertainty has been thrown into the mix, which is bad news for those of us who just want to get on with our daily lives.

Business needs stability in order to invest and look to the future; something politicians keep failing to understand, but having uncorked the bottle and released the genie of populism onto a susceptible population, it turns out that those responsible have no idea of what to do next, let alone how to get that malign spirit back to whence it came. A spat within the governing party has been allowed to spill over and infect the whole country with its divisiveness, and the irony is it has been over an issue which the majority of people knew very little and cared even less about, prior to 2016. 

I don't want to get too political, especially as this post is more about moods and feelings, and I'm certain that it's a combination of the time of year and just feeling a little run down, so to end on a slightly higher note, and also in continuation of the classic Joni Mitchell song, whose lines form the title to this piece, "And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."

Monday 14 January 2019

Blowing away the cobwebs

Early on Sunday morning, four members of our “Weekend Walking Group” met up opposite the Vauxhall pub, on the edge of Tonbridge. I was one of the four, and in the absence of any further takers we set off to walk to the Dovecote Inn, at the small hamlet of Capel.

Actually I don’t know whether a settlement with a 13th Century church constitutes a hamlet or not, but that is a question for pedants. However, this lovely little church which is dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, is now redundant – reflecting either the decline in the local population, or the that of the popularity of churchgoing.

I digress, but this walk to Capel is one our group has undertaken on a number of previous occasions, and as I have also written several posts about the walk as well, I was looking for something different to say.

Our route out of Tonbridge led us past the ornamental lake, at the bottom of the grounds of Somerhill House, a Grade I listed Jacobean mansion which, after a long and rather mixed history, now houses a collection of fee-paying schools. It is said to be  the second largest house in Kent, after Knole House, in Sevenoaks.

The feeder road, up from nearby Tudeley Lane, is not a place for the faint-hearted, at the end of the school day, as all the “yummy mummies” jockey for place, manoeuvring their over-sized SUV’s, up and down the narrow road with all the finesse of a column of Russian tanks, in order to collect their little darlings. Thankfully, Sunday is a quiet day, and apart from the occasional group of walkers, we had the grounds, and the area of woodland at the back of the house, to ourselves.

Coming out of the woodland, the path descends to a valley, before crossing a stream. From there it’s across a field and onto a short stretch of the B2017 road, before  heading off in a mainly southerly direction and into another area of woodland. The latter looks especially lovely during late April and early May, when the woodland floor is carpeted with a stunning display of bluebells, but being mid-January it looked very bare and rather drab.

We eventually left the woods behind us, and after passing along a narrow country lane headed off towards Capel in a north-easterly direction. We could see the church in the distance, so knew that the Dovecote would be close at hand, and roughly two hours after setting off, we found ourselves at the rear of the pub. After pausing to remove our muddy boots, we stepped inside.

We had purposely arrived early, working on the premise that the Dovecote would be filling up with Sunday diners, and whilst the restaurant area to the left of the bar, was reserved, there were plenty of tables at the opposite end of the pub. There were three old boys sat at the bar, and the talk was almost inevitably about the “B” word. We purposely ignored this, as we’d come out to enjoy the countryside, the beer and each other’s company, rather than becoming involved in a debate. So having worked up a thirst, perused the selection of gravity-served ales on sale.

The beers at the Dovecote are kept in a temperature-controlled room immediately behind the bar. Extra-long cask taps protrude through the dividing wall, and out through false barrel ends, made out of wood, set into the wall. This allows the beer to be kept at just the right temperature, and served in the most natural way possible – straight from the cask. From memory, the beers on offer were Deuchar’s IPA, Gales HSB, Harvey’s Best, and Tonbridge Coppernob. I started with the Deuchar’s  - a beer I haven’t seen for some time, before switching to the Harvey’s. 

Both were good, scoring 3.5 NBSS each. Two of my companions also tried the Gales HSB, now brewed by Fuller’s of course,  but as I’ve never been a fan of legendary beers which are no longer brewed in their original home, so I took their word for it.

The pub was starting to fill up, so we ordered some food, sausage sandwich for two of us, plus a rather nice looking game pie, for the others. The sandwich was fine for me, as I knew there was a stew waiting in the oven for when I got home.

After our lunch we decided to make tracks for home, by means of a more direct route, which took us through the churchyard of Capel Church. The wind was starting to get up, and it would be blowing quite fiercely by the time we arrived back in Tonbridge, but it was still warm for mid-January.

We eventually reached the B2017 Five Oak Green Road again, and as the path took us right along the side of the George & Dragon pub, we decided to pop in for a look. However, as the time is getting on, we’ll have to leave it until next time to learn more about this attractive old weatherboard pub.

Saturday 12 January 2019

Piper at the gates of dawn

It will come as no surprise to devotees of the humble potato crisp, that legendary crisp producer Pipers, have been voted Britain’s Best Brand of savoury snack. This is the seventh year, on the trot, that the Lincolnshire-based company has won this award, which results from an annual survey of speciality food products on sale in Britain’s delicatessens, farm shops and food halls.

Pipers are a brand which has seemed to come from nowhere, which kind of ties in with the founding of the company, by three Lincolnshire farmers back in 2004. I first became aware of Pipers at one of CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festivals, and looking back, this would have been some time during the end of the first decade of the 21st Century.

In a clever manner, Pipers acted as one of the festival’s sponsors, and I clearly remember grabbing a handful of crisps from one of several “help-yourself” bowls, laid out on the company’s stand. They were so good, that I returned, several times, eventually buying a couple of bags to assuage my guilt at scoffing so many freebies!

I stopped attending the GBBF a few years ago, but Pipers and their stand, were still a regular future of the event right up until the last festival I attended. Pipers’ sponsorship of the festival was a canny move on the company’s part, as it brought them to the attention of thousands of discerning beer drinkers, who Pipers knew would be looking out for their brand in their local pubs, and indeed asking their local licensee to stock them.

The three farmers behind the brand describe themselves as passionate people, driven by a desire to deliver the best taste and quality possible, without any gimmicks. The company’s aims is to produce great tasting, quality crisps using local potatoes, and to achieve this they work with carefully selected flavour partners who care as much about their products as they do.

Seeing Pipers crisps on sale is something which, for me, turns a good pub into a truly great pub, as the fact that the licensee has chose to stock this brand, means that he or she is someone who cares about the products sold and this care and consideration will extend to the choice and quality of the beer offered by the pub as well.

So if I notice the brand on sale, I will always buy a packet, even if it’s just to take home and eat later – or even the next day.

Note of caution:  I'm old enough to remember how crisp giant Walkers also started out from humble beginnings, and how,  back in the day, Walkers was the brand which devotees of quality potato crisps looked out for. So there is an inherent danger associated with rapid growth, and the inevitable incremental loss of the attributes which attracted people to the brand in the first place.

Friday 11 January 2019

A busy start to the year

It’s obviously taking me longer to get back into the swing of things, as after my first full week back at work, I’m feeling absolutely cream-crackered. I hit the ground running through, as it was straight back into a “full-on” manic week of mayhem, and with an order book which is absolutely bursting at the seams, it is definitely been a case of “all hands to the pump”.

We had wondered as to why, even at Christmas time, (a traditionally slack time of year), we’d been swamped with orders, but the truth slowly dawned that many of our customers were preparing for that worst case scenario, of the UK crashing out of the European Union on 29th March, without a deal – the so-called “No deal Brexit”.

My company manufactures dental products; primarily dental cements, restoratives (filling materials), etching agents, glazes and dental polishing pastes - otherwise known as “Prophylaxis Pastes”. The latter are a form of toothpaste, but with much more abrasive properties. This comes from the pumice used in their formulation.

We have informed our customers that whatever happens, we don’t foresee much in the way of supply problems. Our cement and restorative products, are based on finely powdered glass. We don’t handle amalgam-type filling materials, which are mercury based. They are far from being environmentally friendly and may have long-term toxic effects on patients, but those of us of a certain age, probably have a mouthful of such fillings.

What I was leading up to is that our special dental glass is produced in the UK, and the same applies to most of our containers and packaging materials. Despite this, some of our largest customers are playing it safe and are stockpiling. They could get caught out though, as many of our products have a finite shelf-life, so we will have to see.

I wasn’t actually intending to write this much about my workplace, as I really just wanted to say that after such a manic first week, my mind isn’t working as creatively, as it might do normally, and with little to report on the local beer front, there’s not much beer or pub-wise that I can write about. I was that lacking in inspiration earlier, that I dozed off in front of my computer screen – talk about a light-weight!

January is traditionally a quiet month in the licensed trade, but there are several things coming into view towards the end of the month. For the moment though, I’ll just crack open one of my few remaining cans of St Austell Proper Job, before turning in for an early night!