Friday 31 December 2021

2021's review can wait - I've got a long-distance trail to complete!

Today, I really should have been putting the finishing touches to my review of 2021, but I decided to go hiking instead. I’m glad I did, because once the light drizzly rain had cleared, I thoroughly enjoyed my walk across the top of Box Hill. I didn’t enjoy the descent, or at least my knees didn’t, as it was not only much steeper than I anticipated, but it was also much longer.

I obviously hadn’t realised how high I had climbed on my route up from Betchworth station, past the old quarry and Brockham lime works, and onto to the summit of Box Hill. In case you hadn’t guessed, I was waking another stretch of the North Downs Way.

Looking at the map it was only just over four miles, but the changes of altitude, and the fact I chose the wrong descent from the summit, it certainly felt much longer. So much so that I decided I abort the walk at the Burford Bridge Hotel, and then take the train, one stop, from Box Hill & Westhumble station, back into Dorking.

My original plan had been to continue for another two miles along the NDW, before doubling back to Dorking West station, and whilst I would have been up to it, I’m glad I didn’t. Looking at the map Box Hill station will make a far more logical starting point for my next journey west, and if I hadn’t stopped when I did, I would have missed the delights of the Garland, in Redhill.

There will be more about this splendid street corner Harveys’ pub in a subsequent post, but back to the review for a minute, I noticed that the last time I looked at it was Christmas Eve. There’s no time to finish it now, and I’m not in the mood either, so by way of compensation, here are a few not particularly good photos, from today’s walk.

Points to remember, apart from the final descent, the majority of the walk was through woodland, and it was drizzly to start with. I’m kicking myself for missing what would have been a cracking shot, and definitely the best one of the walk, when a peloton (I think that’s the right word) of cyclists came hurtling up the famous zig-zag road, straight towards me. With map in one hand, and walking stick in the other, I was unable to get my phone out, ready to shoot, before they were gone.

Such is life, but apart from the less than impressive photos, I would like to wish each and everyone of you a happy, prosperous, successful and above all, healthy New Year. Thanks too for sticking with me and supporting the blog through what has been another perplexing and troublesome year.

Thursday 30 December 2021

A few more books at bedtime - both beer-related and non-beer-related

I received a couple of beer books in my Christmas stocking, and so far, have only glanced through them. Both publications look as though they will be good reads, so I look forward to getting stuck into them. The only question is which one to read first?

Before revealing what, these books are, it’s worth taking a quick look back at some of the other books I’ve read since the start of the year.  I will begin with the comprehensive, hard-back volume I received last Christmas (2020), which was titled “The Family Brewers of Britain.”

Researched and authored by veteran beer writer Roger Protz, this book is a real labour of love, as it details the remaining family-owned independent brewers, who are still in existence. These are the true survivors, proud custodians of over 300 years of brewing heritage, who kept alive the tradition of locally brewed ales, brewed to suit local customers and local palates at a time when their much larger brethren were flooding the market with heavily promoted national keg brands.

Roger visited all 30 companies, featured in the book, and then wrote up his findings with care and attention. The result is a fascinating insight, not just into the histories of these breweries, but what they are about today. Many have been forced to adapt and evolve, in order to survive. Some have constructed newer, smaller and more energy efficient breweries, whilst others have sold off pubs.

The biggest problem most are facing is they have been squeezed on the one hand, between the bigger, national, and international giants, and on the other by the burgeoning micro and craft brewery sectors. Roger reveals how these surviving family firms have dealt with these changes, how they have adapted, but most of all reveals that the majority are thriving as new generations have come forward and are now, firmly in control.

There was a considerable amount of text to get through and a lot of information to digest, so it’s not surprising the book took me several months to read, but I also had a number of fiction books to get through. This was after finally finishing Anthony Powell’s marathon, 12 volume chronicle, “A Dance to the Music of Time,” a fascinating and semi-biographical account of the middle years of the last century, as observed from an upper-middle class perspective.

I then moved on to “Out of Africa,” by Karen Blixen, a novel best known for the film version, which . starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Karen was a Danish settler, who married her cousin, a Swedish baron. The two of them bought a coffee plantation in Kenya, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. It was a venture that was doomed to failure, as the land they purchased was too high and too dry, for the successful cultivation of coffee, and after years of diminishing yields, the harvest failed, totally in 1930.

Karen separated from her husband in 1921, and then managed the plantation on her own. The book is a fascinating account of her struggles, along with the relationship she had with the native Kenyans who worked and lived on the plantation.  Baroness Blixen, and the people who worked her estate, developed a deep respect for one another, which left her devastated when she was forced to sell the farm and return to Denmark, in 1931.

Another tragedy befell Karen, when her lover, mentor and confidant, the English adventurer Denys Finch-Hatton, was killed in a plane crash. As the footnote on the back cover of the novel says, “Written with astonishing clarity and an unsentimental intelligence, Out of Africa portrays a way of life that has disappeared forever.”

Next up was George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,” a personalised account of the author’s time as a volunteer with the Republican forces, during the Spanish Civil War. If, like me, you have ever wondered how the Republican side, which represented the legitimate government of Spain, with all the resources behind it that a modern state could muster, could then lose the fight against Franco’s fascist Falangist insurrection, then Orwell’s account will explain why.

After being wounded at the front, Orwell was sent back to Barcelona to recuperate, only to be caught up in the vicious in-fighting that had broken out between various factions on the republican side. Socialists, communists and Trotskyist, groups were fighting each other not just to control the direction that the conflict was taking, but to demonstrate which was the most left leaning and revolutionary. Meanwhile Franco’s forces, who were backed by Hitler and Mussolini, gradually gained the upper hand.

Eric Arthur Blair was lucky to escape from Spain with his life, thanks in no small part to the actions of his wife, Eileen, who managed to track him down, and then spirit him away under the noses of the, by then, Soviet-backed republican regime. His book is a lesson, not just about the futility of war, but also of enrolling for a noble cause, and then having one’s illusions, brutally shattered by subsequent events.

The final book is the one I am reading at the moment. “Anna Karenina," by Leo Tolstoy, is a lengthy novel involving betrayal, jealousy, scandal, and despair, in Russian high society, during the latter quarter of the 19th Century. Described as far easier to read and get to grips with than “War & Peace,” Tolstoy’s most famous work, I am enjoying what I have read so far.

As with Karen Blixen’s novel, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina gives an insight into a long-vanished world, but this time it is the world of the Russian Aristocracy, several decades before it was swept away by the Bolsheviks and their bloody revolution.  I am approximately one third of the way through the novel but am in no hurry to finish it.

Finally, the two books I received as Christmas presents. Both are beer related, and both are published by CAMRA books. Starting with, “50 Years of CAMRA,” this, as its sub-title suggests, is a book “Celebrating 50 years of Campaigning for Real Ale.”

Specially commissioned by CAMRA’s National Executive, and written by Laura Hadland, the book is a factual, but entertaining look back at the history of the Campaign for Real Ale. Starting with its almost comical inception by four young friends on a drinking holiday in Ireland, to its position today as Europe’s largest, and most successful single issue, consume movement, this book is of special interest to a person like me, who was a CAMRA member for 45 years, and an active one for most of that time, as well.

I can see myself becoming engrossed in this book, and re-living some of the campaigning highs, and lows I was personally involved with. It will also be good to read the stories from a different viewpoint and to learn more about the workings and machinations of the Campaign.

The final book is something a of a wild card; a bit of a dark horse, if you like. “A Year in Beer,” by Jonny Garrett, with its sub-title “The Beer Lover’s Guide to the Seasons,” looks like my kind of book. It follows the concept of drinking throughout the year, season by season and month by month, following the author’s suggestions of the most appropriate beers to reflect the changing seasons.

Jonny Garrett freely admits that he isn’t sure that seasonal drinking is really a thing. Not in the way that most people understand it. He is, of course, right in his thinking that we are no longer totally in hoc to the changing seasons, primarily because we have lost our connection with both the land, and also with nature itself.

Th inventions of refrigeration and pastueristion mean we are no longer dictated to by time of year or the weather that goes with it, and should we see fit, we can brew almost any type or style of beer we wish. This doesn’t detract from the changing seasons, and Johnny argues that we are still very much guided by our past experiences, and the impact they have had on us, our society, and our culture.

He claims that on the one hand it’s global, whilst on the other hand it’s deeply personal, reflecting our personalities, moods, location, or the situation we find ourselves in. With these thoughts in mind, I’m going to open my imagination, go with the flow and see where this book is going to take me. It should be an interesting ride!

Disclosure: None of these books were freebies, although several were Christmas presents, and as such, didn't cost me anything. The others, I paid full price for.



Tuesday 28 December 2021

We don’t do Christmas ales properly in this country!

Source - Harvey & Son Ltd
We don’t do Christmas ales properly in this country. I was prompted to write this piece, after reading a post that appeared on my phone, early on Christmas morning. The post came courtesy of Irish blogger, The Beer Nut who, after spending several Christmases in England, had developed a bit of a hankering for them.

He qualified that last statement by saying that they weren’t especially good, but it was more the experience than anything else. After his stays in England, he was somewhat surprised to find four Christmas Ales on sale, at his local JDW, back in Ireland.

A review then followed which highlighted that only one of these ales really stood out - Donner & Blitzed, a dark ale, from Milestone in Lincolnshire. I replied along the lines that there is something about the majority of UK-brewed Christmas ales, which invariably disappoints, as very few of them are brewed to a decent strength. I added the comment that no self-respecting Christmas ale should look like yet another bog-standard, pale ale.

In what seems like a case of history repeating itself, I wrote a similar post as far back as 2012, lamenting the lack of a decent Christmas ale, here in the UK, asking why can’t we turn out anything decent for the festive season? I went on to say that more often than not, many Christmas Ales turn out to be bog  standard, uninspiring, malt-led, brownish bitters in the 4.0 – 5.0% strength bracket. Far too many of today's festive offerings are pale in colour (sometimes even golden!), low in strength and low on taste. The only thing Christmassy about them is the name on the pump clip, and all too often that is a silly pun or spoonerism with a dubious Christmas connection.

On that last point, there have been some quite excruciating names for Christmas ales over the years, with appalling puns, double entendres, unashamedly sexist themes and even some out and out smut. If you don’t believe me, then check out the Pump Clip Parade website for details of some of the worse ones, but being serious for a moment, beers brewed to commemorate the festive season really do deserve better than a rash of cringe-worthy and rather juvenile, school-boy jokes.

So, what do I look for in a Christmas beer? Well, a decent strength to start with; ideally something around 6.0% and certainly nothing below 5.0%! I also like my Christmas ale to be dark in colour (preferably darker than ruby), full-bodied and well-hopped.

Other countries manage to deliver on this front, in particular Belgium with many breweries putting out seasonal stunners, whilst over in Bavaria many brewers produce strong, seasonal Weihnachtsbier, named after "Weihnachten" the German word for Christmas. These normally run in at anywhere between 6 & 8% abv, not quite as strong as the Belgian offerings, many of which get into double figures, but they are all good, full-bodied beers designed to keep out the cold.

Perhaps that’s the problem here in the UK, as we don’t get really cold winters, or if we do then the cold snap normally doesn’t last that long. Consequently, few beers come near the sorts of strengths common on the Continent, although Harvey’s Christmas Ale hits the spot for me at 7.5%.

It’s a perfectly balanced strong dark bitter-sweet ale, satisfying and warming, but obviously a beer to be treated with respect but, as I alluded to earlier, it’s rare to find a beer this strong in Britain, especially on draught. I have also in the past, enjoyed Hook Norton's Twelve Days, another fine dark ale, not as strong as Harvey's, but still a welcome sight on a pub bar.  Old Dairy Snow Top, is another beer well worth looking out for, and whilst this dark and warming 6.0% abv Winter Ale, is not exclusively brewed for the Christmas period, it is still much appreciated at this time of year.

Whilst researching my original article, I came across a specially commissioned article on Christmas Ales, written for pub chain Wetherspoon’s house magazine by respected veteran, beer writer Jeff Evans. who at the time was the author of CAMRA's Good Bottled Beer Guide. The article began with a look back to those times, as little as 35 years or so ago, when Christmas was the only time of the year one could expect to see something different on the bar apart from a brewer's mild, bitter, and possibly best bitter. 

He contrasted this with the situation at the time of writing, when there is a whole plethora of so-called Christmas Ales weighing down the nation's bars.  Jeff picked out a few of his favourites, and whilst he did make mention of the silly Christmas-themed puns, he was conscious that he was writing a commissioned article for JDW, so didn’t come down too hard on the names, or the weak strength, of some of the beers,

I can certainly remember when the situation that Jeff harks back to; a time when Christmas Ales really were something special, rather than just a slightly reddish coloured best bitter with a silly name and equally silly pump clip. Whilst I obviously welcome the far greater availability of seasonal ales today, I do feel that the whole Christmas thing has been dumbed down and lost its meaning.

I’d like to end on that note, and square the circle, so to speak, as I’ve just cracked open a bottle of Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale. The Faversham-based brewery produce a Christmas ale every year and have been doing so for as long as I can remember. I was in the VIth form when I first came across the beer, and then, like now, it was only available in bottled form.

A friend of mine told me about it, and I recall us both trying a bottle in the Royal Oak, at Mersham, to the east of Ashford. I was intrigued at the time, that a brewery would produce a beer especially for Christmas, and this more than anything, was what persuaded me to try it.

I can’t remember what the beer tasted like, or how strong it was. It might seem incredible, but back in the early 1970’s, there was no requirement to declare the ABV or Original Gravity of any beers. Consumers were left totally in the dark as to how strong, or indeed weak, a beer might be. Brewers often used this to their advantage, by giving the impression that a particular beer was stronger than it actually was. They also used this lack of visibility to reduce the strength of their beers, without informing consumers, or passing on the cost savings generated by the reduction.

I said that I couldn’t recall the strength, but I do remember being surprised that the beer was relatively pale in colour. Despite knowing virtually nothing about beer at the time, I at least expected that a strong beer would be dark in colour. I do remember though, the distinctive label on the half pint bottles that the beer came in, as it featured a group of musicians, wrapped up warm against the cold, and holding a lantern aloft, as if the guide the way.

Fast forward nearly 50 years, and I have a 500ml bottle of Shepherd Neame’s current Christmas Ale in front of me. Brewed to an abv of 7.0%, the beer is amber in colour, and is packed full of a blend of crystallised fruit aromas, set against a background of spicy hops. Like I said, things have turned full circle, as far as Shepherd Neame’s Christmas Ale is concerned, and it’s good to come back to the place that I started my infatuation with Christmas Ale, almost a half century ago.