Sunday 28 February 2021

Lost for words

Looking back over the years, and in particular over the past couple, I’ve managed to clock up a minimum of 10 posts each month on the blog. There are times when I only just made it into double figures, but then are others where I hit the dizzy heights of 14 posts – few and far between, but still 14, one-four!

February 2021 though, will only see 8 posts, even with the addition of this one, but as we approach the end of the second month of the third National Lockdown, the cause of this fall off in creative output, isn’t exactly hard to guess.

With no pub or brewery visits to report on, no days out to describe, and no holidays or trips away to enthuse about, there hasn’t been much in the way of beer or travelling for me to write about. Veteran blogger, the Pub Curmudgeon, has concentrated on the existential threat that continued lock-down poses to the nation’s pubs, along with the concern that the licensed trade is being treated as a “perpetual whipping boy” – a subject I have touched on myself.

On the other hand, prolific blogger, Retired Martin, has kept us entertained with “Guess the Pub” competitions, alternating between posts describing has walks around Sheffield; the city he has recently moved to. These have alternated with descriptions of walks around his new place of residence, characterised by closed pubs and photos of urban decay.

Martin might not thank me for saying it, but there are only so many pictures of derelict workshops, boarded up commercial premises and faded graffiti that those of us who crave good-looking, pleasing and attractive vistas, can stomach. So, with no wish to sink any deeper into the all-encompassing gloom, what is there for a beer blogger to write about?

There are still subjects I can entertain readers with, and despite the feelings of boredom and can’t be bothered, that seem to be the salient features of what is definitely the worst and most difficult to endure of the lock-downs to date, I still have a few aces up my sleeve.

One or two might be revealed next week, when we move into March and herald the arrival of spring, but It’s a sobering thought that we’re just six days away from the anniversary of the “Proper Day Out” that I enjoyed in Burton-on-Trent, in the company of half dozen or so, like-minded beer and pub enthusiasts.

Despite an excellent day spent sampling some of Burton’s finest pubs and their beers, there was an underlying feeling, prevalent amongst us, that it might be some time before we could enjoy another such trip. Even so, I don’t think any of us envisaged pubs would be closed for as long as they have, or that severe restrictions, affecting the movement of all UK citizens, would still be in place, a year later.

Watch this space then, but I promise no photos of burnt out buildings, boarded up pubs or graffiti, masquerading as art! 

Monday 22 February 2021

Please rinse and return

I’m on a bit of a Harvey’s roll at the moment and following on from my previous post about the brewery’s excellent Sussex Best Bitter, I want to add a few words about their bottled beers. The first thing to say is that Harvey’s have always kept faith with their bottled beers, even throughout the period towards the end of the last century when this sector of the trade seemed in terminal decline. 

Many of the smaller, family-owned brewers stopped bottling their beers altogether, partly in response to falling demand but also because their expensive to maintain and costly to upgrade bottling lines, were reaching the end of their working lives. The market too around this time, was changing with the arrival of so-called “Premium Bottled Ales” (PBA’s). 

These beers, which tended to be towards the stronger end of the spectrum, were typically packaged in 500ml bottles. They were single-trip items, as opposed to the traditional half-pint (275ml), returnable bottles that had been the backbone of the industry for decades and, as one observer noted, "filled the shelves behind the bar that were below the optics." 

Harvey’s, on the other hand, stood by these bottles and upgraded their bottling line. I recall stocking virtually the entire range of their bottled ales at our off-license, during the early years of the 21st Century. The empties were returnable and, to encourage this, a deposit was charged at time of purchase. Regrettably, not many customers brought them back, preferring perhaps to lose a 5p or 10p deposit instead of bringing them back.

I’m sure the brewery factored this in and, if I’m truthful, charging and returning deposits proved something of a nightmare for our rather rudimentary accounting procedures as well, but I was still in agreement with the principle of returnable bottles.

As we moved towards the second decade of the century, I noticed the introduction, by Harvey’s, of the 500ml bottle, used by the majority of the trade. At first the range of beers packaged in these bottles was restricted, but slowly I began to see other, less well-known beers – such as some of the seasonal offerings appearing in this size of bottles.

Some of this evidence is anecdotal, as we’d sold our off-license business by then, but more recently – and because of the need to obtain my “Harvey’s fix,” I noticed the majority of the brewery’s beers are now available in this sized bottle. What’s more, the empties are still returnable, in fact Harvey’s state this on the label, with the advice, “We will wash and refill this bottle. Please return for deposit refund.”

In the age of throwaway packaging, this move is highly commendable, but whilst it is probably unique amongst UK brewers, returning bottles to the brewery, for re-filling, is standard practice in Germany. Most of the larger supermarkets have a section where customers can return empty bottles by the crate load. I have also witnessed motorists arriving at breweries and swapping over crates of empties for full ones. 

With the honorable exception of Harvey’s, we seem to have moved in the opposite direction, here in the UK, and rather surprisingly it’s an opportunity the “green movement” seem to have missed. Of course, there are other factors to be taken into account. Washing returned bottles uses water as well as detergents. In addition, it is sometimes necessary to use harsher chemicals, such as caustic soda, for tasks such as the removal of old labels, although I’m sure environmentally friendly alternatives – such as biodegradable adhesives are being developed.

The biggest obstacle to overcome is that of getting consumers to return their empties. I accept this is probably harder in the UK, than it is in Germany, where there is still much more of a tradition of locally brewed beers. Cooperation from the retail trade would be essential, if this was to work in Britain, as is the case in Germany and other Central European countries, where supermarkets are geared up to handle the return of empties. Some retailers will insist, understandably, that the bottles are packed into a crate, when dropped off, but this is really just common sense.

Returning to Harvey’s for a moment, the brewery are understandably reluctant to become too closely involved with the large supermarket chains, primary because of the discounts the latter demand. If this is the case, where does the Harvey’s lover buy his or her beers from?

Fortunately, there are two outlets quite close by. In Tonbridge there is my old off license, the Cask & Glass, in Priory Street at the south end of the town, which stocks a small selection of Harvey’s bottles. Slightly further away, in Tunbridge Wells, nO7 in Chapel Place, just up from the towns;’ historic Pantiles area, stocks a wider range of bottles, alongside 5-litre mini kegs of Harvey’s.  For cask lovers, draught Harvey’s is also available to take away by the pint. So, until the pubs reopen that’s where I’ll be heading for my regular Harvey’s fix.

Sunday 21 February 2021

Harvey's Sussex Best - a much missed personal favourite

Apart from missing cask beer in general, I am particularly missing what is probably the most widely available cask ale, in this part of the country. I am not talking about Doom Bar, and neither am I referring to Greene King IPA both personifications of blandness, as far as I am concerned. Instead, I am looking at Harvey’s Sussex Best, a beer that without a shadow of doubt, represents all that I find enjoyable in a pint of cask-conditioned ale, and a beer that has remained consistent and reliable over the past 40 years that I have been enjoying it.

You can’t say that for many beers, especially when fads come and go, and certain beers seem to go go through periods of achieving almost cult status, only then to fall from grace, when too many outlets clamour to stock it and brewers struggle to keep up with supply. Taylor’s Landlord is a good, fairly recent example, but here are others, and let’s not forget that Doom Bar was a beer with far more character and appeal, when it first appeared on the market.

Harvey’s Best is a beer that has survived the comings and goings that have afflicted the brewing industry and has escaped the fickleness of fashion. Never quite achieving that mythical cult status – definitely a good thing and escaping to a large estate the attention of “influencers” in the beer market.

A few highly respected, beer writers have sung its praises, and have even featured the beer and its brewery in magazine articles, but fortunately the trendy Rate Beer, “you have to try this one” types have tended to ignore its charms, either because they fell it’s not hip enough, or because it doesn’t match their obsessions with the latest zingy citrus hops, barrel-aged, chili-addition or Brett-infusion that, in their eyes, marks a beer out as extra worthy of attention. Some might call them “influencers,” but the name I have for them, the one that rhymes with "bankers," is far more appropriate.

Fortunately, Harvey’s are not a company to take notice of such nonsense, but neither are they a brewery that’s afraid to move with the times. For example, they were one of the first of the family-owned brewers to introduce a range of seasonal ales, and incidentally one that never stopped production of a dark and warming winter beer in the shape of their delectable XXXX Old Ale.

Drinkers like me, who have been enjoying Sussex Best these past four decades, can confirm that the brewery have not been tempted to tinker with the recipe, or to change the brewing process.  Unlike modern breweries which have silos for bulk supplies of malt, Harvey’s still use malt supplied in sacks, and these have to be hoisted to the top of brewery before brewing can commence.

They also use whole hops, packed either in traditional “pockets” or more often now, in tightly compressed blocks, are used, as opposed to the hop pellets favoured by many breweries today. Harvey’s source their hops locally, from growers in Sussex, Kent and Surrey, and contracts are placed up to four years in advance. This ensures adequate supplies of their preferred hops, which in the main are long established varieties such as Fuggles, Goldings, Progress and Bramling Cross.

The yeast that Harvey’s use, is now unique to the brewery, although it originated from the John Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster.  It is re-pitched on a weekly basis and has been in use for the past 60 years. The care and dedication that is applied to the ingredients, works its way through into the consistency of the finished product, ensuring that Harvey’s Sussex Best tastes as good as it did, when it was first brewed, back in the 1950’s.

I first became acquainted with the beer back in the late 1970’s, as despite living and growing up in East Kent, I had never heard of Harvey’s Brewery, or its beers. It was only after I joined CAMRA, that I discovered there was a small brewery, based in Lewes, that was turning out some interesting sounding beers.

CAMRA’s first (1974) Good Beer Guide was rather dismissive of  Harvey’s because of the company’s flirtation with top pressure dispense. The one-liner, in the sparse Brewery Section at the rear of the guide, simply read, “Difficult to find real ale,” but despite this, I began hearing only good things about the Lewes based brewery.

It was my return to Kent in 1979, following four years “exile” in Greater Manchester and three in Greater London, that gave me the chance of finally tracking down some Harvey’s. Even then, outlets for the brewery’s beers were few and far between, and the nearest outlet to Maidstone, where I was living at the time, was the Crown Point Inn, a prominent free house on the busy A25, between the villages of Seal and Ightham.

I didn’t possess a car at the time, so a visit to the Crown Point meant a cycle ride. This wasn’t a problem, as the previous Mrs Bailey and I were both keen cyclists. I have vague memories of arriving at the pub for a lunchtime drink, on a sunny Sunday. Harvey’s Best was indeed on tap, but I can’t pretend that I was overwhelmed by my first taste of the beer.

It wasn’t until my career took me to Tonbridge, and the town’s relative closeness to the border with Sussex, that further opportunities to enjoy Harvey’s presented themselves. The Beau Nash Tavern, in nearby Tunbridge Wells was one pub which regularly stocked Harvey’s, as was the legendary Sussex Arms, just off the town’s historic Pantiles area.

Slowly, but surely, Harvey’s started to grow on me, and as the years went on the company’s beers became much more widely available in West Kent. My access to them also increased measurably, following my move to Tonbridge in the autumn of 1984, as did my acquaintance with Harvey’s seasonal beers.

I will end the post here, as due to the widespread availability of Harvey’s Sussex Best - until the start of the pandemic that is, this beer has continued its regular presence on the bars of many local pubs and remained a firm favourite of mine. So much so, that I honestly can’t wait for pubs to reopen, so I can sink a few pints of this delectable beer.


Thursday 18 February 2021

Obstacles to pubs re-opening

As rates of infection for Coronavirus continue to fall and the roll out of the two Covid-19 vaccines gathers increasing pace, there’s been considerable and somewhat predictable speculation as to when the current lockdown restrictions will ease, and some semblance of normality returns to our lives.

Not least amongst all this second-guessing is the vexed question of when will the nation’s pubs finally be allowed to open their doors again and go about their lawful business? Reports circulating a few weeks ago suggested that pubs could potentially reopen as early as April but would not be able to serve alcohol.

This not only defeats the object of a pub, but also shows a total lack of understanding of what pubs are all about. The person behind this frankly ludicrous suggestion was rumoured to be Chris Whitty, the government’s Chief medical Officer, whose obsessive fears about spreading the virus appear to have clouded his judgement. His argument is that because alcohol lowers inhibitions and makes social distancing more difficult, a "no- booze approach" is the safest option.

Prof Whitty is reported to be single, a teetotaler who admits to no outside interests, so he’s not exactly the pub goer’s champion. He conveniently ignores the fact that when pubs were finally allowed to open their doors, for a few glorious months last summer, the vast majority of pub-goers behaved sensibly and responsibly.

Fortunately, the government seem to have shelved this daft idea, which attracted universal criticism from licensees, trade bodies and pub goers alike. The other good news is there will be no daft 10 o’clock curfew, and no more absurd nonsense regarding a “substantial meal”– the so-called “Scotch Egg rule.”

Reading between the lines, it seems as though drinkers will be encouraged to make full use of outdoor drinking spaces, such as pub gardens and patio areas, but this suggestion has opened another set of problems.

The most recent news suggests that pubs will be permitted to reopen from April, but only with customers seated outside. These tentative plans to allow beer garden service only, have attracted fierce criticism from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) - the industry trade body that represents the pub sector.

BBPA advise that 29,000 pubs, about 60% of the nations’ total, do not have a big enough garden or other outdoor area to welcome drinkers without also needing to open the indoor areas as well. This equates to that more than half of the UK’s pubs not reopening whilst the rest would be at the mercy of the weather.

BBPA chief executive Emma McClarkin said, “Even if some pubs did try to open outdoors only in April, all it would take is some heavy rain and they would find it has all been for nothing. For many pubs, gardens are at the back and the only way to access them is through the inside. And of course, toilet facilities would still need to be provided.” She finished by saying, “We question the government’s thinking behind this and suggest they consult with us as a sector on it.”

That last suggestion is far to sensible for a government packed full of fools and sycophantic “yes men” to listen to, let alone take notice of. The obsessive, nannying, pseudo-scientists advising them, are also unlikely to listen, with their namby-pamby, “play it safe" approach. But as the author Hugh Walpole wrote, “Don’t play for safety. It’s the most dangerous thing in the world.”

The BBPA is pushing for pubs to be able to serve customers indoors as soon as non-essential shops are allowed to reopen. It said about 75% of pubs have some outdoor space but only 40% could open it if restrictions on indoor movement persist. Most of those that could open would not break even due to the logistical challenges and unpredictable April weather. Restricting indoor service would mean just 17% of UK pub capacity would be available, resulting in £1.5bn of lost turnover compared with normal times.

Their spokesperson said, “We urge the government to open our pubs inside – and outside – when non-essential retail also opens. By then, the vaccine will have been rolled out to millions more, and pubs can open while continuing to follow exemplary hygiene measures, world-leading standards in guidance and social distancing."

“Until then, the government must do all it can to support our sector, until it opens to trade properly, in the upcoming budget.”  Hear hear!

From a personal point of view, whilst fully endorsing the BBPA suggestions, if pubs are forced down the outdoor drinking route, I will definitely support them with my custom, as long as this "half-way house" idea is just a temporary step along the road to full opening, with proper, stand-up, vertical drinking.