Wednesday, 30 November 2022

The sailors - home from the sea

It's been a bit quiet on the blog recently, the reason being Mrs PBT’s and I have been away on a short cruise across the North Sea to the Netherlands. Our destination was the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, and the short two-night stay represented my third visit to this friendly and easy-going city.

We arrived back in the UK yesterday morning and after disembarking from the ship had the joy of calling and waiting for a taxi to take us to the hotel where we had left our car. This was after dropping it off last Thursday evening. Unfortunately, I seem to have picked up a cold whilst on board ship, my first since before Covid, and I’m wondering whether the lack of mask wearing – voluntary, or otherwise, might be to blame. Once consequence of what Mrs PBT’s describes as “man flu” was not sleeping particularly well on Monday consequently, I wasn’t in the best frame of mind to be driving home, and certainly not on the motorway. So, apart from a stretch along the M3 from Southampton, until north of Basingstoke, the rest of the journey home was by "A" roads.

With the unpacking finished, and the suitcases just waiting to be placed back in the loft, I finally got some spare time to catch up with the blog, although not before completing an outstanding task. This related to the new monitor for my desktop PC that I treated myself to in the Black Friday sales. As this was just a few days before we departed for Southampton, I left the installation for our return. This was a good move, given that it's almost twice the size of my previous monitor - coming in at 24”, compared to just 15”, and given the extended footprint of a much larger screen, I had to de-clutter my desk before installation (“plug & play”) could commence.

The night before we went away, news broke of the death of Bob Dockerty, the founder, former Head Brewer and driving force behind Larkin's Brewery. Out of respect to Bob’s family and close friends I didn't post anything at the time, but now that the sad news has become official, I am mentioning it here. I will leave it until the dust has settled some more, before posting an appropriate tribute to Bob. Suffice to say it will be sorely missed. he was quite a character and well known locally, particularly in the part of West Kent where I work.

I'm not returning to work until Monday 5th and so, once I've shaken this cold off, I shall be catching up on jobs both indoors and outdoors. This bout of enthusiasm is unconnected to the major seasonal holiday event looming on the horizon, and although Mrs PBT’s and I have never really gone overboard on Christmas, we were impressed by the efforts made for the crew of the Queen Victoria, to give the ship a real festive look.

Going away at this time of year represents the return of something of a tradition within the Bailey household, namely taking pre-Christmas breaks at the end of November - beginning of December. Between 2013 and 2016, we visited places such as Prague, Salzburg, and Barcelona, during the run-up to Christmas, and the reason for taking holiday at this time was because son Matthew is employed in retail. This meant he was unable to take holiday for the whole of December and for the early part of January as well.

Somewhat ironically, Matthew didn't come with us this time, due to some potentially exciting and rewarding (for him) developments at work. We have promised to take him away with us on a short cruise in the spring, as we are sure he will enjoy it. I do miss the short city breaks we were taking with the likes of EasyJet and Ryanair, although given Mrs PBT’s current mobility issues, travelling by sea does seem a lot easier, and a lot less hassle than flying.

Back to the cruise, where we were really lucky with the weather, given the unpredictability of sailing at this time of year, and whilst there was a bit of a swell in the English Channel, on both the outward and return voyages, the North Sea itself, particularly close to the Dutch coast was calm and serene.  I mentioned Queen Victoria earlier, which of course was the name of the cruise ship, we sailed on. This now completes, for us, voyages on all three of Cunard’s queen ships, (Elizabeth, Mary, and Victoria). These gracious vessel's will be joined next year by a 4th queen - the Queen Anne.

This particular cruise seemed almost exclusively made up of UK residents, unlike last June’s voyage to the Norwegian fjords, where there was a large contingent of passengers from both North America and from Germany. This may have been reflected by the culinary offerings on board Victoria, where roast meats, casserole's, grills, and other British staples figured prominently on the menu, in contrast to the more international cuisine of previous cruises.

To sum up, we had an extended two-night stay in Amsterdam and being berthed within easy walking distance of the city centre gave us the perfect excuse to get off the ship and explore this friendly bustling and easy-going city. I shall be revealing more of my thoughts and observation about the Dutch capital in a later article, so for now it's back to the re-modelling and tiding of my office area.

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Another one bites the dust

It's always sad when a brewery closes, and it’s even sadder when the closure is forced upon it by its parent company. I'm sure most readers of this blog will be aware of the imminent closure of Dark Star Brewery, who are based in the West Sussex village of Partridge Green. I don't want to go into the reasons for the closure too much, as they have already been well documented, but what I will say is that the demise of Dark Star follows an all too familiar pattern, that goes like this.

After years of hard slog, and just about getting by, the people who started the brewery, and built the business up, reach a point where the cost of investment in new plant necessary to move the company forward, becomes too much. Then along comes a knight in shining armour in the shape of a much larger brewery, that offers to buy the business, invest in new plant, and claims to have a strategy to grow the current brands. Most importantly, the new owner promises to keep the existing plant open and allows a large degree of autonomy within the new parent company. They also pledge to not tinker with the recipes, and not to compromise quality by using cheaper and probably inferior ingredients.

This all happened in February 2018, when Dark Star sold out to London brewer Fuller’s for an undisclosed sum, after being lured into a buyout following promises to invest in the brewery and increase sales of Dark Star brands, such as Hophead, APA, Dark Star Original and Revelation. Fuller’s stated that they saw strong potential for the company’s brands, particularly Hophead, and insisted Dark Star would continue to operate as a standalone business and carry-on brewing at its Partridge Green site.

Fuller’s may well have been true to their word, if they hadn’t been bought up themselves by a much larger concern, just under two years since their acquisition of Dark Star. Japanese drinks company Asahi, shocked the brewing world by buying Fuller’s brewing business, including its brands, for £250 million, in January 2019. Asahi of course promised to leave things as they were, and they did for a few years. Then, just a couple of weeks ago, the announcement came that as the Partridge Green was operating significantly below capacity, they sadly have no option but to close it.

Production of Dark Star beers is to be switched to the Greenwich based Meantime Brewery, which Asahi had acquired back in 2016. This move could prove problematic, as Meantime hasn't brewed any cask beer for decades, but leaving that issue aside, I do wonder whether it’s the Greenwich brewery that is operating well below capacity, and that this is the real reason behind the closure of Dark Star. I raise the capacity issue because, apart from a few beers in Marks and Spencer, it's quite a few years since I last saw any Meantime brands on sale in either the on trade, or the off.

From a personal point of view, I find the closure of Dark Star rather sad, as it is a brewery I have followed from its early days, back to when its beers first acquired cult status. I have also made two visits to the Partridge Green brewery, as a member of West Kent CAMRA. The first visit took place in 2011 more recently in the spring of 2017. On the last visit in particular, I was impressed not just with the setup, but also with the knowledge and enthusiasm of the brewers, plus the other members of staff we met.

These are the people I feel for, as having experienced redundancy several times, during the course of my career, I know what it’s like to be thrown on the scrapheap through no fault of one’s self. None of us know the real reasons behind the closure, and whilst we can speculate about corporate greed, there’s probably much more to the story than meets the eye. Looking back, it’s interesting to wonder whether the departure of respected head brewer Mark Tranter in 2013, marked some sort of seismic change within the company.

Mark left Dark Star to set up on his own, and Burning Sky, the brewery he founded, seems to have gone from strength to strength, as free from the shackles of a larger company Mark and his team have been able to experiment and explore new possibilities. The statement on Burning Sky’s website, perhaps underlines the difference underlining the philosophies of the two companies and the different paths they were following. “Whilst industrial units are convenient, they seldom inspire, so we chose to locate ourselves within the beautiful and inspirational South Downs, occupying refurbished farm buildings in a slightly quirky village. A true farmhouse brewery.”

If you want a more detailed analysis, then I suggest you click on the link to this excellent article which appeared on the drinks business website, but the statement from CAMRA National Director, Gillian Hough, sums up the concern felt by many drinkers over what appears to be yet another corporate carve-up.

“Moving the production of Dark Star from the brewery’s home in West Sussex is cause for great sorrow and sadness. Dark Star is a brewery that is close to many CAMRA members’ hearts, and this decision is yet another example of global brewers playing chess with their assets.”

“Years of consolidation of large parts of the brewing industry into the hands of a few global players has been to the detriment of our brewing heritage. This worrying trend of further domination of global brewers is putting choice at the bar and the diversity of British beer at risk – and needs constant monitoring by the UK’s Competition authorities.”


Sunday, 20 November 2022

East is east and Grinstead is west

Matthew and I took a drive over to East Grinstead on Friday.  I won’t reveal the reason for our visit at this stage, apart from saying that this pleasant West Sussex town isn't somewhere I go to that often. It’s more a point on the cross-country route from Tonbridge to Gatwick Airport, and more often than that, something of a bottleneck. However, as we discovered, East Grinstead is a town well worth visiting.

Our route into the town avoided the notorious one-way system and instead brought us in at High Street end, an area which is the oldest, and most historic part of East Grinstead. Amongst the wealth of attractive half-timbered buildings, were several good-looking pubs including one belonging to Young’s. Although they are now just a pub company, rather than the staunchly traditional, London brewery that many of us remember them as, Young’s do seem to be widening their net. They have recently acquired the Carpenter’s Arms, at Three Elms Lane, on the outskirts of Tonbridge, and I’m sure they remain on the lookout for other suitable pubs, should the opportunity arise.

Further down, towards the shops along London Road, I noticed at the top of an alleyway, the Engine Room, Brewery Tap and Bar. This is a fairly new cellar bar, specialising in cask ales, ciders, craft beers, and artisan spirits. The bar is located in the basement of the Old Mill building situated just off London Road. There was, until quite recently, a connection between the Engine Room, and the High Weald Brewery, who were based at nearby Forest Row, but I understand High Weald have ceased brewing, for the time being, at least.

We didn't call in at the Engine Room on this occasion, as we’d only paid for a couple of hours parking, any in any case I will save that visit for another time. East Grinstead is easy to reach by bus, from Tunbridge Wells, so when we get back from our forthcoming cruise, I shall use my old gits bus pass to travel over to the town. I will need to pick a Friday though, as the bar doesn’t open until 4pm, during the rest of the week.

By way of compensation, and quite by chance, we found a small and rather quirky independent off licence, called Armstrong's, tucked away at the top of London Road. A really good selection of bottled beers was stocked, as well as a number of the five litre mini casks, which are always popular this time of year. It was in celebration of the forthcoming Festive season that I bought a small selection of appropriately strong beers, in advance of Christmas, that included a Winterbock from north German brewer, Flensburg, plus Noël, a 7.4% Christmas Ale from local brewers, Hepworth’s of Horsham.

According to the shop staff, the latter beer had just come in, and with a BBE of April 2025, plus a "Best After" (that’s a new one on me), of April 2023, I imagine I shall be laying this one down until Noël 2023, at the earliest. I also picked up a couple of Sam Smith’s beers – Imperial Stout (an old favourite), plus the brewer’s Organic Chocolate Stout. This is something of a rarity, and whilst coming in at a modest 5.0% abv, the description on the bottle, stating, “The perfect marriage of satisfying stout and luxurious chocolate,” means I certainly won’t be laying this one down!

I’m cursing myself for thinking the 500ml bottle of Sam Smith’s Yorkshire Stingo, was too expensive at £6.75. I’m sure people pay this for an ordinary pint of bitter, in some London pubs, so why did I turn down this classic strong ale, that is aged in oak casks, for at least a year? The brewery claim that the beer picks up fruit, raisin, treacle toffee, Christmas pudding and slight oaky flavours, before being further naturally conditioned in the bottle. It ends up with an abv of 8-9%. Armstrong’s might possibly have some left, by the time I make that bus trip, but if not, I shall have to try buying a few bottles on line.

After grabbing a quick sandwich from Greggs, we decided to head for home, and stick with the A264 as our chosen route. On the drive over, we’d noticed flooded fields at Penshurst, although the medieval stone bridges, and associated causeway, had ensured both the road and the village itself, remained dry. I’d wanted to stop off on the way home at the Fountain in Cowden, for some Harvey’s Old Ale, but checking up on What Pub indicated the pub closes from 3 – 6pm, so instead I thought of that old favourite, the Rock Inn at Chiddingstone Hoath.

We got a bit lost, thanks to Matthew’s sat nav (always be wary of a device that will direct you along roads that are no wider than a cart-track), and ended up in Penshurst, at the Leicester Arms, instead. The only cask ale on was Larkin’s Traditional, although the bar manager did apologise for the lack of choice – down to a late delivery, apparently. The beer was on good form, and there was a nice relaxing atmosphere in the main bar of this 16th century village inn. The blazing log fire enhanced the cosy feel of this pub which, whilst functioning as a boutique hotel, still offers a warm welcome to villagers, walkers along with customers drawn from further afield. It also provides a handy, occasional overnight stop for one of my colleagues, who lives at the opposite end of the county.

Most of yesterday was spent tidying the garden after the recent high winds and heavy rain, and some of today was dedicated to collating holiday bits and pieces, followed by packing. Tomorrow heralds a busy three-day week at work, and then it’s off to Southampton on Thursday, and that trip across the North Sea.