Monday 30 October 2023

Out of favour(ly)

Like most people I receive far too many emails, and this might be because I have two Yahoo accounts, plus a Gmail one. I also have my own work email account, which is strictly for business.  Unfortunately, I’m not a person who keeps on top of his inbox, despite the best of intentions, although for professional reasons, my work emails are kept right up to date. The other day, I noticed an email from Beer 52, the long-established beer subscription service, advising me that Flavourly, another beer delivery organisation, had ceased trading after entering into administration earlier in October.   
Slightly puzzled that Beer 52 had my email address, I remembered that I have dealt with this beer subscription service, at some time in the past. Working on the basis that one person’s misfortune is another’s business opportunity, Beer 52 appear to be approaching former Flavourly customers, in a quite unashamed grab for business. This was evident from the email, below, which went on to say. Beer 52 was approached to see if they could help Flavourly members continue to discover great beer. and were delighted to share the following service update."
“As a former Flavourly customer, you have earned a free case of craft beer (worth £27)! Click below and use your personal code and we'll send an 8-pack of craft beer from our latest theme, award-winning Ferment magazine and a couple of snacks.” It sounds tempting, or perhaps not, although there is no obligation to continue with your subscription because that is what you are signing up to, should you decide to take-up their offer. Beer 52 confirm this by saying, “Of course, you’re free to take the case and run. But if you decide to continue your monthly beer, drop, we’ll send you a new themed box every month, from the haziest NEIPAs to the crispest pilsners. No minimum commitment, cancel anytime.”

I have used several beer subscription services in the past, but it’s worth taking a closer look at Flavourly, not just because they are in the news at the moment, but because they operated a rather different business model to other beer providers. This involved partnering with selected craft-beer breweries, commissioning one-off “specials” or “collaboration beers”, and then guaranteeing to buy these beers in large volumes. The beers were then offered to Flavourly’s customers as exclusives.

This provided a certain volume for the breweries concerned, alongside the bonus of a firm commitment from Flavourly to take the entire batch. The aim was to boost efficiency, attract investment in new equipment, and negotiate better rates on ingredients with their suppliers.

Therefore, unlike certain other online beer retailers, Flavourly were not a subscription service, and with nothing to sign up to, customers could just order, as and when they pleased. Having said that, the company did tend to pester you with emails, highlighting their latest offers, but with no obligation to buy, you could just delete these messages. The beers that the company sold were packaged solely in the 330ml can format, which must have helped streamline their mail order despatch, business model.

This did at least mean that potential subscribers had an inkling of the types and styles of the beers they would be buying - an improvement on the “traditional” beer subscription services, where the provider rather than the customer, chooses the beers supplied. From my point of view, collaboration brews were alright for those wanting to tick beers on “Untappd,” but perhaps not for those who preferred something more permanent rather than “one-offs.”

Flavourly was set up by Ryan O’Rorke in 2012, following an appearance on Dragons’ Den, where he was offered investment by all five dragons. He eventually accepted a joint bid from Piers Linney and Peter Jones for £75,000 in return for a 20% stake. Over the previous two years, Flavourly had generated £600,000 in revenues, had shipped more than 500,000 products to its 10,000 subscribers, and was forecasting a tenfold increase in sales.

Flavourly also raised cash through several crowdfunding exercises, but In 2017 it was sold to Drinkshare Holdings for £118,000, a company which Mr O’Rorke was a director of. At the time of the fund-raising Flavourly was touted as having a value of £1.2m, so somewhere along the line the company decreased quite dramatically in value, and investors who backed the original startup were reputedly left out of pocket. I’m not sure how you value a company whose only assets are the stock it is currently sitting on, plus possible warehousing and distribution space. The latter two can be contracted out, so in the end it boils down to the offers that Flavourly had in which to tempt the customer. I’m beginning to think that apart from the possible novelty value, the brands plus types of beer the company were offering, had slowly stated to lose their appeal.  This is certainly what happened in my case.

At the beginning of March 2022, I ordered myself a mixed case of 48 cans of “craft beer” from Flavourly. My motives in buying this rather large case were mixed but were underscored by a desire to have a selection of different beers at home, to choose from. I’m not sure whether this actually worked, as some of the beers were, quite frankly, disappointing. You could argue that with such a large selection to choose from, there are bound to be a few duds, and you would be right in thinking this. However, at the other end of the spectrum you might expect there to be a few stunners, but there wasn’t any, although there was a few worthy of seeking out again.

I worked out that there were 22 different brews, which suggested that whilst there were two cans of most of the beers, there must have been three of some of them. At the end of the day, you win some, you lose others, and on the plus side I had the chance to enjoy some interesting beers. The flip side is the continual search for the new and the original does, at times, invoke a deep-seated sense of longing for the comfort and sense of security that goes with the familiar. In which case, make mine a pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best!

In summary, I feel the points I have raised above must have at least been partly to blame for the fall in valuation of Flavourly as a company, and the decision to put the business into administration. but where this leaves the breweries commissioned to produce the specials and collaborative beers, is any one’s guess. The concept behind Flavourly remains a bold one, and an interesting one too. The reasons for its failure are varied, but in the end probably boil down to the fickleness of the great British public.

Whether this could have been foreseen, is a question for another day, but one thing’s for sure, I won’t be taking Beer 52 up on their offer, as eight cans of supposedly “free beer,” just aren’t worth the hassle of cancelling my subscription further down the line.

Saturday 28 October 2023

Green Hop Ales come of age at the Dovecote

On Friday, in the company of three members of West Kent CAMRA branch, I visited the Dovecote Inn, situated in the tiny hamlet of Capel. Two of us travelled by bus, taking the 205 Autocar service from Tonbridge, and then alighting at Five Oak Green – a linear village, close to Paddock Wood. From there, it was a 20-minute walk, along the lanes to the Dovecote, which along with the adjacent row of Victorian houses, forms part of a rather isolated settlement.

Capel must have been a larger settlement at some time in the past, as half a mile up the road is the church of St Thomas a Becket, which dates back to Norman times. Becket himself is said to have preached at this church, and the tower was partly rebuilt following a fire in 1639. The church contains some extensive wall paintings, which cover most of the nave, which I haven’t seen, although I shall make the effort to do so, when I have a bit more time. The building is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

Returning to the Dovecote, the pub is holding a Green Hop Ale Festival this weekend, and with 14 different beers on sale, as well as the pub’s usual stalwarts of Harvey’s and Larkin's, it would have seemed rude, not to have paid a visit. It also provided, for me, the ideal opportunity of sampling a few of 2023’s crop of GHA’s for the first time. I had missed out on the launch of Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight, for a variety of reasons, and shortly after the promotion’s launch, I was out of the country for three weeks. The event at the Dovecote therefore presented an opportunity to redeem the situation, in a small, but quite significant way.

The significance derives from a school of thought which says that although Green Hop Ales are intentionally brewed using freshly harvested hops, the finished beers benefit from a period of maturation and storage. This idea, and the principles behind it, is slowly gaining traction, and when one looks back at the concept over its relatively short history, it begins to make sense. The very first Green Hop Ales were of necessity experimental, as no one really knew how many hops needed to be added at the start of the brewing process, or how the finished product would turn out.  

Hops, of course, are normally dried and from experience gained over many years, the brewer knows the correct weight of hops to be added to each brew, in order to achieve the desired result and a consistent end product. Freshly harvested hops are not dried and are added “wet” – or “green” and whilst some might think it a simple matter of extrapolating back the dried hop weight for the wet one, in theory it doesn’t always work out like that.

Consequently, many of the original GHA’s were unbalanced, and rather over-hopped, to put it mildly! I remember some of these beers possessing a rich resinous taste, alongside an almost oily texture. In many cases you could actually feel the hops oils coating your tongue and the roof of your mouth. This feature was obviously apparent to the brewers of these beers, and gradually, they now seem to have cut down on the amount of wet hops used. As mentioned earlier, the suspicion was green hops were being added to the brew-kettle at the same rate that would have been used for normal dried hops.

Appropriate adjustments were made, but many lovers of these beers felt that the pendulum had swung back too far in the opposite direction. This was apparent in 2019, when I attended the launch of that year’s Kent Green Hop Beers Fortnight, at the Canterbury Food & Drink Festival. I wrote at the time that whilst all the green-hopped beers I tried that day were good, there was little to distinguish them from their normal dry-hop counterparts. 

Several of my companions said the same thing, and we all decided this was because the brewers of GHA’s had become more adept, over the years, at using hops in their natural “wet” state. So, by cutting the amount of green hops used to brew this uniquely seasonal type of beer, the brewers inadvertently removed the very characteristics that attracted drinkers to green-hopped beers in the first place. In effect, a unique and very time of year dependent beer, had been turned into just another run of the mill and rather ordinary one.

Fast forward four years, and in response to this, and with an eye to perhaps rekindling some of the hoppy-resinous character that was a salient feature of those early, GHA’s, the aforementioned idea of allowing the beer to age, and mature, has come about. A chance to sample some of them presented itself at the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, a collaboration between West Kent CAMRA and the Tunbridge Wells - based, heritage railway. As in previous years the event included a dedicated Green Hop Beer Bar, featuring one of the widest range of GHA’s in the country.

The beer festival took place last weekend, which unfortunately clashed with our return from holiday, especially as there was lots to do on the home and domestic front. In a small, but still significant way, the Dovecote’s Green Hop Beer Festival acted as a replacement for the main event, at least for me. There were 17 GHA’s on sale, the majority racked on a stillage, occupying an alcove, close to the front door of the pub. 

I think I am correct in saying that this was the Dovecote’s first event involving green hop beers, and the selection they put on was a mixture of old favourites alongside a few newcomers. The majority of the beers were from brewers based in Kent and Sussex, although there was one from north London-based Redemption using hops freshly harvested from Townend Hop Farm, in Herefordshire. The latter was an important feature, as the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, have now overtaken Kent in terms of the acreage of hops grown.

I kicked off with Gadd’s Green Hop from Ramsgate, described as a pale ale high in bitterness, with floral hops through and through. This 4.8% beer didn’t disappoint, as I knew it wouldn’t, especially as Gadd’s have a reputation amongst local drinkers for the quality of their beers. Next up was the 4.3% Cascade Green Hop from Bexley Brewery. Brewed, as its name suggests, using fresh Cascade hops, I wasn’t sure at first whether or not to go for this one. Bexley Brewery beers always seemed a bit hit and miss to me, but after my CAMRA friends informed me, the company had upped its game, I bit the bullet and went for it.

It was a decent and refreshing session bitter, so I was pleased not to have let past prejudices affect my choice of beer.  I only had time for one final beer, as I needed to be back at Bailey Towers before 3 pm. You might have seen me mention the decorators we had in, whilst we were away. Their brief was to paint the walls, ceilings and exposed woodwork on our stairs and landing, a task we had only half-heartedly undertaken during the past three decades. I’d also asked them to remove the stair carpet, and with Mrs PBT’s keen on having a new one laid, a surveyor from Carpetright was booked to call.

This meant having to leave to leave the Dovecote at 2.15 pm, in order to catch the 205 bus back to Tonbridge. Before leaving the pub, I squeezed in a swift half of Wantsum Bullion, a 4.6% green hop stout brewed using Bullion hops. I written previously that the concept of green hopped dark beers doesn’t really work. This offering from Wantsum Brewery did little to change my mind, but sometimes you have to give these things a try.

I left my three friends to enjoy a few more GHA’s, plus some of the Dovecote's delicious looking food, and made my way back to Five Oak Green and the bus home. On my way to the bus stop, I realised I had left my umbrella in the pub. There wasn’t time to go back for it, so after a quick phone call with the licensee, to confirm its presence, I shall have to call in for it, some time over the weekend. It will be a good excuse to discover which GHA’s are left, and to grab a quick one for myself.


Tuesday 24 October 2023

My longing for a pint of English ale, in an English pub, is finally satisfied.

After over three weeks’ worth of blogging about cruising and visiting foreign parts, we come back down to earth now with a bang, in the form of a brief respite from exotic locations, blue skies and hot sunny days afloat. In common with all good things, our three-week cruise sadly came to an end when we docked at Southampton, early on Friday morning.

A rather damp Saturday was spent unpacking followed by a shopping expedition to Tesco, in order to restock the food cupboard. Sunday dawned bright and sunny, so after a brief lie-in, I was up, and out of bed, at least half an hour before Mrs PBT's. By the time she eventually surfaced, I had a machine load of washing on the go, had finished emptying my suitcase, and returned virtually all of the items taken with me on the cruise, back to their rightful place.

My wife was some way behind me, although we were not in a race with one another, and to be fair, she probably packed twice as much clothing as I did. She had also packed for both warm and cold conditions, as I later discovered, when I started emptying one of her cases. As it turned out, the cardigans, scarves etc, all designed to keep her warm on deck when the winds were blowing, and the rain lashing down, were not needed, as apart from the last three days we were blessed with wall-to-wall sunshine and temperatures that were positively balmy.

Afterwards, I did a spot of tidying up in the garden. There were several bowls worth of tomatoes to be picked, and Eileen ended frying some of them up for a light breakfast/early lunch. You can't beat sun ripened tomatoes freshly picked from the garden, and with some thick, crusty bread to mop up the juices, this was just the thing to set us both up for the day ahead. By mid-afternoon I had achieved most of what I’d set out to do in the garden, and decided it was time for a well-earned pint of traditional English ale. Consequently, I headed down into Tonbridge to the Nelson Arms which, as many followers of this blog will be aware, is one of the best pubs in town. To underscore this status, the Nelson was recently announced as one of four finalists, in the 2023 CAMRA National Pub of the Year contest.

I am not sure when judging for the final round of the contest takes place but having got this far, and into the top four finalists, is a fantastic achievement and something that Matt, Emma, and the rest of the team at the Nelson, can be immensely proud of. Being Sunday lunchtime, I expected the Nelson to be busy, but even so I was taken aback at just how many people were crammed into the pub. With no chance of a seat, I squeezed myself in at a corner to the left of the bar counter and waited to be served.

As always, there was a good selection of beer on offer, but the one that caught my eye was Shere Drop, from Surrey Hills Brewery, and a beer I've always held in high regard. The pint that the bar staff pulled up for me, certainly didn't disappoint, and whilst it wasn't strictly true to say that it hardly touched the sides, I still managed to knock it back quite rapidly. It’s hard to say whether my thirst was due to the warm and sunny late October conditions outside, my brisk walk down from home, or a combination of both, but whatever the reason that pint slid down a treat. It was definitely one of the best beers I’ve had in a long, long time.  

I noticed a friend from CAMRA, sitting round the corner and enjoying Sunday lunch with his wife and either mother or mother-in-law, and popped over to say hello, but not wishing to intrude on an extended family meal, I only stopped for he briefest of chats. Jon asked if I'd gone over to the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, which was taking place over the weekend. I told him I hadn’t, as I had just returned from holiday. He replied that he hadn't been to the festival either but had heard that prices were on the steep side. The high prices were confirmed on Monday, by a work colleague, although she did say the beers were in good condition.

Either way, I’m pleased for both the local CAMRA branch, and the staff of the Spa Valley Railway, all of whom work tirelessly to make the event a success. For my part, I was just pleased to be spending my time in an unspoiled, traditional town pub that could be on the verge of scooping the highest award that any pub can wish for, rather than being crammed in at a crowded and, at times manic beer festival, regardless of how many beers might be on sale.

Returning to the Nelson, the pub certainly appeared popular that day, with sports fans in the left-hand bar, and diners enjoying a Sunday roast, or an afternoon drink in the rest of the pub. Despite the hustle and bustle, Matt still found time for a brief chat with me, before being called away to take another food order help the waiting staff clear space for the next influx of hungry local residents. Taking time to acknowledge customers, both old and new is always the sign of a good landlord, and Matt is definitely one of the best.

Following on from the Surrey Hills offering, I decided to go for a pint of Gales HSB, a beer that is something of an old favourite, but which has made a comeback in recent years, thanks to promotion from “new” owners, Fuller’s. I wrote about HSB back in the summer after it made a couple of appearance locally, turning up in both Tonbridge and Lewes. It was in fine form at the Nelson as well, on Sunday, so perhaps I should have stuck with it, instead of going all experimental.

By this I am referring to an “Elderberry Porter” called Ebulum, from Rother Valley Brewery, which wasn’t quite as appealing as it sounded. Having sampled homemade elderberry wine in the dim and distant past, I should have remembered that these berries have a high tannin content, which can impart a very astringent mouthfeel to the finished product. Ebulum was no exception, and although an interesting experiment on the part of the brewery, it really didn’t work for me.

The beer was OK, and certainly not undrinkable, but at the same time I was glad to have only ordered a half. By the time I'd ordered this third beer, several of the dining parties had left the premises and eventually I had a very nice and comfortable easy chair tucked away in the snug bar, which is almost a separate room, to the far right of the main bar. It was an extremely pleasant way to while away a Sunday afternoon, and just what I needed to set me up ready for the rigours of a return to work after a three-week absence.

Sunday 22 October 2023

Drinks onboard Queen Victoria - with particular reference to beer

Welcome back to England and welcome back to the blog as well. Our cruise ship docked at Southampton at around 7am on Friday morning, although it wasn’t until a couple of hours later that we were able to leave the vessel that had been our home for almost 3 weeks. To say it was chaotic in baggage reclaim and then taxi rank would be an understatement, but eventually our pre-booked taxi arrived after fighting its way through the traffic, and we were heading for home.

Recent efforts at blogging have been a bit hit and miss, due to difficulties posting from remote locations and reliance on decent Internet connection. The post before this one was all typed out and transferred across to blogger, but when I tried uploading the photos something went wrong. Despite my best-efforts, and numerous attempts, I was unable to connect to the Internet. At first, I thought it was a local error, but after arriving home I tried my laptop again, with the same result. I couldn’t understand why I was unable to connect to the World Wide Web, especially as my device had been working during the majority of the cruise.

Thinking I would have to seek assistance from one of my more tech-savvy work colleagues, I discovered, quite by accident, that by switching to a different browser - Microsoft Edge, I was able to get online without any problems.  I've no idea why this should be, so despite my dislike of both Edge and Bing I will have to use these Microsoft products when using my laptop. If you want to know the reason for my problem with Edge, look no further than the sites reliance on news feeds from the Daily Express, surely the most God-awful “newspaper” ever!

Enough said, but before getting back to business, I felt that followers of the blog deserve an explanation, especially newcomers such as Volvo Cruiser and Aloha Harry. This is despite the latter’s expectations of reports about on-board swinging parties and geriatric orgies! Of far more interest to my regular audience, are the sites main focus on good beer, plus new and novel places in which to drink it. The person most deserving of an explanation is Stafford Paul, who tasked me with discovering how the two hand pumped beers available at the Golden Lion - Queen Victoria's pub, were cellared and delivered to the bar.

After several attempts I ascertained that these beers are kept in unpressurized kegs and are delivered to the bar purely by the suction generated when the hand pump is pulled. In other words, no CO2 lines are connected to the keg. Furthermore, Cunard Red Ale appears to contain yeast sediment, as does the Cunard Gold Pilsner, even though the latter is served chilled, from a pressurised tap. It follows that Cunard Black - Biscotti Stout, is also naturally conditioned, although it is far too dark and opaque, for any sediment to be visible. I drank far more of this beer during the cruise than any other beer, but every pint in the Golden Lion, was cool, without being overly chilled, well-conditioned and highly satisfying.

All three Cunard beers are available in Queen Victoria’s other bars as well, but in canned form only. A good place to enjoy these beers, was on Deck 10, on the forward starboard side of the ship. This happens to be one of a handful of areas where smoking tobacco is permitted. Mrs PBT's is a former smoker, who now uses a vape for her nicotine fix. We therefore spent quite a bit of time up on Deck 10, in the company of other nicotine addicts - mainly couples, plus the odd solo passenger who, without exception proved excellent company.

This “smoking area” is adjacent to the Commodore Club– a stylish and comfortable lounge style bar, with a large forward-facing windows, offering panoramic views of where the ship was heading. Drinks were also available out on deck, from the club, served on a silver tray by an immaculately dressed waiter. Gino, a boyish looking lad from the Philippines, was the star of the show, and brought many a can of Cunard Black for Mr Paul, plus the odd Fentimans Ginger Beer for Mrs Eileen. It's worth noting that several other beers were available from the Commodore, including bottled St. Austell Tribute, or draught Moretti for lager drinkers. A wider selection of bottled beer, such as Broadside, Bombardier, Doom Bar, Hobgoblin, plus Old Peculiar, and for wheat beer afficionados, Erdinger Weiβbeer and Blue Moon Belgian White, was on sale in the Golden Lion.

We’ll leave it there for the time being and move on next time to describing a few of the ports of call and places visited on what for Mrs PBT’s and me was our longest and most exciting holiday ever.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Yesterday and today - one week on

It’s the start of the week, and sadly Mrs PBT’s and I are on the last leg of our cruise, and slowly making our way home. At around 11am this morning, Queen Victoria began her passage through the Straits of Gibraltar, but this time in a westerly direction. Unlike our outward voyage, we passed through this narrow maritime passage during daylight hours, although the view – in both directions was slightly hazy, due to sea mist. It was still possible though, to see the coasts of both Morocco and Spain, and I must say the rock itself looked imposing and impressive, rising as it does, straight up from the sea.

The 11am passage meant having to miss legendary cricket commentator Henry Blofeld's  “Blowers” second talk, although those who did attend claimed it was nowhere near as good as his initial presentation, which took place a few days ago. The speculation was that perhaps, too much wine had been taken, but that was just a rumour, of course. Having said that, we have discovered that gossip spreads both rapidly and rather too easily on a ship, with one example being the story of two passengers, left behind in Cagliari, because they didn’t get back on board ship in time.

It turned out to be a complete fantasy, but another rumour was doing the rounds this morning, along the lines that extreme weather conditions might prevent the ship docking in Lisbon tomorrow (Tuesday). I’m not sure where that one came from, although the ship’s captain did advise that there might be a 3-metre swell later on tonight, due to increasing south-westerly winds. The weather has been glorious so far, and it’s still warm and sunny as I sit here out on the balcony, typing this post. 

It would be a shame if we did have to miss the Portuguese capital, as the city represents my first foray onto foreign soil, as a shy, 17-year-old schoolboy, taking part in an educational cruise.  I’m fairly certain I wrote about that trip a few years ago, so I won’t bore you again with the details now, but that voyage represents my first and only visit to Portugal, so I am keen to renew my acquaintance with a country that is England’s oldest ally.

Since my last post, we have visited Santorini, Cephalonia with its lovely capital Argostoli, and Cagliari, the charming, cosmopolitan capital of Sardinia. It was blisteringly hot, when we docked in the town, two days ago, so much so that Eileen, who doesn’t like the heat at the best of times, only got as far as the exit from the port area, before deciding to turn back. I carried on, being made of sterner stuff – mad dogs and all that, but I stayed in the shade as much as possible and had a good time exploring this lesser-known capital, on my own.

I took a look at the city’s compact and modernised, railway station, before climbing the hill up into Cagliari’s old town. I only made it so far though, as beyond the main square there is a much steeper ascent up into what must have been the original part of the town. An imposing, and impregnable looking fortress dominates this area, as does a majestic cathedral, but I was content to sit at a table outside one of the many cafés and bars, overlooking the old market square.

A couple of cooling glasses of a craft IPA, brewed on the Italian mainland, along with some slices of ham and cheese, in a soft-flat, white roll was just the thing to set me up for the rest of the day, but not before taking in the local comings and goings, of this bustling Sardinian port. Some of the local girls, dressed to impress and in time for a coffee and snack, provided quite a spectacle, and woe betide anyone who got in their way, or tried to spoil their enjoyment.

After this light lunch I did a spot of shopping, purchasing a couple of Sardinian craft beers, some local virgin olive oil, some Sardinian honey, plus a bar of a nougat-like confectionery, that wouldn’t melt in the excessive heat. 

Finally, no visit to Italy could be called complete without some local ice-cream, and the mango-flavoured Gelato, served in a cone, and enjoyed under the shady shop canopy overlooking the seafront, proved the perfect way to end my all too brief visit to this charming, Mediterranean island.

I made my way back onboard the cruise ship and tracked down Mrs PBT’s. After a welcoming cup of coffee, we went out on deck and watched as the Queen Victoria slipped her moorings, and sailed majestically out of Cagliari harbour, once in open waters, the ship took a westerly course at first, towards the Spanish coast, before changing to a south-westerly one, down towards the southern tip of Spain, and the coastline of Africa. That is where we came in, and this is now, where we must leave.