Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Dark Beers

I know that winter's nearly over now and that spring is just around the corner. It may therefore seem a strange time of year to be writing about dark beers, especially when this type of beer is normally sold in the winter months, but I am writing this article primarily to bemoan the fact that not many pubs seem to sell the darker ales.

This is a great shame, especially for someone like me who loves the style. Before we go any further I would like to emphasise that I am not talking about Guinness when I refer to dark ales; instead I am talking about old ales, porters, strong ales and barley wines, and even that real pub rarity these days, cask-conditioned stout.

I have this moan every year, disappointed at the lack of dark beers in the area's pubs. There are a few notable exceptions; Harveys own tied pubs usually have their excellent Old Ale on sale over a long period from October through to March, whilst there are a few outlets that sell the superb Larkins Porter (the brewery's own tied pub, the Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath and the equally unspoilt Spotted Dog, at nearby Smart's Hill, spring to mind). The bee lover's paradise that is the Halfway House at Brenchley will normally have at least one dark ale on tap - usually something from Kings. In addition, landlord Richard will also have a mild on tap. Slightly further afield, the Rose & Crown at Halstead, winner of this year's West Kent CAMRA pub of the year award, normally has a mild on offer, and will sometimes feature an old ale as well.

These pubs are unfortunately the exception , rather than the rule. I really do wonder though why pub landlords are so un-adventurous. When my wife and I had our beer shop, we always tried to have a dark beer on sale at weekends during the winter months. They were always popular with the customers, and invariably sold out over the course of the weekend. Those licensees that do sell the darker ales, all say the same thing; these beers inevitably sell like the proverbial hot cakes, so why is it so many landlords prefer to play safe and stick to one or two well-known, trusted brands of bitter?

Tomorrow evening I will be visiting the Anchor in Sevenoaks, which is hosting a showcase of beers from the excellent Westerham Brewery. I have no doubt the company's Puddledock Porter will be available and I am hoping that their superb Audit Ale (an occasional beer brewed to the original Westerham Brewery recipe) will also be available.

In the meantime, whilst typing this article, I am enjoying a bottle of Pivovar Herold, a superb black lager from the Czech Republic. Last night I enjoyed the equally good Joulu Porter, from the A. Le Coq Brewery - one of several beers I brought back with me from my recent trip to Tallinn. I still have a bottle of Saku Porter to try; after that its back to the Fullers Porter for home consumption.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

More Beery and Other Thoughts From Tallinn

I spent most of my first full day in the Estonian capital sightseeing, exploring the quaint cobbled streets, looking at the castle, towers, cathedrals and churches of old town Tallinn. It turned out to be the coldest day of my trip, but it was bright and sunny and I was wrapped up warm against the cold. I was glad of the fur-lined boots I had brought with me, not only for their warmth, but for the good grip they gave on the icy cobbled streets.

I viewed all the sights of the area known as Toompea, including the castle with its impressive walls and watch-towers. I saw the parliament building, the cathedral of St Mary the Virgin, plus the imposing, brick-built Russian Orthodox cathedral, complete with its distinctive onion-shaped domes. There are a couple of viewing platforms from where one is rewarded with a superb view over the roofs of lower part of the old town, and for me this was the highlight of the morning.

Later on I found myself in a park at the base of the ramparts. The snow sculptures dotted around the place were equally impressive and served as reminder of just how cold it was. I visited the tourist office to buy a guide book, plus some postcards, then adjourned to the Beer House in order to thaw out, have something to eat and drink and also to write out my postcards. The Beer House operates a "Happy Hour" between midday and 2pm, where the beers are a third cheaper along with the "sausage selection" on the menu. In between writing my cards I enjoyed two more of the unfiltered house beers - Pilsner Gold (4.5%) and Vana Viini Dark Lager (4.9%), along with a substantial midday snack of bratwurst, served with roasted parsnips and sauerkraut in a mustard sauce. The meal was good, as were the beers. The distinct smell of mashing pervaded the bar, and I watched as the brewster (lady brewer for the un- initiated) went about her work finishing off from the day's brewing session.The place wasn't exactly heaving, but there was still a good atmosphere inside - if only they would turn off the wretched piped, Bavarian music!

I spent the afternoon shopping for presents and souvenirs and then spent a somewhat fruitless couple of hours looking for bars recommended in the European Beer Guide. After deciding the bars had either closed or had been converted for other purposes I gave up on this quest and found myself back in the old town. Hell Hunt seemed a good bet for something to eat but when I arrived it was heaving and I couldn't get a seat. I ended up in a very nice and cosy restaurant fronting on to the old town square. I had a good meal of pesto spaghetti with chicken fillets washed down by a couple of glasses of Saku Original - supposedly Estonia's top selling beer.

It was extremely cold by the time I left the restaurant and I was left wising I had put my long-johns on. Back at the hotel I polished off a bottle of A.Le Coq Porter that I had bought earlier. It was pleasant enough, but a bit on the sweet side for my liking. Compared to my favourite Larkins Porter it was rather disappointing, but then you can't have everything!

Tuesday 24th February was National Independence Day in Estonia. This anniversary celebrates the country's first, and rather short-lived independence from foreign occupation which was achieved in 1920. Although it was a public holiday, the majority of the shops were open, as were most of the restaurants and bars.I spent this day much as I had the previous one. Unfortunately the sky had clouded over and a biting wind was keeping the temperature well down. I visited a Bavarian-style bier keller in the basement of an up-market hotel. Baierei Kelder sold Paulaner beers imported from Munich. The Bavarian style menu was also very good.

Earlier that morning I had wandered down to the port area, and after making some enquiries had booked a ferry trip to Helsinki for the following day. The return ticket was cheap at EEK 200 (just under £12), but the catch was I had to catch the 8am sailing and the wait for the return from Helsinki at 21.30. This would mean not getting back to Tallinn until midnight. The chap I had met from Finland, when I first arrived in Estonia, had told me that "booze cruises" to Tallinn were very popular amongst Finns. This is hardly surprising given the prohibitively high price of alcohol in Finland. I witnessed this for myself when after booking my ticket, I saw dozens of people pouring off a newly arrived ferry. There were also a number of Finnish coaches parked up whilst their passengers loaded up on cheap(er) booze. There is a large shopping complex next to the port, and I spent an interesting hour or so wandering around it. It did not take much to work out that because I would be going "against the flow", so to speak, this was the reason for the low price of my ticket.

I intend to write about Helsinki in another post, so I will end this one by saying that I spent the evening of my second full day in the Hell Hunt pub. I once again enjoyed the two beers brewed for the pub and had an excellent salmon fish pie. The presidential dinner, held to mark Independence Day and taking place a short distance away, was being shown on the pub's TV. Most of the clientele were young and were taking little notice of the evening's broadcast which indicated to me either the apathy of a younger generation, or supreme confidence in their country's relatively recent independence.

Less than a generation ago people could not have possibly imagined they would be sitting in such a place, watching their president welcoming his guests to an independence dinner. They would not have been citizens of a proud and fully independent sovereign country, let alone members of the European Union and NATO; they would certainly not have been allowed to fly their own flag proudly, as they were doing on this day. I would not have been able to visit Tallinn without elaborate formalities and visa preparations, and would have found a drab, dreary and grey place with precious little in the shops and precious little to do apart from sightseeing. Instead I had been able to hop on a plane at Stanstead, and in just over three hours arrive in a country confident of its new found place in Europe, with its people warm and welcoming; its bright new shops stacked full of the latest fashions and consumer goods, and an array of foods that would have been unimaginable less than 20 years ago.

As I sat there enjoying my beer, watching the evening's events unfold with the above thoughts passing through my head, I couldn't help a wry smile escaping at the irony of it all. When you're young, you have the world at your feet; you care little for politics, history or other great events that may have shaped your country's destiny. Good luck then to the people of Estonia, both young and old. After decades of occupation and often brutal repression they thoroughly deserve their new found freedom!

Do visit Tallinn if you get the chance. It is not the greatest city in the world for beer drinking, but as a vibrant and lively capital, with the added attraction of an historic and unspoilt old town centre it takes some beating. Another plus is that I saw precious little of the British stag party morons who have perhaps slightly tarnished its reputation in recent years; in fact I overheard some people saying on the return flight home that Tallinn has now become too expensive for this type of visitor. If that is the case then I'll raise my glass to that!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

An Introduction to Tallinn - Part One

I returned last weekend from a wonderful week's break in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, a city I had wanted to visit for a long time. In fact I had wanted to travel to one or more of the Baltic States ever since they gained their independence back in 1991, following fifty years of occupation and oppression by the former Soviet Union. Although most tourists visit Tallinn during the Spring or Summer, the idea of a late winter break in this unspoilt former Hanseatic trading port seemed to fit the bill perfectly, with the prospect of snow on the ground only adding to the appeal. I duly found a reasonably priced hotel, booked my flights and waited with eager anticipation for the last week in February to arrive.

From various sources on the Internet I discovered that whilst Estonians are copious beer drinkers, their beers are not exactly world classics. This notwithstanding I set off for Tallinn determined to enjoy a short break in this the most northerly of the Baltic States. The 7am Sunday morning Easy Jet flight from Stanstead saw me touching down in the Estonian capital three hours later. The pilot advised us before landing, that the outside temperature was a cool minus 4 Celsius, so he hoped we had brought some warm clothing with us! It certainly felt cold whilst waiting for the bus into town.

After locating my hotel and checking in, I set off to explore Tallinn old town. Without too much trouble I found the Beer House, just off the the main square in front of the Old Town Hall. I had read about this German-style brew-pub beforehand, and had looked at their web-site a couple of times. I found the place relatively quiet for a Sunday afternoon, and was soon seated at one of the wooden benches with a half-litre glass of their home-brewed Dunkel in front of me. I was joined by a visitor from Finland, who was killing time before catching the ferry back to Helsinki - a journey I would be making myself later on my trip.

We swapped tales and tried another beer each; this time it was the Marzen for me. Both beers were pleasantly drinkable, but I have to say that having sampled the entire range over the course of my visit, the Dunkel shone head and shoulders above the rest. All the beers are unfiltered, which perhaps gives them a more natural taste, but then they are brewed according to the German Rheinheitsgebot which is another big point in their favour.

With some of the best beer in Tallinn on tap it is a shame that the Beer House is somewhat of a fake designed to appeal to the tourist market. However, it is not a bad fake and is in fact a reasonable attempt at creating the surroundings and atmosphere of a typical Bavarian Bier Keller. My main gripe would have to be the piped "Bavarian/Tyrolean musak" from which there is no escape; it even follows one out onto the street outside, which is how I found the place in the first instance!

My Finnish visitor departed to catch his ferry. I decided it was high time I ate something - the Traditional English Breakfast I'd had at 5.45am in Wetherspoons at Stanstead airport by now seemed a distant memory. As the cut-price "Happy Hour" at the Beer House was over by now, I departed and made my way to a bar called "Kompressor" where I had read they served the traditional Estonian dish of pancakes (both savoury or sweet).

I had little difficulty in locating this establishment and after ordering a ham and cheese pancake at the bar, was soon settled down at a table enjoying the cosy warm atmosphere of the Kompressor whilst waiting for my meal to arrive. I tried a half litre of A. Le Coq's Premium lager, which was pleasant enough but nothing particularly special. A. Le Coq are Estonia's second largest brewery and are based in the country's second largest city, Tartu. They brew a renowned Porter, which I had sampled before in bottled form, along with a wide range of other beers. My pancake arrived and I duly tucked in. It was huge, and I had difficulty finishing it. I could see why the place was popular with students, as it offered excellent value. I was probably the oldest person there, but no-one seemed to bat an eyelid, and I was able to confirm for myself just how attractive Estonian women are!

Having eaten and drank my fill, I returned to my hotel to change and freshen up. Later on I hit the town again and this time found what became my favourite pub in Tallinn whilst I was there. The pub was called "Hell Hunt" and describes itself as "The First Estonian Pub". I was very impressed by its relaxed, comfortable and easy going atmosphere, and by its friendly, attractive waitresses. As well as a range of international beers, Hell Hunt offers two beers of its own; one light (Hele) and one dark (Tume). Both are brewed for the pub by the Puls Brewery in Parnu - Estonia's summer-time party capital, which overlooks the Gulf of Riga. Both beers were good, and reasonably priced at EEK 40 (roughly £2.35 at the time of my visit). The food was also good value and tasty to boot, as I discovered on subsequent visits to Hell Hunt.

I had had a very early start in order to get to the airport, and by now was starting to feel rather tired. I therefore decided to call it a day. I returned to my hotel noticing en route, from a display outside one of the shopping centres, that the temperature had fallen to minus 6 Celsius. It had been a good introduction to Tallinn and I felt I was going to enjoy the rest of my stay there.

Friday, 20 February 2009

And The Winner Is

I am pleased to announce that the Rose & Crown at Halstead was selected as West Kent CAMRA's Pub of the Year for 2009. This follows the tour of the six finalists undertaken by branch members last Saturday. In an extremely close contest, the Halfway House at Brenchley was declared runner up. Congratulations to not just the worthy winner and runner up, but to the other four pubs which made the final selection.

I'm off to Tallinn on Sunday, so won't be posting for a while. I hope to report on the beer scene in Estonia upon my return.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Saturday's Pub of the Year Tour

The West Kent Pub of the Year Tour took place last Saturday. Unlike previous years when we've suffered anything from broken down mini-buses, to adverse weather conditions, this year's trip went remarkably smoothly. Eleven members turned up, including some old faces we hadn't seen for a while, plus a very welcome guest from Croydon and Sutton branch. The weather was dry and sunny when we set off, and this helped set the scene for an excellent day's pub visiting and beer sampling.

Six pubs in total were visited, starting at the Dovecote Inn at Capel where the licensee was presented with a certificate to mark his 10 years in the Good Beer Guide. Being the first port of call I sensibly stuck to the lower gravity Black Sheep Bitter, which at 3.8% was a good beer to start with. All the cask beers at the Dovecote are dispensed by gravity, by means of taps which stick through a false wall. This allows the casks to be stillaged in a temperature controlled room behind the bar, a system that was developed by former licensee. Richard Allen, who has adopted the same system for use at his current pub - the Halfway House at Brenchley.

The latter was to be our third port of call, but en route we stopped at the Hopbine, in the small hamlet of Petteridge. For a long time this was the only King & Barnes tied house in Kent, but since K & B's sad demise back in 2000, it now belongs to Hall & Woodhouse and sells Badger beers. Landlord Mike Winser has been at the pub since the mid 1980's and is due to celebrate 25 continuous years in the Good Beer Guide - something of a record for West Kent CAMRA. As well as enjoying some excellent Badger beer, most of us partook of some more solid refreshment; my home-made steak and kidney pie, with chips, vegetables and gravy was particularly good.

From the Hopbine it was a short run down to the aforementioned Halfway House. Since taking over this ex-Whitbread pub, Richard has carried out extensive alterations and has moved the serving area into the former adjoining restaurant. This has allowed him to adopt the same arrangement for the gravity dispense of the beer that he had at the Dovecote, only this time with even more beers available. There were 11 cask beers on tap when we called in, including a mild, and old ale, and several different bitters ranging in strength from 3.8% up to 5.2%. All the beers were either from micro-breweries or established independents, with a good hand full of local names such as Goachers, Kings, Rother Valley and Westerham making up the range. Between us we must have sampled most of them, and what's more they were all in good nick. Richards' prices are also very reasonable, and on the whole reflect the price charged to him by the breweries concerned. For example, the excellent Skinners Best Bitter, which was my first pint was only £2.20. Contrast that with the Harveys Sussex Best, which although a good beer, and also probably the most widely available real ale in the region, Richard is having to sell it for £3.00 a pint, due to its higher wholesale cost. The Halway House also runs its own beer festivals; one taking place over the late May Bank Holiday, with the other being held over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

From the country we headed off to town; into the centre of Tunbridge Wells to be precise. Here we stopped at the Royal Oak, an up and coming free-house which has been given a new lease of life by its keen and very enthusiastic new owners. Dark Star Hophead was the star attraction on this visit, so far as I was concerned, but previous visits have seen the superb Larkins Porter available. As well as Dark Star, there was a beer from Wychwood brewed to mark the Six Nations Rugby competition being played out on the nation's TV screens. The pub's menu looked inviting as well, and seemed particularly good value for money. Had I not eaten earlier, I would certainly have partaken of the food on sale in the Oak.

It was a long drive to the fifth pub on our itinerary, namely the Rose and Crown. I have written before about this excellent, unspoilt, two-bar village local, which nestles high up on the North Downs, just inside the M25 ring. Tripple fff Moondance was my choice here, but the Moorhouse Black Cat mild also slipped down well. Bob, the landlord, had laid on some sausage rolls and sandwiches for us. This was a nice touch, as despite having eaten at lunchtime, it was now getting well on into the evening and many of us were starting to get a bit peckish again. A few members adjourned to the public bar in order to watch the England v. Wales rugby match, but most of us stayed in the quieter saloon, enjoying the beer, the company and, of course, the complimentary food.

We departed the Rose and Crown and headed down into Sevenoaks to the Anchor, which was to be our last pub of the evening. Although unassuming from the outside, licensee Barry Dennis has created a thriving and well run town centre pub where both regulars and casual visitors can be assured of a warm welcome. People like Barry are something of a rarity in this day and age. He comes from a family with a long tradition of running pubs, and has been at the helm of the Anchor for 30 years. Whilst such achievements were not that uncommon when Barry first entered the trade, these days pubs seem to change their licensee every few years, with people not prepared to "stick at it" anymore. Whilst some of this is undoubtedly due to the many changes undergone by the licensed trade in recent years, there does seem to be a misconception in certain quarters that the pub trade is "easy money", and a way of quickly getting rich . The short of it is that many new entrants to the trade go in with their eyes closed, impervious to the sheer hard work involved in running a pub, and soon end up disillusioned, and often broke as well.

The Anchor is different though, and we were soon enjoying the well-kept Harveys Sussex Best and Sharps Doom-Bar bitter. Yet more complimentary food was placed in front of us; this time sandwiches plus a selection of Indian snacks. Now I don't want people to get the wrong idea and assume that certain landlords were trying to buy votes, as nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is the food was most welcome at this late stage in the evening and helped to soak up some of the excess beer we had all consumed.

So ended a most enjoyable day out. All the pubs surveyed were of the highest standard and when it came to totting up the scores (based on CAMRA's standard criteria for pub of the year awards), there were not many marks separating them all. Unfortunately although I know which pub won, I am not at liberty to reveal it at the moment, as it has not been made public knowledge yet. You will all therefore have to watch this space for further details!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Pub of the Year Tour

This coming Saturday sees me and some of my fellow CAMRA members from West Kent Branch embarking on our annual Pub of the Year Tour. Now CAMRA, like a great many other organisations, seems to thrive on acronyms; hence Pub Of The Year gets shortened to POTY. I particularly despise this abbreviation, to me it's only one step up the evolutionary scale from Baldric (a.k.a. Tony Robinson) waffling on about "Geophys" on "Time Team" - the word is Geophysics man! I've lost count of the number of times I've wanted to throw something at the television when this whining, extremely irritating little man ruins what should and could be a very interesting and enjoyable programme - but I digress.

For better or worse, our Pub of the Year Tour kicks off just before midday, and those members who have booked a place will be whisked by minibus around the highways and byways of West Kent visiting the finest hostelries the area has to offer.

Actually we're confining our trip to six pre-selected pubs, carefully chosen at last month's Good Beer Guide selection meeting. A few years ago we ended up with eight nominations, and had to run two separate trips. This led to all sorts of problems, especially with the scoring, as some people were unable to attend both trips. It was unanimously decided after that to restrict the number to six - even if it meant taking a vote on the nominations. Six pubs are just about do-able over the course of a Saturday afternoon, especially as the branch covers quite a large area of West Kent.

All six pubs are automatic guide entries, and several are either past winners or runners up. The list does change slightly from year to year, otherwise things would get a bit boring, and this year we are doing the circuit in reverse. This is a good idea, as in spite of all good intentions, by the end of the trip (i.e. by the time we have reached the final pub), people's judgement does become just a little clouded by the amount of alcohol consumed over the course of the day!

Attendees are given a score sheet and are asked to mark each pub according to CAMRA's standard scoring criteria. As well as beer quality, several other areas come into play, including involvement with the local community, attitude of the bar-staff, plus of course that all-important, but hard to define quality we refer to as "atmosphere".

We will linger in one of the pubs for lunch, but the whole trip will hopefully be a relaxed affair. I can think of few better things to be doing on a dreary Saturday in mid-February, and am really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Good Beer Guide Selection Meeting

It's been a while since I last posted anything, so I thought I'd better update my small, but loyal band of readers about what's been happening in this corner of Kent.

Members of West Kent CAMRA held their Good Beer Guide selection meeting the wekend before last. We normally hold these meetings on a Sunday lunchtime, with the business starting at 2pm. This gives those members wishing to partake of a spot of lunch prior to the meeting, the oportunity to do so. This formula has always worked well in the past, and usually ensures a reasonable turn-out. Unlike some branches, nominations for the new GBG are asked for prior to the branch AGM, which takes place in November. All nominations received are then surveyed prior to the January selection meeting. This means that when it comes to actually deciding entries for the forthcoming guide, the branch are in a good position to sort the wheat from the chaff - having completed survey forms to hand, plus the recommendations, or otherwise, of the person (or persons) who actually carried out the suvey.

This years selection meeting took place on neutral territory, just over the Sussex border, at the Brecnock Arms, Bells Yew Green. This excellent Harveys pub is about five minuts walk from Frant station, which itself is just one stop away from Tunbridge Wells on the Hastings line. Regular readers will remember a previous blog of mine where we were thwarted in our efforts to hold a social at the Brecknock due to over-running building work. This time I am pleased to report that the pub was well and truly open for business.

The alterations carried out to the Brecknock involved moving the bar-counter back into the rear saloon bar, a part of the pub that was rarely used, and knocking through the dividing wall between the bars. Normally I am not in favour of knocking bars through, but in this case there are still two separate drinking areas and the limited space in the pub has been much better utilised.

Roughly half of us took the lunch option, and my steak and ale pie, accompanied by roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy was most excellent. Also excellent was the Harveys Old to wash it down, It was just a little unfortunate that halfway though the afternoon it ran out, having been the choice of most of the attendees at the meeting.

The selection process went remarkably smoothly; in fact I was slightly disappointed there were no arguments or any real bones of contention. We filled our allotted quota of pubs, and aso selected a couple of reserves, should space allow. It was particulaly good that on a wet and dismal Sunday afternoon, we managed an attendance which ran into double figures. What was also good was the throng of happy drinkers, as well as diners, packing the Brecknock on what was its first Sunday lunchtime since re-opening. Full marks therefore go to Joe and his missus (whose name escapes me at the moment), for continuing to run an excellent village local which remains at the heart of the local community, and also to Harveys for the sympathetic way in which they have extended this much-loved pub.