Thursday, 1 March 2012

What Future for our Micro's?

Whilst compiling my recent post regarding the new breweries that have commenced operations in West Kent during the past two years I was struck by the thought can they all survive? They all seem to be reporting a steady growth in sales, which is obviously good news, but with beer sales declining generally, and falling off quite dramatically in the pub trade, are they all chasing a declining market? Where are these extra sales coming from?  If beer sales in the on-trade are declining as much as we are led to believe,  this sales growth can only be coming at someone else's expense! The question is who's?

We know that cask is the one growth area in the pub trade, so hopefully our local micro's are increasing their sales at the expense of the huge conglomerates that  dominate the market. If they are taking sales away from  heavily promoted global lager brands then so much the better. However, I fear this is not the case and suspect much of this growth is either at the expense of each other, or at the expense of the remaining old established family firms. To a certain extent the latter are cushioned by their own tied estates; a luxury our small, newly established concerns do not possess, (Royal Tunbridge Wells and Westerham, both have one tied pub apiece, but this is small beer, if you'll pardon the pun, and like their competitors they rely almost exclusively on the free-trade.)

However, genuine free-houses are becoming few and far between, with the more successful of them being snapped up by larger regional firms such as Fullers, Greene King and Shepherd Neame. Even those still in private hands are often effectively tied, by way of loan agreements, to taking beer from the likes of the aforementioned. Although many will feature a "must stock" beer such as Harveys (nothing wrong with Harveys I hasten to add!), this leaves precious room on the bar for beers from our budding local entrepreneurs. Some of these firms will undoubtedly strike lucky and find a more or less permanent place on the bar for at least one of their beers. Others may find free-trade outlets taking their wares on a rotating basis with products from one or more of their competitors. Nothing wrong with that either; I am all in favour of competition, so long as it's fair, and from the drinker's point of view there's nothing better than being offered a wider choice of beers.

Rather than rely totally on the vagaries of the free-trade, one or two of our local brewers have branched out into selling bottled beers. Most successful of these is Westerham who's beers are stocked in local branches of Waitrose and Sainsburys. Moodleys appear at the moment to be concentrating solely on bottled beers (bottle-conditioned), which they sell  mainly through local farm shops, specialist off-licences, direct from the brewery and the odd pub.

With schemes like CAMRA's  LocAle in place,  a reduction in "food miles" combined with the provenance of local produce very much in favour at present, it seems more vital than ever that our local breweries be able to sell their products  into a market place that is close to home, rather than have to ship them miles outside the area. However, as pubs continue to close and more and more "free-trade" outlets are either bought up, or become tied up through loan agreements, it will become increasingly difficult for our micro's to find suitable outlets for their beers. I hope I am wrong, but I do fear for the long term future of some of them.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

A Day at the Wells

Yesterday, (Friday) , I took the day off work and instead of the daily grind enjoyed a short walk over to Tunbridge Wells in the company of my good friend and walking partner, Eric. It was short in comparison with the walks we completed a few years ago (South Downs Way and  Weald Way), but for two people who haven't carried out much walking recently, it was long enough.
 The weather was dull,  over cast and a little chilly when we left Tonbridge, but the forecast had promised that if the sun managed to break through then we could expect temperatures in the low teens - not bad for late February! The forecast turned out correct and by the time we two-thirds of the way towards our destination it was time to discard the coats and enjoy some unseasonably warm weather.

The first half of our route was across the rolling countryside, part wooded and part grazed, that separates the two towns. It was a journey I have made countless times before, either by road or train, but never on foot. Eric on the other hand has walked the many paths in this area on numerous occasions, so much so that we didn't really need to refer to the map we had brought for reference. We passed under the impressive brick viaduct at Old Forge Farm, that carries the Tonbridge to Hastings rail line, before climbing again and making our way into High Brooms. The scenery unfortunately became steadily more built up as we approached the aforementioned, which is in effect nothing more than a suburb of Tunbridge Wells. This area is also the location of the town's industrial and retail parks, and evidence of this was especially visible when our path became sandwiched between the various car-dealerships that have sprung up in recent years and the railway.

Our path then took us round the back of the gasworks (lovely!) and on through several newly-constructed estates, before coming into Tunbridge Wells itself.  Eric, who spent his childhood years in the town can remember when all of the built up area we passed through was open countryside, but alas all that is now a distant memory, and  evidence of a rapidly increasing population in this already over-crowded part of the South East is all too  clearly visible.

Sustenance was called for, both solid and liquid; the first was supplied in the form of a bacon baguette, purchased from one of the town's bakers, the second was naturally enough a glass or two of beer. We ate our baguettes in Calverley Gardens (the local park), taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather. This left us in the vicinity of one of Tunbridge Well's best pubs, the Grove Tavern. Situated in the "village" area of the town, the Grove claims to be one of Tunbridge Well's oldest pubs. Ably run by landlord Steve Baxter and his team, the Grove is the perfect place to drop into for a warm welcome, a well-kept pint (or three), plus some lively conversation.

The pub was quite quiet when we walked in, but we received a friendly welcome from barmaid Sally, who turned out to be an old acquaintance of Eric's. The Grove has Harveys Best and Taylor's Landlord as its regular beers, alongside a couple of guest ales. Yesterday these were Goddards Scrumdiggity 4.0% abv and Acorn Yorkshire Pride 3.7% abv. Normally I would have gone for one of the guest ales, (probably the Acorn), but seeing as this was the occasion of my first pint of cask ale of 2012  I wanted to drink something  I was familiar with. Although both Harveys and Taylors are personal favourites, this time it just had to be Landlord, and what a mighty fine pint it was! It's difficult to describe just how good it tasted, but when you've gone the best part of a  year without a pint of cask ale passing your lips you're hoping for something special when you finally break that drought, and I was not disappointed!

I could easily have drunk several more pints, but having been off the beer for so long made me wary of over-doing things, and besides I'm still on the medication. Eric made up for me my moderation though, and as we sat at the bar, enjoying the beer, the pub slowly began to fill up. It turned into a good afternoon, with some interesting and lively discussion, mixed in with the odd joke or two. The whole thing made me realise just how much I had missed sessions in the pub.

I risked another half, and Eric had a couple more pints., but eventually we decided to call it a day, said our farewells and walked down the hill towards the station, from where we caught a train back to Tonbridge. It had been a good day out, and a most welcome back to the world of beer and pubs!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Exciting Developments on the West Kent Brewing Scene

There's been a lot of exciting new developments on the West Kent  brewing scene over the last 18 months or so. I had other concerns during this time and unfortunately many of these developments passed me by, but as I begin to recover from my annus horriblis I'm taking note of what has occurred so that once I'm firmly back in the saddle I know which new beers to look out for.

 We now have seven breweries operating in the area, five of which have started up during the past couple of years. They join the long established Larkins Brewery, who have recently celebrated their 25th anniversary, plus Westerham Brewery, who started operations back in 2004.  Apart from the addition of a blonde summer ale, Larkins beer range has changed little over the years. The beers are full bodied, with plenty of crystal malt used in the grist. They are also well-hopped, as one would expect from a Kentish beer. Westerham, on the other hand, brew a wide range of seasonal beers in addition to their distinctive core brands, some of which are based on recipes from the original Westerham Brewery which ceased brewing in 1965. New last year were a range of continental style beers, including examples from Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

I've yet to try the beers from  the Black Cat Brewery, based in Groombridge right on the Kent-Sussex border, and Kent Brewery, based at Birling, a short hop from West Malling, both of which are new on the scene, but I have tried some of the beers brewed by  Moodleys, Royal Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge breweries, all of whom started operations a couple of years ago. All of these new breweries offer a wide range of interesting beers, but rather than me attempt to describe them , why not click on the links and check out the brewery websites concerned. Unfortunately, Larkins  don't have a website, but all the other breweries  listed do.

 Local drinkers are therefore spoilt when it comes to a choice of cask beers. and I look forward to sampling the new brews that are available, as well as renewing my acquaintance with some old favourites.Indeed, just reading about all them  is a sufficient spur for me to get better as quickly as possible!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Frustration at the Bar

Without wishing to become a bore on the subject I want to continue with the theme of my last post and look further at the options available to non-drinkers in  pubs.When reasons such  as work restraints, potential adverse reactions with medication or perhaps when one has to drive to the pub, whether as "named driver" or  just because there is no other way of getting there, not drinking alcohol in a pub can be a really frustrating experience.

Often when you're in this position Sod's law will apply and not only will the beer selection be something to die for, but the quality of said selection will also be second to none. You can just imagine your friends telling you how good the beers are, and "isn't it a shame you're unable to sample them yourself!". Small matter, we all have our crosses to bear from time to time, and hopefully on another occasion the tables will be reversed and you can get your own back. When you are in this position though the question of  "what to drink?" once again arises.

Normally I would have a pint of an average strength beer (say around 4.0%), before switching to something non-alcoholic. This is always a difficult decision as, ever since my mid-teens, when I began to acquire a taste for beer, I've not been a huge fan of  soft drinks. Drinks such as lemonade, Colas etc not only just don't do it for me taste-wise, but because they're so packed full of sugar I tend to avoid them for health reasons as well. Colas are even worse than lemonade as they're highly acidic in nature and likely to quite rapidly lead to the rotting of one's teeth. So-called "diet" versions are little better, being packed full of artificial sweeteners and additives, and still with the tooth-decay risk, especially in the case of "Diet Colas". Fruit juices provide a better option, but they once again are full of sugar, albeit in a more natural form. I once drank a  pint of pure orange juice and ended up feeling thirstier than when I started!

Often it's down to good old mineral water, but again there's only so much one can drink of this and also bottled water is expensive, particularly in pubs. I appreciate pubs have to make a living, but the mark up on soft-drinks in licensed premises is nothing sort of scandalous and does nothing to encourage non-drinkers to venture along to their local hostelry. For people in my current position, visits to the pub can therefore be not only a frustrating experience, but also an expensive one as well!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

What to Drink?

As I mentioned in my previous post I have drunk very little beer over the last 10 months. This is hopefully a temporary state of affairs, but during this time I have obviously missed the taste, so to compensate  have tried various alcohol free and low alcohol beers. I have to admit none have been particularly enjoyable, but some have still been better than nothing! In the pub trade Becks Blue appears to be the best most widely available  alcohol free beer, having pushed the likes of Kaliber and Clausthaler to one side. However, as I haven't been feeling particularly sociable for the best part of a year, visits to the pub have been few and far between, and the majority of the alcohol free and low alcohol beers I've sampled have been consumed at home.

My thoughts on  three alcohol free/low alcohol beers are given at the end of this post, but after months of struggling with them  I've recently come across an excellent website for the Alcohol Free Shop. Based in Greater Manchester I was surprised to see that the shop stocks 24 different types of alcohol-free beer, including some interesting offerings from Erdinger, Krombacher, Maisels, Schneider, Veltins and most surprising of all Bernard from the Czech Republic. The shop also stocks a wide range of alcohol free wines (I hope they taste better than the one from Sainsbury's my wife and I tried the other weekend!), plus alcohol free ciders.

With the exception of the Bernard beer, which is an amber coloured Czech lager, all the others listed above are pilsner style beers. For ale drinkers there's virtually nothing available (I don't know whether the former Whitbread-brew, White Label is still around, but from memory it was pretty awful). Harveys  however, stock two low-alcohol beers in their pubs. Both are produced from regular Harveys beers, before some of the alcohol is removed. John Hop is produced from the company's Best Bitter, whilst their Old Ale is used to produce the dark beer, Bill Brewer.  Both have an abv of 1.0%.  I haven't tried either in many a long year, but from memory the Bill Brewer was slightly more drinkable than the John Hop.

Before ending I want to stress that the sole reason for my avoiding alcohol has been that whilst I enjoy it at the time, it seems to make my anxiety symptoms worse, particularly the following day. It is difficult to know the reasons for this; they may be purely psychological, or alternatively the alcohol may be interacting with my medication. On the other hand it could just be down to the simple fact that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and can enhance any feelings of depression. Whatever the reason. I don't want to turn into some rabid anti-alcohol crusader, and as I start to gradually feel better, and slowly cut back on the medication. I will start to gradually re-introduce my system to some proper beers!

Review Time:

Becks Blue -  Probably the widest available alcohol free beer, but in my opinion the worst of the lot. Thin and metallic with a nasty aftertaste to match, this beer to my mind isn't even a distress purchase. In fact when faced with this beer or no beer in a pub I would  go for a mineral water instead!

Bavaria Holland 0.0% alc Premium Original. - It has always puzzled me as to why a company in the Netherlands should adopt the name "Bavaria" for its brands, but nevertheless this alcohol; free beer is  a huge improvement on the Becks version, and quite drinkable, However, it still lacks that certain something.  Most alcohol-free beers can contain up to 0.5% alcohol-by-volume, but Bavaria claim their version is different in that it's specially brewed to contain no alcohol and is a genuine 0.00% beer.

Sainsbury's Low Alcohol Czech Lager. -  Brewed at the Staropramen Brewery in Prague which I know is more of a beer factory than a traditional Czech brewery, but this 0.5% low alcohol beer is the best of the bunch, and at least tastes like a lager.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

I'm Still Here!

It's been a month short of a year since I last posted anything on this blog, but a quick look at the stats shows there are still some visitors to these pages. A word or two of explanation as to why nothing has appeared during this time is therefore long overdue.

Back in March 2011, shortly after my last post, I experienced what can only be described as a mental breakdown. Looking back, the situation had been building for several months (or even longer), prior to that, but came to a head whilst on a visit to Cologne, where I was helping to man our company's stand at the International Dental Show. This event takes place every two years, and normally is something I would have looked forward to, especially as the evenings afford the opportunity to enjoy a few Koelsches, in some of the city's unspoilt taverns. This year though was different, I felt really anxious prior to the event and  didn't want to go at all. Once there, as well as feelings of extreme anxiety, I started to experience some bizarre  physical symptoms, that included fluid retention in my legs, extreme thirst and chronic fatigue.

Convinced I was suffering from something sinister; kidney problems or diabetes sprang to mind, I took full advantage of my E111 card and presented myself at a local hospital. Here I have to take my hat off to the German Health Service, as after just half an hour's wait I was seen by a doctor who, after noticing my swollen lower legs, gave me a thorough check up. This included checking my blood pressure, heart rate and even a full ECG. A blood sample was also taken and I was told to return 24 hours later to obtain the results. (Back home this procedure takes nearly a week!) On my return, the doctor showed me the results, which were entirely normal. After informing me there was nothing physically wrong, he looked me directly in the eye and said the symptoms were almost certainly psychosomatic in nature.

When I returned to the UK my own GP carried out further tests, which confirmed the findings of his German counterpart. I was diagnosed with severe depression and  prescribed anti-depressants, primarily to relieve the anxiety symptoms I was experiencing at the time. Despite this I was reluctant to take this type of medication, but after being signed off work for a period of six weeks, did so out of desperation. Had I known then what I know now I would never have taken the tablets, especially as  this type of medication (known as SSRI's) alters one's brain chemistry. The medical profession claim that SSRI's are non- addictive, and whilst this may be true physically, one's body still gets used to this chemical poison, making it  extremely difficult to wean oneself off them, even when one is starting to feel better. (I have read of people suffering from extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms for several weeks when trying to do so.)

The worst thing about depression is one loses interest in virtually everything, and things that once afforded the greatest pleasure no longer matter or seem important. Included amongst this unfortunately,  has been my love of beer, and since returning from Cologne I have been virtually teetotal. Whilst the beer did help me relax initially, I found myself waking the next day, or even in the night, feeling more anxious  than ever; hence I knocked it on the head (temporarily I hope!).

Over the course of the last last year I've neglected many things. Our once neat garden, whilst not totally overgrown, is looking very sorry for itself. The house is in bad need of decorating, both inside and out, but worst of all though is the way I've neglected friends, my family and myself. Physically, although I lost a lot of weight initially, I've started to put some of it back on through a combination of unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. When I look at how my thigh and calf muscles have wasted away through inactivity I feel a deep sense of shame - these aren't the same legs that walked the Weald Way last year, or the South Downs Way a year previous to that! My upper body looks frail as well, compared to what it was just 12 months or so ago.

Mentally, I've found it extremely difficult to concentrate, and not only has this affected my work, but also more everyday tasks. Sadly I had to give up the German class I was taking, despite making good initial progress with it. In the end  I just couldn't concentrate, so despite having shelled out nearly £300 on course fees I had to call it a day, as it became just one more mental stress too many.

My not drinking, visiting pubs or socialising, combined with ongoing difficulties in concentrating, have meant that blogging has been the last thing on my mind. However, as I said at the beginning I felt I owed people a long over-due explanation as to why I stopped. I still try and keep up with developments in the world of beer, even though it's extremely difficult to read about something I formerly enjoyed so much and miss such a lot.

This year though I am determined to get myself better,  get my confidence and fitness back and to start living again. I am also determined to wean myself off this horrible medication and get back on the beer!!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Royal Oak, Tunbridge Wells.

Just recently I've enjoyed a couple of excellent sessions in the Royal Oak in Tunbridge Wells. This friendly local is sited a short distance from the town centre, and is definitely well worth a visit if you are ever in the area. With its dark-panelled walls, comfortable sofas plus a number of alcoves in which to hide away, the Oak is a welcome retreat from the outside world. The pub attracts a largely broad-based clientele and is well-known for its regular functions, including live music evenings and special culinary events.

A couple of Saturdays ago I was part of a group of local West Kent CAMRA members visiting the Royal Oak for its beer festival. We met up with colleagues from Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA who were in town on a pub crawl. We joined them later on their tour, but not before we'd sampled a few of the excellent beers on sale in the Oak. These included 99 Red Baboons from Blue Monkey Brewery, Larkins Porter and Dark Star Six Hop Ale. The latter certainly got my vote, although at 6.5% it definitely wasn't a lunchtime beer!

The other night, the Oak was the venue for our CAMRA committee meeting, and once again there were some interesting beers on offer. I plumped for the Harvey's Old to begin with, especially as it's likely to be the last time we'll see this winter favourite until October. As ever, it proved a fine example of this style of beer, dark and mellow, but still with a fair degree of hopiness. I then moved on to the Larkins Traditional. This 3.4% beer certainly packs in some flavour, and is the ideal lunchtime pint. It is also by far and away the company's best seller; a fact that is probably helped by the majority of pubs supplied by Larkins being rural outlets.

As before it was a Dark Star beer that I finished up on. This time it was the company's Green-Hopped Ale, another 6.5% offering. Like the Six Hop, bitterness was certainly to the fore, but it was definitely a good beer to finish up on.