Saturday, 1 December 2012

New Beer Range From Tesco

We don't often shop in Tesco. Nothing wrong with the store itself, and whilst some might question the company's ethics, the same could be said of most of the major supermarkets. The reason we don't buy our groceries in Tesco is simply they don't have an outlet in Tonbridge. Today though, we drove over to nearby Sevenoaks, where they do have a rather large Tesco store, and leaving Eileen to do the weekly shop, (she doesn't like to be distracted), I had a browse along the beer aisles.

Amongst the "Buy 3 for the price of 2" and the "Four beers for £6.00" offers, I noticed a small range of attractively packaged British Ales, called "Simply". Priced at the equally attractive price of just £1.33, I picked up a bottle of IPA plus a bottle of Dark Ale. There's not a huge amount of information on the bottles, but they do list the ingredients, together with the characteristics of the beer. They also suggest foods to complement the beer, with both styles suggesting the beer can be enjoyed, chilled on its own. There's honesty for you!  No indication as to the brewery responsible for these beers is given, but the front label does carry the master brewer's signature and to me it looks like that of Marston's Head Brewer, Emma Gilleland. Certainly the beers have that Marstons taste about them.

I found the 5.0% IPA very enjoyable, with a nice balance between the citrus hops and the rich, biscuity maltiness. The 4.5% Dark Ale was also very good. Perhaps not quite as dark as I would have liked, but still a deep ruby red in colour. The label says "Rich and full-bodied, with a smooth fruity flavour"; a description I would not disagree with.

I'm drinking this beer now, as I write, but whilst in Tesco's earlier, I  noticed a Simply Stout in the same range. I am now wishing I'd slipped a bottle of that as well into my shopping basket.

More on Parlour Pubs

After my recent article on Parlour Pubs, I was prompted to do a bit more digging into the subject, as I find the whole  idea fascinating. We all know that when ones steps over the threshold of a pub, especially a traditional, tenanted pub, one is often steeping into the landlord or landlady's home. The Parlour Pub takes this concept of the licensee's home a stage further in so much as there isn't a physical barrier, in the form of a bar (note that word bar - meaning a physical object, such as a counter or serving hatch), between the licensee and his/ her customers. In a Parlour Pub, one is often sitting in part of the licensees "living space", even though they will normally have additional rooms that are totally private, and to which the general public, in the form of customers, are not permitted.

Of course, serving customers in one's own front room, without the presence of a bar, can present difficulties, even if these are confined to somewhere to put the drinks down. In these less trusting times, the question of security also arises; where does one keep the money that customers hand over in exchange for their drinks? Where does one keep the float (change)? and with bottles of spirits and other drinks on display and openly within reach, what is to stop people helping themselves, as soon as ones back is turned?

I have answered these questions myself really. Things were much simpler, back in the days when this type of pub was common-place. Society was more ordered, crime was much less rife and, most importantly, people travelled a lot less than they do today, Licensees would have known most of their customers who, in turn, would all probably have known each other. With a common bond between them, the chances of petty pilfering and helping oneself, were far less likely to occur than they might today. Apart from issues of security, probably the main reason Parlour Pubs virtually died out is that they were impracticable and inefficient. After all it is far easier to serve a large group of people if they queue up at a bar, where the licensee is standing behind with everything needed (drinks, dispense equipment, glasses, till etc), at his or her disposal. Also, even so far as a half century or so ago, people were demanding something a little more sophisticated than a few chairs grouped around a table. They might have wanted more comfortable seating, or somewhere with alcoves and seating arranged so they can chat, privately if necessary, rather than being almost forced to join in with others, some of whom they may have not cared much for.

Bearing this in mind it is perhaps surprising that Parlour Pubs lasted as long into the 20th Century as they did. Apart from the Woodman's Arms, that I mentioned in my original article, I knew of several others. I  had intended to write about them here, but this post has now grown from being an introduction leading in to a description of  these survivors from a bygone age, into a full-blown article in its own right. I will therefore sign off and post a separate article about parlour-type pubs that I have personal experience of.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

More Beery Delights From Waitrose

 Top end supermarket, Waitrose just seems to get better and better, with the launch of two new "own label" beers. Waitrose German Pils, is a 5.0% premium beer, produced at the Memminger Brewery, in the town of Memmingen in southern Bavaria. According to the blurb on the back of the bottle, "the beer is made using mountain water sourced from the Vilsalpsee and the Lechtaler Alps from the brewery's own well." It's a crisp, clean-tasting  lager that's right up my street, and at just £1.41 for a 500ml  bottle a real bargain as well.

Also available is Waitrose Czech Pilsner. another 5.0% beer, this time produced at the Herold Brewery at Breznice Castle in Bohemia. Brewed from locally grown  barley malted within the castle walls, and bittered with Saaz hops. The beer itself is deep golden in colour, much darker than the German version above, pleasantly hoppy and full flavoured. Again the beer is priced at just £1.41.

 I'm not certain whether these are introductory prices or not, but at the moment they are too good to be missed. It remains to be seen whether Waitrose will be adding other classic beer styles to this line up; they have been selling an "own label" Bavarian Wheat Beer for a number of years now, but it would be nice to see some Belgian beers putting in an appearance, plus of course, how about some good old-fashioned British ales?

Monday, 26 November 2012

A Wet Saturday in November

As I mentioned last week, Saturday was the date set for the West Kent CAMRA Branch  AGM. It was a foul day, weather wise, so what better place to spend the afternoon than in a pub?  The pub in question was the Chequers, an unspoilt 16th Century inn on Sevenoaks High Street. Being close to the apex of the junction where London Road splits away from the High Street, the Chequers also has a back entrance, and it was in this rear part of the pub that our meeting took place.

We had a reasonable attendance of 18 members, plus  Regional Director, Kae Mendham. In view of the atrocious weather the turnout wasn't too bad, but one can't help wondering where the other 480 odd members were? All members would have been notified in advance of the meeting, either by e-mail or post, so they had no real excuse (apart from apathy) for not attending. Having said that I accept that today,  people live busy lives and often have other more pressing priorities, so perhaps we ought to be thankful for the handful that did turn up!

So what of the meeting itself, well the various branch officers presented their reports, there were elections for the various committee posts, branch accounts were presented; in short all the usual formalities that take place at Annual General Meetings. Afterwards, campaign goals were set for the coming year, and a shortlist of pubs was drawn up for possible inclusion in the 2014 Good Beer Guide. In between the proceedings we  managed a short break for solid refreshments, in the form of a buffet, supplied by the pub.

So far as liquid refreshment was concerned, there was a  good choice of beers on at the Chequer, which included Black Sheep, Harvey's, St Austell (Tribute), Tonbridge (Ebony Moon) and Westerham (Spirit of Kent). It was also good to see the pub so busy on such a wet day, although I imagine the market stalls, just outside the front door must have helped to encourage trade.From my point of view, the Chequers takes me back to how I remember town centre pubs; bustling, busy and packed with a good cross section of customers, all enjoying good beer, good food and good company. If I lived in Sevenoaks the Chequers would definitely be my pub of choice.

The meeting broke up around 5pm, and a group of us headed down to the Sennockian, Sevenoaks' Wetherspoons outlet. Unfortunately the beer range was not that inspiring, with just Old Hookey, plus Grasshopper from Westerham Brewery, to complement the usual Greene King regulars. Both the aforementioned beers were on good form though, but after a couple here those of us who aren't inhabitants of Sevenoaks decided to head back to Tonbridge. Two of us had journeyed over by train, whilst the other two remaining members had travelled by bus. We therefore decided on a slightly silly, "Top Gear"-style race to see which couple could make it to the Tonbridge Wetherspoons (Humphrey Bean) first. It went without saying that, as it was virtually door to door, the pair who had  travelled by bus won hands down!

There was a much better range of beers on in the Humphrey Bean, including two beers from Hopdaemon; a very interesting and innovative brewery which, in my mind, is often overlooked. Both Incubus and Golden Braid were on offer, with the latter being especially good. A bit later in the evening Thornbridge Jaipur made an appearance on the bar. Although welcome at the time, it was probably not a good thing in view of the amount of beer we had already consumed. I certainly regretted it the following day! However, it made a fitting end to a good day out, and even made the trudge home through the rain a bit more bearable.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

A Breath of Fresh Air

 This post isn't really much to do with beer although the odd few bottles were acquired at one stage in the proceedings.

Feeling somewhat jaded this morning, and not quite with it, after a few too many glasses of Thornbridge Jaipur last night, I decided to walk down into Tonbridge to get some fresh air, clear my head and also pick up a few bits of shopping. After getting rid of a load of plastic bottles in the re-cycling bin, I headed into Waitrose; definitely my favourite supermarket and , as I found, about to get even better.

I filled my basket with a few essentials for the week ahead, but also grabbed a couple of bottles of Meantime Brewery India Pale Ale, which is on special offer at the moment. Priced at just £3.93 for a 750ml bottle, this is an offer that is just too good to miss. Having finished my shopping I headed for the check-out. I had already been given a 50p discount voucher when I entered the store, just for tasting some of their new Christmas shortbread chocolate biscuits and giving my opinion of them (very moreish), when I presented my recently acquired  "my Waitrose" card to the lady on the till. I asked her what benefit(s), if any, the card entitled me to, and was pleasantly surprised when she told me I could have a free cup of coffee in their in-store coffee shop.

I therefore enjoyed a very nice cup of coffee and, as it was lunchtime, tucked into a reduced price sandwich which I had bought earlier, along with my other purchases. Discounted craft beer, reduced-price sandwiches, 50p off my shopping bill plus a free cup of coffee. I think I'll be heading back to Waitrose next weekend for more of the same!

Waitrose are running some very good offers on beer at the moment. As well as the Meantime IPA they have such delights as Fullers Porter and St Austell Proper Job at three bottles for £5. In addition, bottles of Budvar, Dark as well as light, are just £1.50 each. I'm busy stocking up for Christmas!

Friday, 23 November 2012

A Quiet Couple of Weeks

 Not a lot to report at the moment on the beer and pub front, as I've been busy sorting out other matters. Most of these things were boring, time consuming and expensive, especially having to run my car back to the garage for the second time in a week to sort out a nagging fault, but last weekend at least gave the family a chance to relax and celebrate son Matthew's 21st birthday. We spent the day round at the house of a couple of good friends, one of whom is Matthew's Godmother. Janis is also a fully trained chef and laid on a superb roast dinner in honour of the occasion.

Earlier that day I unearthed a 1991 vintage bottle of Thomas Hardy Ale that was lurking at the back of the cupboard. 1991 was the year Matthew was born, and I bought the Thomas Hardy Ale specifically to lay down and keep until he turned 21. It is an individually numbered bottle, and was brewed by the original creators of the beer, Eldridge Pope at their now sadly closed Dorchester brewery. We were going to open it round at our friends, but after we'd given some bottles of St Austell Proper Job a bit of a caning, and then moved on to some rather potent, but very quaffable, Sicilian red wine, thought we really wouldn't  be doing this 21 year old vintage ale justice. Hardy's Ale has therefore gone back in the cupboard to be opened on another suitable occasion (probably Christmas).

During the week I made a couple of forays into our local Wetherspoons, where I had some very good Exmoor Gold, (I'd forgotten just how good a beer this pioneering Golden Ale is), plus some equally enjoyable Brewster's Andromeda.

Tomorrow sees our local CAMRA Branch's AGM, which takes place this year at the Chequers in Sevenoaks. Now I'm no longer on the committee I can watch things from the sidelines, but still continue o support the branch by going along to socials and helping out with activities such as the Spa Valley Railway and SIBA Beer Festivals. It has been quite a successful year for the branch as a whole, so we are all looking forward to the coming year. It will be interesting to see what takes place at the meeting, and to learn what plans our chairman and committee have for the forthcoming year.

In a couple of week's time the round of Christmas meals and drinks will be starting in earnest. Unlike last Christmas, when I was unable to drink, I am looking forward to sampling the many beery delights that I have  been stockpiling these last few months. As well as all these bottles, I may well decide to treat myself to a mini-pin of one of my favourite winter beers - Larkins Porter. I haven't tried any of  this year's offering yet, but I'm certain it will be every bit as good as in previous years.

Well that's all for now. I've got a bit more research to carry out before I publish my final article on Tonbridge's pubs and I'm also keen to continue with the Classic, Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain theme.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Parlour Pubs

Following on from my last post concerning Rodney Wolfe Coe's list, I was reminded of a pub that would undoubtedly have featured in the "Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain" had it still been open when the list was being compiled. I only visited the pub I am about to describe once, and that was some 40 years ago; right at the start of my drinking career.

Before I reveal all I want to refer back to the Sun at Leintwardine, described by Mr Coe as "probably still the best pub in Great Britain".  Now I haven't been there, but I've read a lot about it, especially about its legendary and long serving landlady Flossie Lane who sadly passed away back in 2009. Now I know the pub has been given a new lease of life and that this has had to have come at a price (extension to the former tiny bar, serving food, laying on entertainment  etc.), and obviously accept the need for this in order for the pub to survive in the 21st Century. But prior to Flossie's death, the Sun could best be described as one of just a handful of "parlour pubs" left in Britain, and it was just such an establishment that I visited, back in the early 70's, shortly after my 18th birthday.

The Woodman’s Arms at Hassel Street, near Hastingleigh high up on the North Downs between Ashford and Canterbury, was a classic pub that has long since disappeared. I only had the pleasure of visiting it once, and having just turned eighteen did not, unfortunately, appreciate its finer points at the time.

The Woodman’s had been brought to my attention after it had featured on the local television "news magazine" programme - "Scene South East". This was back in the days of "Southern Television" when our local ITV programmes came from Southampton. This meant a distinct bias towards Hampshire, with Kent and Sussex lucky to get a mention. The only exception to this was on Friday evenings when the aforementioned programme was broadcast from the company's Dover studio.

What had caught the presenter’s eye was the fact that the Woodman’s Arms did not have a bar, which even 40 years ago was highly unusual. Instead, drinkers sat around a table in what appeared to be the licensee's front room. Having seen the pub featured, I decided to check it out for myself, at the earliest available opportunity. I therefore set off on my motorbike, one evening in June, in search of this highly unusual pub.

Hassel Street was only a few miles away from my then home village of Brook, but being tucked away amongst the maze of narrow lanes that lie at the top of the North Downs it took a bit of finding. I eventually succeeded, and found the pub located half-way down a “No- Through Road”. From what I remember, it was an unassuming, white-painted building which was considerably older inside than it looked from the outside.

According to a guide to “Kent Pubs”, published by Batsford in 1966, the Woodman’s dated back to 1698, and had three rooms. One was a side room, that doubled up as a children’s room, one was for darts whilst the third acted as the bar-parlour. It was the latter that I made my way into, and I do vaguely remember there being a darts room to the left of the entrance. As shown on the television programme, the room was plainly decorated, and simply furnished. There was a table, complete with tablecloth, in the middle of the floor, and along one of the walls, was a dresser on which were placed various bottles of wines, spirits and bottled beers, plus a selection of glasses. Pushed up against the other three walls were some hard wooden chairs, occupied by about half a dozen or so people.

As I walked in I could see no evidence of any beer pumps, so I enquired as to whether the pub sold draught beer. I was told that it did but, feeling very conscious of the lull in the conversation, decided to opt for just a half of bitter. The landlady retrieved a half-pint mug from the dresser, and disappeared down some wooden stairs to the cellar below.

To digress for a moment, according to the aforementioned “Kent Pubs”, the Woodman’s was renowned for its beer. Although it was a freehouse only one brew was stocked “so that it is always in condition”. “Come here for your Fremlins” said the guide, and you would have had the choice of Fremlins Mild, Three Star Bitter or County Ale. “Every pint or half, is drawn in the cellar, seven steps down and seven steps up, which stays at 50 degrees summer and winter.” The landlord had been told, when he first came to the pub, by a retired publican friend that, “The secret of keeping ale and beer was to order it in advance so that it can lay for two weeks before you tap it.” These days, pubs seldom lay their beer down for more than two days before tapping and serving it!

The recommendation given above would have been lost on me back then, as I didn’t know that much about beer. However, the beer stocked at the time was almost certainly cask Whitbread Trophy from the former Fremlins Brewery in Faversham. When the landlady returned with my drink, I made some half-hearted attempts at conversation, but  felt increasingly awkward and out of place. I had only recently reached the legal drinking age and was a somewhat shy and slightly introspected youth, lacking in social skills and not able to mix well with different age groups.  Most of the clientele seemed to know each other, and whilst they were not unfriendly, I quickly decided that one swift half was enough. This was a great shame as this turned out  to be my only visit to the Woodman’s. Not long afterwards I went off to university, and apart from short visits to see my parents, during vacation time, never returned to live at home on a permanent basis.

I am not certain exactly when, or indeed why the pub closed, but one possible clue to its demise is again given in “Kent Pubs”. The landlord of the Woodman’s worked as a postman in the mornings, which suggests that his main income came from delivering letters rather than serving pints. This indicates that the pub may not have been viable on its own, and given its isolated position, it is perhaps easy to see why. I cannot help thinking though, that had the Woodman’s managed to hang on for a few more years, then people like Mr Rodney Coe may have helped to put it on the map.