Sunday, 11 January 2015

No More "Disgusted - Tunbridge Wells". Pt. Two

Colourful exterior at The Bedford
As recently promised, here is the second part to my tour around the pubs and bars of  Tunbridge Wells. We start at the railway, which is where the first walk-about commenced, but this time we will be heading in the opposite direction towards the historic heart of this Edwardian Spa-town.

The Bedford can either be our first port of call, or our last. It all depends on your mood and capacity for beer, as this veritable pub offers what is undoubtedly the largest selection of cask ales in the town. Either way, it is virtually impossible to miss the imposing Bedford situated at the top of the High Street, on the corner of the road bridge over the railway which leads past the station approach.

Staff at Bedford with CAMRA Pub of the Year, runner-up certificate
A former Charrington’s pub which has been popular with a couple of generations of local CAMRA members, the Bedford is now owned by Greene King; but is a pub where the management have negotiated a deal which almost  totally frees them from the GK tie. Consequently the pub majors on beers from local Kent and Sussex independents such as Kent Brewery, Whitstable, Pig & Porter, Dark Star, Long Man and Turners, alongside an interesting and varied selection of top quality cask beers from elsewhere. Up to 10 hand-pumps are in operation, and as a further incentive to cask enthusiasts the Bedford runs both a loyalty card scheme, plus a Wednesday “Cask Beer Club” night, when beers are sold at a discounted price up until 8.30pm. The pub has recently opened a real ale takeaway shop underneath the pub. The Bedford Beer Cave means that customers are now able to take their favourite beers home with them!

Rear entrance to the Compasses
If you can tear yourself away from this excellent pub, continue along the High Street in the direction of the Pantiles. A short way down on the opposite side of the road, head up the steep South Grove towards the pleasant area of parkland known as the Grove. Continue straight on and on your right  you will notice the rear entrance to the Compasses, a rambling old building which claims to be one of the oldest pubs in Tunbridge Wells.
Like the Bedford, the Compasses is also owned by Greene King, but serves a more limited range. With several interconnected rooms and separate drinking areas, the Compasses offers a chance to escape the crowds and enjoy a few moments of quiet contemplation. This is not to say that the pub doesn’t get busy; it is just that its layout gives itself to small and sometimes intimate groups. I remember the pub from its days under Whitbread, and as a comfortable and traditional alehouse it hasn’t changed all that much. It is therefore well worth popping in if you are in the area.

Grove Tavern, Little Mount Sion
The front entrance to the Compasses will lead you out into Little Mount Sion; an area of narrow and in places part cobbled streets, with a mix of substantial early Victorian houses and charming, cosy cottages. Mount Sion is often referred to as the “Village” area of Tunbridge Wells, and despite the obvious parking problems, is a very desirable part of the town to live in.

Carry on a short distance down Little Mount Sion towards the Grove Tavern; the next pub on our itinerary and another contender for the title of Tunbridge Well’s oldest pub. This tiny and cosy “L”-shaped pub attracts its own loyal crowd of regulars, but also offers a friendly welcome to visitors from further a field. With an open fire in winter and some lively conversation at the bar, visitors are soon made to feel at home here. The Grove is basically a drinkers and a sports enthusiast’s pub, but is none the worse for that. Harvey’s Sussex Best, plus Taylor’s Landlord are the regular beers, with a couple of guests normally on sale alongside.

The Mount Edgcumbe
I would suggest ending this particular crawl here, as the Pantiles, which is the next area of interest to the drinker is worth a section in its own right. However, if you are still feeling thirsty and the weather is clement, why not take a walk up across Tunbridge Wells Common to the Mount Edgcumbe. You will need a good map for this one I’m afraid, as it’s difficult to give good written directions, but basically head back down towards the High Street and then cut across to the A26 London Road. Follow the road up via the edge of the common until you reach Mount Edgcumbe Road on your left. Head up here, but now you are definitely on your own. Furthermore, do not attempt to try and find this pub-cum-restaurant at dusk, as a friend and I tried to do last year, as you will inevitably get lost amongst the maze of footways and paths which criss-cross  the common!

Alternatively, treat yourself to a taxi and you will then arrive via the rough-track which leads down from the top of the common at Mount Ephraim. I haven’t a huge amount to say about the Mount Edgcumbe. I have eaten there several times in the past, but that was under different management, back when the place was known as La Galoche. I can’t vouch for the food now, but the pub part of this imposing Georgian building is quite interesting with a section of the bar area cut into the rock, forming a sort of “cave”.

"Cave Bar", Mount Edgcumbe
Harvey’s Sussex Best is the pub’s mainstay, alongside an ever changing list of beers from the likes of Dark Star, Tonbridge, Rother Valley, Larkins and Hop Daemon. A double word of advice; unless there are still several hours of daylight remaining, get a taxi back to the station - even if you managed to find your way here on foot! Enough said, but I don’t want to be responsible for you walking around the wooded areas of the common for days on end, or for you falling off one of the rocky outcrops which are scattered all over the place. You have been warned!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Tunbridge Wells Re-visited

Several weeks ago I published a post about some of the pubs of  Tunbridge Wells. The post was the first in a series of possibly three, but definitely two articles about pubs in this well-known Spa-town, and I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve still to write the follow ups! Last Wednesday though our local CAMRA branch held a post-festive season crawl of the northern part of the town which took in three of the pubs mentioned. As it happened, only a few hardy (fool-hardy?) souls managed all three, as for many of us there was work the following day. This is what we found.

Our group met in dribs and drabs at Sankey’s; a well-known pub and fish restaurant at the top of the town. The pub wasn’t exactly heaving, but there were still a few very mixed groups of people in there. After a bit of shuffling around, we parked ourselves over by the front window, just about close enough to the welcoming log fire. On the cask front there was Long Man American APA, plus Tonbridge Copper Nob. Craft keg offerings included beers from Brew Dog, Flying Dog, Magic Rock, Four Pure and Thornbridge.
Beer List - Sankey's

I started with a pint of Long Man American APA; always a very pleasant and well-hopped American Pale Ale. Later I graduated to the Chipotle Punchline Chocolate Porter from Magic Rock; an interesting beer with a spiciness from the chipotle chillies which was quite subtle at first but which then slowly grew on one and became quite noticeable towards the end.

Hot Chocolate!
I didn’t have any more beers at Sankey's as I was  mindful of work in the morning and that there were two more pubs to visit. One thing I was impressed with about the place, apart from the excellent range of beers, was the knowledge of the barman who not only informed us of the characteristics of the beers we wanted to try, but also gave us a bit of background information about the breweries concerned. Full marks there!

I could quite happily have stayed at Sankey’s for the rest of the evening, but the group wanted to move on, so we walked down the hill to the next pub on the itinerary. Fuggles Beer Café was slightly busier than Sankey’s but was not as rammed as I have seen it at the weekends. We managed to find a seat close to the window and then set about sampling a few of the many excellent beers they had on offer.

I kicked off with a pint of Porter from Burning Sky. Smooth and dark, with a slight hint of smokiness, this was just the right beer for a cold, damp January night. I followed the porter with a glass of Salopian Oracle; a citrussy, light golden pale ale with just the right amount of “bite”. My final beer of the evening was the 6.5% IPA, from Four Pure Brewery of Bermondsey. This big bold IPA is hopped with Chinook and Cascade hops and certainly packs a punch.

Beer  List - Fuggles
This last drink was a craft-keg beer and tasted all the better for being served slightly chilled. Some of our group were tempted by the 5.9% ABV Crème Brulée Stout from Dark Star. With vanilla beans, plus a mix of roasted malts and lactose, this beer was a trifle too sweet for my tastes, although the vanilla did come across well. This beer was on cask and may have been a safer bet than the 10% ABV Cocoa Psycho Stout from Brew Dog! Interestingly, the Magic Rock Chipotle Punchline Chocolate Porter, sampled earlier at Sankey’s, was also on sale at Fuggles.

People started to drift off slowly; some had buses to catch, but a few brave souls nipped along to the Opera House, our local JDW outlet. I later heard reports from a couple of them that the beer quality there wasn’t quite up to scratch. A friend and stayed in the pub until about 10.45pm, before making our way down the hill to the station. It was just as well that we’d gone for the penultimate train as services were being delayed due to a broken down train.

It had been a good evening, with a good attendance. It’s not often West Kent CAMRA sees numbers hitting double figures at branch socials! The event had also demonstrated the varied and thriving beer scene in Tunbridge Wells; something which is sadly lacking nearby Tonbridge where I happen to live.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Good Things to Come?

In the last two posts I looked back at last year from the perspective of a beer enthusiast, taking stock, if you like, on what happened during 2014. Now that Christmas is over, thank-goodness, it is worth looking ahead at the coming year, at what I’ve got planned and at what might be in store. After all, the month of January is named after Janus, the Roman God of beginnings and transitions; a figure who is sometimes portrayed as having two heads – one looking forward and one looking back. Janus thus represents all beginnings and possesses the ability to see all things past and future.

Well, as I alluded to in a previous post, 2015 sees my wife Eileen and I marking a significant birthday, and we are currently engaged in looking at ways in which to celebrate it. We’ll probably hold a party for family and friends. We will also try and complete one or two significant projects in both house and garden. Primarily though we are looking at a river cruise taking in some of the treasures of either western or central Europe.

The party and the cruise will almost certainly involve beer, although the exact timings and form of both events is yet to be determined. Two beer-related happenings though have already been arranged; the first is a week’s holiday in the Czech Republic during May, whilst the second will be the 2015 European Beer Bloggers Conference, which this year takes place in Brussels. I haven’t yet booked my place on the latter, but the former has been arranged since last June.

When most people talk about visiting the Czech Republic, they usually mean they will be spending their time in Prague. And why would you not want to? The Czech capital is a beautiful city with over a thousand years of history behind it, and has now become a “must see” attraction on many tourist itineraries. I wouldn’t argue with that, as I have made four visits myself to Prague during the last 30 years, and consider it one of my favourite cities. However, there is much more to the Czech Republic than its capital city, and the visit I will be making in May is one which takes in other, equally beautiful and significant parts of the country and, from a cultural point of view is important in that it has been organised by a friend with close family connections to the Czech Republic.

It all began when I was talking to an old friend who for many years has been a leading light in Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA. In fact he has probably been involved with that branch for an even longer period than that which I played within West Kent branch. The conversation took place on last year’s Good Friday Ramble, whilst we were walking back from our lunchtime stop of the Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald.

It transpired that my friend was arranging a trip to Czech for 2015 which would be based in the town of Jihlava. Jihlava is situated in the Vysočina Region of the Czech Republic, on the Jihlava River, which forms the historical border between Moravia and Bohemia.  The plan is to fly out to Prague on day one of the trip and then travel by coach to Jihlava. I am planning to fly out a couple of days earlier and will meet the dozen other members of the party either at the coach station in Prague, or in Jihlava itself. Day two has a morning tour of the Bernard Brewery in Humpolec scheduled, followed by an afternoon visit to Velké Meziříčí (Jelinkova Vila brewpub).

Telč, Czech Republic
Day three is devoted to sight-seeing combined with a bit of culture, with visits to the towns of Slavonice and Telč. The latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More beer follows on day four, which is the last full day of the trip. We will be visiting the Chotebor Pivovar microbrewery, followed by the Rebel brewpub of Havlickuv Brod. The final day will mean an early departure for Prague, followed by the flight home.

As it’s a trip which combines beer appreciation with culture it should be doubly interesting, and will afford the opportunity of seeing parts of the Czech Republic which most western tourists rarely visit. Both Slavonice and Telč look stunningly beautiful. On the beer front the Bernard Brewery produces some of the country’s best beers, and the other breweries/brew-pubs on the itinerary all look interesting.

Franconian Beer Festival
Following the Czech trip there’s a possibility of visiting the annual Franconian Beer Festival which takes place in Nuremberg at the beginning of June. Held in the moat of the city’s imposing and historic castle, around 40 local breweries take part, offering around 100 different beers. The festival does not appear that well known outside of Germany; the official website is in German only (not a problem for me, but not really likely to encouraged visitors from other countries). I say possibility, as the festival follows hot on the heels of the Czech trip, so it may be an event I will have to save for next year instead!

It appears that everything is happening around May-June time, but prior to that the CAMRA Members Weekend and National AGM will be taking place in Nottingham in the middle of April. Again I’m tempted, but only for the craic and the local pub scene, as a load of turgid debates and procedural rigmarole doesn’t appeal at all. I’ll have to see whether finances and brownie points permit my attendance. 
Requiring more immediate attention are three beer festivals coming up at the end of January/beginning of February. The first takes place at Stonch’s pub, the Finborough Arms, in Earl's Court, London, in the form of a Winter Ales Festival from Friday 23rd - Sunday 25th January. The following weekend the Cooper’s Arms in Crowborough will be holding their Dark & Delicious Winter Beers Festival, (see previous post), and then a week later, our local rugby club, Tonbridge Juddians (TJ’s), will be hosting their own winter beer festival (not exclusively winter ales). I will need to decide which to go to, although I’m temped to go to all three!  

A beer festival will be returning to TJ’s in the summer, as for the last six years the club has hosted the SIBA South East Regional Beer Festival, when most SIBA members within the region will be exhibiting their beers. Providing the weather is good, and it isn’t always – the 2012 event had to be cancelled due to flooding, this is one of the best regional festivals, with the event taking place in a large marquee adjacent to the clubhouse, overlooking the extensive riverside setting of Tonbridge Sports Ground. It also affords an unrivalled opportunity to sample beers from all over the south east region.

The Great British Beer Festival
On the subject of beer festivals, we mustn’t forget CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival which takes place at Olympia in August; an event I missed last year, due to double booking, but one I am determined to attend last year. As I mentioned in my previous post, son Matthew and I have promised to chaperone my wife’s niece Heidi and her partner Phil around the event and to introduce them to beers which will knock the socks off the likes of Doom Bar et al

The fact that so many of events clash is symptomatic of the dilemma facing many a beer hunter, but is also a sign of a healthy and vibrant brewing and beer appreciation scene and is therefore no bad thing. A further clash comes in August when a week before the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Brussels, over in Franconia the famous Bamberg Sandkerwa will be taking place.

Sandkerwa, Bamberg
Sandkerwa is a six day folk festival which embraces the entire town of Bamberg, with around 300,000 people attending each year. The festival takes place in the Sandstrasse area of the city and its neighbouring alleys. It is basically a street festival with local breweries serving from their permanent establishments and visiting breweries wedged into every available nook and cranny in what is one of the oldest parts of Bamberg.  There are food vendors everywhere and tables are set up in the streets for drinkers to sit at and enjoy the beer and food.

It all sounds very jolly and is another event which features high on my beer wish-list, but like the Franconian Beer Festival is something which may have to be postponed until next year!

Sunday, 4 January 2015

2014 - The Year in Beer Part 2

Continuing my look back at 2014 from a beery perspective I now want to reflect on the handful of beer festivals I attended. As might be guessed from that last sentence, there wasn’t that many, with just two CAMRA events and one pub beer festival that I went along to.

My biggest faux-pas of the year was forgetting that the Great British Beer Festival had been moved back a week. Blissfully unaware of this fact I went gaily ahead and booked our week’s holiday in Munich. It was only when my wife’s niece and her partner asked which day Matt and I were planning to go along to Olympia that I realised my error. Both Heidi and Phil are relative newcomers to the world of decent beer, so it would have been good to have accompanied them to GBBF and introduce them to some of the beery delights the event has on offer.

Given the size and scope of the festival, some guidance is definitely needed, especially if one wants to avoid the plethora of similar tasting golden ales or the dullness of the myriad of “boring brown bitters”. OK, those are not my words, but there is an understandable preponderance of these types of beers, and of course not all are by any means bad. It’s often a case though of not being able to see the wood for the trees, so this year I hope to be of assistance to a new generation of  younger beer enhusiasts.

As it happened, I attended just the Kent Festival at Canterbury, plus my own branch’s event held in conjunction with the Spa Valley Railway during 2014. I enjoyed the first event far more than the second, despite the searing July heat. This was because I was one of the key organisers of the Spa Valley Railway Festival and with all the rushing around involved, to say nothing of the months of pre-planning, it was very difficult to relax and enjoy myself. Canterbury on the other hand was somewhere I could let my hair down and get into some serious beer sampling.
Kent Beer Festival, Merton Farm, Canterbury
Last years Kent Festival was the 40th such event, and was memorable for being organiser Gill Keay’s last festival. Gill had enjoyed an un-broken run of being in charge of all 40 festivals; an achievement which is almost certainly unequalled in the annals of the Campaign for Real Ale. This year, she will be able to take a well-earned rest and enjoy the festival, rather than having to worry about how things are going. Mind you, she looked pretty laid back last year; something which can surely only come with the wisdom and hindsight of running festivals over a period of  four decades!

As for the Spa Valley event; it was a qualified success, but unlike the previous year was not a complete sell-out. Apart from the bulk of the beer, which is sold at SVR’s Tunbridge Wells West HQ, there are bars at the two stations down the line (Groombridge & Eridge), as well as on the trains. This makes the event a logistical nightmare, especially as communications with the other two stations are patchy at best, due to poor mobile phone reception. Looking back it’s difficult to remember which beers really stood out, but I do recall some excellent porters from the likes of Hastings, Sambrooks and Portobello, together with some equally excellent “Green Hop” ales.

For the past three years our festival has made a feature of these seasonal specials, especially as the event coincides with the end of the hop-picking season It was therefore especially good to see local brewer, Larkins collect the “Beer of the Festival” award for their Green Hop Beer. We will be visiting the brewery to present their certificate later this year.

Last month I took the decision to step down as beer buyer for the festival, and also from the organising committee. 2015 sees both Eileen and I celebrating a significant birthday ( NOT 21 again!), and with this in mind we will both be focused on other things. The year also marks 30 years of my involvement with West Kent CAMRA – literally half a lifetime (oops, I given away  which significant birthday we'll be marking), so it seemed doubly appropriate to stand down from playing an active role within the branch. I will still attend branch socials as well as other activities which take my fancy, but I can’t describe the feeling of relief and lightening of the load this decision had brought.

Cooper's Arms, Crowborough
The pub beer festival I went to was the famous Dark & Delicious Winter Beers Festival held annually at the unspoilt Cooper’s Arms in Crowborough. A bus ride followed by a 20 minute walk brings one to this delightful pub on the outskirts of Crowborough and on the edge of Ashdown Forest. Crowborough is also the highest town in South East England, and has a reputation for being cold and windy. The Cooper’s is a “quiet pub”, in respect of no recorded music or fruit machines. I first knew it when it was a Charrington’s pub, back in the 1980’s. It then passed to Greene King, before eventually becoming a free-house.

There were twelve Dark and Delicious Winter beers on sale, all dispensed from several banks of hand pumps dotted along the bar. The beers which really stood out were Dark Monro, a 4.0% chocolate and coffee flavoured dark mild from Highland Brewery. (Their 5.0% Oat Stout was also very good). “Rhatas”, a rich dark bitter from Black Dog Brewery of Melmerby, North Yorkshire, was very enjoyable, but the star of the show, as far as I was concerned, was the award-winning 1872 Porter from Elland Brewery in West Yorkshire. This was a most enjoyable festival and I hope to be going along to this year’s event, which is probably coming up at the beginning of next month.

Tillingbourne presentation
At the beginning of March a group of West Kent CAMRA members visited Tillingbourne Brewery, at its stunning location high up in the Surrey Hills. The brewery’s 3.3% ABV The Source had won “Beer of the Festival” at the previous year’s SVR Festival, so we were invited to the brewery to present their certificate. Travelling by mini-coach our party of 22 arrived shortly after midday on what was officially the first day of spring.

The sunny weather helped the “feel good factor”, and it certainly was pleasant being out in the early spring sunshine.We spent an interesting couple of hours looking around the brewery whilst sampling three of the brewery’s beers: Falls Gold, Bouncing Bomb and Hop Troll. Our visit was followed by a pre-booked late lunch at the King William IV in the nearby village of West Horsley.

Old House, Ightham Common
That was the only brewery visit of the year, but other highlights of 2014 included a couple of tutored beer tasting sessions. I went to the first of these events, which took place in January at the 16th Century Crown Inn at Groombridge, right on the Kent-Sussex border. Conducted by Iain, our branch chairman, we were taught how to properly assess beer by taking into account its appearance, aroma, taste and mouth-feel. The tastings were conducted on two beers from Black Cat Brewery which, at the time, were brewed just down the road. Following a change of ownership, the brewery has now relocated to Palehouse Common, which is just a few miles down the road from Groombridge.

Throughout the year there were also a number of bus rips and rambles to some of the areas most unspoilt and hard to get to country pubs plus, of course, the annual Good Friday Ramble, organised by Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA On our bus trip to the Fountain, in the tiny Wealden village of Cowden, we saw off the last of the season’s Old Ale from Harvey’s. We also re-visited the National Inventory-listed Old House at Ightham Common.
Real pie, plus Harvey's Old - Fountain, Cowden
One final point which is certainly worth mentioning was my joining the British Guild of Beer Writers; the organisation which represents all those who write about beer, from professional journalists to Bloggers like me who write purely for my own enjoyment. This was something I had been meaning to do for a long time, and having been accepted into the Guild I feel that my writing has now come of age.

So here’s to an equally beer-filled 2015!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

2014 - The Year in Beer

I stated in my previous post that I wasn’t going to do a Golden Pints for 2014. I intend to stick to my resolve, but what I want to do instead is to look back at some of last year’s beery highlights and pick a few golden moments which really stuck in my memory.

At the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
On the travel front it was a year of four capitals cities; two national capitals (Berlin and Dublin), and two state/provincial capitals (Barcelona and Munich). Of the four, only Munich was familiar, and unfortunately our visit there was marred by bad weather. Actually Barcelona wasn’t much better weather-wise, but then it was late November. Dublin also lavished a night of torrential rain on us, but after that we were blessed by warm summer sunshine – definitely a case of when Irish eyes are smiling!

The year’s globe-trotting began with six glorious days in Berlin at the beginning of March. Our first visit to the German capital was marked by wall-to-wall sunshine which meant excellent conditions for sight-seeing, plus the unexpected bonus of sitting out in the open whilst enjoying a beer or two.

Early spring sunshine - East Berlin
Beery highlights in Berlin included sitting out on a sun-drenched terrace over-looking the still, blue waters of the Müggelsee just outside Friedrichshagen in rural East Berlin. The mug of cool, pale golden Bürgerbräu Pils tasted all the better for the idyllic scenery and the unseasonably warm early march sunshine. A few days previously we enjoyed a similar outdoor drink at a café in the extensive grounds of the San Soucci Palace in Potsdam; with refreshment provided in the form of Potsdamer Rex Pils.

San Soucci - Potsdam
Our outdoor experiences lasted right through our time in Berlin, and we ended our visit with an evening meal which we enjoyed at a table outside the excellent and quirky Dickie Wirtin pub, close to our hotel in the Charlottenburg district of the city. Fortunately the outdoor seating area was warmed by patio heaters, as the night times were definitely on the chilly side! Mönchshof Kellerbier from Kulmbach, served in a ceramic mug, was the surprise find of the evening, and went down very well with my roast chicken dinner.

"The Church" - Dublin
At the end of June I made my first trip across the Irish Sea to the capital of the Irish Republic. Dublin was the host city for the 2014 European Beer Blogger’s Conference, and this beery event certainly lived up to its reputation. There were so many superlatives over the course of this long weekend that it’s hard to know where to start. The highlights had to be the visit to the Guinness Brewery on the Friday evening where, as guests of the brewery management, we were treated to a top-notch beer and food pairing. The brewery chefs had pulled out all the stops to lay on some excellent food which ranged from fresh oysters to cod and chips and hand-crafted beef burgers. There was a beer from the Guinness portfolio to complement each course; my favourite being the Foreign Extra Stout.

Free stuff
Incidentally the only pint of Guinness I drank during the four days I was in Dublin was the pint I had at the brewery. The thriving Irish Craft Beer scene meant there was no need to resort to the ubiquitous “black stuff”, such was the variety and quality of the locally brewed beers on offer. Thursday night’s introductory pub-crawl, led by veteran Irish blogger Reuben Gray, introduced us to some of the capital’s finest alehouses and ensured the conference started in a beery haze; a theme which continued for the rest of the event.

Yours truly with Brewmaster Vaclav Berka
There were two more beer and food pairings that weekend. The first was the conference barbecue which took place on Saturday lunchtime in the garden of “The Church”, the stunning and superbly appointed conference venue, situated right in the heart of Dublin. Pilsner Urquell hosted this event and on hand to dispense us Pilsner Urquell straight from a couple of wooden casks was the company’s legendary Head Brewmaster Vaclav Berka
In the evening the conference finished with a superb four-course meal, prepared by “The Church’s” talented chefs. The event was hosted by Franciscan Well Brewery of Cork, and brewery founder, Shane Long, talked us through the beers he had selected to accompany each course. The meal ended with an excellent barrel-aged stout, which was a fitting way to wind up the conference and bring to an end what for me had been four of the most beery days of my entire life!

Lunch by the lake
The next city I visited was Munich; capital of the Free State of Bavaria and a long-time favourite destination for beer and a good time. However, the Gemütlichkeit induced by a Maß or two of beer in a shady beer garden was very slow to materialise, with wind, rain and unseasonably cool temperatures marring much of our visit. Beery highlights included sitting on the shore of the Ammersee at Seehof Herrsching enjoying a couple of mugs of Hofbräu Original, whilst watching the steamers come and go from the nearby jetty. This was on the way back from our by now obligatory pilgrimage to the monastery brewery of Kloster Andechs.

View from Gasthof  Stern
A trip up into the Bavarian Alps to the small town of Mittenwald, was another highlight and sitting out in the courtyard behind the Gasthof Stern pub, enjoying a few glasses of locally-brewed Mittenwalder beer whilst taking in the view of the mountains and the cool alpine air, was a refreshing and enjoyable experience. On route to Mittenwald we made a detour to Kloster Ettal to pick up some beers and try then at source in the imposing hotel opposite. The bus trip up into the mountains through the fir trees via the steep, winding road was another unforgettable experience.

Local beer
On previous visits to the Bavarian capital we had relied quite heavily on Larry Hawthorne’s Beer Drinker’s Guide to Munich. However, although on its sixth edition the guide, has not been revised since 2008, and is now badly out of date. We found several city-centre outlets now serving a different brewery’s beer, and standards had definitely slipped at a number of entries. That said, the BDG2M is still an invaluable guide for tracking down the best of the city’s beer gardens. I don’t think we could have found the path through the woods from Höllriegelskreuth S-Bahn station to the excellent Gaststätte Brückenwirt on the banks of the Isar River without it, or the way back to the tram turnaround at Grünwald.
Enjoying the sunshine at Hirschau
Gemütlichkeit was eventually found and enjoyed on the last day of our trip at Hirschau Biergarten, in the northern section of the Englischer Garten. The sun finally shone and the mercury climbed. A few beers at Forschungsbrauerei that evening rounded off the trip and provided some of the finest quality and tastiest beer of the trip.

The fourth and final capital of the year was Barcelona - Spain’s second largest city and capital of Catalonia. Although I had once changed trains here 40 odd years ago, I had seen nothing of the city itself. My wife had been keen to visit Barcelona for some time, so we booked up a long weekend right at the end of November in search of some sun to go with the Catalonian experience.

Unfortunately the weather gods once again failed to smile on us, and our visit coincided with one of the worst storms to hit the western Mediterranean in some years. Still, the temperatures remained in the high teens and we did have one day of sunshine. Beer is big news in Spain, especially amongst the country’s younger generation. Young people have been deserting the country’s traditional tipple of wine in their droves, and numerous boutique bars and craft breweries have sprung up to cater for their beery demands. Nowhere more is this trend evident than in Catalonia, and there is now a thriving craft-beer scene operating in Barcelona.

La Fabrica Moritz
Eileen isn’t a beer drinker, so it would have been rather unfair of me to drag her round a succession of different beer joints. We did however, make a couple of visits to La Fabrica Moritz; the former home of what was once Barcelona’s second largest brewery, and now a trendy, boutique restaurant-cum-micro-brewery situated in the university district, just a stone’s throw from our hotel.

Both the un-pasteurised house beers sold in this rambling complex, were very good and went well with the food served there. The real find though was BierCab, a well-stocked craft-beer bar only three blocks away from our hotel. I spent a most enjoyable rainy Saturday afternoon there, sitting at the bar, enjoying some tapas plus a few of the bar’s 30 different craft beers. The manager was very knowledgeable about the beers he was selling; something he managed to get across despite the language barrier.

BierCab Barcelona
I stuck with the Spanish beers, enjoying two locally-brewed American Pale Ales (La Pirata Viakrus and Mango Pale), plus a 7.6% Golden Ale from Pamplona, called Farmer’s Choice. I even bought a few bottles to take home, from the Biercab Shop next door. I’ve yet to sample them, but will no doubt be reviewing them over the coming weeks.

This concludes the foreign travel experiences undertaken last year, and is therefore a convenient place at which to break. In the next part of this review I want to look back at the beer festivals I attended along with a few other beery adventures.

To be continued……………………………………………………

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy New Year 2015

Well it’s out with the old and in with the new, so there’s a brighter, easier to read, slightly more contemporary look to the blog. I will also, over the course of the next few days, be reviewing my blog list; removing those blogs where there’s been no activity for months, and replacing them with a few new blogs which have caught my interest.

One fellow blogger who we haven’t heard from for a while is dear old Neville Grundy a.k.a. Red Nev. Nev’s blog is always an interesting mix of what’s happening on the beer and pub scene in and around his home town of Southport, coupled with news of what’s coming up on the local music scene. There’s sometimes the odd bit of politics throw in for good measure!

Nev stopped posting to his ReARM blog for several months, earlier last year. That disappearance was due to computer problems, so I am hoping a related issue is the cause of the current absence, rather than something more sinister. Anyway Neville, if you’re reading this then I hope all is well, and don’t worry I won’t be removing your blog from the list for some time yet!

Today is the first day in over a week that I’ve felt remotely human. There’s a cupboard full of beer downstairs so I will be cracking a few bottles open later this evening. I won’t go too mad though, as I start back at work tomorrow and there’s a lot that needs doing.

I won’t be doing Golden Pints, or golden anything else for that matter, but I might still take a look back at some of the beery highlights of 2014.In the meantime though, I would like to wish each and every one of my readers a very happy and prosperous New Year.

A Sparkler is a Device Which Ruins Beer! Discuss..........................

Over the years, various Bloggers have written posts on the often derisive issue of sparklers; that Devil’s invention designed to produce an inch of shaving foam on top of a pint by knocking all the condition out of the beer. A decade or so ago these wretched devices started appearing here in the south; a region where we like our beer un-sullied and served as the brewer intended – well-conditioned and with just a slight loose and fluffy head. Fortunately local resistance saw off this unwelcome northern invasion; an invasion  which I suspect was inspired by marketing and advertising people, more interested in image than in taste and who had probably never drank a decent pint in their lives!

However, it doesn’t pay to let ones guard down as I discovered the other day when I was un-wittingly served a pint pulled through one of these damned things. In the previous post to this, I wrote about a pint of Adnams Southold being totally ruined with all the condition knocked out of it, just to create an inch of unwanted froth on top of the beer. Pure madness, and seeing as the crime took place in a pub which is part of a nationally-owned chain, it seems as if the jokers in the marketing department are still calling the shots.

So what is a sparkle and what does it do? Well according to Wikipedia, “A sparkler is a device that can be attached to the nozzle of a beer engine. Designed rather like a shower-head, beer dispensed through a sparkler becomes aerated and frothy which results in a noticeable head. Some CO2 is carried into the head, resulting in a softer, sweeter flavour due to the loss of normal CO2 acidity.
Spraying the beer into the glass!

There is some dispute about the benefits of a sparkler. There is an argument that the sparkler can reduce the flavour and aroma, especially of the hops, in some beers. The counter argument is that the sparkler takes away harshness. A pub may favour sparklers because the larger head they produce means it does not need to supply as much beer. Generally, breweries in Northern England serve their beers with a sparkler attached and breweries in the South without, but this is by no means definitive.”

I’m not certain exactly when I first came across the dreaded sparkler, but it must have been fairly early in my drinking career. I would imagine the first time I saw these devices in action would have been in association with the bar-mounted cylinder-type electric pumps which were extremely common when I first went up to Manchester as a student, in the autumn of 1973.

Actually it may even have been some 6-8 months previous to that when, whilst still in the Upper VI, I was a member of a school party, on a geology field trip to North Wales. We were based in the small town of Bangor, and at the end of each day in the field, we would write up notes, compare specimens and plan the next day’s activities. The rest of the evening was then our own, so naturally many of us would drift off to explore some of the local pubs. We weren’t supposed to have been drinking, as certainly most of the Lower VI pupils who had travelled with us were under 18. Back then no-one seemed to mind overly,  and the teachers who’d accompanied us weren’t bothered, as long as we behaved ourselves and didn’t come back rolling drunk!

The majority of the local pubs were tied to Greenall Whitley; a brewery I had never heard of, but to our untutored palates, “Grotty Greenalls” didn’t taste too bad. What did come as a revelation was the extensive use of the aforementioned cylinder-type electric pumps. I remember being fascinated by the movement of the piston back and forth along the horizontal glass cylinder; with each strike dispensing an exact half pint into an over-sized glass. The beer was dispensed each time with tremendous force, so much so that it hissed audibly as it was forced into the glass. There was a white plastic collar attached to the end of the spout and this was almost certainly a type of sparkler.

I remember seeing those same collars in use a few years later in some of the few Greater Manchester pubs which had hand pumps at the time. The bar staff had to use a considerable amount of force in order to operate the beer engine in order to pull the beer through, and it was fascinating to watch the milky-looking beer swirling in the glass, before separating out into a thick, creamy head, above the clear, bright beer below. From memory it was mainly the older, “none improved” Boddingtons and Robinsons pubs which still retained hand-pulls; with most of their modernised houses converted to metered, electric pump dispense.
It's Frothy Man!

The beer, in the main was very good. I drank enough of it as a student with a three or four pint session most nights! I’ve no doubt that this type of dispense suited beers such as Boddingtons, Robinsons, Holts, Hydes, Lees, Wilsons and even Greenalls. However there are a great many beers where pulling through a sparkler not only strips them of both character and condition, but also completely alters the overall balance of the beer and hence spoils the taste.

It seems I am not alone in thinking this. Following various visits to Britain, American home-brewer Jim Williams, makes the following observations on his blog:,:

“In the UK, one pretty much only sees the sparkler in the North of England, then it seems to almost disappear throughout Scotland appearing at some pubs while not at others. I’ve been to the UK many times, but it was always time spent in the south. I was lucky to spend 3 weeks travelling around Northern Britain in the summer of 2010 and got to speak with many Northerners about the subject of the sparkler and the conclusion was interesting!

With the exception of every cellar-man we spoke to, Northerners prefer beer served with a sparkler. Why? Surprisingly, it didn’t have anything to do with how the ale tasted, but how it looked! They prefer the tight creamy head on the beer, rather than the “flat” beer of the south. Thing is, if you taste a beer with and without the sparkler, they are quite different! To my taste, the sparkled beer tastes flat, old and stale, with no hop character in the beer, but possibly more in the aroma. The non sparkled beer tastes fresh, lively and more bitter, yet well rounded. It makes sense; you’re taking a lightly carbonated ale and literally forcing it through tiny holes. Of course, that’s going to knock out carbonation and force hop aroma into the head of the beer. Thing is, if you force that carbonation out of the beer, it’s going to foam like crazy so you have to start with even less carbonation to balance it out!

The cellar-men we spoke to also had different views on how best to serve their ale. In the south, it seemed they were indifferent towards the use of a beer engine vs. straight from the cask in the cellar. Either one was great, and was basically, the same. In the North, without exception, every cellar man preferred the ale straight from the tap in the cellar. As the cellar-man at the Lion in Nottingham proudly stated, “You have to pull the bloody sparkler off upstairs if you want a proper pint!”

Several times, we ordered pints in the North with and without the sparkler just to taste the difference and invited locals to taste with us. They always commented that the sparkled pint “looked nice”. And, we don’t like “flat” beer. Eventually, we were no longer surprised that they “drank with their eyes”. Not once did the discussion revolve around how the beer tasted, and I guess that’s my biggest issue with this discussion.

I have to also speculate that the sparkler is also nothing more than a short cut for the publican to not do his job very well. He can focus less on the conditioning of the ale, and more on how loose or tight that sparkler is on the end of the long swan neck!”

In other words a device to cover up the shortcomings of badly-kept and poorly-conditioned beer! To sum up, sparklers add absolutely nothing to a pint; in fact they ruin it by knocking the condition out of the beer by forcing it into the big foamy head. Northerners drink with their eyes and are far more concerned with how the beer looks in the glass than what it actually tastes like. They use the word “flat” to describe a beer which lacks a thick head, rather than a beer which is devoid of condition.

I therefore rest my case and now challenge any northern drinker who can put forward a counter argument based on science and logic, rather than prejudice and emotion, to do so.