Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Interrail 1975 Part One - Concept & Planning

As this blog is as much about travel as it is about beer, here’s a post which outlines one of my earliest experiences of travelling beyond these shores; back in the days long before the advent of the internet and on-line booking, and harking back to a time when items such as basic mobile phones, let alone “Smart-phones”, were nothing more than figments in the minds of science fiction writers.

Back in the mid-1970’s; I think it was the summer of 1975, although it could have been a year later, a student friend and I embarked on a month’s travelling around Western Europe, by rail, taking advantage of the Interrail pass. This was, and still is – although it has been modified and expanded over the years, a ticket which allowed the holder unlimited travel across the rail networks of all those countries which had signed up to the scheme.

Basically, this meant all of western Europe, plus former Yugoslavia. Eastern-bloc countries (those behind the “Iron Curtain”), were not participants in the scheme, but the prospect of being able to travel from Scandinavia in the north, right down to the Iberian Peninsula in the south, and from France in the west, across to Greece and Yugoslavia in the east, still afforded ample scope for some quite extensive journeys, with plenty of countries to visit along the way.

I travelled with my friend Nick, who I had known since my first day at Salford University. We’d met, whilst standing in the queue waiting to register. We lived close to one another and would regularly meet up for a drink, which fitted in well with our love of beer, and also membership of CAMRA. Nick had tested out the Interrail experience the previous year, although after becoming separated from his travelling companion quite early on in the trip (due to the latter individual losing his passport), had ended up completing most of the itinerary on his own. This time around he was looking for someone more reliable and more responsible; which was where I fitted in.

We settled on the long summer break for our trip, and duly set out to map out our itinerary. Armed with little more than a map of Europe taken from a school geography book, we decided on a circular route, travelling clockwise around the western half of the continent taking in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Italy, France, Spain and then finally back  to England, via France.

With a rough idea of our direction of travel, along with the countries we would be passing through, we moved on to the next stage which was to look at rail routes and train times, and or this we enlisted the help of the Thomas Cook International Train Timetable; a weighty tome which gave details, and train times, of virtually all the main European rail-routes, along with many of the minor ones as well.

This was a job requiring both concentration and attention to detail, so in true student tradition we spent several evenings in the pub, pouring over the timetable, whilst taking notes and jotting down details. (You didn’t think we’d do this in the library did you?) Our chosen location was the public bar of the Honest Miller at Brook where, over copious pints of locally-brewed bitter, served in dimple mug glasses, we poured over map and timetable, fine-tuning our itinerary.

Brook was the village where I spent my teenage years, and where my parents and sister still lived at the time. It is a small village, nestling in the shadow of the North Downs, a few miles outside Ashford in Kent. The Honest Miller was (still is), Brook’s only pub, and at the time was a real unspoilt village local, with two bars; one of which was a traditional public bar with a quarry-tiled floor, an open fire (in winter), and a serving hatch in place of a bar. Even better than this was the gravity-served Whitbread Trophy Bitter, brewed locally in Faversham and based on the old recipe for Fremlin’s 3 Star Bitter.

Thirsty work -all this planning!
During the Easter vacation, Nick had come to stay for a few days (he only lived in London). I think my parents, or my mother at least, were relieved to meet the person their only son would be disappearing off round Europe with, for a month – and literally disappearing as with no modern communication devices, apart from the occasional public call box and the odd postcard home, I would be totally incommunicado. 

During these evenings in the put, we sketched fleshed out the bones of our rough itinerary; deciding on train times, locations we wanted to visit and places to stay. We agreed that in Northern Europe, these would be Youth Hostels, whilst in the warmer south, we would camp. Consequently we would need to carry a small, two-man tent; a burden we agreed to take turns at carrying. We would also, wherever possible, travel using over-night train services, as that way we could sleep on the train (or at least try to), thereby saving on accommodation costs.

 We also listed out what we would need to take in terms of clothing, sleeping bags and camping gear, and what we could get away with by leaving behind. I invested in a decent framed-rucksack, and we both joined the Youth Hostel Association. In addition, whilst staying with Nick’s father, in London, we did the rounds of the various national tourist information offices to pick up maps, brochures, local guides etc; in short anything we thought would be useful for the places we were intending to visit. We also each purchased the all important Interrail pass. I can’t remember exactly where we picked these up, but I’ve a feeling it may have been one of the main London termini; possibly Victoria.

Eventually the day of departure dawned, and we set off from Liverpool Street station and caught the train to Harwich. From there we took the ferry across the North Sea to the Hook of Holland; a rather tedious six-hour crossing. Fortunately the sea was calm, and after passing through customs at the Hook, and being asked a few pertinent questions by the Dutch immigration officials (hardly surprising in view of our appearance – long hair and the rucksacks we were carrying), we were boarded a train heading to Amsterdam.

Now I don’t intend giving a blow by blow account of our trip, so I will confine the narrative to beer-related matters, plus the occasional point of interest, and you will be able to read about this in the next installment. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

All quiet on the western front

It’s been rather quiet on the beer front since the start of January, with not a lot to report. Last Monday I attended a “Business Meeting” held by my local CAMRA branch. These events take place every couple of months and are about as formal as things go in West Kent CAMRA. The branch likes to rotate them amongst the three main towns within the area: Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells.

I don’t always go along, but seeing as Monday’s meeting was held at the Primrose; a small, attractive, weather-boarded pub which is just five minutes walk from my front door, I thought I’d better show my face!

Our new branch chairman has a less formal style than his predecessor, and allowed the conversation, and debate to flow; instead of restricting it in a rush to get through the agenda. I rather liked this approach, and may go along to more meetings, even though I am no longer on the branch committee.

Apart from the rather mundane matters of GBG selections and Pub of the Year (don’t call it POTY unless you really intend to get my goat up!), the main item for discussion was the findings of CAMRA’s much vaunted “Revitalisation Project”. “Much ado about nothing”, was my summation; an opinion which was echoed by several others of those present, but leaving aside issues such as the increased status of cider within the Campaign, the chief concern was that of attracting new and active members.

Excuse the camera angle; I was completely sober when I took this shot!
Several ideas were floated around, but having seen many of them tried, and failed, in the past, I kept my mouth shut. The problem is we have over six hundred members on our books, but only see a fraction of them at branch meetings or socials. Monday’s meeting was actually the first one in ages where attendance reached double figures (but only just!).

The pub was reasonably busy for a Monday evening, but this was almost certainly due to the darts match it was hosting, and the presence of us CAMRA members. The sole beer, Harvey’s Sussex Best was in good nick, and all in all I enjoyed the meeting, especially as it afforded the chance to catch up with friends after the Christmas-New Year break.

I’m still none the wiser as to how we will attract new blood into the branch, but I suppose we’ll soldier on in the same vein for a few more years yet!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Spotted Dog - Smart's Hill

By way of a change from my recent, much “heavier” piece about beer pricing, here’s a short post about the visit my son and I made to the charming Spotted Dog at Smart’s Hill, just outside Pensuhrst. I had volunteered to survey the pub for next year’s CAMRA Good Beer Guide; this was after saying a few years ago that I wanted nothing more to do with that particular publication!

My change of heart was sparked much more by a desire to revisit this lovely old 15th Century inn, rather than doing my bit for the Campaign, but having sat through the preliminary meeting, following our branch AGM, when nominations for possible entries were being taken, I put my name forward in a moment of weakness to help out by surveying a couple of outlying rural pubs.

Sunday wasn’t the best day to turn up, survey form in hand, and I actually kept that piece of paper well hidden. As a seasoned pub surveyor, admittedly one who’s a bit out of practice, I know what to look for and what questions to ask without raising the slightest hint of suspicion. 

Smart’s Hill is little more than a couple of rows of houses sited on high ground, to the south of Penshurst, overlooking the River Medway which, in this part of Kent, is still relatively small in size. Somewhat unusually, for such a rural part of the county, there is a second pub, called the Bottle House, at Smart’s Hill, although the latter is further up the hill in an even more isolated location. Because of their situation, both pubs rely heavily on the food trade but of the two, I would say the Spotted Dog retains much more of a “pubby” atmosphere.

Given this reliance on food, the Spotted Dog was understandably busy when Matt and I arrived, gearing up to cater for all those after a spot of Sunday lunch. Judging by the “Reserved” signs on the majority of the table, booking is advisable; if not essential, and given the dearth of available spaces, we resorted to sitting at the bar. Although the weather has turned milder than it had been recently, both the pub’s fires were lit, and this combined with the beamed, low-ceiling interior, gave a cosy and comfortable feel to the pub.

There were three cask ales on tap, namely Harvey’s Sussex, Larkin’s Traditional and Young’s Bitter; the latter being a guest ale. I gave the Young’s a miss, as ever since this once iconic brewery ceased brewing at its historic Wandsworth home, and threw in its lot with Charles Wells of Bedford, the beer hasn’t been worth drinking. Instead I went with the Larkin’s Traditional, which despite its low strength of just 3.4%, still packs in plenty of flavour whilst being ideal for drivers.

Several parties of pre-booked diners arrived whilst we were sitting there, and it was encouraging to see that several of them were groups of walkers. The Spotted Dog welcomes ramblers, although it does have a sign by the door advising that, “Unless you are God or George Clooney, please remove muddy boots before entering.” As well as welcoming walkers, the pub is also “dog friendly” which, although welcome, is somewhat surprising given its reliance on the food trade.

The Spotted Dog itself, is a 15th century white weather boarded country inn that seems to cling to the hillside, and lies below the level of the road. It is a long low building with a terraced garden area between the pub and the road. Many years ago, there used to be some spectacular views, across the Medway Valley, from the rear of the building, but unfortunately this has now been obscured by the trees on the slope below, which are now reaching maturity.

The bar is right in front of the entrance, in what is the narrowest part of the pub, but the building opens out to the right where there is a larger open area, heated by a welcoming log burning stove in winter. There is also a small “snug” area, just in front of the window. At the opposite end of the building is the restaurant area, although as hinted at earlier most of the tables in the main part of the pub are often also set aside for diners, particularly at busy times. For those who like their warmth, there is also a much larger, open fire place, with an impressive stack of logs to match, adjacent to the passage which leads top the restaurant.

The pub’s popularity is evidenced by the large car park, just across the road, but despite the importance of the car-borne trade, many people do make the effort to walk here, as mentioned earlier, and as I too have done on several past occasions. Providing you time your visit right, it is also possible to travel to the Spotted Dog by bus. The 231 bus from Tunbridge Wells runs along the B2188 road, just below the pub, and you by alighting at the stop just before the turning to Smart’s Hill, you can walk up the hill and enjoy a few drinks without having to worry about driving. Do check the timetable though, and allow plenty of time to retrace your footsteps back to the bus stop, unless you fancy a long walk home!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The price is right?

This post was originally written as a rather lengthy comment on James Beeson’s Beeson on Beer site. It was in response to James’s take on Cloudwater Brewery’s decision to discontinue cask beer.

Now the matter of what some see as a pivotal moment in the modern brewing world, but the more down to earth amongst us see as little more than a storm in a tea cup (beer glass?), has been done to death by several noted bloggers and beer writers. There has been much navel gazing, pontificating and head scratching, which at times bordered on the absurd. I threw in my own four penneth worth, which appeared to upset a few people who disagreed with me trying to put the whole thing into perspective, so I’ve little else that I wish to add on that particular issue.

My comment over at James’s place was primarily in response to his suggestion; one which was also raised by Matthew Curtis at Total Ales, that cask beer is seriously under-priced. The argument is that cask beer is a premium product and should be treated, and priced, accordingly. A retail value of £4 + a pint was mooted, with comparisons being made with many craft beers which hit the £5 or even £6 bracket!

Both James and Matthew, along with several others, view this as the answer to a maiden’s prayer; whereas I see it as both unworkable and something which will price cask beer out of many pubs. My response should also be viewed against claims that CAMRA are partly to blame for the under-pricing of cask beer; something I will set out to dismiss as a fallacy, even though I agree with several of the other things being said about the Campaign in relation to this.

Before we get started, I am a CAMRA member, of over 40 years standing, so I was around not long after the start of the Campaign, back in the “bad old days”. This was when so-called “real ale” was hard to come by; certainly in some parts of the country, but by no means all. Before going any further, I prefer the industry term “cask-conditioned” beer rather than “real ale”, especially as there are many fine beers around which, whilst not meeting CAMRA’s rather dogmatic definition, are “real” in every other sense of the word, and are beers I am quite happy to drink.

There is no need here to go over again how CAMRA was successful in saving cask-ale from extinction and how the Campaign spurned what became a tidal wave of new brewery start-ups, as well as sparking a huge and still growing fascination with beer in all its many styles. This interest in beer turned in to a global phenomenon, and there are now few places on the planet where it is not possible to find decent beer.

Having largely achieved its aims, CAMRA rather lost its way. This was despite a huge increase in membership which some would argue, was partly down to its decision to jump into bed with major pub chain, Wetherspoon’s and offer 50p a pint discount vouchers, as part of the membership package.

Despite a much vaunted “revitalisation project”, aimed at establishing a new direction for CAMRA and attempting to inject new life, nothing much has changed. The project’s findings have been published, although they are yet to be debated and scrutinised by the membership, but at first glance they appear to be little more than just tinkering around the edges. It increasingly looks as though the Campaign has lost a golden opportunity to reinvent itself, and we are left with a typical British “fudge”, but we will have to see how things pan out –a bit like “Brexit” really!

I mentioned the JDW vouchers earlier, and many have questioned CAMRA’s rather too cosy relationship with the pub chain. There have been accusations of poor cellar-practices at some Wetherspoon’s outlets, but as someone who rarely uses his Spoon’s discount vouchers, I may not be the best person to comment on this. I do think though, it is time for CAMRA, which is a supposedly independent consumer organisation, to cut its ties with Wetherspoon’s, in order to leave itself totally free from accusations of bias or, indeed, cronyism.

The subject of Spoons leads on nicely to the thorny issue of pricing, and here it was pointed out that when CAMRA started its campaigning, back in the 1970’s, cask-conditioned beer was normally cheaper than the heavily promoted “keg beers” which the Big Brewers were pushing at the time. The protagonists went on to argue that for historic reasons, CAMRA was keen for the price of a pint of cask to remain low; forgetting, or rather not knowing, the historical reasons why cask was cheaper than “keg” in the first place.

Back in the transition period of the late 1960’s – early 1970’s cask-ale was still pretty much the norm in most pubs. It had been the way draught beers had been packaged, conditioned and dispensed for decades, and the introduction of keg beers would, if anything, ensure that cask remained the cheaper option.

Keg beer requires additional equipment, in the form of in-line chillers, gas dispense systems (including CO2 cylinders and associated regulators), plus fancy illuminated boxes on the bar, in order to serve it. Someone had to pay for this; and that someone was the drinker, but it didn’t end there. The fact that keg beers received heavy promotion, often in the form of expensive TV advertising, meant additional costs which were also passed on to the consumer.

At first people were often prepared to pay extra for the consistency which keg beers brought with them; but unfortunately that consistency came at a price, and as someone unlucky enough to have drunk the likes of Courage Tavern, Whitbread Tankard, Watney’s Red and Younger’s Tartan, I can vouch for the fact they were consistently AWFUL! 

They weren’t flat, oxidised or even vinegary, as badly-kept cask ale could be, and unfortunately sometimes still is; they were dull, incredibly bland and totally devoid of character. In fact you could be forgiven for thinking that most heavily-promoted keg beers hadn’t been anywhere near a barley field or a hop-garden!

The major brewers loved them for their consistency and profitability, particularly given that cheaper and often inferior ingredients were used in their production. Also by being filtered and often pasteurised, they were stable, with a much longer shelf-life once broached, and there was normally very little wastage.

Fast-forward four decades and we now have keg beers which are brewed from some of the finest quality ingredients available, by brewers dedicated to their craft, leading to some truly excellent beers appearing in the market. Unfortunately this is an area CAMRA has totally failed to recognise, and this is my main bone of contention with the organisation. I am sure many other beer lovers feel the same way.

It is also true to say, of course, that there are many breweries turning out cask ales with the same dedication, and the same careful selection of ingredients, and there are some equally fine cask ales out there, but unfortunately there are also some pretty dreadful beers being turned out as well.

Brewers of poor, or indifferent cask beer, get around this by charging rock-bottom prices, and it seems that there are pubs fully prepared to compromise in quality, so long as the price is right. It is equally true there are many drinkers content to drink such swill, because it suits their pockets, but is raising the price of cask beer, as several writers have suggested, the answer?

My thinking is that it would require a massive sea change in the way both the brewing industry and consumers think about beer, and in the current financial climate that’s just not going to happen. Peoples’ disposable incomes are usually finite, and whilst in the longer term some might be prepared to pay a little extra, it’s unlikely to be the £4+ premium that many commentators are demanding.

Now let’s say that some drinkers are prepared to pay more; especially when they’re getting a beer brewed from the finest floor-malted barely, and bittered with the finest aroma hops money can buy. If the beer is cask, WHO will guarantee that this carefully crafted dream pint will not be screwed up by careless handling, sloppy cellar practices, dirty lines (this applies equally to keg beers btw), or by being left on sale when it is obviously past its best.

The simple answer is that with cask beer you CANNOT guarantee this, and this was, still is and always will be the Achilles heel with so-called “real ale”. So good luck trying to tell someone that because cask is a “premium” product, you have to pay more for it; especially when that someone is on a limited budget, or is a pensioner or a worker on a low income, because it just won’t wash.

By insisting on charging substantially more for cask, because of the extra handling it receives, or because of allegedly superior ingredients, smacks of elitism in a manner akin to wine-snobbery. I fully accept that those brewers who do brew decent cask, and there are many of them around, deserve to be properly financially compensated for their efforts, and certain brewers may be able to get away with this. However, when other factors like wholesalers and the distribution chain in general are thrown into the equation, margins begin to get squeezed at other points, so if anything there are pressures on brewers to reduce prices rather than raise them.

For example, I don’t know how many people noticed that Enterprise Inns are pressing SIBA for a reduction of £3 per firkin for beers supplied by its members to Enterprise pubs. This come on top of a £5 a firkin reduction already “negotiated” back in November.

When large pub companies can apply this much clout, what chance is there of small “boutique” craft brewers getting a fair and honest price for their products? Talk therefore of charging a “premium” price for cask definitely remains as pie in the sky; as does talk of “educating the drinker about the value in paying more for his carefully-crafted  pint”.

I can see that suggestion going down really well at the Dog & Pheasant. Goodnight!

Friday, 6 January 2017

A day at the seaside

(Spoiler Alert – this post is not about beer and doesn’t even mention the stuff).

View from the dunes at Greatstone
After 10 days off work, and the same number of days over-indulging; especially on the food front, it was time to get out of the house and get some fresh air plus a change of scenery. I had, in fact, been out on a ramble, prior to New Year, and had also made a number of forays down to the town, but New Year’s Day was dull and dreary, and as I was to discover later, there were not many shops open either.

My wife and I had discussed the possibility of a drive down to the coast, and we agreed we would do this on the Bank Holiday Monday, providing the weather was good. Fortunately the sun was shining when we woke up that morning; a complete contrast to the previous day, so after a light breakfast we set off to drive down to the coast, for a day at the seaside.

We live in West Kent, close to the border with Sussex, and whilst we are approximately an hour’s drive away from the sea, we have a choice of destinations depending on which route we decide to take. For example, if we head due south, we will be in Hastings, whereas heading south-east would take us towards Romney Marsh and the beaches of Dymchurch or Greatstone.

We decided on the latter, with the other-worldly shingle spit of Dungeness as our final destination, so headed up towards West Malling first to pick up the M20 motorway towards Folkestone. Apart from the stretch to the north of Maidstone, the motorway was fairly quiet, and we made good progress.

We turned off just east of Ashford and made our way onto the A2070; a fairly new road which leads down onto Romney Marsh.  I know this area well, having lived and grown up just outside Ashford, when trips to the seaside, across the Marsh, were a fairly regular family occurrence. Eileen and I have also been fairly frequent visitors to the area; although these visits were normally made from the other direction. In fact when our son was small, we rented a couple of different properties in the Rye-Winchlesea area, and enjoyed some really good family holidays.

On this occasion, we drove into New Romney; a pleasant enough coastal town which once had its own harbour; as befitting of a member of the Cinque Ports. Nowadays, the town is a mile or so from the sea, and it was the road down to the seafront that we followed, emerging at Littlestone of Sea. This small settlement was a favourite place to visit, during my childhood, as it has an extensive sandy beach which leads right along the coast; to Dymchurch and St Mary’s Bay in one direction and to Greatstone and Dungeness in the other.

The art-deco Jolly Fisherman at Greatstone
We followed the road to the right, along to Greatstone, which was another favourite spot from my childhood. The main thing which has changed since those days is the loss of the once extensive sand dunes. Back in the 1960’s these extended on both sides of the road, and on the seaward side formed a high barrier over-looking the sea. Apart from a short stretch adjacent to the public car park, these have all but disappeared, whilst on the other side of the road they have vanished completely, to be replaced by housing. The large sandy ridges and dips in between, where my sister and I played as children are, alas no more, along with the welcome shelter these dunes provided when a strong onshore wind made conditions on the beach cold and uncomfortable.

Nuclear power on the Kent Coast
We carried on towards Dungeness, passing on the way the Pilot; a seaward facing pub famed for its fish and chips, and the place we planned to stop for lunch at on the way back. Dungeness is one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, and is also an important sanctuary for wildlife. There are two nuclear power stations at Dungeness, designated by the letters A and B. Dungeness A opened in 1965 whilst B became operational in 1983. The older power station closed in 2006, while the newer one has had its licence extended to 2028.

Dungeness is also home to two lighthouses; the oldest of which was first lit in 1904. It is no longer in use as a lighthouse but is open as a visitor attraction. With the sea gradually receding, the need to construct a new lighthouse became more apparent; especially following the construction of the power station, when the light of the 1904 lighthouse became even more obscured.  The current, fully automatic structure, built as a replacement, became operational in 1961.

In addition to the power station and lighthouse, there are a number of dwellings, most of which are of wooden construction. Many are owned and occupied by fishermen, whose boats lie on the beach. Fresh seafood can be purchased from some of these dwelling. Several of the houses have been constructed around old railway coaches, which gives them a characteristic appearance.

Old lighthouse, Dungeness with the new one in the distance
Perhaps the most famous of these houses is the black-painted Prospect Cottage, formerly owned by the late artist and film director Derek Jarman. The garden which is made of pebbles, driftwood, scrap metal and a few hardy plants is the main attraction here; reflecting the bleak, windswept landscape of the peninsula.

We parked up adjacent to the entrance to Dungeness A Nuclear Power Station, just a short hop from the Britannia; Dungeness’s other pub, a concrete structure which has been gradually extended over the years. It was a short walk from the car park, up a steep shingle bank, to the sea. We stopped and passed the time of day with two heavily armed policemen, who were probably glad to relieve the boredom of their patrol around the power station perimeter.

There were a few hardy souls fishing off the beach; due to its steeply shelving shingle, Dungeness is popular with beach fishermen, and I remember fishing there myself, back in my youth. What made the visit interesting for me, was that standing on top of the steep shingle bank, constructed to afford some additional protection to the nuclear plant in the event of a storm surge, it was possible to see both side of the promontory which is Dungeness. I had previously only seen this from the air.

Eileen was however, keen to get back to the car and out of the wind, so once back in the warmth I started the engine and we headed back long the coastal road to the Pilot. We noticed there were even more vehicles in the car park than there had been earlier, and despite managing to find a parking spot it was pretty obvious that the pub was heaving inside, and there we would face a long wait for our fish and chips.

Best fish & chips on this stretch of coast
Undeterred we jumped back in the car and drove the short distance along to Greatstone, where we knew there was a decent fish and chip shop, in the form of Greatstone Fish Bar. Our cod and chips were cooked freshly to order, and were excellent value at just over a fiver each. A plastic cup full of scalding hot tea each, followed by parking up opposite, in the shadow of the dunes, allowed us to dine like royalty, eating our ample and tasty lunch, straight out of the paper.

Once we’d finished our meal, I scrambled to the top of the dunes to take a look at the beach. The tide was in, and the sea looked rough, but there were still a few dog walkers taking strolling along just below the seaward signs of the dunes. Eileen, rather wisely, remained in the car.

We drove back to Tonbridge via Camber and Rye. We were tempted to stop off at the latter, but we will save the delights of that lovely old town for another day; especially as we will be able to travel there by train (assuming the crazy strike affecting Southern Trains is over soon).

Journeying back inland through such delightful places as Northiam, Newenden and Hawkhurst, reminded us of how lucky we are to live in this idyllic corner of the South East. It was still light when we arrived home, but the light was beginning to fade, so once indoors, it was a question of lighting the fire, and pouring ourselves a nice stiff drink, after what had been an excellent day out.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2016 - The Year in Beer

After the beery and travel excesses of 2015; a year which saw me celebrating my 60th birthday in style, 2016 was rather tame in comparison. Five overseas trips which took in four different countries, was always going to take some beating and 2016 saw other events either clashing or taking preference.

At the end of each year I like to look back at what I have achieved in various areas of my life. With just four and a half years before I reach thee state retirement age, there is still much to do before I can swap the nine to five with something different, and potentially more rewarding. Part of my strategy is to complete the outstanding work on the house and pay off the mortgage.

The latter is probably progressing at a faster rate than the former, due to the inability of the great British workman to turn up when he’s supposed to, and do the work he’s being paid to do. This seems to be a common complaint amongst friends and acquaintances at the moment, so perhaps I need to find an East European builder quickly, before our illustrious leader has them all deported.

A family wedding put paid to mid-summer travel plans, along with a major audit at work. The latter put most of June out of the running, but on the plus side we passed the audit, and can continue selling our products in the United States. I also made a number of trips up to Norfolk to visit my father, and to assist my sister in clearing out my parent’s bungalow. The last of these trips was pretty manic, as the property had just been sold and the new owners were pushing for vacant possession.

Earlier in the year, I managed a long weekend in Barcelona; ostensibly for the Barcelona Beer Festival but also to spend some time exploring the Catalan capital and just generally chilling out. The weather was kind, with wall to wall sunshine, and whilst the locals were still parading around in coats and scarves, I was walking around in a T-shirt and a hoody. I can certainly recommend Barcelona as a great place to visit, and also a city where the interest in beer is rising exponentially.

August is often an unsettled month, as far as the weather is concerned, and my trip to Amsterdam for the EBBC certainly proved this to be true. After a fantastic day exploring the countryside around the southern Dutch city of Den Bosch, the rest of my visit was marred by rain, which turned out to be torrential at times. I did, however, renew my acquaintance with the lovely laid-back city of Amsterdam; a place I last visited 40 years ago.

The reverse was true, weather-wise, of our family holiday to Regensburg. This took place at the end of September, and sunny days, with temperatures in the mid twenties, combined with warm evenings, proved the perfect introduction for my wife to the delights of a holiday in southern Germany. I managed to drink reasonable amount of beer there as well.

Of course no look back at 2016 can ignore the year’s major political bombshell of June 23rd. By allowing itself to be dumped out of the European Union following a reckless political stunt by the then Prime Minister, the United Kingdom has shot itself in the foot, in a big way. It borders on the absurd that the future of the entire country can be decided on the strength of a simple yes/no answer on a ballot paper.

What’s even worse is that “Call me Dave” didn’t have the remotest inkling that the vote might go against him and, as we soon found out, had no plan and no idea of how to enact “the will of the people”. You really couldn’t make this sort of thing up; it’s like deciding one’s whole future on the toss of a coin!

The surprise election of the Donald, as President of the United States, could also have dire consequences for global prosperity or, even worse, world peace. We shall see, of course, but if anything these populist uprisings have only hastened my resolve to get working on something different and to get out of the rat race whilst the going is still good.

That’s enough of the doom and gloom; instead let’s talk about happier things and look back at the beery events of 2016.

Best Brewery Visits
Unfortunately I missed out on the trip organised by my local CAMRA Branch to Bedlam and Dark Star breweries, as it clashed with one of the aforementioned “bungalow clearing” visits to Norfolk. As if by way of compensation, I managed to visit three breweries in the Netherlands, as part of my attendance at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam.

The breweries concerned were, in chronological order: Abbey of Koningshoeven at Berkel-Enschot (La Trappe), Jopen Brewery in Haarlem, and De Molen Brewery in Bodegraven.

The highlight was without doubt, De Molen; no surprises there, but La Trappe at Koningshoeven came a close second, even though it was totally different and rather more commercialised.  As you can imagine, the peaceful setting of an Abbey, with its well-kept grounds and atmosphere of peaceful contemplation, takes a lot of beating. For sheer technical brilliance and innovation though, plus the setting of the bar and restaurant in an attractive old windmill, De Molen were worthy winners, and even getting soaked to the skin whilst walking down to the station, in order to catch the train to Boedegraven, could not detract from a fantastic experience.

Jopen’s original brewery, in a converted church in central Haarlem, was also worth seeing; as was the Jopenkerk itself. We also enjoyed an excellent barbecue, plus a sampling of Jopen beers at the company’s new, hi-tech brewery situated on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Haarlem.

Best Beer Festivals
I only attended three beer festivals last year, so again it’s worth mentioning them all.

Great British Beer Festival. The grand-daddy of all home-grown beer festivals, GBBF continues to be a spectacular success, and acts as a showcase for all that is best in British cask-conditioned beers. Obviously with the rise of craft-beer, GBBF is probably missing out on a few tricks, but as the Campaign for Real Ale’s flagship event, you could hardly expect it to focus on other types of beer; or could you?

Unfortunately the festival itself was far too crowded for my liking. There is nothing worse than having people three deep at the bar, and then finding the person in front of you is not only getting a round in, but wants a beer from the other end of the bar!

The increased numbers are great for CAMRA, as this means most of the beer gets sold and the festival makes a profit. However, I can’t help thinking that the event has now become a victim of its own success, and if visitors start to feel the same as me, then it is time for a re-think. This certainly applies to the chaotic layout. Not all of us are fans of cryptic crosswords; and many of us don’t do lateral thinking either. Please simplify the bar layouts and make it easier to find the beers we want.

Kent Green Hop Beer Festival. Organised as part of the Kent Food & Drink Festival, this annual event takes place in Canterbury’s Dane John Garden, in the shadow of the city’s historic stone walls. The festival aims to feature every Green Hop Beer produced by Kent breweries, and it usually succeeds with this aim.

The festival is an open air event, which is a huge plus in my book, and although fine weather must obviously be factored in here, September is usually a time when conditions are more settled than at other times of the year. The sun certainly shone this year, and it was great just chilling out, with friends, listening to some live music whilst enjoying a few of Kent’s finest Green Hop Beers. Without a shadow of doubt, the Kent Food & Drink Festival was my favourite by far, of the three events I attended.

Spa ValleyRailway Real Ale & Cider Festival. This is the event which my own (West Kent) CAMRA Branch organises, in conjunction with the preserved Heritage Railway, which runs from Tunbridge Wells down to Eridge. The festival has grown year on year, since it first started back in 2011, but has probably now reached its limit. The concept of having different beers available at the stations up and down the line, as well as on the trains themselves, is a great idea, but can be a logistical nightmare.

Working at the festival, as well as being one of the organisers in previous years, means I don’t get to enjoy the event as much as I would if was an ordinary punter; but its undoubted success is good for both the railway and for CAMRA. If you enjoy preserved railways, as well as beer, then I highly recommend this festival.

Best Beer on Home Turf
Harvey’s Sussex Best. For everyday drinking, no beer comes close to beating; a real classic and one of the best examples of a full-bodied and well-hopped southern bitter. If I could only choose one cask beer to drink for the rest of my days, then this would be it.

There were two best seasonal beers; both of which are dark ales.
Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale, a fine mellow, traditional old ale, reminiscent of a strong mild.

Larkin’s Porter, is stronger and packs in masses of flavour. Despite the relatively mild winter so far, I have drunk more Larkin’s Porter this year, than I have in previous years.

Best Beers Abroad
La Trappe Dubbel and Isid’or; both in the peaceful setting of the grounds of the Abbey of Koningshoeven, in the south of the Netherlands.

Brouwerij De Prael, whose 6.5% ABV, true to style India Pale Ale was, without doubt the best beer of last August’s visit to the Netherlands. Enjoyed at the brewery tap; a modern multi-level bar housed in a much older building,  tucked away down a very narrow side street, on the edge of Amsterdam’s Red Light District.

Bucket List
I didn’t manage to knock anything of note off my bucket list (the one which isn’t written down and which changes on a fairly regular basis!). My return visit to Amsterdam was a minor desire fulfilled, as was the return to Regensburg combined with my visit to the brewing nuns at Kloster Mallersdorf, (see below).

Best Locations to Enjoy a Beer
In the UK

Tattershall Castle.  A converted, former river ferry, moored just off Victoria Embankment on the River Thames, which can be hired out for functions. The boat acted as the venue for this year’s British Guild of Beer Writers’ pre-GBBF party, and sitting out on the top deck, set against the backdrop of the river, whilst enjoying some excellent beers, sourced from several of London’s many up and coming breweries, made for a fantastic evening.

Further afield

Spitalgarten Regensburg, Bavaria.  My all time favourite beer garden, set besides the River Danube, with views across to the old city and its towering medieval cathedral. Combine that with warm late autumn sunshine, excellent beer brewed next door, hearty Bavarian food, plus the company of my family, and what more could I want.

Black Lab Brew-House & Kitchen, Barcelona. Just a stone’s throw from the city’s bustling marina, and situated in a block of old warehouses which has now been converted into a series of shops, restaurants and bars. The pub interior is bright and modern-looking, and at the rear, behind some glass screens, are a series of fermenting vessels. The actual brew-kit is housed in another part of the pub. This was a great place to enjoy a few of Black Lab’s excellent house-brewed beers, along with a spot of lunch.

De Wilde Mann, Amsterdam. On a grey and rainy day, this unspoilt, traditional Dutch pub was the perfect place to escape both the crowds and the weather. Combine that with friendly and knowledgeable staff, an interior which can’t have changed in decades, plus the chance to talk to fellow pub and beer enthusiasts, and it definitely made for the best place to drink in Amsterdam.

Best Days Out
Two days stand out here, although there have been several others which would be worth mentioning in a longer post.

First: the EBBC pre-conference stop-over, in the lovely southern Dutch city of Den Bosch. A day of superlatives, which not only included the aforementioned visit to the La Trappe Brewery at Koningshoeven Abbey, but an hour long cycle ride through a forest and then along the banks of a canal to the village of  Oirschot, which has its own micro-brewery.

As if that wasn’t enough, once back in Den Bosch, we were given a boat ride along the network of canals which ring the city. Some of these canals were defensive, and some were used to bring goods right into the city. Others were used mainly as open sewers, and nearly all the canals pass through underground tunnels at some point. This was a great way to discover a hidden part of Den Bosch, and on a hot summer afternoon, the perfect way to relax.

Second: my visit to Kloster Mallersdorf; the only remaining nunnery in Europe where the Holy Sisters brew their own beer.  The convent is perched on a hill over-looking the village of Mallersdorf-Pfaffenberg. My train journey from Regensburg; took me through the picturesque Bavarian countryside, which was looking particularly good in the late September sunshine; with fields of ripened sunflowers, waiting to be harvested, formed a memorable sight against the backdrop of the steadily rising hills.

Once at the abbey, I sat in the small garden area, of the privately-owned and family run Klosterbräustüberl, adjacent to the convent gates. It was a glorious late September day, and I enjoyed a couple of mugs of the cool, refreshing beer brewed opposite. Afterwards, I called at the abbey and bought a couple of bottles, from one of the nuns, to take home with me.

Biggest disappointment
This year’s EuropeanBeer Bloggers’ Conference in Amsterdam being the final one. After a run of six conferences, the North American organisers, Zephyr Adventures blamed falling numbers, plus the difficulties of finding suitable host cities and sufficient sponsors, to make these events viable. Hence their decision to cull the event in its current form.

Although I have only attended three conferences, I got to know many bloggers and writers drawn from countries all over Europe; as well as several from North America. Quite a few attendees have become friends, and as each conference was announced I looked forward to catching up with them, and the excitement of meeting up in a different location each year, only added to the enjoyment of the occasion. For me the social aspects of the conference were every bit as important, if not more so, than the conference proceedings themselves.

I could go on, but that’s probably more than enough to be going on with, and besides, so let’s see what 2017 brings