Wednesday, 19 December 2018

The long wet road to Larkin's Porter

Well, six weeks from the date it was first released, I finally managed to track down some Larkin’s Porter, and now, having drank and really enjoyed a pint of this excellent winter beer, I can feel smug and content, secure in the knowledge that this harbinger of winter is as fine a beer as it ever was.

My "porter salvation" occurred at the Greyhound, Charcott, just up the road from where I work, and a pub I pass on an almost daily basis, whilst on my routine lunchtime walk. I took the trouble of phoning ahead first, and was pleased when my question as to whether the porter was on, was answered in the affirmative.

So come lunchtime, I headed off in my usual direction, up the road know locally as Camp Hill, towards Charcott. The recent heavy rain meant the road was more like a mountain stream than a thoroughfare, but that didn’t seem to stop the lunatics in their 4 x 4’s speeding along like there was no tomorrow.

With a raging torrent running down the margins of the road, there was not the usual space for me to step aside as close to the verge as normal; not without getting my feet wet, so my message to those who feel compelled to drive like Lewis Hamilton, please slow down and give some consideration to pedestrians! The fields at the top of the hill, looked like a scene from the Kevin Costner film  Waterworld, but that’s not unusual for this time of year.

I arrived at the pub around 1.15pm. It wasn’t packed, but trade seemed to be ticking over nicely, with a good mix of drinkers, plus a handful of diners. It’s been a while since my last visit, as not only have I been trying to keep my fitness levels up with my regular walking schedule, but I have also been shying away from a lunchtime drink. This is mainly because I want to stay awake during the afternoon, rather than dosing off.

However, with just two and a half days to go until the eleven day Christmas shutdown, and the manic workload slowing down, at least until the New Year, I felt I could afford to push the boat out – especially when there was a pint of porter waiting for me. Landlady Fran welcomed me and, in recognition to my earlier phone call, told me that the porter was going well. She said that the current cask was the third one the Greyhound had sold this season.

The beer pulled up well and was looked really inviting in the glass. Given its 5.2% ABV I wasn’t concerned at having to pay £4 for a pint, as in my book it was worth every penny. After expressing my satisfaction, I found a seat in the right hand front corner, asking first if I could share the table with a chap sitting on his own and his remarkably well-behaved spaniel. 

My table mate had his head buried in a newspaper, so with little in the way of conversation from him, and Fran and her helper behind the bar busy serving drinks or taking food orders, I picked the other paper up from the rack.

You can see the headline from the photo and whilst much of this is just political manoeuvring and playing to the gallery, I couldn’t help wondering how a wealthy and highly respected country like the UK,  got itself into such  a sorry mess? It surely is unprecedented for a country to be voluntary adopting such measures during peacetime, and for what?

I turned the page in search of something more cheerful, but apart from yet another famous football manager getting the chop, there was little of real interest. It made me realise why I never bother wasting money on a newspaper, so I attempted to make friends with the dog who was hiding under the  table.

The arrival of its owner’s food put paid to that, as my canine friend rapidly revealed where its true interest lay. I sat there, in quiet contemplation, enjoying my glass of Larkin's Porter. The beer was a smooth as silk, with a blend of rich roasted coffee and chocolate, balanced by a pleasing, and refreshing hop bitterness. I scored it at 3.5 NBSS.

All too soon it as time to go. I wasn't tempted to stay for another, even if time had allowed, as the pint I had was just right. I retraced my footsteps, back down the very wet Camp Hill, and was at my desk, just before 2pm.  As well as enjoying an excellent pint, in an attractive country pub, I also managed to clock up just under 1.2 miles on the walk there and back.

I may make a return lunchtime visit to the Greyhound on Friday, seeing as it's our last day at work, but we shall see.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

The Beer Seller - Tonbridge

The Beer Seller, the latest and very welcome addition to the Tonbridge beer scene, opened its doors to the public last Friday (14th December). I was unable to be there for the opening, as Friday was also the day of my firm’s Christmas dinner, but I did call in on Sunday and was pleasantly surprised with what I found.

The old jeweller’s premises of John Angell in Tonbridge High Street, have been transformed into a rustic-looking barn, which just happens to house a pub. I freely admit I had no idea what the new proprietors had in mind for the vacant former shop premises, but knowing that they are the owners of the Halfway House in Brenchley, I knew it would be something out of the ordinary.

The team responsible for the transformation, spent eight weeks working 12 hour days, seven days a week, to complete the project in time for the pub’s projected opening day, and what they have achieved, has to be seen to be believed. So without giving too much away, a lower false ceiling, constructed out of corrugated iron sheeting, has been fitted, a new stone-flagged floor has been laid, and a new back-bar fitted.

The latter is behind the bar, and is where all the beers and ciders are dispensed from. Like its sister pub, all the cask beers are dispensed by gravity, straight from casks houses in a specially constructed, chilled cellar room, just behind the serving area.

The pub was pleasantly busy when I called in, with a good mix of customers, ranging from shoppers, family groups or people – like me, out in search of a good pint. There were several people standing at the bar, and I recognised one as my old friend and walking companion, Eric.

I hadn’t seen Eric in ages, let alone have a beer with him, so after exchanging greetings, I offered him a drink. He opted for the 5.1% Gold Star from Goacher’s, whilst I went for the 4.3% Old Man from Long Man Brewery. I must admit my eyes lit up when I spotted the sign for this excellent Old Ale, and I was not disappointed. It was smooth, dark, full-bodied an eminently drinkable – in fact everything an Old Ale should be.

I spent some time chatting to my old friend, and also to the friendly barmaid, who seemed happy to answer all our questions. I gave her my card, which she passed over to the General Manager, a congenial fellow called Jamie. Jamie said they were all extremely pleased with the response to their opening and with the positive reactions and comment from local people.

He told me that the aim was to keep things local, sourcing cask ales, ciders and  other drinks as much as possible from producers based in Kent or Sussex. Cellar Head, Gadd’s, Goacher’s, Long Man and Tonbridge are supplying the core range of beers, alongside classic  session beer, Adnam’s Southwold. These will be complemented by guest ales; again sourced locally, wherever possible.

I noticed that the draught lagers were also local brews, with Helles Belles from Westerham Brewery and Curious Brew from Chapel Down. A changing range of local ciders is also stocked. The Beer Seller offers good value for drinkers, with regular cask ales selling at £3.60 a pint, lagers at £4.00 and ciders at £4.20.

After finishing my 4.0 NBSS pint of Old Man, Eric returned the compliment and bought me another pint. This time I went for the 3.9% Scaramanga, a refreshing and well-hopped pale ale from Sussex-based, Gun Brewery. This pint came in at 3.5 NBSS; both scores being a good start for this new establishment.

I left just before 5pm, and hurried along to meet son Matthew, just as he was finishing work. He’d promised me a lift home, so I didn’t want to keep him waiting. Before leaving I said goodbye to Eric,  thanked Jamie and the barmaid, and told them I’d be back. I also promised to give then a decent write-up on the blog.

The Beer Seller is definitely a welcome addition to Tonbridge and the local drinking scene, and I strongly recommend you pay it a visit, if you are in the area.

Footnote: John Angell Jeweller & Goldsmith was an old family business, which was established in 1830. It ceased trading mid-way through last year, and as a mark of respect to the building’s long heritage, the old name has been left up above the door.

Friday, 14 December 2018

The calm before the storm? Or all quiet on the Tunbridge Wells front

As you might have guessed, I didn’t manage to track down any Harvey’s Old at the weekend, and neither did I manage to source any Larkin’s Porter, although by all accounts I came pretty close.The truth is there was too much occurring on the domestic front, and this was enough to keep me out of the pub.

Tuesday evening saw me catching the train over to Tunbridge Wells in order to catch up with some of my CAMRA colleagues who were on an extended “Christmas Drinks” pub-crawl. As most of them are retired, they started at 5.30pm, but that was way too early for us ordinary folk who are still working, so I caught up with them at the last port of call.

Actually, they caught up with me as they were running behind schedule, as is so often the case on these sort of events. So having missed out on the Royal Oak, the Guinea Butt and Fuggles, I made my way to the top of Mount Ephraim and bought myself a well-earned pint at the George; this year’s West Kent CAMRA pub of the year.

It’s some time since I last set foot in the George, but the pub was looking suitably festive and with a log fire providing some welcoming warmth on a cold winter’s night, I could think of few better places to be. My only grouse was the two drinkers, sat at the bar, blocking my view of the pumps, but even that changed when they disappeared outside for a ciggy.

There was an interesting line-up of beers, including two dark ones, but for starters I opted for a pint of  “Pint” from Manchester-based, Marble Beers. Weighing in at just 3.9% ABV, this session ale is packed full of citrus flavours from the use of American and New Zealand hops, and I scored it a worthy 4.0 NBSS.

I sat down away from the bar, and towards the front of the pub. It was fairly quiet, but then it was only Tuesday and the Christmas festivities haven’t really kicked off yet. You could almost describe it as the calm before the storm, and as I sat there I felt content and nicely relaxed.

The peace was shattered by the arrival of my CAMRA friends and colleagues, so I made my way towards the bar to greet them. They had a similar tale to tell, as the other three pubs they’d been in were all on the quiet side. Whilst standing at the bar chatting, I was trying to make up my mind as to which beer I should have next; a decision which basically meant I could  now dive in on the dark stuff.

A friend had bought himself a pint of Adnam’s Sloe Storm Winter Ale, and offered me a taste. Coming straight after the Marble Pint, the Adnam’s offering tasted rather insipid; you certainly couldn't taste the sloes,  so I gave it a miss and opted instead for the Holler Brass Hand – a 4.2% ABV Golden Ale. Holler are based in Brighton, having moved there, having outgrown their original premises in Uckfield.

The Brass Hand was very drinkable (3.5 NBSS), but on balance I preferred the Pint. By this time the CAMRA contingent had grabbed one of the large tables, close to where I’d been sitting earlier. It was good to see them, and it was equally good to  catch up with a friend who’d been away in Australia for the past month. He was definitely feeling the change in climate between here and Oz – not that I had much sympathy for him!

I learned from one of my other friends that I had narrowly missed Larkin’s Porter, as it had been on at the George over the weekend. “Fancy not saving me any”, was my response, but this did give me the cue to try the other dark offering on at the George that night.

Export India Porter from 360º Brewing; another Uckfield based brewery.  This 5.8% ABV beer has a strong malt base supplemented with oats for both body and smoothness. Three aromatic New World hops produce a Porter which, according to the brewery, “Is strong on body, big on aroma and large on taste”.  It was good so, as with the first beer, I scored it at 4.0 NBBS.

It wasn’t a beer to rush either, so it was gone 10.15pm when my friend from Tonbridge and I left the pub to make our way to the station. It had started raining, only lightly, but it did at least raise the temperature. Unfortunately our train to Tonbridge was delayed by 30 minutes, which meant by the time I arrived home it was 11.30pm.

This wasn’t good, with work the next day, but this minor irritation aside, it had been an excellent evening. Having been tempted now by the dark stuff, I  just need to find a pub serving either Larkin’s Porter or Harvey’s Old and I shall then be a really happy bunny.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Bass Chronicles - Part 2. (1980 - 1990)

Carrying on from the first part of this narrative, we move into the 1980's and see how after losing its way and ditching much of its heritage, Draught Bass made a bit of a comeback and even recovered some of its former glory.

It was to be  nearly ten years before I returned to Burton. During the intervening years I had changed my job twice, moved house three times, got divorced and re-married. The fact that my moving house had brought me back to Kent (first Maidstone and latterly Tonbridge) meant that opportunities to consume Draught Bass were not as frequent as they were in London. However, the Man of Kent in East Street, Tonbridge always managed to serve a very acceptable pint of the stuff!

It was during this time that Bass committed an appalling act of vandalism by announcing the closure of their Union Rooms on the grounds of "cost". For a brewery that had built its reputation on the quality of its pale ales, this was tantamount to sacrilege. As CAMRA commented at the time, for a company prepared to spend thousands on advertising such tasteless aberrations as Carling Black Label, to claim that they couldn't afford the maintenance and upkeep of the rooms where their most famous and prestigious product was produced, just did not add up.

Bass claimed that after extensive trials they had managed to match the unique taste of Draught Bass, using modern conical fermenters, with that of the version brewed using the traditional union method. As CAMRA again remarked, "They may indeed have been able to do this under carefully controlled brewery sample room conditions, but would they be able to reproduce the same character in the pub cellar?"

My own observations (and indeed tasting at the time) suggest that CAMRA was correct, and the Draught Bass that I sampled during the mid-1980's quite frankly left me rather disappointed. It also left me feeling extremely angry that Bass could have debased their most famous product in this way.

In March 1987 I had the opportunity of returning to Burton. A group of friends (drinking buddies) had noticed a trip advertised by the local coach company - Maidstone & District. The trip was advertised as  "The Burton Brewer", and consisted of a visit to the Bass Museum followed by a trip around the Bass Brewery. I had seen the museum, then in its infancy, during my earlier visit and the opportunity to re-visit it and to spend some time in Britain’s “brewing capital” seemed too good to miss. We duly booked our places and on the allotted day boarded the coach to Burton.

After a somewhat tedious journey up the motorway, we arrived in Burton just after midday. Our driver told us to assemble at the brewery gates at one o'clock, so having some free time, we decided to try some of the town’s delights. We headed straight for the Victoria Tavern, the brewery tap of the then recently formed Burton Bridge Brewery.

The pub was a splendid multi-roomed establishment and the beer was very good as well. We tried the Bridge Bitter and also the very tasty Porter, but by the time we arrived back at the brewery gates we learned that not only had we missed our trip round the museum, but the tour round the brewery was about to commence. It seems that the coach driver had got his times muddled up, which was a great shame as I would really have liked to have had a proper look round the museum.

Seeing that we were late, our tour guide enquired as to where we had been, with a look of obvious annoyance on her face. One of my three companions informed her that “We had been sampling some proper beer in the Victoria Tavern". “Oh”, replied our guide, "it's strange but everyone seems to go there". “Perhaps if Bass brewed some decent beer these days, people wouldn't have to” murmured another of my friends. Our guide either did not hear, or perhaps chose to ignore that somewhat pointed but rather poignant comment, and without further ado we embarked on our tour of the brewery.

As we rapidly discovered, this was not to be a trip around the solidly traditional Number 2 Brewery that I had visited nearly ten years earlier. Instead our tour was to consist of a look round the ultra modern Number 1 Brewery. En route to the latter we discovered perhaps the real reason for the closure of the Burton Union rooms, namely the site was wanted for redevelopment. Demolition of the lovely old red-brick Victorian buildings was well under way, a sight which left me feeling both saddened and angry.

There is not much to see in a modern, functional brewery. Everything is either concrete, steel girders or white-tiled walls. Most of the brewing vessels are totally enclosed and can only be glimpsed through viewing portals. However, the view over Burton from the top of the brewery was worth seeing, even if it again provided further evidence of the desecration of the town's proud brewing heritage by both Bass and near neighbours, Ind Coope.

The tour ended with a couple of pints in the visitor centre. My friends and I all opted for Draught Bass, but after five pints of Burton Bridge ales our palates were somewhat jaded and it was not possible to give either a sound or indeed fair judgement on the taste of the beer.

Some six months later I had the opportunity to visit Burton again; this time on business for my new employer. I travelled by train, and as Burton is somewhat poorly served by rail links, I was collected from Nuneaton station, on the West Coast mainline, and driven to Burton by a representative from the company I was visiting. We drove to the company's factory on the outskirts of Burton, and after a very fruitful morning's discussion adjourned for lunch. My host took me to a pub in a nearby village and, seeing as it was a Bass house, I opted for a pint of Draught Bass.

We sat down at a table ready to peruse the menu, but all thoughts of food vanished as I took my first sip of the beer. It was heavenly. I decided that I must be dreaming and took a full mouthful this time to discover that I wasn't imagining things. There was no mistake, this was the Draught Bass I had known and loved, but which I thought had been lost for ever! I was absolutely amazed that after all this time the ale had suddenly returned to its previous superb form. During the course of the meal I made certain that this was not a “one-off” by ordering a second pint. This proved every bit as enjoyable as the first, and definitely made my day. It even eclipsed  the successful outcome to my business trip, which was concluded when we returned to the factory.

It still seemed too good to be true that Draught Bass was back on form, but a couple of months later I had the opportunity to sample the beer again when I visited the West Country for a well earned holiday. My wife and I, accompanied by our pet dog, drove down to Devon for what was to be our first proper holiday since our honeymoon some two years previously.

We had booked into self-catering accommodation in an annexe adjoining a farmhouse, close to the picturesque village of Dittisham on the River Dart. Although my wife had been to this part of South Devon before, it was my first visit. Furthermore, all we had to go on in those pre-internet days, as to the standard of our accommodation, was a brief description in the brochure, plus an artist’s impression. It was therefore with some trepidation that we drove down the narrow track which led to the farmhouse.

We needn't have worried, as the accommodation was of a very high standard, and was clean as well as cosy and comfortable. Having unloaded our bags, I left Mrs PBT’s to prepare our evening meal and set off, in the car, to explore Dittisham and, more importantly, to find its GBG listed pub - the Red Lion.

Standing close to the imposing village church, the Red Lion is a large, but perfectly ordinary looking, white painted, Victorian pub.  Stepping inside though I  was immediately struck by its peaceful atmosphere, and quiet rural charm. I had noticed that Draught Bass was on sale, so spurred on by my previous experience opted for a pint.

It was every bit as good as the ale I had recently sampled in Burton. I tried another swift half, just to make sure (I was driving after all!). I then instructed the barman to fill my 4 pint container with Bass and set off back to the farmhouse.

 I arrived back in extremely high spirits, enthusing about the beer, the pub, the village, the tranquillity of our surroundings and life in general, and tucked into my meal with relish. I washed it down with several more glasses of Bass, and polished the rest of it off later that same evening. Over the course of the week, I discovered Draught Bass to be quite  common in South Devon, and I must confess I enjoyed a good few pints of it.

We returned to the same farmhouse for three years in a row, and on each occasion I enjoyed the Bass at the Red Lion as well as the other pubs in the area. One pub in particular is worthy of a mention, namely the Dolphin Inn at Newton Ferrers. This wonderfully unspoilt pub faces out, across the River Yealm, to Noss Mayo - the village on the other side of the estuary. I have some very happy memories of sitting in the south-facing, pub garden looking across the river, whilst soaking up the mid-September sunshine and the superb Bass in equal quantities!

The Bass seemed all the more better for being served straight from the cask - by gravity, and this leads me on nicely to the conclusion of this treatise,  namely the methods by which Draught Bass is served.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

"Down for maintenance"

There is something strange going on over at CAMRA’s National Heritage Pub website, as anyone who has tried logging on recently will know. Rather than being able to access information about the UK’s remaining “unspoilt” stock of pubs; the ones which are rightly regarded as “heritage pubs” and hence “National Treasures”,  visitors are instead confronted with the following message:

We’ll be back soon!  Sorry for the inconvenience, but we’re performing some critical maintenance at the moment. - The CAMRA IT Team.

I wouldn’t say I’m a regular visitor to the site, but I do find it useful especially when planning a trip to a new area. Several years ago, I made up my mind to visit as many of the country’s remaining “heritage pubs” as possible, but with the website down for “maintenance” it’s proving difficult to track them down.

What I hadn’t realised was just how long the site has actually been down, as it was only a disgruntled email from a correspondent, on one of the CAMRA discourse forums, which alerted me to the fact the website has been undergoing "critical maintenance" for six months now.

So does anybody out there know the reason why this important resource has been unavailable for so long? And can anyone, especially someone from CAMRA, say when it might be up and running again?

Data protection and/or security issues have been cited as possible reasons, but whatever the problem it seems absolutely incredible that a site could be out of action for such a lengthy period of time, in this day and age.

Footnote: the photos are of two historic, absolute gems, which I am privileged to have visited. Both are called the Red Lion, but that is the most common pub name in England.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Beer at home over Christmas

I was talking beer with a work colleague yesterday afternoon. He was thinking of buying one of those 5 litre mini-casks to drink over Christmas, and was asking for my advice. I've limited experience of beer in these containers; in fact the only mint-cask I've had was one of Bamberg's legendary Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, brought back from a pre-Christmas trip to the city, eleven years ago.

The beer was excellent for the first two or three days, but then slowly began to go downhill as the level of the precious liquid in the container gradually went down. As might be expected, the amount of condition in the beer (the level of dissolved CO2), was the first thing to decline, followed slowly by a deterioration in the taste of the beer.

My conclusions are these containers are fine, if there are sufficient people around to drink the beer, but if there's not, then do your best to consume the contents as quickly as possible. So, would a flexible container, such as a poly or mini-pin, which slowly collapses as the beer is drawn off, be better.

The answer of course, is yes, and over the years I've had plenty of polypins, but with only me to drink it, I found the beer wasn't always quite at its best by the time the contents were exhausted. I also found considerable variation in quality between different beers; and over the years I had a fair few.

None were off or even approaching undrinkable, but several were rather lacking in condition, meaning a flat and often uninspiring pint, and when you’ve got 36 pints of beer to get through that you’re not particularly enjoying, then it becomes something of an endurance test.

I gave up on polypins, but not before several years of having my own, home-brew to enjoy. This was back in the day when I was accomplished home-brewer, producing a wide range of well-crafted, full-mash beers. Now I don't want to blow my own trumpet too much, but my beers were rather good and eminently drinkable and the only reason I ceased brewing was the off-licence that Mrs PBT's and I opened, was pretty much a twenty four-seven affair.

I eventually moved on to bottles, as in my experience they're a much better bet. Not only do they remain fresh until they are opened, but they can provide a lot more variety. And with so much good food and interesting flavours available over the Christmas period, variety is what's required.

Now I'm not going to get all snobbish here and insist on matching beers to accompany certain foods, but there's no getting away from the fact that some do provide a better accompaniment to particular foods than others. I've got a reasonable number of bottles to enjoy, which have built up over the past few months, but the amount is probably not as many as in previous years.

So what have I got in my stash?  For starters, I've got plenty bottles of Pilsner Urquell to hand. This classic and pioneering “original” pilsner, has just the right amount of aromatic hoppiness, from the lovely Saaz hops, which is set against some lovely, chewy toffee malt. For several years this Czech classic has become my go-to beer for every day, home-drinking. It's only 4.4% in strength, but still manages to pack in loads of flavour.

I've got several bottles of St Austell Proper Job; a beer which in my view is one of the best bottled pale ales around. It's bottle-conditioned as well, but unlike many producers of BCA's St Austell do this properly - hence the name (only kidding!). Proper Job is well-hopped, but not too aggressively, and there is just the right amount of juicy biscuit-like malt present to counteract the bitterness.

Fuller’s, the last surviving traditional brewery in London, supply two more beers which feature high on my list of personal favourites. The company’s London Porter, is a fine example of the beer which made the capital's name as one of the world's great brewing cities. It weighs in at 5.2% ABV, and packs in a range of roasted chocolate and coffee flavours from the dark malts used in the brew. Served lightly chilled, this Porter is the perfect beer to round off an evening's drinking.

The other beer from Fuller's that I'm really looking forward to drinking is 1845. This 6.3% ABV bottle-conditioned beer is packed with lots of ripe, juicy fruit and marmalade flavours, and goes really well with a traditional roast turkey dinner. For as many years as I care to remember, a bottle of this excellent ale has always been my beer of choice to accompany  my Christmas dinner.

So what other beers have I got hanging around? Well it's a bit of a mixed bag really. I’ve still got a selection of six different bottles from the St Bernardus Brewery, in Watou, Belgium, to drink my way through. They range in strength from 6% up to 10%  ABV. I obtained them via a colleague at work, who has a friend living in West Flanders; definitely a handy person to know!

There's a few other odds and sods at the bottom of the boxes I use to store my bottles, including a bottle of Gadd's Imperial Stout. There's also a bottle of Dark Star Imperial Stout which needs drinking. Bush de Nuits, from Brasserie Dubuisson, which I acquired over three years ago, whilst in Belgium for the European Beer Bloggers Conference. It’s 13.0%, and aged in oak Burgundy casks, plus it's bottle-conditioned as well, so it’s a beer I will need some assistance in polishing off.

Finally I'm sure there will be the gift of the odd few bottles of beer from family members and colleagues (we buy a present for each other within my department). Basically, there's little chance of me running out of beer over the festive season, and with such a variety kicking around in my cupboard, there will be a beer for virtually every occasion.

Christmas is still a fortnight or so away, but I thought I'd get in early this year, especially in relation to the beers. So whatever you're planning to drink over the festive season, may you do so in the company of friends, family or loved ones.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

The dark side

As I’m sure many of you will have noticed, the weather’s been unseasonably mild for the beginning of December, and much of November was very similar. We haven’t been tempted yet to light our log-burner, and our thick winter coats, scarves and woolly hats are still in the cupboard.

It’s been plain sailing in the mornings too, with no ice to scrape off the car windscreen, and no icy country roads to contend with on the drive into work. The central heating is ticking over in the background, but is nowhere near running flat out. This is despite sharing a house with a woman who feels the cold – don’t they all?

So far so good, and with a potentially lower gas bill to look forward to, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything’s rosy. Well it’s pretty good, all things considered, with one exception, the warm weather seems to have created a paucity of demand for dark ales, and I’m getting increasingly desperate to track some down.

By dark ales, I mean beers such as Harvey's XXXX Old Ale or Larkin’s Porter, both of which are firm favourites of mine and beers to look forward to as winter approaches.

Late Autumn is traditionally the season when many old ales make their appearance, followed a little later on by stronger beers such as winter warmers and barley wines. Harvey's launch their Old Ale at the beginning of October, whilst Larkin’s traditionally hold their delectable Porter back until Bonfire Night.

I haven’t seen either on sale yet, and here we are heading into December with Christmas only three weeks away. I seem to have this moan every year but normally a few weeks earlier in the season than now, so why no dark ales gracing our bars and pubs, and why does my desire for a drop of the dark stuff end up like the quest for the Holy Grail?

Despite the welcome increase in discerning drinking establishments locally, I still think far too many licensees are frightened to take a punt, and would rather play things safe, when it comes to dark ales. With a few honourable exceptions, most pubs in these parts shy away from serving dark ales, in the mistaken belief they won’t sell. The trouble is they won’t know until they try, and I wouldn’t mind betting that few, if any, have actually tried.

I know full well, from when we had our off-licence, that dark beers fly out the door, particularly during the winter months and I’m sure local pubs would experience the same level of interest. It can’t be that experimental or overly-adventurous to stock the odd dark beer, can it?

Harvey's Old Ale is available in the brewery’s own tied pubs and that's about it, and Larkin’s Porter has always been a difficult beer to track down, and the pubs which do sell it are normally right out in the sticks, which means it is necessary to drive there. This sort of defeats the object, particularly if you start to get the taste for one of these delicious dark beers.

I was in Tonbridge Fuggles yesterday evening and half expected to see something dark on offer. Well Weird Beard came close with their Black Cranberry Stout, but that was it on the dark side, and besides I was looking for something a little smoother, and with slightly more body than a beer flavoured with cranberries.

So will this weekend finally be the time when I manage to track down one or more of my favourite dark ales, or will I be foiled by a doomed mix of warm weather and overly-cautious licensees?

I will let you know.