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Sunday, 20 July 2014

40th Kent Beer Festival

The Kent Breweries bar

Following on from last weekend’s SIBA South East Beer Festival, this weekend saw the Kent Beer Festival taking place at Merton Farm, just outside Canterbury. The Kent Beer Festival is the second oldest CAMRA festival in the country, and this year the event celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Serving the thirsty  punters
The first festival took place back in 1975, and was held in Canterbury’s Dane John Gardens. It continued to be held on this site until 1984, when it moved to the Kent County Cricket Ground for a two year spell. In 1986 it moved again to Gravesend’s Woodville Halls; the only time it has been held outside of Canterbury. The venue didn’t prove to be a success, and the following year it moved again to its current site at Merton Farm, just outside Canterbury.

All 40 festivals have been organised by Gill Keay, formerly Knight; but this will be her last event in charge, as she is standing down for a well earned and well-deserved rest. There can be few, if any, other people, who have served such a long unbroken stint as Gill, and she describes in this year’s souvenir programme, how 40 years ago she had to drive round to various parts of the country in a van, to collect the beers herself, as there were no beer agencies, in those days. Gill also mentions that in 1975, there were just two breweries in Kent: Shepherd Neame and Whitbread-Fremlins; both of Faversham. Forty years on and there are now nearly 30 in the county; how things have changed!

Four of us from the Tonbridge area travelled down to Canterbury, by train, on Friday to see what was on offer. It was one of the hottest days of the year, so far, and after overnight thunderstorms and heavy rain, it was particularly humid out. I always enjoy the train ride to Canterbury, especially the section of line north from Ashford, along the Stour Valley. As the train approaches Wye, the first station from Ashford, I can just glimpse the solid square tower of the Norman-built, Brook Church, across the fields in the distance. I spent my teenage years living in Brook, and my friends and I would often cycle to Wye, in order to catch the train for a day out in Canterbury.

Canterbury is an obvious popular tourist destination, and the centre is invariably crowded with throngs of visitors from both home and abroad. In previous years we have walked up from the rail station to the city’s bus station, in order to catch the free shuttle bus which runs back and forth to Merton Farm. This year though we decided to take a taxi, and split four ways between us, it only worked out at a couple of quid each. It not only saved a walk through the sweltering heat, but it meant we arrived bang on opening time.

The festival filling up
A couple of friends who had arrived even earlier  had saved us some seats at a table, so after purchasing our glasses and beer tokens it was time to head for the bars. As might be expected, there was a strong emphasis on Kentish beers, with brews from all the Kent breweries currently in operation showcased on the Kent Breweries Bar. There was also a 40 Favourite Festival Beers Bar, with the top 40 beers, from previous festivals, as voted for by customers at these events. Of more interest though to those of us who wanted to try something new, there was a further bar dedicated to Other Breweries, from across the UK. My favourites amongst this section included Cheddar Ales-Gorge Best, Wylam-Gold Tankard, Great Oakley Wot’s Occurring and Black Hole Bitter from the Burton-on-Trent brewery of the same name.

In keeping with the farmyard setting
For those who have never been to Merton Farm, the festival takes place in a massive cow-shed. This year, given the warm weather, there was a definite “farmyard” smell about the place, but my main gripe was it was stiflingly hot inside. I countered this by nipping outside from time to time, as despite the searing heat from the sun, there was at least a cooling breeze blowing.

A tasty and filling Goan chicken curry helped soak up some of the beer for me, but there was also the option of fish and chips, pork pies, Bratwursts or Scotch Eggs to assuage people’s hunger. We saw Gill wandering around the shed, checking on things in this, her final time as Festival Organiser. The festival will continue in its current form, and at the same site, next year, and hopefully will carry on for many more years to come.

The Friday lunchtime session finishes at 4pm, and the festival then re-opens at 6pm. The evening session is traditionally “ticket only” and, as in previous years, all tickets had been sold out weeks in advance. We therefore caught the first shuttle bus back into Canterbury. On the bus we met up with some CAMRA colleagues from neighbouring Bromley Branch. They were keen to try some Canterbury Brewers’ beers on their home patch, but we knew from previous experience that the Foundry Brew-Pub, where the beers are produced, would be packed. Instead we headed for the company’s other pub, the City Arms, close to the cathedral. There those who had missed it at the festival were able to try the Kent 75 beer, specially brewed to celebrate the event’s 40th anniversary. Although only 3.6% in strength, it certainly packed in a lot of flavour, and appropriately was hopped using only local East Kent Goldings and Challenger hops.

Our Bromley colleagues departed soon after; heading off to Canterbury East station for a train back to Bromley. Our trains, on the other hand, depart from the city’s West station, at the other end of Canterbury, so as we made our way slowly back towards it, we decided to take in a couple of extra pubs on the way.

The Old Buttermarket is just a few minutes walk from the City Arms. It fronts on to a small pedestrianised square, right opposite the cathedral gate, and the tables and chairs set outside the pub looked very inviting. My friends though managed to find something even more welcoming given the fierce heat outside, namely a large air-conditioning unit, in the back room, blowing out some lovely cool air. We sat at a high table, just below it, after first grabbing ourselves a few beers. 

The Old Buttermarket, Canterbury
The Old Buttermarket is a Nicholson’s pub which means it serves a diverse and changing range of interesting beers. For this reason, the pub is quite well-known to us, as we have stopped there on several previous visits to Canterbury. I went for a couple of halves; the first being Hadley’s Blonde from Great Yorkshire Brewery; a 4.0%  refreshing blonde ale, brewed in conjunction with, and named after, Tony Hadley, former singer with Spandau Ballet. The other beer was Xingu Gold, from Everards; a golden ale, originating from Brazil, specially brewed for the World Cup. (Not always a good idea, given our national team’s inevitable early exit from the tournament!). Despite the inclusion of Nelson Sauvin and Cascade hops in the brew, this beer failed to deliver for me; certainly in comparison to the Hadley’s Gold. Still, you can’t win them all, and after an afternoon’s steady sampling I can’t say my palate was at its best!

Our final port of call, before the train home was the Unicorn; an unspoilt, traditional city-centre pub just across the tracks from the station. I was pretty much “beered-out” by this time, but the half of Whitstable Brewery’s Citra did at least refresh my palate.

On the short walk back to the station we shared a couple of bags of chips between us, and watched the skies steadily darken, and the wind getting up, as a thunderstorm approached. Fortunately we were on the train by the time it hit the city, and when we arrived back in Tonbridge it had more or less petered out. Another good day out, and hopefully we will be repeating the process in a year’s time.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

8th SIBA South East Beer Festival - A Few Reflections

I ended up picking several bummers on the second day of the SIBA South East Beer Festival. I’m not certain if it was down to dodgy casks, some poorly formulated recipes, or a combination of both. Fortunately I was drinking halves, so it didn’t matter that much; well not to me, but I thought it would have been of concern to the breweries involved, especially as the beers were being judged as an integral part of the festival!

It is possible to get the odd cask which hasn’t quite been cleaned thoroughly enough and this could lead to off-flavours, or even infection within the beer, but  surely when you know your beer is going to be showcased at a festival, and judged by your peers, you would take extra care over hygiene practices at the brewery?

A poorly formulated recipe is a different thing altogether, and to some extent can be largely a matter of individual taste. Again though; your beer is being judged against many others, and most will have been formulated to provide the right degree of balance within a particular style of beer, and most would be expected to conform to the requirements, and characteristics of that style concerned.

Anyway, gripe over and I have to say that yesterday was a cracking one at the festival, with the fine summer weather helping to boost attendance. Most people sat outside on the grass, where they could either listen to the various live acts performing or, could move a bit further away and just enjoy chilling out with their friends or family. I say family, as this particular festival attracts a lot of families, which is always good to see.

I didn’t make it down today, for the last day of the festival, but I imagine that most of the beer will have sold out, given the way things were going last night, but after that bit of moaning at the beginning of this post, how about ending on a positive note for what was an outstanding beer festival, by naming some of the really excellent beers I tried.

Andwell – Gold Muddler 3.9%; East London – Pale Ale 4.0%; Hackney – Best Bitter 4.4% & American Pale Ale 4.5%; Tap East – Smokestack Porter 6.5%; West Berkshire – Mr Chubb’s Lunchtime Bitter 3.7%.

A special thanks to all the SIBA breweries who supplied their beers to the festival, and to the army of hard-working volunteers from Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club who made the whole thing possible.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

8th SIBA South East Beer Festival

For the benefit of my more local readers, but also for the interest of those from further a field, a belated shout-out for the 8th SIBA South East Beer Festival, which kicked off yesterday evening at Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club.

The event showcases over 150 different cask ales from over 50 different breweries in the South East Region (Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire I.O.W., and Greater London). I called in yesterday (Friday), and found the festival in full swing, with a marquee full of dozens of racked casks, and plenty of thirsty punters in attendance.

Earlier yesterday the beers were judged by panels made up from brewers, publicans, associated traders and the general public, and the results should be posted up soon on the SIBA website. It was particularly good to see our local Tonbridge Brewery picking up an award in the Premium Bitter category for their recently-launched, 4.7% Union Pale.

It was also good to see that hosts, Tonbridge Juddians’ clubhouse has been fully repaired and restored to its former glory, following the devastating floods of Christmas Eve 2013. The deluge of water, released by the Environment Agency from the Leigh Flood Barrier, flooded out the clubhouse, as it did other properties and businesses in Tonbridge. This was despite the clubhouse being constructed on pillars well above the level of the surrounding fields.

Now, thanks to the hard work of the club’s army of volunteers, who worked tirelessly to clear up the mess and repair the extensive damage, and also the generosity of local sponsors, the clubhouse is back up and running again.

I’ll be heading back down to the festival, later today, but for those who can make it earlier, the event is open from 11am onwards, and the same applies tomorrow. As well as the beers, there’s a selection of local Kentish ciders, soft drinks and food. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.

With special thanks to Jon Collins and Iain Dalgleish for the use of their photos.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Pouring the Perfect Pilsner in Dublin

Yours truly with the Head Brewmaster

After our Friday night party, courtesy of legendary Czech brewers Pilsner Urquell, we had a further opportunity to sample some un-filtered pilsner, the following day. Not content with plying us with beer and food the night before, the Czechs exceeded their generosity by hosting the Saturday lunchtime barbecue.

This took place in the beer garden behind The Church conference centre, and not only was there more Pilsner Urquell drawn straight from the wood, there was also the opportunity to sample the three different styles of “pour” favoured by Czech drinkers. After being a bit grouchy about the slightly warm beer at Friday’s party, the casks seemed to have been chilled down overnight, and the beer we were treated to was served at just the right temperature, and tasted superb. I even had my photo taken in front of one of the casks with Vaclav Berka, Head Brewmaster at Pilsner Urquell

As well as excellent draught pilsner, there was some really tasty food to help soak it up. The Church’s kitchen staff had pulled out all the stops to serve up some superb fare, with a fine selection of  barbecued meat (burgers, chicken breast, fillet steak, pork & leek sausages and ribs), together with fresh whole prawns cooked on the barbecue. The above were served with some fine artisan bread from the local Dublin-based Breztel Bakers, plus a selection of summer salads. The catering staff certainly did us proud, and I promised head chef Simon, that I’d give him a shout out on this blog; so a big thank-you Simon and to all of your team.
Breztel Bakers

To go back to the beer for a moment, I mentioned earlier the three different types of pours, and these were demonstrated to us by a Czech barman, using a traditional fount. Pilsner Urquell had brought over a mobile bar, complete with integral cooling unit, plus glass rinser in order to demonstrate this, and offer anyone interested the chance to sample, and taste the difference between these three ways of serving. Basically, it’s all about controlling the amount of gas in the finished beer, and this not only affects the size of the head, but also alters the mouth-feel of the beer.

The three traditional Czech "Pours"
A picture says a thousand words, so looking at the three glasses in the photo we have the two extremes on the left (Mliko and Na Dvakrat), and then the ideal Czech pint (Hladinka) on the far right. Note the size of the head in each case, as this is the key to pouring the perfect glass of Pilsner Urquell. With the Mliko, most of the gas has been allowed to form the head, leading to a smooth, velvety beer. The Na Dvakrat has a much smaller head, meaning here is much more CO2 gas in the beer, “making one burp” as the barman told us. This type of pour is the norm in much of Europe, and certainly here in the UK, where a gassy pint of lager is what drinkers normally end up with.

The Hladinka is the ideal compromise, and the way of serving most appreciated by Czech beer drinkers. Czechs love a thick foamy head on their beer, and prefer their pint not to be too gassy. By controlling the angle of the glass, the speed of dispense and the amount of gas (determined by clever use of the fount handle), a Czech barman (or barmaid for that matter), can deliver the perfect pint according to the customers’ wishes.

I was explaining this to the two girls from the “Let There Be Beer” campaign, who were at the conference to pick up ideas, and to find out what’s going on in the world of beer; especially at the craft end of the spectrum. They were looking for ways of increasing beer’s appeal to the general public, so what better way than a demonstration like the one we had just witnessed? I equated it to Guinness’s famous “Theatre of the Pour”, where it’s all about building a sense of anticipation (and thirst) for the drinker patiently waiting for his or her pint to be poured, with the rising fine bubbles as they come out of solution, forming the head as they do so. I really think much more could be made of this, although perhaps not in a busy pub on a Friday or Saturday night!

Retro-styled Pilsner Urquell cans
Finally as if traditionally poured Pilsner Urquell, and Pilsner Urquell direct from a wooden cask were not enough, there was a big stack of Pilsner Urquell cans for us to take away. One of the sessions that morning at the conference, had been about the advantages of the humble can over more traditional bottles. I was aiming to cover this in a later post, so I won’t go into details now, but here in front of us were some examples of canned Pilsner Urquell to take away and try at our leisure. What’s more the cans were decorated with some old designs taken from the brewery’s archives, giving them a real retro look. Again, badging like this is something the girls from “Let There Be Beer” campaign should be looking at.
Local artisan bread

All in all it was a fantastic lunch, made even better by being outside in the Dublin sunshine. Thanks to all the people at Pilsner Urquell who, not only gave us the opportunity to sample their classic pilsner at its best, but also demonstrated how this is achieved. Thanks also to the staff and management of  The Church for looking after us so well, and for their skills in presenting us with a lunchtime menu to remember for a long time.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Take to the Hills

Looking towards Westerham
I undertook another walk recently, a week prior to the one I described in a previous post. This wasn’t a CAMRA organised event; just a small group of friends out for a stroll through the beautiful Kent country side.

The area chosen for our outing was the Greensand Ridge, between the village of Brasted and the small town of Westerham. The latter of course, is famous for its proximity to Chartwell; the home of wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. The Greensand Ridge is a range of sandstone hills which runs parallel with, but to the south of the North Downs, in a line stretching from west to east across the counties of West Sussex, Surrey and Kent. The ridge takes its name from the underlying, green-tinted sandstone rock strata; the green colour being due to the presence of glauconite, and other clay-minerals in the rock. The ridge rises to a height of 294 m (965 ft), at Leith Hill; the highest point in south-east England, before gradually falling off, and eventually petering out, as it runs through Kent. We were walking close to Toy’s Hill, which is the highest point in Kent.

In order to get to our starting point, my companions and I boarded the 401 Go-Coach service which runs between Tonbridge and Westerham. This is the same service bus which we normally use for visits to the Windmill at Weald, and our plan was to call in at this excellent pub on the way back. However, we were thwarted in this aim due to reasons that will become apparent, later in the narrative.

We alighted from the bus in the centre of Brasted; a pleasant linear village, straddling the busy A25, but a place with far too many antique shops for our liking. Two of the village’s three pubs have now closed (thanks Shep’s), leaving just the rather food-oriented White Hart. (Perhaps the local have spent all their beer money on antiques?). The White Hart’s claim to fame is its patronage by fighter pilots based at nearby Biggin Hill airfield during the Battle of Britain. Some of their signatures are displayed in a glass case on the wall, but alas I’ve never ventured inside to see them for myself.

Our walk began with a long climb  onto the ridge, up what is technically known as the “dip slope”. Much of the way was undercover, beneath a dense canopy of laurel bushes. The canopy was so dense in fact that the sunlight had not been able to penetrate and dry out the underlying ground. The result was some pretty muddy going in places; ironic really when one considers there had been no meaningful rain during the previous few weeks!

Village sign, Crockham Hill
We eventually reached the summit and came out into the open, at last. After being under the tree canopy for so long the chilly wind that was blowing was quite noticeable, but it wasn’t that long before our route brought us once again under the trees. Fortunately they were beech trees this time, and the leaf cover wasn’t quite as dense as earlier. Passing through a remote settlement, known as French Street, we descended towards the rear entrance to Chartwell, amazed at just how busy the place was. Cars were queueing up to get in, and we noticed stewards directing motorists to a field which served as an over-spill car park.

We were glad to leave this tourist hot spot behind, and continuing in a westerly direction, through more beech woods, along part of the Greensand Way long-distance footpath, we eventually reached a clearing where several footpaths branched off at once. Here we began a long descent, down the “scarp slope”, towards the village of Crockham Hill and our first port of call, the Royal Oak. Here a well-earned pint of Westerham beer awaited us, for the Oak is one of just two pubs tied to Westerham Brewery.

A welcome pint
The pub was busy; it was Father’s Day after all. Also, the pub’s layout is a bit strange, in so much that the door to both bar areas opens into what is probably the narrowest part of the pub. Because of the lack of space we went out to the garden to drink our beer. The Royal Oak is a former Shep’s tied house, and was the first pub to be bought by Westerham. It sells quite a range of their beers, but being in need of something pale and cool, I opted for the brewery’s Summer Perle; a 3.8%, seasonal, golden ale, brewed using Hallertauer Perle Hops from Germany.

We only stayed for the one pint, as time was pressing on, and we wanted to be at out next pub for a spot of lunch. The pub in question was the General Wolfe, in the nearby town of Westerham; a journey of several miles. It was a case of drink up and then commence the long climb up, out of Crockham Hill, having broken one of the cardinal rules of rambling – having gained height, try not to lose it!

Actually the climb wasn’t as bad as feared, and before long we were at the summit and once again, deep in woodland, which eventually gave way to pasture and a pleasant green valley. There was a large herd of cows grazing, but apart from giving us a few curious looks they weren’t particularly perturbed by our presence. Apart from one more short uphill section, it was downhill all the way, and slightly later than planned we found ourselves in the small, pleasant town of Westerham.

General Wolfe, Westerham
As stated earlier, we were making for the General Wolfe; a small white-pained weather-boarded pub on the western edge of the town. The pub was formerly the tap for the Black Eagle Brewery of Bushell, Watkins & Smith; otherwise known as Westerham Ales. Until their takeover and absorption into what eventually became Allied Breweries, the company were quite a large concern, and their beers had a good reputation locally. The Black Eagle Brewery ceased production in 1965, but for some years after the site continued to be used as a depot for Ind Coope. A mixture of modern houses and offices now occupies the area where the brewery once stood.

I have fond personal memories of the General Wolfe, as I remember calling in there with my father, back in the mid-1970’s. We were on our way back to East Kent from Southampton, having dropped my sister and her friend at the airport there for a flight across to the Channel Isles. I had spotted the pub in the first CAMRA Good Beer Guide, and had marked it as a convenient place to stop on the way home. In the days before the opening of the M25, the A25, which runs through Westerham, formed one of the main east-west routes to the south of London, so our route home took us past the pub. As my companions and I approached the pub, we remarked on how much traffic the A25 used to cope with, 40 or so years ago. It seems hard to imagine given the volume which now passes along the adjacent motorway.

When my father and I stopped there in 1974, the only cask beer sold at the General Wolfe, was Ind Coope Bitter. This itself was something of a rarity in un-pressurised cask form. Today, the pub is owned by Greene King but, like many of their houses, is allowed to sell cask beers from other brewers as well. When we called in there were a couple of beers on alongside the usual Greene King offerings. I opted for the Whitstable Native, a pleasant, low gravity, but well-hopped ale.

Bargain-priced cod and chips
I have returned to the General Wolfe several times since that first visit. It doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years, with a timeless interior of dark wood, low ceilings and welcoming log fires in winter, and although it’s very much a locals’ pub, visitors are still made welcome. Despite the late hour, we also ordered some food. My cod, chips and mushy peas was really tasty and excellent value at just under eight quid! It’s a pity more local pubs don’t follow suit, rather than charge exorbitant prices for posh sounding, “beer battered cod” and “hand-cut chips”.

We only intended to stay for one at the General Wolfe, as the idea was to catch the 16:35 bus back towards Tonbridge. As this particular bus was the penultimate service of the day, the plan was to alight at Sevenoaks Weald and call in for a couple at the Windmill, before catching the last bus home. The Windmill is our West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year, so we wanted to spend a bit of time there.

That was the theory, but alas, the best laid plans go astray and despite leaving ample time to walk to the bus stop, right by the green in the centre of Westerham, it was evident that the bus had been early and had gone without us. We deduced this after waiting at the stop for over 20 minutes, with no sign of it. There was nothing for it but to find a place for another drink, and then make damn certain we were back at the bus stop at least 10 minutes before the stated departure time.

There are three pubs in the centre of Westerham; the Kings Arms Hotel, the George & Dragon and the Grasshopper on the Green. The first two are both former coaching inns, reflecting Westerham’s importance on the east-west highway which eventually became the A25. I had been in the King’s Head once before, but that was 20 years or so ago, and it was even longer since I last set foot inside the Grasshopper. As for the George & Dragon, well I had never been in the place, but all that was to change.

Grasshopper on the Green,  Westerham
We chose the Grasshopper to begin with, simply because it was nearer. It is an old building, with lots of exposed beams, low ceilings etc, but it has been divided into two halves, both of which are rather narrow. There is also a larger bar at the rear. In spite of this we managed to find a seat. There were quite a few beers on, but I only remember two of  them; Taylor’s Landlord and Westerham Spirit of Kent. The latter especially was in fine form, and is one of my favourite beers from the Westerham stable. Being a pleasant summer’s evening there were quite a few people sitting outside, facing the green, and whilst we were tempted to stay we decided to give the George & Dragon a try.

We were pleasantly surprised with what we found; an old, heavily-beamed, former coaching inn, given a contemporary make-over. Pride of place went to the large, comfortable sofas next to the fireplace. The pub also seemed popular with diners; there is plenty of space, with a separate area set aside for this, and with Kevin’s favourite beer on tap – Gales HSB, we were certainly glad that we called in.

We made certain we were at the bus stop in plenty of time for the last bus, and whilst it wasn’t early it did go sailing on past one hapless passenger who was waiting at a stop just outside Tonbridge! They say every cloud has a silver lining, and missing the penultimate bus did at least give us a chance to try a couple of pubs we don’t normally get out to, and gave us a different perspective on the popular tourist town of Westerham.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

First Night in Dublin

Beer selection at Sweetman's
I arrived in Dublin shortly before 5pm on the day before the start of the European Beer Bloggers Conference, having caught the 3pm flight out of Gatwick. Although the flight was full and our departure delayed by about half an hour, it didn’t take long to go through border control and, as I was only carrying hand baggage, I was straight out of the terminal and on to the comfortable air coach, which dropped me right in the centre of Dublin.

It took me significantly longer to find my hotel. They were digging Parnell Street up, to make way for a new tram system I believe, and because of the fenced off sections of roadway I didn’t spot the name Gate Hotel on the facia of the black-painted pub which I walked past several times! A phone call to reception soon put me on track, but I had lost precious time. There was an introductory crawl of some of the city’s best craft beer pubs setting off from the conference centre at 6.45pm, but by the time I’d checked in, dumped my bag and freshened up there was no way I was going to make that deadline.

A further delay to find a cash-point and withdraw some Euros and it was way past 7pm when I arrived at The Church, the superbly resorted 18th Century former church which was the venue for the European Beer Bloggers Conference.

As I feared the pub-crawl participants had already departed, but fortunately I had printed off a copy of the itinerary. The Church’s friendly and helpful manager pointed me in the direction of The Brew Dock; the first pub on the list, but said it was quite a walk. I decided to head the group off at the pass, so to speak, by making for the second pub on the crawl which, as the manager explained, was closer to the city centre and the rest of the pubs on the route.
J.W. Sweetman - overlooking the River Liffey

I therefore made my way to Sweetman’s, a famous and historic, multi-floored pub, just across the River Liffey and waited there for the rest of the group. They must have been having a good time at Brew Dock as it seemed an age before they turned up. In the meantime I sampled a couple of Sweetman’s five house-brewed beers, produced in a micro-plant recently installed at the front of the pub. The pub brews a Pale and a Red Ale, a Porter, a K├Âlsch plus a Weiss Bier. I enjoyed the well-hopped pale, plus the smooth, chocolate-tasting porter.

I asked the barman whether the pub was expecting a group in later, which would be led by Reuben Gray; the Dublin-based blogger who writes The Tale of The Ale blog. Reuben was also the person responsible for securing The Church as the conference venue, thereby bringing the event to Dublin. The barman replied that they were expecting the group in soon and he would let me know when they arrived.
As it happened the barman didn’t need to point the group out, as a party of beer enthusiasts look virtually the same the world over. What’s more I recognised one of their number in Pencil & Spoon blogger, Mark Dredge. After introductions were effected, we moved up two flights of stairs to the bar on the second floor, where some “finger food” had been laid on for us.

Sweetman’s was my first introduction to Dublin pubs and Irish Craft Beer, and I liked what I saw, but as there were several more pubs to get round, it was soon time to move on. Next on the list was the Norseman, situated in Dublin’s legendary party area of Temple Bar. The Norseman has recently reverted to its original name, following a spell of being called Farrington’s, and is one of  a growing number of  Dublin’pubs offering a wide range of beer. Like most of these new breed of beerhouses, the choice is mainly craft keg, but none the worse for that. The notes I took at the time indicate I sampled the IPA and the Stout from O’Hara’s, plus the Hornet 8’s Nest, an extremely well-hopped “White IPA”, brewed as collaboration between Eight Degrees Brewing and By the Horns. Many of the group decamped to an upstairs area, so I joined them and as the atmosphere was slightly less hectic, and certainly more relaxed than at Sweetman’s. I was introduced to several more Bloggers, including Steve Lamond, writer of the Beers I've Known blog, Bryan Betts, who blogs under the name of the Beer Viking, and the already mentioned tour leader, Reuben Gray.
The Norseman - Temple Bar

The Norseman   in the city. After yet more “finger food” we set off through the by now pouring rain, passing the original Porterhouse en route due to time constraints, (I visited it a couple of days later), and ended up in the Bull & Castle. Again it was upstairs here, something which seems a real feature of Dublin pubs and bars, but something which would probably cause Fire Safety Officers back home to have fits of apoplexy! The bar we were in is known as the Butcher's Bar and, as its name suggests specialises in steaks and various other meats.

My sampling was slightly more restrained at the Bull & Castle, as I was mindful of not wanting to wake with a sore head the following morning. The Windjammer, a 4.8% Amber Ale from Metalman Brewery was rather nice though.

Final port of call - the Black Sheep
We finished the crawl at the Black Sheep, a contemporary-themed pub just a short hop from the conference centre. The pub is one of  several pubs owned by the Galway Bay Brewery; not to be confused with the separate Galway Hooker Brewery. The numbers on the crawl seemed to have thinned out slightly, and the pub wasn’t quite as busy as the ones we’d visited earlier. I sampled Galway Bay’s Buried at Sea, a 4.5% Chocolate Milk Stout, plus the aptly named Of Foam and Fury, an 8.5% Imperial Double IPA.

The latter was bought for me, plus those remaining on the crawl, by Niall Walsh, one of the two partners behind Galway Bay. We stayed quite late at the Black Sheep, chatting to Niall and others still present, then I vaguely remember walking back to the hotel in the company of Bryan, who was also staying at the Gate. At least the rain had eased off, but my shoes were soaked through, so much so that I had to try drying them with the hairdryer the following morning.

It had been a good night out, and an excellent introduction to Dublin, so special thanks to Reuben for putting the tour together, and to the management of the various pubs and bars for their hospitality.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Party and Dublin Bar Tour With Pilsner Urquell

Party Invitation

I mentioned in the previous post that there were a significant number of industry players and other organisations sponsoring  EBBC 2014. Without the generosity of these sponsors the conference would not have gone ahead in the form that it did. Many of these sponsors were brewery companies based in Ireland, but one from much further a field, and one who particularly shone out, was Czech heritage brewer, Pilsner Urquell.

We were grateful for their generosity on two separate occasions, but both were events designed to showcase their sole product; the delicious and delectable Pilsner Urquell – the world’s first golden lager, and the beer which gave birth to the style known today, the world over, as “pilsner”.

The first event took place on Friday evening, and followed hot on the heels of a visit to the home of Dublin’s most famous beer; the Guinness Brewery, at St James’s Gate. I intend to cover this visit in greater detail, in a later post, but for now I just want to say the visit included a brief tour of the plant, followed by an excellent beer and food pairing session. We were all feeling pretty full of both beer and food, from the latter, but there were further delights to come.

Waiting for the thirsty hordes
 The Guinness sponsored event drew to a close at around 9pm, and after saying goodbye to our hosts we were divided up into a number of groups, and whisked off in a couple of coaches. We drove the short distance back to the city centre, to just off the famous Temple Bar area in fact. I was in the first group, and we were shown to the Candle Bar, a comfortable upstairs room above Kelly’s Hotel. There, sitting perched up on the bar, were two very new-looking, wooden casks, quite clearly marked out as belonging to Pilsner Urquell.

On our trip around Guinness I had noticed that we had been joined by several new faces. One newcomer in particular, was very jocular looking, and had received a special welcome from Guinness Master Brewer Fergal Murray, so when I noticed his company jacket I realise his identity was none other than Vaclav Berka, Head Brewmaster at Pilsner Urquell. He was over to introduce us to the delights of un-filtered Pilsner Urquell; dispensed straight from a traditional wooden cask. I have seen these events advertised on the company’s website. Virtually all of them have taken place in London, on different dates and in a variety of different pubs. Unfortunately due to work and other commitments I managed to miss them all, but now, right before my very eyes I was about to witness the tapping of one of these casks and, what’s more I would get to taste the beer from within!
Vaclav in action

Obviously the whole operation was quite theatrical, and even to those of us used to tapping a cask, it was quite something to see Vaclav drive in the wooden tap, with a large mallet and then dispense glass after glass of the very lively and well-conditioned beer. Perhaps it was all too theatrical though, as after all the eager anticipation I found the beer slightly disappointing. I know I am being a philistine here, but sometimes more modern methods of both storage and dispense are preferable to the older and more traditional ones. For a start the unfiltered beer wasn’t quite cold enough for my liking; the casks had obviously had warmed up during their lengthy journey over from Pilsen. In addition, it also had a slight woody taste. I commented on this at the time, but was told it was impossible, as the insides of the cask are lined with pitch; a protective coating designed to prevent the wood having any effect on the taste of the beer. The pitch lining is replaced each time a cask is used; a costly, and potentially dangerous process. This small gripe aside, it was a unique experience, and something I feel privileged to have witnessed and taken part in.

Not content with plenty of beer to drink, the catering staff at the Candle Bar brought out yet more food. I was feeling rather full after the beer and food pairing event at Guinness, but the pulled pork sandwiches placed in front of us, really were food to die for. I managed a couple over the course of the evening, but skipped on the chips; they would have been just too much!

The idea was for our group to move on, to make way for the next party, who would, of course, be just as keen as we were to watch the second cask being tapped. One of our guides from Pilsner Urquell led us up another flight of stairs, before descending into what was obviously another bar. It was absolutely rammed, but being Dublin on a Friday night, this was hardly surprising. Although we managed to get served, (our generous hosts had provided us with tokens for more Pilsner Urquell), there was nowhere to sit, and precious little room to stand. There was music playing loudly in the foreground, making conversation extremely difficult. One by one we drifted away from the bar. I went for a wander round, observing that the number of women greatly outnumbered the number of men; great if you are a single lad out on the pull or, like me, a more mature bloke gladdened by the sight of some of the pretty and attractive young ladies which Dublin is famous for. I hope that last sentence doesn’t make me out to be something of a letch, as it was more of an observation, and was meant in the nicest possible way!

There was yet another adjoining bar, and after looking at the printed itinerary our hosts had given us, I discovered that the first bar was called "Hogans", and the second the “No Name Bar”. Eventually I made my way back to the Candle Bar, where I managed to grab a seat, some more un-filtered Pilsner Urquell and, joy of joy, no loud music blasting in my ears. I stayed until just before midnight, chatting to fellow bloggers and members of Pilsner Urquell’s PR team. First and foremost amongst these was award-winning Pencil & Spoon blogger, and author, Mark Dredge who now works for the Czech brewers, and was one of the principle organisers of the night’s event.

I thanked Mark before I left, and then navigated my way back to the hotel, through the crowded streets of the Temple Bar district, across the River Liffey and then eventually to my waiting bed. It had been an evening full of superlatives, and I slept like a log that night. However, there was more to come the following day, including more excellent food, and more Pilsner Urquell, so I will continue this narrative in a further post.