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Sunday, 17 May 2015

Czech Sojourn

I won’t be blogging for a week or so, as tomorrow morning I’m off to the Czech Republic for a week. Unlike my previous visits to the country, which were based almost entirely in Prague, this trip is based in Jihlava; a city which is almost in the geographical centre of the Czech Republic, close to the border between Bohemia and Moravia.

The trip has been organised by a long-standing friend who is heavily involved with Maidstone CAMRA, and has been nearly a year in the planning. There are around a dozen of us going, and between us we’ll be split between three hotels in the city. As most of the participants have been involved with CAMRA over the years, there will be a strong emphasis on beer and breweries, with several brewery visits arranged, including one to the legendary Bernard Brewery in nearby Humpolec, and a tour of Chotěboř Pivovar in the town of the same name. The former is well known to beer aficionados in the UK, and is sometimes seen at British beer festivals. It is also quite widely available in Prague. The latter is a brand new brewery, where beer is brewed following traditional Czech brewing methods, including fermentation in open vessels, followed by  maturation in enamelled lager tanks for up to ninety days.

There is also some culture included, with visits to the towns of Slavonice and Telč. The former lies close to the border with Austria and was an important staging post on the old coaching road between Prague and Vienna. The latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was created as a moated fortress. Today the city is surrounded by crystal clear fishponds and is described as the most perfect example of the Italian Renaissance north of the Alps. I’ve looked at the websites for both towns and each looks stunningly beautiful.

In many ways, this is the beauty and the attraction of this trip, as although we will be arriving in and leaving from Prague, it will be nice to get away from the tourists and experience some true Czech culture and see what else the country has to offer. We also have the advantage that out tour leader is half Czech, and as well as having been a frequent visitor to the country, he can also speak the language. Now that IS impressive.

Zlý Časy
Most of the party will be flying out on Tuesday morning, but I’ll be spending a couple of days in Prague prior to their arrival, and will meet them at the coach station. My hotel in Prague is close to Zlý Časy, a cellar bar which has become an institution in Prague's beer scene with its eclectic choice of guest beers. The pub is reported to serve 38 draught beers. A good choice of hotel Paul, but selected quite by accident I have to say!

Well it's now way past my bedtime, and I've a flight to catch in the morning, so I will see you all in a week or so's time.


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Meantime Takeover

Yesterdays’ news concerning the takeover of the long-established, pioneering craft beer brewer, Meantime of Greenwich, certainly set the blogosphere alight, with numerous writers wading in with their four penneth worth. So on the premise of if you can’t beat them, why not join them, I thought I would add some thoughts of my own to the fray.

My first thought is one of congratulations to Meantime’s founder and Head Brewer, Alastair Hook. If anyone deserved his place in the sun, then this knowledgeable and, at times, visionary exponent of all that is best in beer, certainly does. For the last fifteen years, Alastair has unashamedly ploughed his own furrow, undeterred by trends and eschewing the traditionalists who shunned Meantime because there was no cask beer in their portfolio. Instead he carried on, steely determined to achieve his ambition of putting London back where it deservedly belongs; back on the world brewing stage.

I first became aware Meantime through the lagers they brewed for Sainsbury’s, back in the early 2000’s. Included in the range were a Vienna-style lager and a Kölsch. These formed an early part of the supermarket’s “Taste the Difference” range. Well, you certainly could taste the difference with Alastair’s beers. The lagers he produced, were brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, and were full flavoured, with plenty of malt body, set against some wonderful hop aromas and flavours, from the use of traditional Hallertau and Saaz hops.

It was disappointing when Sainsbury’s dropped these beers, but Meantime went on to bigger and better things, with some innovative takes on former English classics, such as Porter and India Pale Ale. Both beers are sold in large, 750ml, Champagne-style bottles, complete with wired-in corks. They also produce an excellent London Lager, London Stout and London Pale Ale, as well as various wheat, and fruit beers.
Beer garden at Old Brewery, Greenwich
In 2010 I visited what was then Meantime’s sole pub, the Greenwich Union on Royal Hill, Greenwich. The pub is next door to the famous King Richard I; a Young’s pub, also known as Tolly’s, after the former owning brewery, Tolly Cobbold of Ipswich. I wrote about my visit to this pleasant pub here.  In the same year the company opened the Old Brewery Bar & Restaurant with a brewery in the original 1836 Brewhouse of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. A cold, but bright early December day in 2012, saw my son and I braving the cold and sitting out in the beer garden, behind the Old Naval College enjoying a Meantime Oktoberfest and a London Lager.

I alluded earlier to the fact Meantime had incurred CAMRA’s wrath by their refusal to produce any cask-conditioned ale. There is a reason for this; Alastair is of the firm opinion that oxygen is the enemy of good beer. Whilst I bow to his superior knowledge as a brewer with many years’ experience, I disagree slightly with him on this point, as in my opinion, a relatively low exposure to oxygen, at the start of the conditioning process, is beneficial to flavour development within cask beer; although obviously once the beer has finished conditioning, and is ready to be served, oxygen really does need to be excluded to prevent off-flavours caused by oxidation, from developing.
Still Meantime is his company (or should that be was?), and the draught, keg beers which Meantime turn out, together with the bottles of course, are all very good. So good that global brewing giant, SABMiller have bought the business for an undisclosed sum. The takeover makes Meantime the first home-grown British brewer within SABMiller’s global business, but an obvious sign of the regard which the brewing world holds the Greenwich based company.

As an integral part of the deal, Meantime’s existing management team, led by Chief Executive Nick Miller and Meantime Founder and Brew Master Alastair Hook, will continue to run the company supported by the current Sales and Marketing, Production and Retail teams. But with SABMiller investing heavily in their new acquisition, a two-part plan for growth will be put into place.

The first part involves expansion of the Greenwich Brewery enabling the continued growth of Meantime’s existing portfolio of modern craft beers – led by the core range of London Pale Ale, London Lager, Yakima Red and Pilsner. This in turn will lead to the company expanding beyond its traditional London heartland, providing more drinkers across the UK and further afield with the chance to enjoy Meantime’s high quality beers.

New owners
Secondly, the installation of a new pilot brewing facility at Meantime’s Greenwich brewery will be led by Alastair Hook and will become a centre for innovation and new product development for SABMiller Europe. The pilot brewery will allow Meantime to continue to create innovative beer styles for Meantime’s Seasonal, Limited Edition and permanent ranges.
All good positive stuff, and there’s nothing here that I could take issue with. Plenty of other writers and correspondents have, however; accusing the company of selling out. Well if someone came along and offered you a pile of cash for the company you started from scratch, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity?  If the deal also included expansion of your existing facility, and the chance to dedicate yourself to producing even more exiting and innovative brews, would you turn it down? Lastly, if you no longer had to worry about paying back the loans you took out to expand your facility and grow your business, wouldn’t you be a happy bunny? I know I would!

There are certainly some interesting times ahead, and I for one look forward to seeing new and existing Meantime beer becoming much more widely available, throughout the UK.

These formed an early part of the supermarket’s “Taste the Difference” range. Well, you certainly could with Alastair’s beers. The lagers he produced, were brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, and were full flavoured, with plenty of malt body, set against some wonderful hop aromas and flavours, from the use of traditional Hallertau and Saaz hops.
and, at times, visionary exponent of all that is best in beer, certainly does. For the last fifteen years, Alastair has unashamedly ploughed his own furrow, undeterred by trends and eschewing the traditionalists who shunned Meantime because there was no cask beer in their portfolio. Instead he carried on, steely determined to achieve his ambition of putting London back where it deservedly belongs; back on the world brewing stage.

and, at times, visionary exponent of all that is best in beer, certainly does. For the last fifteen years, Alastair has unashamedly ploughed his own furrow, undeterred by trends and eschewing the traditionalists who shunned Meantime because there was no cask beer in their portfolio. Instead he carried on, steely determined to achieve his ambition of putting London back where it deservedly belongs; back on the world and, at times, visionary exponent of all that is best in beer, certainly does. For the last fifteen years, Alastair has unashamedly ploughed his own furrow, undeterred by trends and eschewing the traditionalists who shunned Meantime because there was no cask beer in their portfolio. Instead he carried on, steely determined to achieve his ambition of putting London back where it deservedly belongs; back on the world brewing stage.

Yesterdays’ news concerning the takeover of the long-established,
Yesterdays’ news concerning the takeover of the long-established, 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Another Bluebell Walk

Bluebells at their finest
Three weeks after my walk through the bluebell woods to the Dovecote at Capel, I was fortunate to go on another pub walk and this time the bluebells were, if anything, even more spectacular.

This walk was to the award-winning Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald; a real gem of a village pub and a true community local. The occasion was to present licensees Matthew and Emma with their certificate for winning the West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year 2015. This worthy award follows on from their success in the same competition last year. The couple then went on to win Kent Pub of the Year 2014 followed by Finalist in the National CAMRA Pub of the Year 2014 competition.

The Windmill at Weald - our destination
Despite emailing various interested people, there were only three of us undertaking the walk in the end, as the others either drove to the pub or travelled by bus. Nevertheless it was one of the most enjoyable, and scenic walks I have enjoyed for a long time, with the route taking us through some unspoilt countryside and along little-used lanes. This was despite the route following the same corridor as the A21 trunk road and the main London to Folkestone railway.

The three of us caught the train, one stop from Tonbridge to Hildenborough station, from where we headed off up the hill before crossing into Philpotts Lane. My friend Don was leading the walk, as he had walked this way several times before. After a short distance the road crosses the busy A21 Tonbridge-Sevenoaks By-Pass, by means of a bridge, and soon after afterwards we turned off to the right and headed off in a north-westerly direction. 

More bluebells
Eventually we left the road altogether and set off across some gently undulating countryside. The route took us through a wooded area which contained one of the best displays of bluebells I have seen in a long time; it certainly knocked spots off what we saw a few weeks ago. The photos I have shown here don’t really do justice to the vivid blue carpet which lit up the banks on either side of our path.

After skirting the local golf course, we reached a track which took us past a couple of isolated cottages, before descending through some thicker woodland (and more bluebells), towards railway line. We crossed under the tracks by means of a narrow pedestrian underpass. This was the only wet and muddy spot on the entire walk. We then crossed a couple more fields, divided by a stream, before coming out onto a narrow lane. After passing a riding stables, and a farm, we reached a T-Junction, and turned right into the strangely named Scabharbour Road towards our destination of Sevenoaks Weald. I was back in familiar territory now, as I know this road quite well. Some fifteen minutes later we arrived at the Windmill keen to see which beers were on offer in order to slake our thirst.

That first, much anticipated pint is always even more eagerly awaited by the time one reaches the end of a long country walk, and this pint was no exception. As is always the case at the Windmill, there was an excellent selection of beers on sale, including local offerings in the form of Goacher’s Light, Larkins Traditional, Musket Muzzleloader and Dark Star Victorian Ruby Mild, plus Redemption Big Chief and Truman’s Swift from slightly further a field. I opted for the latter to begin with; an excellent gold coloured pale ale, well-hopped with some thirst-quenching citrus flavours.

The pub was surprisingly empty for a Sunday afternoon, but the barman told us it had been busy with diners earlier. Being the first fine warm day for some time we decided to sit out in the suntrap of a garden at the side of the pub. Here we met up with the other members of our party. A second pint was called for, and this time I went for an old favourite, in the form of Goacher’s Fine Light. It didn’t have quite as much hop character as the Truman’s, but it was still a very good beer.
The excellent beer selection

Shortly after 4pm, we were joined by the Windmill’s licensees, Matthew and Emma. After a few pleasantries, Don presented the couple with their well-deserved certificate for West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year. We stayed out in the garden chatting to Matthew and Emma whilst enjoying the pleasant warm afternoon sunshine. I also enjoyed a further two beers; Redemption Big Chief, a 5.5% well-hopped Golden Ale, followed by the chewy dark malt of the 6.4% Dark Star Victorian Ruby Mild.

Worthy winners, Emma & Matthew
We said goodbye to our hosts, and left the pub shortly after 6.30pm. Don reckoned it would take an hour to walk back to Hildenborough station, where we would be able to catch the 19.36 train back to Tonbridge. Unfortunately he slightly underestimated the time, and we arrived at the bridge over the railway, just in time to see the train departing from the station below us! Another three or four minutes and we would have been ok.

The walk back from the pub though had been worth us missing the train, as although we stuck to the lanes, we passed some really impressive and, at times, quite stunning multi-million pound properties, all tucked away down the intriguingly named Egg Pie Lane, which leads down from Scabharbour Road to Philpotts Lane. There is certainly some money tucked away in this part of the county.

Missing the train meant an hour’s wait for the next one. There used to be a pub, called the Gate, just down the hill from the station, but this was converted, years ago, into an eatery. After various incarnations, the pub is now a rather good Indian Restaurant. Eric, who was walking with us, took the opportunity to call in for a curry, but Don and I, decided to catch the up-train to Sevenoaks, where we knew we could get a fast train back down to Tonbridge.

I arrived home slightly later than anticipated, but there was a welcoming pot of beef stew waiting for me in the slow-cooker; courtesy of my lovely wife. I was rather hungry following the walk, but fortunately there was sufficient stew for a second helping.

Once again the enjoyment of a gentle ramble through the unspoilt Kent countryside, coupled with the excellence of an award-winning village pub, had proved an irresistible combination. I am looking forward to further such delights as the summer unfolds.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Mild Matters

In my last post about CAMRA’s  “Mild in May” campaign I stated that I was not a huge fan of the style, even though I have probably drunk quite a bit of mild over the course of my drinking career. So in order to set the record straight I thought I’d take a nostalgic look back through the years at some of my experiences of mild ale.

I’m not certain as to quite when mild ale slipped into my consciousness, but then when I started my drinking career I wasn’t that aware of the term “bitter” as a name for a pale and well-hopped beer either. I discovered quite a few years later that the Courage beer brand, known as PBA (Pale Bitter Ale) which my friends and I had enjoyed drinking during the early 1970’s, was in fact a light mild, rather than a bitter.
We weren’t legally old enough to drink, but that didn’t seem to matter back then, as long as you behaved yourself. It also helped that the pub we frequented in Ashford, was where one of our friend’s parents drank.

I think the first time I saw dark mild being drunk, and indeed tried it myself, was a mix, in the from of brown and mild (a half of dark mild, topped up with a bottle of brown ale). The reasons for the popularity of this mix were twofold; first it was common practice for bar staff to give a “long pull”, dispensing slightly more than half a pint of the draught component.  Secondly, the bottled brown ale had the effect of livening up what was often a flat or sometimes even stale glass of mild. As draught beer was considerably cheaper than bottled, diluting a bottle of brown with draught mild had the effect of eking out an expensive drink, whilst making an acceptable alternative. Light and bitter, based on exactly the same principle, was an even more popular and alternative choice, during this time.

CAMRA Publicity Figure
I do recall, again back in my Sixth Form days, that if one was out of pocket, it was possible to purchase a half of mild for one shilling (5p in today’s money!), but you had to be really skint to stoop that low! This though, was probably when I tried dark mild, on its own, for the first time.

Moving forward a few years, to my student days in Greater Manchester, where I discovered mild was a popular drink. By this time I had begun to take more than a passing interest in the brands and styles of beer I was drinking. There were so many different breweries, whose names I’d never heard of, in the Manchester area that it was a real voyage of discovery going to various pubs, just to try a different beer. I still look back on those times with fond memories; talk about a kid in a sweetshop.

The publication of CAMRA’s first Good Beer Guide in 1974, changed all that, as the back of the guide provided a handy reference in the form of a list of all the breweries in England and Wales, (Scotland didn’t get a look in until the following year!). The guide did help to clarify where these various breweries were based, and gave a rough (very rough), idea of what to expect in their pubs.

A student friend and I took it on ourselves to try as many of these beers as possible, and I remember cycling from Salford, practically all the way to Oldham just to sample the mild and bitter from the local Oldham Brewery. We discovered that Robinson’s Mild was a light mild; as was the mild from Hydes. We also learned that Boddingtons and Thwaites both brewed two milds apiece; an ordinary and a best mild.

Throughout this time I still much preferred bitter, as there was something very satisfying about the thirst-quenching “bite” of a well-hopped pint of this beer style. With brewers, such as Boddingtons and Holts adding considerable quantities of hops to their respective bitters, the Manchester area really was a bitter-lover’s paradise.
 After four and a half years in Greater Manchester, I moved to London, where I lived and worked for a couple of years. There was precious little mild available in the capital, not that this bothered me much, but when my then wife and I moved out to Kent; Maidstone to be precise, we found that most Shepherd Neame pubs stocked a quite palatable cask mild.

I mentioned in my previous article about the local CAMRA branch doing its best to keep this beer going in cask form, but despite members doing their best to drink Shep’s Mild, wherever possible, the brewery switched it to a keg only product during the mis-1980’s.

I now live 17 miles from Maidstone, in the pleasant market town of Tonbridge. I have lived here for over 30 years, and again we see very little mild. There are a handful of Harvey’s tied pubs in the area, and some of them make an effort to sell their quite pleasant dark mild. Apart from that, mild might make a very rare appearance at the odd Greene King pub, or sometimes as an occasional guest ale in a local free-house.

When my wife and I ran our Real Ale Off-Licence, we weren’t brave enough to even contemplate selling the odd cask of mild, despite the fact that porters and old ales always proved popular with customers. And here’s the strange thing, some old ales are very similar in taste and style to dark mild; the only difference being they are quite a bit stronger. Harvey’s seasonal XXXX Old Ale is reputed to be based on a Victorian dark mild recipe.

The low strength of mild is for me, the main reason I am not keen on the style. Their low strength might make them ideal for quaffing, but so far as I am concerned they are insipid and lacking in body. The fact that I enjoy the higher strength Old Ales, such as Harvey’s, King’s, Long Man, Hepworths etc, and also strong milds, such as the 6.0% ABV Dark Ruby Mild from Sarah Hughes, proves there is nothing wrong with the basic formulation of mild; just its strength.

Perhaps that is the answer to mild making something of a comeback!

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Mild in May?

Mild in May from CAMRA

We’re in the month of May now, and as many CAMRA members will know “May is a Mild Month”. Well it’s not particularly mild at the moment; in fact there’s been a biting cold north-easterly wind blowing for the past ten days or so! Leaving bad puns on the British weather aside for a moment, why exactly does the Campaign for Real Ale choose May as a month to campaign for mild ale?

“Mild in May” must be CAMRA’s longest running campaign. I remember it being around during the 1980’s when CAMRA first set up its Mild Marketing Board; a concept which was unashamedly based on the long defunct Milk Marketing Board. A handful of prominent South-East based CAMRA activists were behind this idea; one is sadly no longer with us, and I’m not certain what has happened with some of the others.

The Mild Marketing Board was all slightly tongue-in-cheek, but there was a serious purpose behind it.  There was also, for the time, some quite amusing publicity material designed to draw people’s attention to this almost forgotten drink. However, one has to ask why did CAMRA put its weight behind a campaign to try and save a style of beer which was dying on its feet? I suppose the answer was that thirty years ago, there just wasn’t the enormous range of different beer styles available to the average pub-goer; certainly not in cask-conditioned form. Your typical English or Welsh pub (Scotland was slightly different), and your typical English or Welsh brewer offered a choice of either bitter or mild. Some offered two bitters (Ordinary or Best), and perhaps during the winter months, an Old or Strong Ale might also have been available, but when mild started declining in popularity and, in many cases, even disappearing completely, the choice for ale lovers was cut in half and CAMRA felt obliged  to do something about it.

It all seemed pretty noble at the time, and I admit that I was sucked into the campaign. The problem was I wasn’t over-keen on mild and thirty years later I am still not over-enamoured with the style. I am not a beer historian, so I’d better tread carefully here as I don’t want to incur the wrath of those who are. I believe though that the term “mild” originally applied to beers that had not been aged, and which therefore had not developed the lactic sourness associated with “vatted beers” which had been matured for lengthy periods, often in oak vats.

Later the term was applied to malt-driven beers which were only lightly hopped. Such beers were often fairly sweet in taste and were brewed to be consumed in large quantities, often by agricultural labourers or those working in heavy industries, such as mining or metal-working, where there was a need to replace fluids lost over the course of a hard working day.

Because these beers were designed to be drunk in copious amounts, they were of necessity quite low in strength; typically coming in at just over the 3.0% ABV level. Prior to World War II mild was the most popular style of beer consumed in Britain’s pubs, but with increasing prosperity during the post-war years, bitter began to first catch up and then overtake mild as the nation’s most popular beer. Mild even developed an image problem, in so much that it was viewed as an “old man’s drink”, drunk solely by old codgers, wearing cloth caps, tucked away in a dark corner of the Public Bar.

An obvious cliché, but not without a grain of truth during the Britain of the “Swinging Sixties”, so much so that by the time CAMRA came on the scene mild was in terminal decline and was disappearing at an increasing rate from the nation’s bars, and from many brewers’ portfolios. With hindsight, was CAMRA right in trying to reverse this trend and attempting to restore mild to its rightful place in Britain’s pubs?

As a thing of its time, I would say yes, even though, with one or two notable exceptions, I was never that keen on the stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I did my fair share of trying to save this once popular drink. For example, during my early days with CAMRA, when I was a member of Maidstone & Mid-Kent branch, it was policy to support the only cask mild available in mid-Kent; namely Shepherd Neame Mild. Members were encouraged to drink it, wherever possible, in order to help the turnover of the beer in Shepherd Neame pubs, thereby encouraging the brewery to keep it available as a cask-conditioned (Real) ale. Being young and naive, and also somewhat idealistic, I went along with this policy, often putting up with mediocre pints of a not particularly good beer. This was at a time before Shepherd Neame started messing with their yeast and brewing techniques and when their bitter ranked amongst some of the finest in the country. I wince now when I look back at all the superb pints of bitter I must have denied myself just to support a style of beer which was dying on its feet.

Bavarian Weissbier
This is not to say that dying, or even completely lost beer styles cannot be revived. The example of Bavarian Wheat or Weissbier is a case in point where a once popular beer, which had almost died out earlier in the 20th Century, became the fastest growing beer style in Bavaria during the 1980’s. If mild was seen in Britain as an “old man’s drink”, Wheat Beers were looked upon, in Bavaria, as the province of "maiden aunts" and other ladies of advanced years. The beer though went on to capture around 30% of the local market, proving particularly popular with young people; demonstrating that, in certain cases, once dying beers can be revived.

The proviso here though is they can be revived IF they are good. Bavarian and other German wheat beers are generally very good, even though I am not a huge fan. The same applies to other once extinct or virtually extinct beers; the most obvious example being Porter. Once a massively popular beer in the UK, as well as other parts of the world, the style had virtually died out until a handful of brave pioneers resurrected it. Today, many brewers both here and abroad and especially in the USA, include a porter in their range and very good they are too.

The fact that styles such as wheat beer and porter, and also other beers such as Saisons and even Gose have been revived is largely down to them being good beers, with fine pedigrees and long-standing heritages to start with. Whilst not denying that some UK milds can be good, many were not and this is undoubtedly the reason for their decline. Back in the 1970’s some independent family brewers openly admitted that their mild was little more than their ordinary bitter with added caramel. These were the beers which CAMRA was rushing to defend and indeed promote!

One of the better milds
Fortunately such sharp practices have ceased and the majority of the surviving milds are brewed to carefully-crafted individual recipes designed to showcase the best aspects of the style. So really these beers should be standing on their own merits and not needing a special campaign to promote them. My argument is that “Mild in May” is now a totally superfluous campaign which continues more due to habit than anything else. However noble local campaigns by individual CAMRA branches might be in raising the profile of mild ale, they are only having a temporary effect, and as soon as the promotion ends, sales slump back down to their previous levels. In the same way as Maidstone CAMRA did thirty years ago, these sorts of campaign distort the market and only have a temporary effect on the sales of mild and its overall perception by the general public.
Time now to drop it; after all why should a style of beer where the public has voted with its feet and deserted in its droves, be worthy of special promotion? Also, if a campaign of this nature IS going to be run, why confine it to a specific month? If it wasn’t for the alliteration of “Make May a Mild Month”, then it could be run at other times. March has the same alliteration, of course, but perhaps not the mild weather.

To me “Mild in May” is nothing more than a habitual and irritating campaign, attempting to revive a style of beer which the drinking public have lost interest in. But then CAMRA loves these sorts of campaigns with Community Pubs Month, National Cask Ale Week and of course Cider Month, all designed to focus drinkers’ attention on particular aspects of the licensed trade. The latter campaign is now being run in March as well as the traditional month of October, proving there is no need to confine these types of campaign to specific months.

Needless to say, I shan’t be going out of my way to neck much mild this May, or indeed any other month. Not that there’s much chance of stumbling upon the drink in these parts. Local revered independent Harvey’s do produce small volumes of their Dark Mild throughout the year, and also brew a seasonal 3.0% ABV Light Mild, called Knots of May during this month. One of two smaller independents produce the odd drop of mild, but that’s about it, as this part of the country has never been mild territory; at least not since the Second World War.

Doomed to failure an ad from 2006
On form, Harvey’s Dark Mild can be quite quaffable, but I find Knots of May distinctly lacking in both the flavour and enjoyment departments. Part of the problem, of course, is the poor keeping qualities of mild which, given its low ABV and equally low hopping rates, is not really surprising. A cask of the stuff really needs to be shifted in around three days; otherwise the quality starts to really suffer. This isn’t a problem where a pub puts a cask on specifically for a CAMRA event, but at other times of the year the interest in mild ale just isn’t there.

This is why campaigns such as “Mild in May” are, in the end, doomed to failure. It is not possible to create a demand for a product if the demand isn’t there all year round. CAMRA really would be better off dropping this long-running, out-dated campaign and concentrating its efforts elsewhere.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A Norfolk Village

All Saints Church, Swanton Morley
Swanton Morley is a large village, situated in the heart of Norfolk. It is 18 miles from Norwich and is located centrally between the market towns of Dereham, Swaffham and Fakenham, with Dereham being the closest at three miles away. Its origins go back to Anglo-Saxon times; "Swanton" being derived from the Old English for “herdsman's enclosure”, whilst the "Morley" part of the village name, refers to Robert de Morli, who held the lordship of the manor in 1346.

My interest in the village dates back to the early 90’s, when my parents moved there from Kent, following my father’s retirement from the Royal Mail. I obviously made regular visits to this Norfolk village, following their relocation there, but over the course of the past four months these visits intensified as my mother’s health deteriorated. Sadly she passed away at the end of February, but I have been back up to Norfolk several times since then to visit dad and check up on how he is coping with living on his own.

The most recent visit was last weekend, and I am pleased to report he is looking better than I have seen him for a long time; this I despite the Alzheimer’s which is starting to play havoc with his short term memory. What I want to write here though is a piece about Swanton Morley’s two pubs, particularly as I was able to visit them both on my most recent trip. This is something I have not done for a long time, so it was good to renew my acquaintance with them both.

Swanton Morley is a classic example of a liner village; that is it is long on drawn out. At one end is 14th-century All Saints Parish Church, a large “wool church”, typical of many in East Anglia, built as a statement to demonstrate the wealth of the area, which was derived from the wool trade. Just down the hill from the church is Darby’s, a pub which was originally a pair of 18th century farm cottages, before being converted into a pub in 1988. It is named after Ann Darby, the last person to farm from the site.. At the other end of the village is the close, where my parents’ bungalow is situated, and it is at this end that the 17th Century Angel Inn can be found.

Darby's Freehouse, Swanton Morley
Because of its proximity to my parents, I have spent more time in the Angel than I have in Darby’s, but I can safely say I like both pubs. On this recent visit I stopped off at Darby’s first, prior to visiting dad as I wanted to grab something to eat, after my journey up. (Dad has carers who pop in three times a day to make sure he is up and dressed, and to take care of his meals. As my arrival coincided with lunchtime, I decided it would be best to let him enjoy his midday meal uninterrupted; hence my decision to eat out).

Darby's is a typical Norfolk building, and the pub retains many features of the original farmhouse, such as exposed brick walls and an inglenook fireplace. There are tractor seats for barstools, farming memorabilia and plenty of stripped-pine tables and chairs which help create a real rustic feel. I arrived at around half twelve, before the pub started to get really busy. I grabbed a table close to the door, but not before I’d perused the range of beers on offer and ordered myself a pint.

Inside Darby's
My attention was drawn to Lacon’s Legacy; a beer from a brewery which I had read quite a bit about, but had not had the chance to sample before. Lacon’s Brewery was situated in Great Yarmouth and was established in 1760. By all accounts the brewery was pretty successful, but in 1957 the directors made the fatal mistake of selling 20% of the company to Whitbread (them again!). Eight years later, Whitbread bought Lacon’s outright, for £3.2 million and in 1968 shut the brewery down. And there the story might have ended had it not been for the determination of a few individuals and a member of the original Lacon’s family.

Back in 2009, after being intrigued by the presence of Lacon’s emblems on a variety of buildings dotted around the Yarmouth area, Mick Carver, managing director of Lowestoft-based drinks distributor JV Trading, started work to secure the rights to the Lacon’s name and associated intellectual property. After negotiations with Whitbread’s successors, AB InBev, he succeeded in this aim, and was also able to obtain the brewery's original yeast strains which had been stored at the National Collection of Yeast Cultures in Norwich,  for nearly half a century.

A modern brewery was set up, nestled within a historic courtyard. It was named the new Falcon Brewery, after Lacon’s iconic falcon emblem. Acclaimed head brewer Wil Wood was recruited and worked alongside William Lacon, son of the last Lacon family member to work at the brewery, in order to create an exciting range of handcrafted ales using the original Lacon’s yeast. 

The brewery was relaunched at the Norwich City of Ale Festival and Great Yarmouth Beer and Cider Festival in May 2013. Three new permanent beers were launched: Encore, Legacy and Affinity, and the company plans to extend the beer range to include some original Lacon’s recipes. My pint of Legacy was excellent, and one of the best beers I have had for a long time.

Lunch, but not a "Proper Pie"
I had of course, stopped off at Darby’s for lunch, so I ordered myself a beef and ale pie, served with mash potato and seasonal vegetables. The meat was nice and tender and the whole thing most enjoyable, even though it wasn’t a proper, pastry-encased pie.

I decided on further beer before leaving. My eye had been drawn earlier to Old Codger, a 4.0% beer from Tom Wood. I asked for sample, but as it wasn’t the dark, old ale I was anticipating, I opted instead for a half of Afternoon Delight, from local Norfolk brewer, Beeston. It was enjoyable, but not as much as the Lacon’s. Like many pubs in the locality, Darby’s dispenses its cask ales by gravity, from a temperature-controlled room behind the bar. The pump-clips adorning the non-operational hand-pumps are merely there to inform the customer as to what beers are on offer.
Angel Inn, Swanton Morley
As mentioned earlier, I am a lot more familiar with Swanton Morley’s other pub, the Angel. This pub is an attractive timber-framed building which was built in the 1610 by one Richard Lincoln, an ancestor of former US President, Abraham Lincoln. It was later refaced with brick in the 19th century. 

The present owners are long-standing CAMRA members, and as well as offering a range of well-kept cask ales, the pub hosts a beer festival each year at Easter. Inside, there is a large  and spacious main bar, complete with real fire, a dining room serving food lunchtimes and evenings (not Sun eve), plus a small games room with pool and darts. The extensive garden includes a bowling green, and the pub is home to a thriving bowls club.
Angel Inn
I would describe the Angel as much more of a locals’ pub than Darby’s is. The latter seems to attract more passing trade, as well as service personnel from the nearby Robertson Barracks. Despite this I have always received a friendly welcome from the landlord and the regulars in the Angel and this, combined with its proximity to dad’s bungalow, prompted my sister and I to walk dad down there for Sunday lunch.

There was no roast available, but I did have a pretty reasonable burger and chips. Dad’s ham, egg and chips looked especially good, as did my sister’s tuna and salad baguette. To drink, I enjoyed a couple of well-kept pints of local Norfolk favourite; Woodforde’s Wherry. Hop Back Summer Lightning was also available, and I understand from the pub’s website, that this is a regular beer at the Angel. Much as I like it, Summer Lightning is not a lunchtime pint, so I purposely avoided it; especially in view of the drive back to Kent later that evening.

This visit to the Angel rounded off my mini-tour of Swanton Morley’s pubs, but before ending, it is worth recording that until quite recent times, the village boasted a third pub. The Papermakers was a quite small pub, over-looking the village green; almost in the shadow of the church. I did venture in once, not long after my parents moved to the village, but if the Angel could be described as a locals pub, then the Papermakers was doubly so.
The now closed Papermakers Arms

I don’t recall that much about it, but I did manage to find a photo of it, on the Norfolk Pubs website. I am not sure when exactly the Papermakers closed, but given the state of the pub trade today, I would imagine that this third pub was just one too many for a village, even of the size of Swanton Morley. If I lived in the village, I would be quite happy to drink in both the Angel and Darby’s; after all, not everywhere has such a choice!

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Farewell to The Wharf

The Wharf, Tonbridge

This coming Bank Holiday weekend, a popular and well-known Tonbridge pub will be calling “last orders” for the final time. The Wharf, in Lyons Crescent has been sold to developers and will be converted into yet more riverside flats.

One of the few old original buildings left along this stretch of the River Medway, The Wharf served as a reminder of Tonbridge’s industrial past; a time when the Medway was bustling with river-borne trade, playing an important role in the growth and development of the town.

For those not familiar with the town, Tonbridge grew up at an important crossing over the River Medway; the importance of which can be gauged by the impressive 12th Century castle constructed to guard this strategic point. Back in the times when roads were poor and largely un-surfaced, movement of heavy goods was slow and tedious. Transporting these items by means of the river was the obvious alternative, but the Medway itself first needed improvement to make it suitable for river traffic.  In 1740 an Act of Parliament set up the Medway Navigation Company with the aim of making the Medway navigable from Maidstone to Forest Row in Sussex (although the improvement works never progressed beyond Tonbridge), and from 1740 to 1911 the Company managed the movement of trade and goods down the river to Maidstone.

Once the river was navigable, the economy of Tonbridge improved dramatically stimulated by trade up and down the river. The main goods brought upstream were coal, lime and stone whilst downstream, the main freight was timber, hops and other farm produce from the Weald. The Medway Navigation Company’s operations had a big impact on the town, and were centred around the Medway wharf which ran for over a hundred yards downstream from Big Bridge on the south side of the river, but our interest lies in a warehouse on the opposite bank.

The arrival in 1842 of the South Eastern Railway in Tonbridge, led to a steady decline in waterborne trade, and in 1911 the Medway Navigation Company was wound up. The old warehouse buildings which fronted the river were either converted for alternative use, or were pulled down, but Lyons Warehouse, on the north bank of the Medway survived, and in 1981 the building was converted by Messrs Whitbread & Co into a Beefeater Restaurant.

The Wharf's attractive riverside setting
It was a fascinating old building; solidly built and extending over several floors, and was a nice place for a reasonably priced meal. A decade or so later, Whitbread converted the restaurant into one of their Hogshead Alehouses, and for the next ten years the pub offered by far and away the best range of beers in Tonbridge. Whilst some of the beers were kept downstairs in the cellar, and pulled up by hand-pump, many were dispensed from casks kept in a temperature-controlled rack behind the bar. Like other outlets in the Hogshead chain, Lyons Wharf held regular beer festivals, bringing even more variety to local drinkers.

With the approach of the new century, Whitbread slowly lost interest in the chain, and then in brewing altogether; selling off its brewing division to concentrate on running Premier Inns and Pizza Hut. The Lyons Wharf pub also lost its way, and the arrival of Wetherspoon’s in 1998, sealed the fate of the pub as a real ale venue in Tonbridge.

The Wharf, as the pub became known, struggled on in a variety of guises, hosting live bands, recorded music sessions, as well as providing meeting rooms for various local clubs and societies. In recent years it started offering a selection of reasonably-priced lunchtime meals, and also made several attempts at bringing back a limited range of cask beers. Its clientele though was mainly made up of younger people, with its late night weekend license proving a popular attraction.
Luxury flats, spreading like a plague along the river
All to no avail, as a report in the local newspaper confirms that The Wharf will pull its last pint on Sunday, May 3, before being converted into yet another block of flats. Local people are not happy at the loss of this popular riverside pub and music venue, and have accused the local council of turning its back on the river and lacking the vision necessary to make something of this attractive feature of the town.

Flats and luxury apartments are springing up all over Tonbridge; nowhere more so than along the river. However, without pubs, bars and cafés for people to spend their leisure time in, the town is in danger of becoming little more than a dormitory for commuters and other out of town workers.

I won’t be going along to the wake next Sunday, as not having used The Wharf in years; I would feel somewhat of a hypocrite. I am sure though that here will be many people present on the 3rd May, deeply disappointed they have lost their favourite watering hole just so one more property developer can line his pockets and our "couldn’t-care-less" local council can look forward to collecting yet more Council Tax!