Sunday, 4 December 2016

A good start to December

It’s been a hectic and rather beer-fuelled start to December, with the British Guild of Beer Writers Annual Awards Dinner taking place on Thursday evening in the glitzy Art Deco opulence of the Park Lane Hotel in London’s Mayfair; whilst in complete contrast, the Annual General Meeting of West Kent CAMRA took place on Saturday afternoon in the rather more modest setting of the Tunbridge Wells Constitutional Club.

The former was my first BGBW awards dinner and I enjoyed it very much; but of more interest to readers is Saturday’s event, especially as the future of my local CAMRA branch hung in the balance.

It’s a few years now since I stepped down from the West Kent committee, but I still play a reasonably active roll within the branch. Like other ordinary members who received the invitation to the AGM, sent out a few weeks ago, I was acutely aware that for health reasons, branch chairman Iain, would be standing down. I also knew from conversations I’d had, several weeks ago, that my friend Don would also be standing down from his position as branch social secretary. With no obvious candidates to fill either role, here was a real possibility that the branch could be left rudderless and in danger of being unable to fulfil its responsibly as part of the Campaign for Real Ale.

It was therefore with a slightly heavy heart that I caught the train over to Tunbridge Wells, just after 1pm on Saturday, and made my way along to the Constitutional Club. I walked up through Calverley Grounds, stopping to take a few photos of the ice rink, whose appearance each year at the end of November heralds the start of Christmas in Tunbridge Wells.

This year is the fifth time in a row that the Constitutional Club has hosted our AGM. The club is housed in what must once have been a large private house and the Doric columns at the entrance, help give it the appearance of a stately home. The interior is well appointed with two large lounges, a snooker hall in the basement plus a number of function rooms upstairs. It was in one of these rooms that the meeting took place.

Before going on to describe what took place, mention should be made of the beer. The club stocks renowned local favourite Harvey’s Sussex Best as its regular cask ale, with up to three other changing guests. Saturday’s line-up featured Greedy Goose 4.2% from Hook Norton, Mandarina 4.5% from Kent Brewery and Natural Privileges a 5.2% Porter from Pig & Porter. I tried all three over the course of the afternoon, and can confirm that all were good.

And so to the meeting; there are 620 members on our books, but only 16 of them could be bothered to turn up! Most were people known to us, but it was good to see a couple of new faces in the room. Despite the poor attendance, the outgoing chairman was able to report on a highly successful year for the branch; the highlight being the beer festival we run in association with the Spa Valley Railway.

There were some quite lengthy reports from our Publicity and Campaigns Officers, detailing the excellent work these two individuals perform on behalf of the branch. The Social Secretary’s report highlighted the thoughtful approach taken by the departing incumbent, in trying to reach out to as many pubs as possible and to provide an interesting and varied programme of social events and activities designed to offer something for everyone. The report concluded that despite all the effort and careful planning which had gone into setting out the year’s programme of events; for, as in previous years, the attendance at many of these socials was disappointing, with few members, apart from those on the committee attending. This remains an ongoing problem for the branch and with no obvious answers of how to turn it round.

I have been involved with West Kent CAMRA for the past 30 years, in one capacity or another, and unfortunately the issue of poor attendance has been evident right from those early days. A comment from one member present on Saturday, that weekday evening socials were awkward for him, shed some light on one possible cause. His reasoning that by the time he gets home from work in the evening has his evening meal and spends a bit of time catching up with the family, the last thing he feels like doing is going back out again, especially if it involves a train journey to get to a particular pub.

I empathise completely with him, as I also have felt the same way, especially on a cold winter’s night. Basically there is no easy answer, but the meeting did agree to adopt a more flexible approach to socials, by notifying members of up and coming events, such as “tap-takeovers”, “meet the brewer evenings” etc, by means of social media, rather than relying solely on activities being advertised in “What’s Brewing”. The 21st Century demands a 21st Century approach, rather than a 19th Century one where printed notices appearing each month in the Campaign newspaper!

When it came to the election of branch officers, it was to the relief of everyone that a volunteer did step forward for the position of chairman. He is someone known to the committee as well as to some ordinary members like me. I know he will perform well in this role and will contribute much to the branch. As for the role of social secretary, it was agreed that this role be handled by a new member, who was elected to the committee, with input from other branch officials.

We adjourned for a beer break, and also to take advantage of the buffet laid on for us by the club. This was followed by nominations for the 2018 Good Beer Guide. This I an area I haven’t been involved with for a number of years, but seeing as I’d just grabbed a pint, I sat in on the meeting and even agreed to survey a pub – I must be going soft in my old age!

So the branch survives for another year, but without the influx of some younger active members this is surely nothing more than a stay of execution. I know there are other CAMRA branches in a similar predicament, who are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. It will be interesting to see what CAMRA’s Revitalisation Project comes up with, but the chances this already delayed project  will recommend more of the same. I hate to say it, but CAMRA has long since ceased to be a young persons’ organisation, and unless it attracts new blood it will wither and die.

After the meeting ended, several of us decided that more beer was in order (as if we hadn’t drank enough!). Seven of us adjourned to the George, at the top end of the town. The temperature was already falling, but a brisk walk back into the centre and then through the main shopping area, brought us to this fine old former coaching inn, which reopened back in the spring after years in the doldrums and an undeserved fate as a dodgy night-club. The new owners also run the Sussex Arms and the Ragged Trousers in the Pantiles area of the town. The George offers half-dozen or so cask ales, plus a range of “craft kegs”, all sourced from small independent brewers. I kicked off with a pint of Indian Brown 4.9% from Cornwall’s Harbour Brewing Company, followed by a pint of Larkin’s wonderful 5.2% Porter.

There was a really nice ambiance about the George that evening, helped by the welcoming warmth from the log-burner, and the way in which the pub has been divided up into several different areas. There was some good 70’s rock music emanating from the speakers, but played at a sensible volume which allowed conversation to take place at a comfortable level without the need to shout, or even raise one’s voice. It is good to see this lovely old pub restored to its former glory. I wouldn’t say it was heaving, but given its location on the edge of the common it was comfortably busy, with a good mixed crowd in the bar.

Four of those present decided to head back down to Fuggles, but the rest of us stayed put, content with the fact we were comfortable, with somewhere to sit and plenty of good beer to enjoy. Rather foolishly I rounded off the evening with a half of Zozoma Strong IPA 6.5%, from Gun Brewery. It was rather nice though! 

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Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A difficult job

Every Friday, over the course of the past couple of months I’ve made a point of calling in at the Greyhound at Charcott for a lunchtime pint. Friday is the only weekday which the pub opens at lunchtime, so seeing as my regular lunchtime walks often take me right past its door, it seems rude not to pop in for a quick pint and a chat with whoever happens to be in.

I also feel that I am doing my bit, albeit in a small way, to help keep this rural pub open. For the background to the Greyhound’s current situation, please refer to my previous post on the subject. However, even with my presence I have yet to see the number of customers reach double figures.

The landlord tells me that trade is busier in the evenings; something I will find out for myself in a fortnight’s time, when my local CAMRA branch will be holding a social at the pub. Unfortunately, relying solely on wet sales (the Greyhound serves no food, but customers are welcome to bring their own sandwiches or rolls and eat them in the bar), does not appear to be a sound business model; certainly in the long term.

Larkin’s only have the pub on a short term lease, as owners’ Enterprise Inns, have the pub up for sale. The talk in the bar  has been that the only interest in the property has been from those wishing to convert the pub into a private dwelling, and the only reason this desire has not yet come to pass is the pub has no garden. If one wished to be pedantic, it does have a grassed area at the side, which is separated from the road by a hedge, but this “garden area” belongs to the house behind. It is currently leased to the pub.

So at the moment, the Greyhound is in a sort of limbo. It’s great that Larkin’s have taken on the lease so that the pub can remain open, but with its long term future uncertain, it’s understandable they don’t wish to invest in a full-blown catering operation.

For my part, I will continue to call in when I can, as there’s normally some friendly and interesting conversation at the bar. Last week whilst I was there, Larkin’s made a delivery and their drayman, whom I have known for years, popped in for a pint and a chat. He brought his canine companion in with him, and the dog amused us by begging for tit-bits (the pub sells crisps) and then got a little vociferous when no rewards came his way.

I enjoyed my ham roll along with an excellent pint of Larkin’s Porter. Walking back to work along the lanes, with the sun low in the sky, and full on in my face, I started to think that perhaps life isn’t quite so bad after all.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Going Dutch

I realised after writing my last post about Jopen Bier that in spite of spending five days in Amsterdam I hadn’t written that much about Dutch beer or the brewing scene in the Netherlands.

I came back from my trip in a reflective and slightly melancholy mood, made worse by the realisation that because of a reckless and unnecessary political gamble, followed by a misleading and at times completely untruthful campaign, the country I am proud to call home will be divorcing itself from a European ideal which offers far more than it takes, in pure monetary terms. Also, by cutting ourselves adrift from our friends in Europe we will lose far more than we will ever gain from a rather outdated nationalistic ideal of “controlling our own sovereignty.”

The fact that this year’s European Beer Bloggers Conference will be the last such event in its current form only served to increase my feelings of melancholia and isolation, but such is life and at east the latter  decision was one based on pure financial and logistical considerations, rather than highly charged and emotionally unsound ones. Such is life, and if these sorts of decisions do nothing else, they serve to remind us that there are no certainties in life.

However, angst over the direction the country is taking should not be allowed to detract from the thriving and rather interesting beer scene just the other side of the North Sea so here, somewhat belatedly, are some facts, observations, thoughts and comments about beer and brewing in the Netherlands.

Like us British, the Dutch were a great sea-faring and trading nation who established links and eventually possessions in the Far East; in particular with what is now modern day Indonesia. Following a hard-won independence from Spanish rule in 1648, Holland as the new country became known, entered a Golden Age during which trade, industry, the arts and sciences all flourished. For a time, Holland was the most economically powerful nation in Europe, although it was eventually eclipsed by Britain.

The story of beer in the country goes back much further than the 17th Century. I mentioned the Old Dutch beer style, known as Gruit in my previous post. In this medieval brew, herbs and spices provided the flavouring, rather than hops, but given the country’s position on the North Sea coast, and also the fact that Europe’s largest river, the Rhine, enters the sea via the Netherlands, it is not surprising that hops began to be used in brewing much earlier than they did in England.

The various cities of the powerful Hanseatic League played key role in the introduction of hops, and as early as 1325 many Dutch brewers had switched to producing hopped beers. The city of Haarlem, mentioned in my previous post, played a pivotal role here, but for centuries there were many indigenous and local styles of beer peculiar to the country. Beers such as Oud Bruin, Beiersch (a Munich-style dark lager), Licht and Gerstebier, were once common; as were local interpretations of British-style ales and porters; but it was the increase in the popularity of paler, bottom-fermented, beers which led to the dominance of Pils in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands remained neutral during the First World War, thereby avoiding the whole scale slaughter experienced by the warring parties, but neutrality came at a price, as the war virtually cut the country off from its normal trading partners. Brewing experienced a gradual decline, as did the number of different beer styles. Takeovers and mergers took their toll, leading to s situation where one company in particular came to dominate the Dutch brewing industry, eventually becoming the world’s third largest brewing corporation.

I am talking about Heineken of course, and it must be said that some clever marketing played an important role in this meteoric rise, which made Heineken one of the most recognised brands on the planet.

Dutch hopes of remaining neutral in the next conflict were dashed in May 1940 when German forces invaded the country. Five years of occupation did further damage to the country’s brewing industry, especially towards the end of the war, when the northern Dutch provinces were cut off from the advancing Allied forces, and many people died due to mass starvation. It is hardly surprising that beer consumption in the country nose-dived during the 1940’s, and took several decades to recover.

The Netherlands ended up being dominated by Pils, with just the occasional Bock-style beers being produced for consumption during the winter months. By the mid 1980’s only 17 breweries remained in the entire country, with the industry dominated by four large players; Heineken, Skol (remember the name?), Grolsch and Bavaria.

Slowly, inspired by the growing interest in beer observed in other countries and in particular the influence of close neighbour Belgium, things began to look up, and by 2001 the number of breweries had risen to 61. Many of the new-style breweries were dismissed at the time as “copy-cat” breweries inspired by neighbouring Belgium, and it took the arrival of American inspired “craft beers” before things really began to improve.

During the last decade, the Dutch brewing scene has really started to take off, and by the time Tim Skelton’s excellent “Beer in the Netherlands” appeared in 2014, the number of breweries in the country had risen to 200, producing in excess of 1,000 regular beers. This number has certainly been surpassed over the course of the last two years.

There is still much work to be done in order to educate Dutch beer drinkers and wean them off their addiction to Pils. Part of the problem is said to be the indifferent way in which many Dutch bars serve their beers. It is little wonder then that many Dutch people prefer to drink beer at home, rather than in a pub. However, drinking quality, locally-produced beer at home is not that easy, as the products of 9 out of 10 small Dutch breweries are reportedly never seen on supermarket shelves.

The picture I have painted so far is just a very brief snapshot of beer and brewing in the Netherlands, and doesn’t really do justice to a scene which is still very much up and coming. I would recommend visitors to do their homework, and to travel around away from the obvious tourist attractions of Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague.

To my own detriment, I did very little research, prior to my visit back in August, primarily because I arrogantly thought that having visited Amsterdam once, I knew sufficient about the country. This was despite having bought “Beer in the Netherlands”, and a "DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Amsterdam".

My complacency was shattered as soon as I jumped on the train heading south from Schiphol Airport to the charming town of Den Bosch in the province of North Brabant. The day which fellow bloggers and I spent in this unspoilt and attractive part of the country, proved a real eye-opener to what the Netherlands has to offer, and I’m equally certain that a trip to some of the Northern provinces would also pay dividends.

It is worth mentioning the religious divide between the Catholic south and the Protestant north of the Netherlands; a situation which has plagued much of Europe for centuries. The Maas and the Rhine rivers provide a natural boundary between these two halves of the country, and the influence of religion is reflected in the numbers of breweries in each region. Given the Protestant association between alcohol and sin, it is perhaps hardly surprising that historically there were far less breweries in the Northern provinces, than the more easy-going Catholic south, and to a certain extent, this situation still prevails today.

A visit though to some of the more isolated Northern provinces such as Friesland and Groningen certainly looks appealing, and is something I intend to do on my next visit to the Netherlands.

Like my brief look at the country as a whole, I only scratched the surface of what is available beer-wise in the Netherlands. Like other attendees at the EBBC, I was fortunate to have sampled some of the best beers the country has to offer; particularly with regard to those produced by Jopen and De Molen. Visiting the respective breweries of these two legendary producers was also a huge bonus, as was visiting the monastic La Trappe Brewery at Koningshoeven, during our stay in Brabant.

Other beers of note were those from the small Brouwerij Vandeeoirspung, in the village of Oirschot – which we cycled to from Koningshoeven,  Kompaan (based in Den Haag, who also provided me with a rather nice glass), and Amsterdam’s Brouwerij De Prael, whose 6.5% ABV, true to style India Pale Ale was, without doubt it was the best beer of my entire visit.

Well I trust I’ve now whetted your appetite, so the next time you’re looking you’re your next suitably beery adventure, why not hop over to the Netherlands and explore some of these places, and try some of these beers. Easy Jet operates several flights a day to from Gatwick to Amsterdam and, as I discovered after chatting to a couple from Essex on my last day, they also fly from Southend.

If you prefer to travel by train, take the Eurostar to Brussels, from where you can get a train to either Rotterdam or Amsterdam. For the real romantics amongst you, the night ferry still operates between Harwich and Hook of Holland, from where you can get a rail connection to many parts of the Netherlands. Anglia Rail will sell you a return “through ticket” from Liverpool Street to Hook of Holland, although you will need to book a birth on board the ferry. With this option, you arrive in the country awake and refreshed with the whole day ahead of you and with plenty of time for sight-seeing and beer drinking!

Friday, 25 November 2016

Jopen Bier

One of the excursions at this year’s European Beer Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam, was a trip to the neighbouring city of Haarlem. On what became an increasingly wet evening we were picked up from the conference hotel in a couple of vintage buses.  I would estimate their era as the 1960’s, but as I am no bus geek, I may well be wrong. From what I recall they were made by DAF, if that means anything, and for those of a certain age, a ride in these classic old buses brought back some pleasant memories

The purpose of our trip was a visit Jopen, Haarlem’s major brewery, which was founded in 1992. Jopen beer owes its existence to a group called "Stichting Haarlems Biergenootschap", whose aim is to re-create traditional Haarlem beers and then bring them to a wider audience by marketing them commercially. Two old recipes were found in the Haarlem city archives, and these were used as a foundation for the company’s first two beers.

The beers were initially brewed in the Halve Maan Brewery in Hulst, but then in December 1996 Jopen BV acquired the beers and put the company on a much sounder footing. The name "Jopen", incidentally, refers to the 112 litre beer barrels that were used in early times to store and transport beer in Haarlem.

The new owners switched brewing to the La Trappe Brewery in Berkel-Enschot, continuing very much in the vein of a “gypsy” brewery, relying on other companies to brew its beers. In 2001 brewing of the Jopen brands was transferred to the Van Steenberge Brewery in Ertvelde, Belgium.

Then, at the end of 2005, it was announced that the Jacobskerk, a redundant old church in the Raaks area of Haarlem, would be transformed into a brewery. On November 11, 2010, the "Jopenkerk" (Jopen church) opened its doors for the public, who must have been amazed at the transformation of this former church into a fully-operational, modern brewery. Here, visitors can sample the entire range of Jopen beers within full view of the brewing system.

The modern brewing unit forms the heart of the Jopenkerk, and was built and installed by BrauKon  from Germany. It has a 2 x 20 hectolitre brewing capacity. Depending on the type of beer being brewed, 12 to 20 hectolitres are brewed per batch. Two large gleaming copper brewing kettles stand behind the bar, alongside eight large lagering tanks. The Jopenkerk though, is not just a brewery, as there is also a café and restaurant on site. A separate room, called the Rectory, is used as a venue for meetings, social gatherings and other events.

Following fermentation, the beer is transported to the Waarderpolder Industrial Park in Haarlem. Here, the beer is lagered and dispensed into bottles or barrels, by means of an innovative and fully-automated bottling line. This impressive new facility was our first port of call. Unfortunately it had just started raining when we arrived, which was a shame, as the brewery staff had laid out the area in front of the brewery with picnic benches, ready for a barbecue. Fortunately the really heavy rain didn’t arrive until later on in the evening, so we were able to sit out, at least for a while, and enjoy both the beer and the food.

The former consisted of two Jopen beers; North Sea IPA and Koyt, both dispensed from wooden casks. The former is a strong, well-hopped 6.5% ABV IPA, whereas the 8.5% ABV Koyt is an Old Dutch beer style, known as GRUIT. Herbs and spices provide the flavouring, rather than hops. The recipe for Koyt dates from 1407, and is one of the original beers brewed by the Haarlem Biergenootschap, back in 1992.

The food was very good and was the perfect accompaniment to the beer. There were barbecued sausages, burgers, satay chicken with peanut sauce, plus ribs, with either pasta or potato salad as accompaniment, so it was rather unfortunate that the before we had properly finished, the rain came on much heavier and drove us all inside.

The Waarderpolder unit now houses it own brewery, as well as all the maturation and packaging equipment, but it is unclear from Jopen’s website as to which beers are brewed at which site. Of rather more interest to us beer enthusiasts was the well-stocked taproom, housed on the first floor. Here we were given free reign to pour our own beer from a selection of 13 taps. Not all the beers were Jopen brands, but a sizeable majority were. Unfortunately I have mislaid the notes I took at the time, so am unable to recount which beers I sampled.

It was back on the buses for the second part of the evening, which saw us driving the short distance into central Haarlem and then making a dash through the pouring rain to the Jopenkerk. Once inside we were ushered to the upstairs gallery, where a row of tables had been set out for us. Having enjoyed our main course at Waarderpolder, we were to be treated with dessert in the form of chocolate cake, crème brûlée and cheese. There were beers specially chosen to accompany each dish; all strong and dark, and I have to say that in the main these pairings worked well.

Again, the notes I carefully took at the time appear to have vanished, but I noticed a beer called Harlem (spelt the American way) Shake in a couple of the photos I took. Confusingly, the beer is not listed on the brewery website, although a strong, 9.0% ABV Double Bock called Johannieter is shown. This was probably one of the other beers alongside the 5.5% ABV Extra Stout.

After thanking our generous hosts, we traipsed out through the heavy rain, which was still falling, to the awaiting buses. One bus was allocated to take people straight back to the conference hotel, whilst the other would be dropping people off in central Amsterdam for a mini-pub crawl. I opted for the former, as I had no desire to be walking around in the pouring rain. Besides, I’d had more than enough beer for one day and was ready for me bed.

If you visit the Netherlands, and in particular the Amsterdam-Haarlem area, I’m sure you will come across Jopen beers. Do give them a try, and with such an extensive range there is bound to be a beer suitable for every taste.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

It comes in cans!

At the 2014 European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin, we were given some 500ml cans of Pilsner Urquell to try. (I also brought a few home with me). This followed on from a detailed presentation on the merits of the humble can as a means of storing beer and keeping it brewery fresh. The cans had some nice retro designs, based on old Pilsner Urquell adverts from the 1920’s and 30’s.

Two and a half-years on I have yet to see these cans on sale in any UK supermarket, so last weekend I was surprised to find these six-packs of Budweiser Budvar in my local Sainsbury’s. At £5.50 for six cans, the packs represent good value, for a quality Czech beer which has been lagered for am impressive 90 day period, so I picked up a couple. Compared to certain “craft” beers, which are also starting to appear in local supermarkets, these cans of Budvar represent excellent value.

Packaged in 330 ml retro-size cans, they fit nicely in the fridge and come in handy when you fancy a quick beer, but haven’t got time for a good session. The merits of cans have been discussed on several occasions, both on this blog as well as on others, so it is good to see a quality beer packaged in this manner.

I’m sure you don’t need me extolling the merits of BudweiserBudvar, so I will just say the beer is a premium lager brewed in the Czech town of České Budějovice (Budweis in German). It is produced using the finest Moravian barley, whole Saaz hop cones and local water drawn from deep artesian wells, before being matured in lager cellars for 90 days. I believe the Czech government retains a major stake in the brewery.

So, if like me you appreciate a decent lager and fancy a “cold one” from time to time, it’s well worth keeping a pack or two of these cans in the fridge.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Cowden and Mark Beech

I haven’t been to a social organised by my local CAMRA branch for a while now. This isn’t perhaps surprising, as because of the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival; the major event in the West Kent CAMRA calendar, there hasn’t been that many recently.

Saturday though saw half dozen of us taking the No. 234 bus from Tunbridge Wells and head out into the High Weald area of the county, close to the border with Sussex. Our destination was the picturesque village of Cowden, tucked away in an idyllic corner of the county. Cowden is home to one of the finest Harvey’s pubs in the area, in the form of the Fountain; an attractive, part tile-hung pub situated on a tight bend just down from the village church.

We have done this trip before, and I have posted about the pub as well, but this time around, the Fountain offered two main attractions for me on both the beer and the food front. Beer-wise I knew that the delectable Harvey’s Old Ale would be on sale, whilst food-wise the Fountain serves some of the best pies around, and they are proper pies as well!

Shame about the Trip Advisor sign!
If you don’t know what is meant by a “proper pie” take a look here at my post from 2014, but basically a proper pie should have pastry sides and a pastry bottom. In other words the filling should be completely encased in pastry, and short-crust pastry at that. Too many pubs, and even some restaurants, purport to sell pies which arrive at your table in an earthenware dish, topped with a thin crust of puff pastry. These are NOT pies, but rather casseroles with a pastry lid.

I digress! The 234 bus runs twice daily on Saturdays between Tunbridge Wells and Edenbridge, taking in the villages of Ashurst, Cowden,  Mark Beech and Hever en route. The plan was to alight in Cowden, stop for lunch at the Fountain, before catching the second outward service of the day. We would then leave the bus at Mark Beech, where there would be just enough time for a pint at the Kentish Horse, before catching the bus back to Tunbridge Wells on its final return journey.

On previous occasions some of us have walked between the two pubs, but whilst the weather was bright and sunny when I left home, the clouds were beginning to build by midday, and as we journeyed towards Cowden we could see the sky growing distinctly darker away to the south of us, across Ashdown Forest.

A trio of Harvey's finest
The driver was quite bemused as we boarded the bus in Tunbridge Wells, to find so many people wanting to travel to Mark Beech, but as he would be driving the same bus all day, promised to look out for us later on. En route to Cowden we passed four pubs which for various reasons have now all closed. The names and locations probably won’t mean much to non-local readers, but for completion’s sake they are: Brokers Arms – Tunbridge Wells, Bald Faced Stag - Ashurst, Sussex Oak - Blackham and the White Horse – Holtye. I have drunk in all of them during the past 30 years, and particularly miss the Sussex Oak; a fine old, brick-built pub situated on high ground on a bend of the main A264 Tunbridge Wells- East Grinstead road.

The assembled company
We arrived in Cowden at midday, and walked the short distance back towards the Fountain. Whilst most people hurried inside, a friend and I stopped to take some photos of the pub, which was looking very attractive in the late autumn sunshine. As my friend remarked, “Let the others rush in and have the first few pints out of the pumps, that way the beer will be the entire fresher for us!” There is much truth is this, as one of my pet hates is to be served that first pint out of the pumps. I know a good licensee should pull this through first, and I imagine the Fountain would do this; but why risk it?

Photographs taken, including some of a troop of riders on horseback, we ascended the steps and entered the pub. The much anticipated Harvey’s Old was on, alongside Best Bitter and IPA, but I opted for the former, and was not disappointed. The others had already grabbed a large table at the far end of the bar, so we went over and joined them. The Fountain has a good reputation for food, and having eaten there on several previous occasions I can attest to the quality of its cooking. The barman came over and took our respective orders, but not before we were joined by another couple who live locally.

I, of course, opted for “Pie of the day”, which was chicken, ham and onion – the latter constituent being in the form of a mild, white onion sauce, which went very well with the large chunks of meat. It arrived in the form of an individual pie, which met all the criteria outlined above, to qualify as “proper”. With a few new potatoes, and seasonal vegetables, it really was a dish fit for a king. It was also rather filling. Washed down with a few pints of dark and silky-smooth Harvey’s Old, it couldn’t have been bettered, and the food, drink, good company and fine surroundings of this lovely old village inn made the perfect combination of all that is good about the part of the country we live in. There can surely be few finer ways to spend a Saturday afternoon, in England during mid November, than this.

The former Crown Inn - Cowden
All good things come to an end though, so shortly before 3pm, we paid our respective tabs, donned our raingear and headed outside. The heavens had well and truly opened, so it was a good job the cross-country walk option had been dropped. We were joined at the bus stop by a group of very wet and bedraggled looking ramblers, who had been out walking, but were now looking for the bus to transport them to Cowden station. It is worth noting, the bus stop is sited outside what was once the Crown; Cowden’s other pub, now long closed.

The bus dropped us off in Mark Beech, right opposite the Kentish Horse, but we had trouble squeezing inside as the pub was absolutely heaving. I have never seen it so busy, but we discovered that several groups of walkers, caught out by the ferocity of the weather, had decided to take shelter in the pub. The small, games area at the far end, was showing the England v Fiji rugby game, so that too had pulled in the crowds.

Kentish Horse - alternative Christmas
Harvey’s Best, Larkin’s Traditional and Otter Amber were the beers represented on the bar. I went for the Larkin’s Trad, as at just 3.4% ABV I thought it a good idea to pace myself. There was a good atmosphere in the pub and some fine banter going on between the landlord, and a group of regulars leaning on the bar. It was too wet outside to take any photos and too crowded inside, although I did mange a couple of quirky shots which took my eye.

The return bus to Tunbridge Wells arrived more or less on time and we were glad to get out of the cold and the damp. Several of our party nodded off on the journey back, including me briefly, but once back in the town we all decided that a few final drinks in Fuggles would be a good way to finish the day.

Fuggles too was heaving, but we managed to find a small table towards the rear and sufficient chairs for us all to squeeze round. Downland - Hop Contract and One Mile End –Hospital Porter were the cask beers I tried, before finishing up with a half of the excellent Beavertown - Smog Rocket Porter on key-keg.

Various people came and went, and some drifted off – incredibly for another meal! My friend and I departed some time around half seven and made our way to the station, through the pouring rain, and the train back to Tonbridge.

Like with all these trips, it is worth taking advantage of public transport, and journeying out into the surrounding countryside. It is especially important to make use of local bus services and give them all the support we can, particularly when local authority spending is being reined in, and cash is tight generally. It is also good, of course, to be supporting our rural pubs in the best way possible - by drinking in them!

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

How I got into Beer Writing – Part One

I have been writing this blog since 2008, and apart from a bit of a hiatus due to illness in 2011, have posted on a pretty regular basis. What people may not know is I have been writing about beer and pubs for much longer than the past eight years. Strangely enough it was a complete accident as to how and why I became a writer in the first place, as I am about to reveal.

Back in the early 1980’s, I was quite heavily involved with the Maidstone & Mid-Kent Branch of CAMRA. I was living in the county town at the time, having bought my first house there. I had been a CAMRA member for around five years previously, but had not been actively involved with the Campaign in any shape or form; apart from drinking “real ale” and buying the Good Beer Guide.

"Draught Copy" - 21st Century style
Shortly after moving in, I took a conscious decision to play more of an active role within CAMRA, so got in touch with the local branch and attended my first branch meeting. I received a friendly welcome and decided to go along to future branch socials. The branch, at the time, produced a newsletter called “Draught Copy”. It is still going, but in a much enlarged and much more professional format; but that’s a different story. Back in the early 1980’s the branch were short of volunteers to deliver the newsletter to local pubs; particularly those in Maidstone town centre. I put myself forward, as not only would this be helping the branch, but it would also enable me to become better acquainted with Maidstone’s pubs.

I enjoyed my new role, especially as it got me out of the house and visiting pubs I might not otherwise have bothered with. The branch seemed pleased as well, as not long after I was asked to join the committee.  Again, this was a position I was pleased to fill and I found myself helping out in various ways, including helping to organise and run a beer festival.

Things were going well for the branch until sometime around 1982-83. Then, in a shock announcement, the then branch chairman, informed us that he and his family would be moving to Andover in Hampshire, where they would be taking over the running of a pub, on behalf of the recently formed Bourne Valley Brewery.

Now this was a good move on Dave’s part, as despite being a fully qualified personnel officer, he had been out of work for as long as I had known him; although he had filled his time by managing a couple of local pubs. The latter experience, coupled with his knowledge of beer and brewing, gained partly through CAMRA, stood him in good stead for the pub job. The fact that he knew Bourne Valley’s founder, James Lynch (again through CAMRA), was obviously another point in his favour – who says CAMRA doesn’t open doors to a new career?

From the branch point of view, as well as losing an excellent and highly experienced chairman, there was also the slight problem of the branch newsletter, as Dave was both editor and chief copy writer. At that month's committee meeting, a deathly silence greeted Dave when he asked the question,  “Would anyone like to take over the task?” It was one of those moments were everything changes in an instant so, stunned by my own boldness,  I raised my hand and said, "I wouldn’t mind giving it a go."

Dave and his family weren’t due to move straight away, so he was able to give me some assistance. Back in the early 1980’s though, there were no PC’s and no desk-top publishing programmes. Instead everything had to be typed out manually. The branch had sensibly invested in an electric typewriter, especially for the newsletter. Manual typewriters, for those who can remember, tend to produce very uneven looking print; the degree of inking being directly related to the force applied when striking the keys! Electric models produce a more even text, which is both pleasing to the eye and much easier to read. Typing up copy was therefore no problem, but headings and sub-headings were a different matter.

Hands up all those who remember Letraset? Letraset were best known for their dry rub-down transfer technique, which was used to create “camera-ready artwork”. Right up to the mid 1980’s, Letraset sheets were used extensively by professional and amateur graphic designers, architects and artists to produce affordable and attractive artwork of a professional appearance. I certainly used it to create headings and sub-headings for “Draught Copy”.

For many years, Letraset were based in Ashford; the East Kent town where I grew up and went to school. The company have since moved to Le Mans, in France. Rather than me trying to explain how the process worked, this short YouTube video gives a neat demonstration on how to use “Dry Transfer Lettering”.

I mentioned “camera-ready artwork” earlier. This is a common term used in the commercial printing industry meaning that a document is, from a technical standpoint, ready to "go to press", or be printed. In offset printing the term referred to where the final layout of a document was attached to a "paste up". Then, a “copy camera” was used to photograph the paste up, and the final offset printing plates were created from the camera's negative.

It’s worth mentioning that the term "paste up”, meant literally that! Columns and blocks of type-written print were cut up and pasted onto a paper or card backing, along with the relevant headings, sub-headings and any illustrations. “Cow Gum” or “Prit-Stick” were the favourite adhesives, but everything had to be lined up so it was level and square. One trick was to use lines drawn with a light blue crayon, as these would not be picked up by the copy camera. "Tipp-Ex", and other similar correcting fluids, helped to cover up any imperfections or paste-up lines.

Cut & Paste
The production of “camera-ready artwork” was a real labour of love, but that was as far as my involvement with the print process went, because the next stages were the responsibility of someone else; someone whose knowledge and contacts were invaluable to the branch in terms of both time and money.

We had a member who worked in the print trade primarily with the repair and setting up of printing presses. Because of the nature of the job, he worked mainly nights, so was normally unable to get along to CAMRA meetings, but by using his skills within the print trade he was able to provide the branch with a professional-looking newsletter for a fraction of the normal cost.

How this worked was as follows. Once I had produced said artwork, I would phone this individual and we would arrange to meet; normally in a car park somewhere between Maidstone and  the Medway Towns, which was where he lived. I would hand over the artwork, and then wait a week or so for his call. We would meet up again; I would hand over some cash in exchange for a neatly bound stack of around 500 copies of the latest edition of "Draught Copy".

Detail from a modern off-set printing plate
I never asked too many questions, but I gathered that having first produced printing plates from the artwork I supplied, he would use the plates to test the machines he had just serviced or repaired. This, of course, involved running off a few hundred copies of our newsletter. This helped him in his job, as well as us and, because he generally worked unsocial hours, I’m sure he was never rumbled. It all sounds very clandestine and underhand, but was really nothing more than a form of mutual cooperation between an organisation, keen to get its message across, and someone who wanted to help, by making use of the printing presses he was working on at the time.

This represented my first foray into the world of printing, but on the creative side, writing the bulk of the copy for the newsletter gave me a valuable insight into the world of writing, and has time went on, helped me to increase my confidence and become a better writer.

In 1985, for business and personal reasons, I moved to Tonbridge, some 15 miles from Maidstone, but in a different CAMRA branch area. By the time I got involved with the new branch (actually I was one of four people who resurrected what had become a moribund group), and helped set up a new branch magazine, things had moved on in the world of publishing and things were about to go digital.

We will leave the story there for the moment, apart from saying getting involved with desk-top publishing was every bit as steep a learning curve as the previous “cut and paste” method had been.

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