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Friday, 28 August 2015

Live Blogging from Brussels at the EBBC 2015

This is now my second full day in Brussels, and I'm currently sitting here in one of the conference rooms at the Hotel Marivaux listening to the third presentation at the European Beer Bloggers Conference. The sun is shining outside, which is rather ironic after the deluge we had yesterday, when a large group of us were out, travelling by coach around Brabant and Wallonia, visiting some fascinating breweries and sampling some amazing beers.

It was a rather hectic trip which crammed in four brewery locations and over twenty different beers . Granted, most of these sample were just that; samples, and we also had some interesting and well presented food to accompany the beers. However, the trip lasted over twelve hours, and I think all the attendees were glad of their beds when the coach dropped us off at the hotel at 12.30 am earlier this morning; I know I was!

I'll be writing about this trip and the forthcoming one which takes place after the conference. I'll also be writing about the conference itself. This post has been written on my tablet;  hence its brevity and lack of photos. It is also my first attempt at live blogging.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

A Beer-style Too Far

Bavarian Weißbier
Despite over forty years of beer drinking and beer appreciation, there’s one beer style I have never got to grips with. It’s a popular style, particularly in a number of European countries, but two in particular stand out. Both have reputations for the diversity and number of breweries within their respective borders, and for the sheer volume of beer their inhabitants are reputed to put away.

However the style of beer I am referring to almost died out in both countries, but made an astonishing comeback during the final quarter of the last century. The beer style, of course, is wheat beer, and the countries referred to above are Belgium and Germany. Wheat beer is known in these countries as Witbier or Weiss (Weißbier) Bier, respectively.

First a few definitions and background information:

Wheat beer is beer which is brewed with a large proportion of wheat relative to the amount of malted barley; it is usually top-fermented. Two common varieties of wheat beer are Weißbier (German – "white beer") based on the German tradition of mixing at least 50% wheat to barley malt to make a light coloured top-fermenting beer, and Witbier (Dutch – "white beer") based on the Belgian tradition of using flavourings such as coriander and orange peel. Belgian white beers are often made with raw un-malted wheat, as opposed to the malted wheat used in other countries.

Witbier
Hoegaarden
Witbier, white beer, Bière Blanche, or simply Witte is a barley/wheat, top-fermented beer brewed mainly in Belgium and the Netherlands. It gets its name due to suspended yeast and wheat proteins which cause the beer to look hazy, or white, when cold. It is a descendant from those medieval beers which instead of using hops, were flavoured and preserved with a blend of spices and other plants and fruits, such as coriander and bitter oranges, and referred to as "gruit".

The style was famously revived in 1965, by Pierre Celis at the Hoegaarden Brewery in Belgium. Witbiers beers often have a somewhat sour taste due to the presence of lactic acid, and also, the suspended yeast in the beer causes some continuing fermentation in the bottle.

Weizenbier
Weizenbier ("wheat beer"), is a style of beer well known throughout Germany; but in the southern parts of Bavaria, such beers are usually referred to by the term Weißbier (literally "white beer”). In the Bavarian version, a significant proportion of the malted barley is replaced with malted wheat. By law, Weißbiers brewed in Germany must be top-fermented, and specialized strains of yeast are used which produce, as by-products of fermentation, the characteristic banana and clove aroma and flavours which are so typical of these beers.

Another explanation for the term Weißbier is because, at the time of its inception, it was much paler in colour than the typical Munich brown beers. The terms Hefeweizen ("yeast wheat") or Hefeweißbier refer to wheat beer in its traditional, unfiltered form. The term Kristallweizen ("crystal wheat"), or kristall Weiß ("crystal white beer"), refers to a wheat beer that is filtered to remove the yeast from suspension. Additionally, the filtration process removes wheat proteins present in the beer which contribute to its cloudy appearance. Unfiltered versions are much more popular, and the "crystal" versions are decried by beer purists.

Ayinger Weißbier
The Hefeweizen style is particularly noted for its low hop bitterness (about 15 IBUs) and relatively high carbonation; characteristics considered important to balance the beer's relatively malty sweetness. Another characteristic unique to Hefeweizen beer is its phenolic character; which is sometimes described as "clove" and "medicinal" but also smoky. Other more typical but less assertive flavour notes produced by Weißbier yeast include "banana",  "bubble gum", and sometimes "vanilla".

Weißbier is available in a number of other forms including  Dunkelweizen ("dark wheat") and Weizenstarkbier ("strong wheat beer"), commonly referred to as Weizenbock. The dark wheat varieties are made with darker, more highly kilned malts (both wheat and barley). The Weizenbocks typically have a much higher alcohol content than their lighter counterparts.

Berliner Weisse
While the brewers in southern Germany rely on yeast for the flavour and aroma of their wheat beers, brewers in northern Germany use a different technique. Berliner Weisse is fermented with ale yeast and Lactobacillus delbruckii which creates an incredibly sour beer. The bacterium contributes a dominant mouth-puckering sourness. Otherwise this beer is light in character and very effervescent. Some fans of this rare style like to sweeten it with flavoured syrups. Whilst this might make the beer more drinkable it should definitely be tried on its own first.


English Wheat Beers
A few English brewers have turned their hands to knocking out a wheat beer or two. Most noteworthy amongst them is renowned Sussex brewery, Harvey’s of Lewes. Harvey’s have been brewing their Copperwheat every year since 2001.This 4.8% pale beer appears in June as a seasonal beer. Unlike most of its continental counterparts, Copperwheat is filtered; it is also brewed using Harvey’s own yeast strain, but still manages to achieve that distinctive wheat beer taste.

The other best known English wheat beer is Clouded Yellow, from St Austell Brewery in Cornwall, which is available in bottled form only, but there are quite a few other breweries producing the style. All these examples though are very much niche beers and it is doubtful that the style will ever catch on in the way it has in Bavaria and Belgium. 

Glassware
Wheat beers tend to foam a lot, especially if poured quickly. In pubs, if the bottle is handed to the customer for self pouring, it is customary for the glass to be taken to the patron wet or with a bit of water in the bottom to be swirled around to wet the entire glass to keep the beer from foaming excessively.

In Germany a weizen glass is used to serve wheat beer.. The glass is narrow at the bottom and slightly wider at the top; the width both releasing aroma, and providing room for the often thick, fluffy heads produced by the beer.It tends to be taller than a pint glass, and generally holds 500 millilitres with room for the head. In other countries, such as Belgium, the glass may be 250 ml or 330 ml.

Right that’s more than enough technical and background information, but knowing that, in Bavaria in particular, the yeast strains used to ferment the beer are responsible for the clove, banana and bubble gum flavours of Weißbier still does little to endear me to the style. It is not that I don’t like these flavours, per se; it is just that I find them rather off-putting in beer!

Some people might say I don’t know what I’m missing, and maybe they’re right, but unless I have some sort of “Road to Damascus” like conversion, I don’t think I’ll be raising a glass of wheat beer anytime soon.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

To Brussels for EBBC 2015



I’m off on my travels again on Wednesday. This time I’m heading to Brussels for the European Beer Blogger’s Conference. It’s a two day event designed to bring together beer Bloggers and beer writers from all over the world to discuss various topics relating to brewing, beer appreciation and beer writing with, given the event’s location, an obvious nod in the direction of Belgian Beer. Basically it’s an opportunity to meet up with like-minded people, whilst enjoying the hospitality and culture of the host nation.

Now I have to confess Brussels is not my favourite city, but it’s difficult to put my finger on exactly what I dislike about the place. I’ve been there three times in the past, but only for day trips, so really I’ve only scratched the surface. The idea is that this forthcoming, long weekend will show Brussels in a different light and elevate the Belgian capital to somewhere I will want to visit again; rather than it just being the boring and rather dull home of the European Commision. We shall see!

 There will, of course, be plenty of beer to assist the assimilation of the city into my list of desirable places to visit, and for this we must thank the sponsors of the event. There are twenty-five Premier Sponsors, (nearly all of them breweries), two Grand Sponsors (Visit Flanders and Pilsner Urquell), with the Belgian Family Brewers organisation topping the list as Elite Sponsor. You get the picture then, when I say there will be plenty of beer!  

There will be some culture as well, because tourist organisations, Visit Flanders and, to a lesser extent, Visit Belgium, will be on hand to promote the attractions of both Flanders and the nation as a whole. There will be several opportunities to enjoy some of Belgium’s finest cuisine, with some interesting sounding beer and food pairings, plus two grand dinners. The one on the first evening of the conference (Friday), takes place at the prestigious Belga Queen Bruxelles and is being hosted by the Belgian Family Brewers. Saturday evening’s end of conference dinner takes place at the Hotel Marivaux; the conference venue, and is sponsored by Pilsner Urquell. I must admit I am looking forward to enjoying some light, refreshing and palate-cleansing Czech Pilsner after all those dark and heavy Belgian beers!

For real devotees, the closing evening ends with an optional pub crawl which “highlights some of the more interesting cafés and historical sites of Brussels with a beer or brewing significance along the way”.
 
If all this sounds like unashamed gluttony and inebriation, then I’m afraid it probably will be, but I shall make every effort to pace myself as there is even more beer sampling and pub going either side of the conference. You see, I haven’t mentioned yet the pre-conference trip which takes place on the Thursday, and the two-day post conference excursion around West Flanders. I won’t go over the itinerary again, as I wrote about these trips in some detail back in March, but if anything they should eclipse even the conference itself. 

There will be a full report when I get back, on both the conference and some of the trips. In the meantime I’ve got my passport, Eurostar ticket and Brussel’s City Guide ready. I’ve also managed to change my hotel booking and grab a room at the  four star Hotel Marivaux; the conference venue itself.

To be continued………………………..

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Crafty Lidl Fails to Deliver



Earlier in the year, I think it may have been back in June, discount supermarket Lidl made a bit of a media splash by launching what was described as a range of “craft ales”. Several national newspapers latched on to the story and the chain even recruited Blur bassist-turned-organic farmer and brewer, Alex James as their first major celebrity tie-in.

To someone like me, who does a lot of drinking at home, this sounded like a great idea, but I have to admit that with one notable exception, I have been rather disappointed by the beers on offer at my local Lidl store. Admittedly Tonbridge is one of the company’s smaller outlets, but the sight of the excellent Czech Black Lager, from the Herold Brewery in Breznice, was something to get my pulse racing.

At just £1.50 a bottle it seemed too good an offer to miss, so I picked up several bottles. Imagine my disappointment then this evening, when there was not a bottle of Herold to be seen. The so-called “craft-ales” were limited to a handful of offerings from Shepherd Neame and Marstons, both of whom supply Lidl on a regular basis. There was an unfamiliar looking Belgian beer on sale (Blanche de Namur), but there was no sign of the La Chouffe, or the Portobello Star promised in the company’s promotion.

The second “roll-out” in this “craft-ale” promotion is due to be launched at the beginning of next month. I will be keeping a sharp lookout to see what’s included, but if the current performance is anything to go by, I won’t be holding my breath!

Review

Pivovar Herold Tmavé Speciální Pivo 5.2%.  A Czech Black Lager and a mighty fine one at that! Jet black with a dense creamy head and a smoky dry finish. Brewed by the Herold Brewery in Breznice, Bohemia, and lagered for 70 days in the cellars of the 500 year old Castle brewery.

This really is one of the finest black lagers around. Smooth with a full rich flavour, satisfying and very moreish.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

No More "Disgusted - Tunbridge Wells". Pt. Three

Royal Oak - well worth making a detour to visit
Looking back at previous posts I realised I have yet to finish my series on the pubs of Tunbridge Wells. So without further ado, here is the third and final part. We will be starting from the same place as last time; namely the town’s railway station.

The main focus of attention for this post is the Pantiles area of Tunbridge Wells; the historic area around the Chalybeate Spring from where the town gets its name and from where the town originally grew and expanded out from. However, before heading down the High Street towards the Pantiles, there is a pub, slightly off the beaten track which we need to visit first.

The Royal Oak is an attractive pub which stands on the crossroads of Prospect Road and Calverley Road. It is well worth the 10 minute hike up the hill from the station to reach this tardis-like Victorian era pub with its island bar, secluded areas and comfortable seating, as not only does it offer an excellent range of interesting beers, but it is also quite quirky in nature with a character all of its own. The Royal Oak is ably run by Yvonne, who is also a fully qualified chef. As well as the excellent beer, the Oak regularly stages live music evenings featuring local bands and musicians. Another feature is the popular"film afternoons", which normally take place on a Sunday.

Sundial - King Charles the Martyr

Harvey’s Best is the regular beer, but Yvonne often has beers on from the likes of Larkins, Dark Star, Whitstable, Turners and various other brews drawn from either  Kent or neighbouring Sussex. Traditional ciders from Biddenden or Dudda's Tun, are also available.  Mini-beer festivals, often complemented by live acts, are another feature well worth looking out for and another good reason to visit the pub.

From the Royal Oak, head back down towards the station and then turn left and continue along the High Street. Alternatively, if you are feeling confident try your luck at navigating through the maze of narrow, but rather charming back streets which make up the “Village” area of Tunbridge Wells. Either way we are making for the Pantiles, and if you follow  these routes downhill you will reach this historic part of the town. On your way down, take some time out to look at the Church of King Charles the Martyr; the town’s oldest church and also the oldest permanent structure in Tunbridge Wells. It is the only church in the country to be named after  the hapless Charles Stuart , who of course least his head following defeat in the English Civil War.
Pantiles on a summer's evening

Formerly known as The Walks and the (Royal) Parade, The Pantiles is a Georgian colonnade which leads along from the well that gave the town its name. The area was created following the discovery of a chalybeate spring in the early 17th century and is now a popular tourist attraction. The Pantiles today includes a variety of specialist shops, art galleries, cafés, restaurants and bars.

The first pub you will come to is the Ragged Trousers; a former shop which only became a pub in 2006. Housed in one of the historic colonnaded building which line the upper side of the Pantiles Walk, the “Trousers” is a long narrow building with an entrance at both ends. Majoring on well-kept cask-ale, the pub is a keen supporter of the South Downs based Long Man Brewery, but also regularly features local legend Larkins. 
The Ragged Trousers

The pub is really popular and can get very crowded, particularly at weekends. During the summer months it is nice to sit outside, under the veranda-like colonnade which runs the length of the parade of shops and businesses; indeed I can think of few better places in Tunbridge Wells to enjoy a beer or two, with friends, on a warm summer’s evening.

Almost opposite the Ragged Trousers is the Duke of York. Now owned by Fullers, this former Whitbread pub is an attractive Grade Two-listed building which fronts onto the square at the centre of the Pantiles. Quite a small pub, with an “L” shaped bar and a bright and airy feel, the Duke of York is a good place to enjoy a few of the rarer beers from Fullers, and is also a good place to generally watch the world go by. If you want to get up right close to the action going on outside, then there is plenty of outdoor seating; a feature which is useful when the pub gets really busy.
Duke of York

In the centre of the aforementioned square, and overlooked by the Duke of York, is one of the newest drinking establishments in Tunbridge Wells. Housed in the former South East England Tourist Information Office, Sankey’s  Champagne & Seafood Bar is not strictly a pub, but is nevertheless a welcome addition to the local drinking scene. Said to be based on traditional London-style Oyster bars, the bar features marble table tops and antique hanging lights. Drink takes the form of Champagne and wines by the glass, and food is defined by the finest lobsters, crabs and fresh wet fish. I haven’t visited myself, as I’m not a fan of champagne or oysters, although I am rather partial to crab.However, it is easy to see in to Sankey's through the large, plain glass picture windows, and the punters inside all seem to be enjoying themselves.
Sankey's Champagne & Seafood Bar

It’s a short walk around the corner to the Pantiles Tap, the penultimate pub on this tour, and although the newest one in terms of opening, probably one of the oldest in relation to its age. Sited in the former beer cellars of what was reputed to be Tunbridge Wells’s oldest hotel "The Gloster Tavern" , the Pantiles Tap is partly underground, and with its stripped-back, bare-brick walls, tiled floors and old original fireplaces, reminds me of a couple of pubs in Prague.

Despite some on-line research, I have been unable to discover anything about the Gloster Hotel; particularly when  it closed and why, but as the buildings above the cellars appear much more modern, I would imagine this subterranean section is all that remains of the original hotel. Last year, the Grade Two-listed cellars were turned into the current pub by Geoff Wentworth and his partner Jo, with the “Tap” opening for business late in November 2014. It appears to be doing well, with 6 cask lines, 6 keg lines and 2 ciders, to tempt local drinkers and beer enthusiasts, and is another welcome addition to the local beer scene.

Interior - Pantiles Tap
The final pub on the Pantiles is the Sussex Arms, tucked away down Sussex Mews behind the local auction house. I have written before about this once legendary pub, which thanks to its former licensees, Dennis and Barbara Lane, had a unique character all of its own.  Indeed up until 1987, when the Lane’s left the pub, no visit to Tunbridge Wells was complete without popping into the "Sussex Shades" as it was known locally.

The Sussex was a freehouse in the true sense of the word. Along with a variety of different beers, Harvey’s PA was always available, together with XXXX Old Ale in winter. During such times, a welcoming coal fire was kept burning in the grate. The pub wasn't a classic so far as architecture was concerned, although it did date back to the 17th Century. It was furnished with artefacts purchased from the nearby auction rooms; the collection of chamber pots was legendary. So too were the number of locks on the front door - alleged to number 27 in total!


In 1987 the Pantiles area was earmarked by the local council for what amounted to "gentrification", and with the redevelopment work going on all around them, Dennis and Barbara decided to call it a day, and sold up in the autumn of that year. The Sussex ended up by being completely gutted, and turned into a trendy pub aimed at the youth market. Plans for it to brew its own beer came to nothing, and eventually the pub was sold to Greene King. The area immediately surrounding the pub was opened up, and it is now no longer "tucked away" in the way it once was. Back in December 2012, I posted about the Sussex Arms, in some detail, here.
Sussex Arms

The re-developed Sussex has definitely mellowed over the last quarter of a century, and today the pub has a pleasant, covered outdoor drinking area, plus a rarely used basement function bar, reached via some rather steep stairs.  The toilets are down here as well.  The ground floor has a large U-shaped bar with a games area to the right. The latter includes a rare bar billiards table. The combination of three open fires and traditional wooden flooring makes for a very cosy feel in the winter months. The beer choice is from Greene King, plus a number of regularly changing guest ales, which typically include offerings from breweries such as Long Man or Ramsgate.

This is effectively the end of the tour, but a quick mention should be made of the Grey Lady Music Lounge, which is right at the far end of the Pantiles. If you’re a music fan, then this establishment offers jazz, blues and other music genres from top class professionals in attractive and interesting surroundings.I can't vouch for the place personally, but my wife has been there a couple of times and enjoyed both the food and the music.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

An Old Favourite



The lad and I were over in Tunbridge Wells earlier this evening, for a spot of late night shopping. Actually it only involved popping into a well-known camera shop to collect a pre-ordered compact camera. That was enough shopping as far as I was concerned, but mission accomplished it was time for a bite to eat.

The town’s Wetherspoon’s outlet, the Opera House, is just a few hundred yards from the shopping centre, and today being Curry Night it seemed rude not to pop in for a quick ruby. We timed our visit well, arriving shortly after 7pm, as although the pub was starting to fill up, we still managed to find a table.

Food selection made (lamb rogan josh for me; chicken balti for the boy), it was up to the bar. Matthew opted for a pint of Carling (don’t say anything!), whilst I fancied a pint of the Dark Star American Pale. I hadn’t noticed that old  JDW trick of the  “Coming Soon” sticker on the pump-clip, so had to opt for something else. There at the end of the row of pumps, was a clip advertising a beer many of us went out of our way to drink back in the late 1980’s; Exmoor Gold.

I can’t remember the last time I drank a pint of it, but it must have been several years ago. However, I was glad of my choice and the beer went down very well with my curry. At 4.5%, this pioneering golden ale tasted every bit as good as I remember it. Its floral hop notes pitched against a soft underlying maltiness, reminded me as to why this beer was such a sensation when it was launched back in 1986. Straw-coloured bitters, such as Boddingtons, Stones and Shipstones had been around for many years, but most bitters back then were brown in colour. A golden ale was a real revelation, and Exmoor Gold set the bar for a whole host of imitators to follow.

Nowadays, Golden Ale is a recognised style, but if it hadn’t have been for Exmoor  Ales bold experiment, we might not have seen the likes of Hop Back Summer Lightning and all the other beers which followed. I am rather glad that the Dark Star beer wasn’t ready earlier; otherwise I would not have renewed my acquaintance with an old favourite from my younger days.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Night Before



On Monday evening I attended the British Guild of Beer Writers Pre-Great British Beer Festival Reception. The event took place at the Loose Cannon, a large cavernous establishment, housed in three adjoining and rather imposing Victorian railway arches, directly underneath Cannon Street station.

This was the first such function I have attended, having only joined the Beer Writers Guild last year, and I have to say I really enjoyed it. I’m not sure how many years this reception has been held for, but it is traditionally regarded as the start of what for many is quite a beery week. With the trade session taking place the following day at the Great British Beer Festival, followed by the festival opening its doors to the public the same evening, the event is an obvious prelude to a hectic five days of beer sampling and enjoyment.

Unfortunately, unless I decide to pay an evening visit, I won’t be going along to GBBF. With two recent foreign holidays under my belt, and a couple of others in the pipeline, I am running low on annual leave. I am not too bothered though, as in recent years I have found the event to be just too large and way too crowded. With a reported 800 beers available at Olympia, it is difficult to know where to start. It may seem perverse to say so, but sometimes one can have too much choice!

The reception in full swing
Returning to Monday evening’s get together, I arrived shortly after the event opened its doors; having travelled up, by train, straight from work. There was already quite a crowd present, including several prominent people I recognised as representing the great and the good amongst the UK’s beer writing fraternity. Without wishing to name-drop too much, I spotted CAMRA Good Beer Guide editor, Roger Protz, Guild Chairman Tim Hampson, veteran CAMRA National Executive members, John and Christine Cryne, journalist, PR person and beer blogger, Sophie Atherton, plus Michael Hardman, one of the original four founders of the Campaign for Real Ale.

On a more personal level it was great to bump into fellow long-serving CAMRA member and veteran beer blogger, Tandleman, who was in town for his usual stint behind the foreign beer bar (Bieres sans Frontiers) at GBBF.  I also made my acquaintance with Dave Bailey, who as well as running the innovative and successful Hardknott Brewery, up in the Lake District, is a fellow blogger of repute. Later on, I spent some time chatting to Martin Kemp who, in partnership with Rob Jones, ran the pioneering Pitfield Beer Shop, and later brewery, in the Hoxton area of north London.

After the two won Champion Beer of Britain with Dark Star back in 1987, Rob went on to form the Dark Star Brewery, which began life in the cellar of the Evening Star pub in Brighton. The company are now one of the biggest breweries in Sussex. Martin stayed with Pitfield and in 2008 moved the brewery out to rural Essex, as rents in London were becoming uneconomic.He also runs a pub in Newmarket, Suffolk.

So what about the beer at the Pre-Great British Beer Festival Reception? There was cask in the form of Dark Star, Ilkley, Okells and Shepherd Neame, alongside an interesting collection of strong bottled beers courtesy of, amongst others, the Left Hand Brewing Company of Longmont, Colorado. Nitro, a 6.0% ABV milk stout looked interesting, but I plumped for the excellent Black Jack Porter. At 6.8% ABV, it certainly packed a punch, but alongside this was a rich, dark chocolate porter, with bags of flavour.

Packing a real punch - Black Jack Porter
I didn’t start on these strong beers; instead I worked my way up through several of the cask ales. Foremost was Summer a 4.0%, refreshing dark golden ale from Ilkley Brewery, bursting with tropical fruit flavours. This was the perfect beer to start on. I then moved on to The Invader, a 4.0% Rye Pale Ale from the same brewery. This was another excellent beer which, as its name suggests, includes a proportion of rye in the grist. I also tried two beers from Isle of Man brewers, Okells; Saison 4.5% and Manx Pale Ale (MPA) 3.5%. Shepherd Neame had a golden version of their best-selling Spitfire Ale on sale, but I gave that one a miss.

An excellent, hot finger buffet was provided to help soak up the beer, so all in all it was a really good evening. It was especially good to meet up for a chat with Tandleman, and also with Dave Bailey and Martin Kemp. I left shortly before 10pm, and caught the train home from nearby Cannon Street station. My thanks to the Cask Marque; the organisers and sponsors of the function, and to the Guild members who helped stage the event. I will certainly be booking my place for next year.