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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!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Bluebell Walk to Capel

Start of the walk, at Somerhill House

Every year round about the end of April and the beginning of May, the local woods are enhanced by a deep blue carpet of bluebells. These woodland perennials take advantage of the gap between the trees starting to come into bud, and the time when they carry a full canopy of leaves, in order to flower and show their blue finery in all its glory. What better time then to be out for a stroll in the local woods for a close-up view of this annual display of nature at its best? And when there’s a pub involved, at some stage of the proceedings, then there are few things finer than being out in the gorgeous Kent countryside.

With a walk which takes in one of the best display of bluebells to be seen locally, and which includes a stopover in one of the best country pubs in this part of the world, then what’s not to like? I received an email last week, from my friend Don, inviting me to join him, plus a couple of other mutual friends, on a walk to the Dovecote Inn at Capel. This is a pub slightly off the beaten track which is not that easy to reach by public transport. Seeing as it is renowned for serving an interesting range of gravity-served beer, it is a pub I would not want to drive to, as the thought of sitting there in the midst of all this good beer, nursing a single, low-gravity pint, followed by some unappetising soft-drinks, is not one which appeals to me. The fact that the Dovecote is easily reached by foot, from Tonbridge is therefore a bonus, made all the better by a route which takes us through some stunning bluebell carpeted woods.

I actually think this natural display will peak next weekend or even the one after, rather than this one, but there is a CAMRA branch outing to the Chequers at Laddingford, which is holding a cheese and real ale festival, in a week’s time, so it had to be this weekend or not at all. Regrettably I shall be missing next weekend’s outing, as I am Norfolk-bound, so in a way it was doubly good to be going out on this bright, but slightly chilly Sunday.

The four of us met up outside the Vauxhall Inn, a large Chef & Brewer establishment on the edge of Tonbridge. Unfortunately the bright sunshine of the day before had been replaced by cloud which, according to the weatherman, had rolled in from the North Sea. It did break from time to time, but there was a cold north-easterly wind blowing, which cooled things down a bit, even when the sun did come out. Our well-trodden route and familiar route took us up through the grounds of the imposing Somerhill House; the former home of the d’Avigdor Goldsmid family, which now houses a number of upmarket, independent, fee-paying schools.

Passing along the stonewall-lined sunken lane, designed to allow estate workers to pass by out of sight of the house, we walked through an area of undulating woodland, before coming out into open farmland. A couple of fields of oil-seed rape, which had just come into flower, greeted us; a poor substitute for the former orchard and the avenue of alder trees which used to stand here. Eventually we reached and crossed the busy B2017 Five Oak Green Road before heading off in a southerly direction into woodland where we knew there should be bluebells aplenty.

Dovecote Inn, Capel
My predictions, alas, proved only too right, although to be fair my companions had also reached the same conclusion regarding us being a week or two too early to witness this spring spectacle . Nevertheless there were odd patches of these distinctive harbingers of late spring, even though the rich carpet of bluebells these woods are renowned for was still largely a mat of bright green leaves. We climbed steadily, passing through some coppiced areas, as these woods are very much managed in the traditional way. We even passed a logging encampment, empty and silent for the weekend break, but no doubt ready to start up again on Monday morning.

Our route through these woods was not the most direct towards Capel, and eventually we changed direction and headed off towards our goal in a north-easterly direction. By this time we had left the woods behind us, and after passing along a narrow country lane, we passed through orchards, descending steadily as we neared our lunchtime watering hole.

Gravity dispense at Dovecote
As mentioned earlier, the cask beer at the Dovecote is served by gravity, and it was here that award-winning local landlord, Richard Allen first developed the system whereby the casks are kept in a temperature-controlled room immediately behind the bar. Extra-long cask taps protrude through the dividing wall, and out through false barrel ends, made out of wood, set into the wall. The result, beer kept at just the right temperature, and served in the most natural way possible – straight from the cask.

Almost a decade ago, Richard moved on to greater things, taking over the equally isolated Halfway House, between the villages of Brenchley and Horsmonden. After completely gutting this former Whitbread pub and carrying out extensive internal alterations, Richard installed the same temperature-controlled, gravity-dispense system at his new pub, but on a much larger scale.
I digress, and returning to the Dovecote, there has also been a recent change of licensee here as well, following the departure of long-serving licensees, Nick and Shelley. The new owners haven’t changed much, sticking with the same award-winning formula. Harvey’s Best and Gales HSB are the regular beers, supplemented by up to three guest ales. On Sunday, these were Caledonian Fool Proof, Mad Cat Pow Wow and a particular favourite beers of mine; Old Dairy Blue Top. Kevin, who was walking with us though, was most disappointed that his favourite beer, HSB was unexpectedly unavailable.  
Three thirsty walkers

The pub was packed, so we sat outside on the semi-covered terrace to the rear of the pub. All four of us started with the Mad Cat beer, which was quite pale in colour and bittered with hops which had an obvious American origin; being citrus-like and quite fruity in flavour. Later most of us moved on to the Old Dairy Blue Top; a 4.8% IPA, if my memory serves me well.

We had planned on a bite to eat at the Dovecote, but as mentioned above the pub was bursting at the seams with two large parties of diners to cater for. It appears that pre-booking is essential for Sunday lunchtime, which kind of spoils the spontaneity, but given the size of the pub is probably inevitable.

We decided to stay for one more, before making tracks for home by means of a more direct route. We passed through the churchyard of the delightful Capel Church, before crossing arable land, and eventually reaching the Five Oak Green Road again. As the path took us right along the side of the George & Dragon, which lies on the B2017 between Five Oak Green and Tudeley, it seemed rude not to pop in for a look.

It’s been quite a few years since I last set foot inside this attractive, white-painted, weather-boarded pub, but I was pleased to discover that not much had changed. We made our way to the saloon bar, which is larger than the public, and was less busy. The George is really an atmospheric old building, complete with low ceilings, massive old beams and an impressive inglenook fireplace. We sat down by the window, glad to take the weight off our feet for a second time that day, but not before ordering a beer each.

George & Dragon, Tudeley
With the choice restricted to Greene King Abbot, or Fuller’s London Pride, the latter was the selection of all four of us. It was well-kept, but not overly special. Still it was nice to sit there observing the goings on in the bar against the backdrop of the view of the fields from the window. The pub has only recently changed hands, so it was good to see it nice and busy. As an added treat, there were hot roast potatoes in dishes on the bar, and these were most welcome seeing as we’d had little else to eat apart from the odd packet of crisps or nuts. Kevin seemed particularly ravenous, perhaps making up for his disappointment at the lack of HSB at the Dovecote. His somewhat over zealous consumption was noticed, however!

Our walk back to Tonbridge took us through the grounds of another church (Tudeley), before walking through a farm with an impressive, and newly built equestrian centre. Eventually we rejoined our outward route and ascended back up towards the grounds of Somerhill House.

Homeward bound
This last leg seemed to take a lot longer than anticipated; probably because we were all a little weary, footsore and stiff. Despite this, and the lack of wall-to-wall bluebells, the walk out and back to these two not often frequented pubs was one of the best I have done for a long time; helped no doubt by the fine weather, the impressive scenery and the companionship of my three fellow walkers.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Something for the Weekend, Sir?*

I picked up these three beauties in Sainsbury’s this morning. They were on offer at three bottles for £5. Thought I’d post the photos as I really like the retro-style labels.

However, it's not just the labels which hark back to earlier times; Pilsner Urquell itself has changed little since its inception back in 1842, despite the brand now being owned by brewing giant SAB Miller. The brewery makes considerable play of its tradition, and the heritage which goes with the place where the world’s first golden lager was created. Even though some stages of the brewing process have been brought up to date; most notably the switch from fermentation in open oak vats and maturation in pitch-lined casks to modern stainless-steel conical fermenters, there are still other areas where tradition lingers.

For example, a time-consuming, and some would argue unnecessary, triple decoction mash is used to extract the sugars from the malt, with the company claiming they are the only large-scale brewery still to do so. In addition, Pilsner Urquell’s new brew-house, which opened in 2005, is fitted with copper mash and lauter tuns, although in a concession to modernity the wort kettles are constructed out of stainless steel.

Interestingly, a number of the old oak vats, together with some pitch-lined casks have been kept in use, partly to show visitors how things used to be done, but also to allow taste-matching to be conducted with brews fermented and matured in the new, hi-tech, stainless steel tanks. This is important to ensure the character of the beer remains un-changed, despite the switch to more modern methods of production,

The proof of this care and dedication to tradition can be found in the finished product, as Pilsner Urquell remains one of the world’s finest beers, and a definite classic in its own right. If you don’t know this already, then get yourselves down to Sainsbury’s and grab a few bottles. Better still, look for a pub selling unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell, dispensed direct from stainless steel tanks, (there are several in London). See website for details.

To read a report of the visit I made to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, back in 2012, click on my other blog here.

*Post more of a "Tweet" when first written, but modified and added to on  24th April 2015.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

A Phoenix from the Ashes

Bishop Nick - Ridley's successor
 In my recent article about the former Essex family brewers, TD Ridley & Sons, I hinted that the 2005 closure of the brewery wasn’t quite the end of the story. Like many family sagas things have gone full-circle and I am pleased to report that two members of the Ridley family are once again involved with both brewing and pub running.

To re-cap what I said at the end of the article, although Greene King were ultimately responsible for the closure of the Hartford End Brewery, they were not the real villains of the piece. The uncomfortable fact is the Ridley family themselves approached Greene King with regard to them taking over the business.

Nicholas Ridley, chairman of Ridley's, said at the time: "After many years of running the company as a local independent business, and following long deliberation by the board, we now believe Ridley needs to become part of a larger group. We view Greene King as the best owner to develop our business for the future."

Well-known beer writer, Adrian Tierney-Jones made the comment on my original article that many of Ridley’s pubs appeared under-capitalised so it wasn’t a surprise when the business was sold. This view was underlined by Nelion Ridley, Nicholas’s son and the sixth generation of the family to have been involved in the brewery.  He said, at the time, that it was becoming more difficult for small and medium-sized brewers to survive and that Ridley's had approached Greene King about the possibility of a takeover after doing its own review of the business.

Describing the takeover and closure of the brewery as “a sad day”, he went on to add "I was practically born here, and can remember my granddad working in the business."  At the time of the Greene King takeover, Nelion was Ridley’s marketing manager but after a few months working for the new owners, he decided it was time to move on. He did some charity work in India, spent some time working in the vineyards in the south of France and even did a teacher training course, but eventually he was drawn back to the family business of brewing.

To further this aim, Nelion went on a three week brewing course in Sunderland where he gained the knowledge and experience he wanted of the brewing process, before launching his own micro-brewery, Bishop Nick, in September 2011. The brewing of Bishop Nick beers was initially carried out at Felstar Brewery, just a few miles down the road from Hartford End, before moving to the town of Braintree.

So where did the Bishop Nick name come from?  As Greene King retained the rights to the Ridley name, Nelion had to look for a different title for his new brewery. He considered calling it Hartford End, after the old brewery site, but decided he didn't want to be tied to a geographical place. He looked at the history of the Ridley family and thought about Bishop Nicholas Ridley who was born in 1500 and became Bishop of London in 1550. He later fell foul of the Pope and was imprisoned in the Tower of London where he was tried for Heresy. In 1555 Queen Mary had Bishop Nick burnt at the stake for his religious beliefs. Somewhat ironically, Bishop Nick was actually the Ridley's symbol until the sale of the company to Greene King.

Three regular beers are brewed: Ridley's Rite, a 3.6 per cent bitter; Heresy, a four per cent golden ale; and 1555, a full bloodied, rich tawny ale, weighing in at 4.3 per cent. In addition, half a dozen seasonal beers are produced throughout the year; full details can be found here on the company website.

In a strange twist of fate, the first pub to take Bishop Nick’s beers was Ridley's old brewery tap; The Compasses, at Littley Green. Nelion's brother Joss had taken over the pub in 2008, following a few, presumably unsuccessful years as part of the Greene King estate. The Suffolk giant had attempted to sell it as a private house, but fortunately Joss Ridley stepped in. He talks about his decision to take on the pub on The Compasses’ website.
The Compasses, now back in the hands of the Ridley family

“The closing of Ridley's brewery hit the family quite hard. At the time I was an accountant in London rushing around in the rat race. After some thinking time in New Zealand I realised how important my heritage was and it was then that I took the leap of leaving London to get back to what my name represented in Essex. What better pub to be the landlord of than The Compasses known as The Ridley's Brewery Tap.”

He describes The Compasses as “a wonderfully traditional pub, which came with some loyal punters and brilliant staff who gave me a warm welcome”. By all accounts the pub is doing very well and now offers Bed and Breakfast in five ensuite rooms, in a detached single storey building adjacent to the pub. A beer festival is also held each year.

So good things did come from the sale and closure of Ridley’s in the end, and the story gets even better with the news that the iconic brewery buildings are to be converted into apartments, rather than being razed to the ground. I’m seriously thinking of stopping off at Hartford End and Littley Green, on my next trip up to Norfolk, to take a look for myself.

With thanks to the Essex Chronicle for the background to this article.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Thirty Years On

Saturday’s celebration marking the 30th anniversary of the re-constitution of the Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells branch of CAMRA was a great success with getting on for 20 members (both current, and former) turning up at the Punch & Judy in Tonbridge to commemorate the event.

The pub was already busy with people watching the Grand National and the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Races when the various CAMRA members started filing in, but we managed to find space amongst the pub’s regulars whilst waiting for the main business of the afternoon to take place.
Enjoying the beer and the conversation in the Punch
The Punch had an interesting selection of beers on to attract our interest, including a 4.5% ABV seasonal offering from Edinburgh’s Caledonian Brewery, called Fool Proof, plus a new “experimental brew” from Tonbridge Brewery, produced specially to celebrate the branch’s 30th anniversary. These were alongside Wadworth 6X and, local pub stalwart, Harvey’s Sussex Best.

The Tonbridge brew, weighed in at 4.4% ABV, and was dark mahogany in colour, with a distinct toffee-caramel character. According to brewery founder Paul Bournazian, who turned up later with a member of his brewing team, the strong toffee notes came from the inclusion of rye malt in the beer; an unusual choice and one which seemed to polarise opinion. Some people really raved over it, whilst others, including myself, were not so keen. It will therefore be interesting to see whether the brewery decide to include the beer in their range of permanent brews.

The beer though took a bit of a back seat to the celebration itself, which was marked by branch chairman Iain Dalgleish making a short speech acknowledging the part played by the three members, Alan, John and Paul, who took on the task of getting the moribund branch back on its feet.

I am proud to be one of those three original members, and whilst neither I or my two companions responded with a speech of our own, I would like to state that at the time, getting the branch up and running again seemed a lot of fun, and certainly wasn’t hard or difficult work. For all of us there were some interesting pubs to visit and some good beers to be drunk along the way, and although we all eventually stood down from our various committee positions we are pleased to have helped lay the foundations for today’s successful West Kent branch.

We haven't changed all that much!
Out of the three of us, John and I both still live in Tonbridge and remain good friends. We both go along to the occasional branch meeting and always participate in the annual Good Friday Ramble, organised by MMK CAMRA. Alan, on the other hand went off travelling, following his retirement some fifteen or so years ago. After using some of the equity from the sale of his house to buy a motor-home, Alan then spent a decade travelling round the United Kingdom, staying at various caravan sites and picking up seasonal work, to help pay the bills, along the way. He has now bought an apartment on the South Coast, where he enjoys living today.

It was therefore especially good for both John and I to meet up with him again, as I think the last time we saw Alan must have been shortly after his retirement do, fifteen or more years ago. It was also good to meet up with Henry, one of the founding members of the original Sevenoaks branch.

Our thanks go out to the branch’s current social secretary Don, for organising the event, to Paul and his co-workers from Tonbridge Brewery, the landlord, staff and customers of the Punch & Judy, and finally to all fellow CAMRA members, past and present who came along to mark the occasion.