Saturday, 27 April 2013

CAMRA AGM 2013 - Norwich Pubs

Norwich certainly seems to have its share of good pubs, but prior to my recent visit, I had only drank in a couple of city centre ones. The first was the Wildman, on Bedford Street; a pub I visited during a brief weekend in Norwich, back in the mid 1970’s, when, the pub was the only city-centre real ale outlet in Norwich. This was during the bad old days when the reviled Watney Mann owned most of the city’s pubs, and when their pubs only sold fizzy keg beer. Mind you, the Tolly Cobbold beers sold at the Wildman, whilst not pressurised, weren’t exactly something to write home about either!

Fast forward a couple of decades to the mid-90’s, when my sister and her American husband were living in Norfolk, and my brother-in-law had developed a taste for English cask beer. The Reindeer, on Dereham Road was a thriving brew-pub, serving its own range of distinctive “Reindeer” beers, that Ernie had discovered and which we visited a few times. I found out this weekend that the two partners behind this venture had then gone on to found breweries of their own; Chalk Hill and Wolf respectively.

A further two decades later (where does the time go?), and I am wandering my way around a few of Norwich’s finest pubs, prior to attending the CAMRA National AGM  and Members’ Weekend. I won’t list all the pubs I visited, but classed by category, here are the best..

Heritage pubs (On CAMRA’s National Inventory)
The Golden Star, an unspoilt Victorian town pub, situated on Colegate, with many intact internal period features. Although tied to Greene King, the pub offers a range of guest beers. There were a couple of themed St George’s ales on, when we called in; I went for the St  George’s Island, from Milestone Brewery.

The attractive, flint-built Adam & Eve, tucked away down Bishopsgate, close to the cathedral, is another National Inventory pub. I popped in on my final afternoon in Norwich, after the AGM had finished, and when many of the delegates had started to drift home. That Sunday afternoon was blessed by bright sunshine, and temperatures starting to climb steadily. The cold easterly wind had moderated, and most people were sitting outside the pub on benches. It seemed rude not to join them, so after ordering myself a pint of Woodforde’s Sundew, (a very appropriate beer), I too took my drink out into the sunshine. Unfortunately this meant I didn’t get to see much of the Adam & Eve’s interior, but I was struck by the tiny serving area behind the bar, with room for just one person – and a skinny one at that!

Real Ale “Exhibition-type” pubsKing’s Head; Gardener’s Arms/Murderers; Fat Cat
I called in at these pubs in the order listed above, visiting the King’s Head late in the afternoon of my first day in Norwich. It was a pub I had wanted to visit ever since I read a feature about it several years ago, (I can’t remember whether it was in “What’s Brewing”, or Beer Magazine). It was slightly different from what I’d been expecting, but was still just as impressive. I sat in the fairly basic, front bar enjoying a few of the extensive range of beers which the pub had on sale. There is also a slightly larger bar to the rear. I chatted with a couple of the locals about football (a subject that I know very little about) and beer and pubs, (a subject I know a bit more about), with a local CAMRA member). My only slight gripe was that the measures were a little on the short side. However, the attractive and pleasant barmaid compensated for this somewhat, so much so that I wasn’t really inclined to demand a “top-up”.

I popped into the well known Gardener’s Arms/Murderers the following lunchtime, after a look around the shops and the area around the castle. I was aware that the pub was running a beer festival, but this had only just got up and running when I arrived. Built on a couple of slightly different levels, and with many corners and “snug” areas in which to lose oneself for a while, The Gardeners’ proved the ideal refuge from the busy shopping centres outside. There was a good mix of customers in the pub, ranging from refugees from the shops, like myself, to office workers meeting up for a drink plus a bite to eat for their lunch. I tried several of the beers on sale for the festival; like many such events, they weren’t all on at the same time. I liked  the Gardeners’, which incidentally is family owned, and found it to be fine example of everything a town centre boozer should be.

Last, but by no means least, we have the deservedly famous Fat Cat; Norwich’s permanent beer-exhibition in a pub. My visit on Thursday evening was all too brief though, due to being delayed at the Kett’s Tavern, (see below), but what a place! With nearly 30 different cask ales on tap, it was extremely difficult to know what to choose. Despite the pub being heaving, my friends from MMK CAMRA had managed to grab seats and a large table in a room to the rear, and again in spite of the crowds, I was served with my pint, more or less straight away. I was also impressed with the large collection of old brewery memorabilia, adorning most of the walls.

Pubs tied to a local brewery –, Kett’s Tavern; Plough .
Kett’s Tavern, named after the local leader of the 16th Century rebellion, is a quirky, but interesting pub on the north-eastern side of the city, just off the inner ring road. Owned by the same people who run the Norfolk Bear Brewery, and selling a good range of their beers, this pub was a bit of a walk, but well worth it. I ended up staying longer than anticipated, due to bumping into a member from Coventry CAMRA, whom I’d met the previous night. I also underestimated just how long it would take to walk from the Kett's to my next port of call, the Fat Cat, on the other side of the city where I had arranged to meet up with friends  from MMK branch. (See above). Unfortunately I was a bit late, which was annoying, as I don't like keeping people waiting.

Plough – tied to the Grain Brewery, the Plough was rather full when we called in, quite late on Friday evening. The music was also a trifle too loud for my liking. On the plus side, there were four cask beers from Grain available, and the all-female bar staff were friendly and helpful, even offering tasters despite being very busy. (Other pubs, please take note). A lunchtime visit would perhaps have been a quieter and more pleasant experience.

Unusual/eatery-type pubs, Vine, Take 5.
The Vine, featured in “What’s Brewing” a couple of months ago, and being run by a landlady who hails from Thailand, specialises in Thai food. I made two contrasting visits to the pub. The first, on Wednesday night, found the downstairs bar fairly quiet, although the upstairs restaurant seemed fairly busy. I had an amusing time translating the extremely broad accent of a visitor from Northern Ireland CAMRA, so that the Thai girl behind the bar could understand what he was saying! Contrast that evening with two nights later, when Friday evening saw Norwich’s smallest pub packed to the gunwales with CAMRA members from all over the country.

Take 5 is a slightly off-beat sort of place, situated in Tombland, close to the cathedral. A grade II listed building, I called in on my first night in Norwich, primarily to get something to eat. The Supreme of roast chicken breast, served with new potatoes and a feta and spinach sauce, hit the spot, and the Bonny’s Gold, from the local Golden Triangle Brewery, really hi the spot, in fact it was the best pint I had all day! Friendly staff, combined with an easy going, un-hurried atmosphere, made Take 5 just the right place to unwind after a busy day, exploring the streets, and pubs, of Norwich.

Apparently Norwich has four JDW outlets, although I only came across two of them. The Bell, located centrally at the top of the hill, close to the Gardener’s, is a conversion of a traditional old pub into a maze of linked drinking areas, sited on two levels, whereas the Glass House, is a modern building, again on two levels, close to the cathedral. Both still had their Spring Beer Festivals running, but I used the pubs primarily as somewhere offering good value food,  (I ate twice at the Glass House), and somewhere to grab a cup of coffee from (Bell). Both outlets were of a high standard.

Favourite pub – Fat Cat.
It had to be this one really, as it ticked all the right boxes. It’s a shame I only had time for one pint there as I really wanted to stay longer, especially as my colleagues had managed to grab a table. The group had opted to go for a curry instead though, and being partial to the occasional “ruby”, I opted to join them. After our meal, it made sense to head back into town, rather than retrace our footsteps in the opposite direction, to the Fat Cat. We probably picked the best night of the long weekend, in which to visit, as I imagine on subsequent nights the place would have been even more packed than it was when we called in.

Well, what a contrast compared to my first visit, 40 years ago. Norwich is now definitely a city I shall be returning to, and next time I will be spending a bit more time in the Fat Cat.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

CAMRA Members' Weekend 2013 - A Brief Overview

Well I’ve just returned after four and a half very enjoyable days in Norwich, attending CAMRA’s National AGM and Member’s Weekend. It was my first proper trip to Norwich, although I have made several fleeting visits to the city in the past. It was good then to get to know the place properly, and to explore and enjoy the delights of its many pubs.

It was also good to meet up with old friends from CAMRA and, of course, with a couple of fellow beer bloggers. I shall be writing more about Norwich’s pubs later, but to begin with a few first thoughts about the city itself.

Central Norwich is over-looked by an imposing Norman keep, which is all that remains of a once much more extensive castle. The streets radiate down from the castle mound, and to a lesser extent around it. The River Wensum loops around the city to the north and the east, and situated in what once must have been water-meadows, stands the 13th Century cathedral, topped with its impressive stone spire. Because of the layout of the ancient streets it is easy to get disoriented, or even lost, as I did on a number of occasions on my first couple of days there.

What I particularly liked about the place was the large numbers of old buildings still standing, some dating back to medieval times. The city was perhaps fortunate in being left alone by both the Luftwaffe and over-zealous town planners. Even today Norwich’s two main shopping centres The Mall and Chapelfield are not intrusive, especially the former which is built into, and extends below the castle mound. There are a numerous old, flint and stone-built churches plus, of more appeal to the beer lover, an impressive number of old pubs.

The CAMRA AGM itself took place in the historic St Andrew’s Hall, whilst the members’ bar and Beer-Ex was held in the smaller, adjoining Blackfriars’ Hall. Both buildings are medieval in origin, but have been added to over the years. It was a fitting place to hold the meeting, and over the course of Friday and Saturday evenings, plus Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes, the Beer-ex, which was well-stocked with a wide range of locally-brewed beers, was drunk dry by the 1,500 or so members who attended. I heard that this was a record attendance for an AGM, but so far have not seen confirmation of this.

It was good to meet up with other CAMRA members from around the country including, as mentioned, fellow beer bloggers  Peter Alexander and Neville Grundy aka. Tandleman and Red Nev respectively. I also spent quite a bit of time in the company of friends from Maidstone & Mid-Kent Branch, who had a large contingent of 15 members attending the event. As well as exploring many of the city’s fine pubs, we had a day out by train, visiting both Great Yarmouth and Reedham.

The highlight of the weekend was Saturday night's coach trip to Woodforde’s Brewery, situated a few miles outside of Norwich in the picturesque Broadland setting of Woodbastwick.  After touring the brewery, which included a generous sampling of the company’s products, we were ushered into the adjacent brewery tap – the Fur & Feather. Here we were treated to a hog roast supper, washed down with further glasses of Woodforde’s ales, served direct from casks kept in a temperature-controlled room behind the bar.

So that concludes my introductory pre-amble to the 2013 Members’ weekend. There’ll be more to come later.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Norwich 2013


I'm off to Norwich in the morning to attend CAMRA's National AGM and Members' Weekend. I'm looking forward to it as, apart from occasional forays into the city, I've never done much drinking in Norwich before.

I'm hoping to visit as many of the city's classic pubs as possible, (Fat Cat, King's Head, Murderer's, Adam and Eve etc), and am also contemplating a trip out to the isolated Berney Arms, (only accessible by boat or rail!), if time permits. I'll be one of just two members from West Kent Branch attending this year, but I won't be able to catch up with Simon until late Friday evening due to his prior work commitments. Instead I've arranged to meet up with friends from Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA, who've managed to secure me a place on the Saturday evening trip to Woodforde's Brewery.

If any fellow bloggers, or readers, fancy meeting up for a pint then please get in touch. I don't have a "Twatter" account, but can be reached on Smart-Phone, via this blog. Alternatively I might just recognise one or two of you in the Member's bar!

I hope everyone who's coming is looking forward to the delights of Norwich, and has a good time whilst there.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Long Service

When I first started drinking, back in the early 1970's, the pub trade was much more of a calling that it is today. There was far more stability in the world of pubs, and a degree of certainty that is sadly missing today. One of many constants that existed then was the way that pubs tended to remain in families, being passed down from father to son, or from mother to daughter. It was not uncommon  for licensees to remain at the helm of their pub for a substantial number of years; often notching up several decades worth of service. Contrast this to today's pub world where things are much more transient, and licensees tend to come and go with all too familiar regularity, often to the detriment of the pub itself.

One local pub which goes against the grain of this modern trend, and continues the ideal of long service, is the Hopbine, situated in the tiny hamlet of Petteridge, between Brenchley and Lamberhurst. It was to here that a small contingent of West Kent CAMRA members headed on an increasingly dull and overcast Saturday, in order to catch up with the goings on at the pub, and also to treat ourselves to a spot of lunch.

Travelling by bus from Tunbridge Wells, we alighted on the edge of Brenchley village and then made the short walk down Petteridge Lane, before climbing back up to the hamlet itself and to the Hopbine,  poised before us on the brow of a hill. The Hopbine is a former King & Barnes pub, and the signs outside give the impression this is still the case. However, as many people remember K & B were taken over by the Dorset brewers, Hall & Woodhouse, back in 2000, and all brewing operations at the firm's Horsham site ceased soon afterwards. Today the Hopbine offers Badger First Gold and Tanglefoot alongside Dorset-brewed King& Barnes Sussex Bitter.

We all opted for the First Gold, which was in excellent condition, golden-coloured, well-hopped and served at just the right temperature to make the first beer of the day, and a birthday one for me, absolutely spot on. There were a small crowd of regulars in the pub, several of whom I recognised from previous visits, but landlord Mike Winser was pleased to see us and was able to spend a bit of time chatting. This article is about long service and Mike and his wife "B" have certainly achieved that, clocking up 25 years behind the bar. They are planning to retire later this year, as Mike will have reached 65 and, as he was telling us, his sciatica was playing him up something rotten - one of the hazards of being a landlord I suppose, with all those barrels to move around down in a cramped cellar.

I say cramped, but for all I know the Hopbime's cellar could be quite spacious, as the pub is built into the side of a hill. Its exact age is uncertain, but it has only been a pub since 1949, when it was converted from two former adjoining cottages. Evidence of this can be seen internally, by the fireplace which partially separates one part of the pub from the other. When King & Barnes acquired it in 1984, it was their most easterly outpost, and the same applied to current owners, Hall & Woodhouse, although the company have since constructed a large motel complex, at Wrotham Heath. The latter though is far easier for the Badger drays to service, as it is close to the junctions of the M20, A20 and A25. Mike believes the company will sell the pub when he  retires, although they have promised to keep it on for as long as him and "B" want to keep on running it.

As I said, a quarter of a century is pretty impressive in the pub trade these days, even if it was once quite common. Mike pointed out a presentation plate, from the brewery, displayed on the wall which proudly announces this achievement. The couple had recently been guests of  Hall & Woodhouse, spending a few days at the company's premier hotel in Blandford Forum. They had been shown round the firm's brand new £5 million brewery, which replaces its Victorian predecessor on an adjoining site, and Mike was keen to emphasise the company's commitment to brewing, stating that Chairman, Mark Woodhouse is a brewer, rather than an accountant.

As mentioned earlier, it was our intention to have lunch at the pub, and as it was filling up quite quickly, we placed our orders and grabbed a table to wait for our food to arrive. All the food at the Hopbine is genuinely "home cooked" by "B", and my steak and kidney pie was a generous slice of proper pie, (meat encased between a shortcrust pastry base and a lid, rather than a meat stew in an earthenware dish, topped with a loose lid of puff pastry!). It was accompanied with chips, vegetables and a small jug of gravy - nice touch there. I washed it down with a further pint of First Gold, although one member of our party did try the Tanglefoot after Mike had described how the brewery had tweaked the recipe, making the beer less sweet. The new version had proved a hit with his regulars, most of whom live within walking distance and therefore don't have to worry about driving home. We agreed with his assessment that the change in recipe had disguised the 4.9% strength of the beer.

We left shortly before the pub closed for the afternoon. Being a country pub, with mainly regular rather than passing trade, the Hopbine still keeps old-fashioned opening hours. As always, it had been a most enjoyable visit, and it was good to see such a tucked-away pub so busy. Before finishing this article though, special mention should be made of another old-fashioned tradition maintained there; namely the outside gents! The Hopbine is one of only two pubs I know, in this area at least, that still possesses such facilities - the other being the Golding Hop at Plaxtol. Long may this continue!

Sunday, 7 April 2013



 Following up on my previous post, and prompted by a comment made by Curmudgeon, I would like to move on and examine the effect that good cellar practice has on the flavour and character of the finished beer.

Most people are familiar with the story about how bitter, as a style of beer, developed from  so-called “running ales” during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily to do away with the lengthy maturation periods necessary for high strength IPA’s. Running ales were designed to undergo a short maturation in the pub cellar, before being considered ready for consumption. This maturation process is known as "cask-conditioning", because the beer comes into condition in the cask, and the beer itself, of course, is cask-conditioned ale (often referred to as "Real Ale") .

As an aside, I don’t think that cask-conditioned beer can be a solely British thing. Presumably, before the advent of filtration and pasteurisation, all beers would have continued to ferment slowly and come to maturation in the cask. However, particularly in the case of pilsner-style beers, where clarity of appearance is of prime importance, cask-conditioning would not give quite the degree of clarity demanded; neither could the necessary levels of carbonation be achieved either.

Moving on, as cask-conditioned beers grew in popularity, the demand for people with the necessary cellar skills increased as well. Certainly during the first half of the last century, it was not uncommon for pubs to employ a cellar-man, whose main task was to ensure the pub’s beers were served in tip-top condition. Most large pubs, and even some of the smaller ones, would have employed such a person; a necessity when one considers the phenomenal amounts of bee that would have been served, particularly in industrial areas, where heavy manual work was the order of the day – mining, iron and steel, ship building etc.

The father of a friend of ours once told me about the part time job he had, helping out with the cellar work at a pub in Dartford. It was particularly interesting to learn that 50 years ago, most draught (cask) beer was supplied to pubs un-fined, and the landlords, or their cellar-men, would add the finings themselves. Tony remembers doing this, (we would be talking some time during the 1960’s). There may have been advantages for both brewer and publican alike with this practice.  For example, it is known that finings gradually lose their ability to remove suspended yeast from beer each time the cask is disturbed. So for example, if the finings are added at the brewery they will start to work straight away, but will then be re-mixed when the cask is loaded onto the dray. Again, during transit the finings will start to work, but the contents of the cask are then disturbed again when delivery to the pub takes place. The landlord, or his cellar man, may choose to stillage the cask straight away, or they may leave it, standing on end and then stillage it at a later date. Each time it is moved the contents will be disturbed and the finings will have to do their job all over again, and each time their power (ability) to clarify the beer becomes less and less. On paper then it seems quite advantageous for the finings to be added in the pub cellar; so why then did this practice die out?

The main reasons have to be those of poor quality draught beer, caused by a variety of reasons, but in particular by a paucity of landlords, or other skilled personnel with the necessary cellar skills. Worried by a lack of control over the final quality of their beer, along with concerns over other related issues such as unhygienic or incorrect temperature storage conditions for the finings,  (especially in the days before temperature controlled cellars), brewers took the task of fining their beers back in-house.  This was in spite of the disadvantages of fining at the brewery, mentioned earlier. Although they now had total control over the fining of their beers, there were other areas where, in more recent years, they have also been pro-active in changing things, and not always for the good so far as drinkers are concerned.

The prime areas are those of controlling the yeast count of the beer, when it leaves the brewery, and that of cutting down on the degree of maturation/conditioning that occurs in the pub cellar. The two areas go hand in hand, with most of the maturation now taking place at the brewery in special, temperature-controlled, "conditioning tanks". The yeast count can now be much more carefully controlled. Both these processes mean there is less work for the publican/cellar-man to do, and also much less time is needed for the beer to drop “bright” and thus be ready to serve. I have known casks to clear in a matter of hours, and it is almost unheard of these days for a cask not to have dropped bright overnight. It could be argued  that as there is so little suspended yeast in some beers when they arrive in the pub cellar, the term "cask-conditioned"  hardly applies!  It often seems that clarity is now the sole criterion when judging beer quality, and other equally important considerations, such as degree of condition, removal of so-called "green flavours" associated with immature beer, have gone straight out the window, along with aroma, taste, depth of flavour, etc.! Less time for publicans to wait before the beer can be served, unfortunately often means less time for characteristic “signature” flavours to develop, and this may well be the reason that many once classic beers are now mere shadows of their former selves. 

One very recent development in cask beer cuts maturation times even further.  fastcask™ is a new innovation from Marston's. The idea behind it is, as the trade marked name suggests, the beer clears virtually straight away. This video from the company shows a cask of Hobgoblin being delivered to a pub cellar, where it is immediately stillaged, tapped and spiled. Despite having just been dropped down the cellar chute, rolled and man-handled into place, the beer is bright and ready to serve immediately after tapping. The company also claim that if the cask is accidentally knocked, or other-wise disturbed, the beer will remain clear. The beer is not “bright” in the commonly accepted use of the word in brewing circles, that is to day it has not been filtered. However, instead of yeast suspended in the usual fashion, the yeast in  fastcask™  has been bonded to gel-like beads which, being much denser than normal yeast particles,  will sink to the bottom of the cask more or less straight away.

The system was launched in a blaze of publicity two or three years ago, and whilst several Marston’s beers are available in fastcask™ form, Hobgoblin is now only sold in this form. Whilst I can see the obvious advantages of this innovation, especially with regard to handling in the pub cellar, but also as a means of persuading pubs which may not have considered taking cask beer before to now stock it, I can’t help thinking that cutting down on maturation times prior to serving the beer is a step in the wrong direction. Time spent conditioning and maturing the beer has been sacrificed for the expediency of being able to serve the beer straight away. This development is designed for lazy publicans and for people who are unable to plan ahead. I'm not sure just how well fastcask™ has caught on. I certainly haven't read or seen anything more about it recently.

Looking back to my earlier point about what went on in pub cellars half a century ago, I want to end with the following two stories which nicely illustrate old time cellar practices:

Most readers will know I don’t like Shepherd Neame beers, but some will be unaware that back in the late 1970’s - early 80’s their bitter was one of my favourite beers. The all time, absolute best pint of Shep's available locally (or indeed anywhere) was to be had at the Dog & Bear at Lenham. This picturesque village is roughly halfway between Maidstone and Ashford, and the Dog & Bear is a splendid old, former coaching inn overlooking the village square. At the time I am referring to, the pub was presided over by a very dour, yet real character of a landlord known universally as "Squirrel". I never did discover his real name, but Squirrel's Bitter was unsurpassed. Squirrel’s domain was the saloon bar of the Dog & Bear, whilst his wife, Joyce, presided over the public bar. The bars were even signed accordingly as "Squirrels Bar" and “Joyce’s Bar”.

Although not revealing his name, "Squirrel" did divulge his secret of keeping and serving such an excellent pint of Shep's. However, this knowledge was not disseminated to me, but rather to a fellow CAMRA member (now sadly passed away), who not only lived locally but who had been using the Dog & Bear for many years. What Squirrel did was quite simply to order sufficient beer in advance to enable casks to be kept in his cellar for a minimum of two weeks, before tapping them. The result was an absolute explosion of hoppiness, combined with an extremely well conditioned and matured pint. It certainly ranks as being amongst the finest beer I have ever tasted.

The practice of leaving the beer to mature in the cellar was also endorsed in one of the Batsford pubguides. "Kent Pubs", written by D.B. Tubbs and published in 1966, contains a remark attributed to Mr Bob Harvey, landlord of the now sadly closed, Woodman’s Arms, at Hassel Street, near Wye. “The secret of keeping beer and ale, my lad, is to order it in advance so it can lay for two weeks before you tap it". If only modern landlords would adopt this practice, the beer drinker’s lot would be a much happier (and hoppier) one!

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Price of Fame?

I’ve touched on this point a couple of times in recent posts, and Boak & Bailey  published an article  a short while ago, stating "they wish they could have tasted certain beers in their heyday, when they were full of character and flavour, rather than the pale shadows of their former selves that so many of them have become today."

The beers I alluded to were Taylor’s Landlord, Hop Back Summer Lightning and Exmoor Gold. Boak & Bailey listed Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Marston’s Pedigree, Taylor’s Landlord (them as well), plus Young’s and Boddington’s Bitters. With the exception of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale which to me is still a very good beer, I would agree with their selection and would like to add a few more, such as Shepherd Neame Bitter (before they cheekily styled it  as “Master Brew”), Fuller’s London Pride plus Draught Bass (when it was brewed using the Burton Union system).

Friends of mine have also noticed the same thing; that a degree of blandness has crept in, and  once classic, multi-layered beers have now become very ordinary “run of the mill”, one-dimensional, bog-standard parodies of what they once were. We've concluded that it must be the beers that have changed, as surely our individual taste buds can't all have changed at the same time and to the same extent? Looking at the above list, whilst here are still some that I would be quite happy to drink, (assuming nothing more interesting was available), they don't excite me in the way they used to, and  I wouldn’t go out of my way to drink them. These include Landlord, Summer Lightning, Exmoor Gold, London Pride, Pedigree and, providing it was served West Country-style, direct from the cask, rather than pulled through a sparkler, Draught Bass.

Missing from the list is Shepherd Neame, as these days  I actively avoid the stuff!  Nor would I waste my time with the likes of Boddington’s or Young’s, neither of which now are brewed in their original location, or anywhere remotely near their original home anyway. Taking these three beers for a moment, whilst I was never a huge fan of Young’s Ordinary as it was known back in the mid-1970’s, preferring instead the company’s much more robust and full-bodied Special, both  Boddington’s and Shepherd Neame Bitters were once real favourites of mine.

However, even as far back as the late 1970’s, when I was still living in Manchester, rumours abounded that Boddington’s had reduced the hopping rate of their most famous product to make it less aggressively bitter (blander), so as to increase its appeal to a wider audience. This was confirmed by someone we knew who worked at the brewery, although the company strenuously denied it  (they would, wouldn’t they?). We ended up voting with our feet and switched to drinking in Holts’ pubs, where the bitter still tasted like bitter, and was also quite a bit cheaper as well!

Both Strangeways and Wandsworth have long since brewed their last pints, so we can dismiss Boddington’s and Young’s from further discussion, but what about Shepherd Neame, who are now  Britain’s oldest brewers?  At its best Shep’s ordinary bitter was the very perfection of a traditional Kentish beer, well-hopped, with those wonderful floral notes associated with traditional hop varieties such as Goldings. Now the beer has morphed  into a thin, harsh-tasting, unpleasant brown bitter liquid, and I know very few people who actively seek it out, let alone admit to actually enjoying the stuff!. A clue as to what might have gone wrong at Sheps’s was passed to me the other week by a friend who attended a “meet the brewer” evening at the Sevenoaks JDW outlet, the Sennockian. The brewer in question was from Whitstable Brewery, and during his talk he confessed to having worked for Shep’s in the past. He mentioned, almost in passing, that the brewery had “cleaned up” their yeast, eliminating a “wild” strain that had once been a vital element in the taste of the beers.

Boak & Bailey alluded briefly to this “cleaning up” of yeast strains. Whilst this might make yeast selection and propagation easier at the brewery, it can often have a detrimental effect on the taste of the finished product. In Shep’s case though, I do not think this was solely to blame for their bitter’s fall from grace; instead I believe the increasing use of conical fermenters must also take responsibility, and not just at Shepherd Neame.

There is no doubt that conical vessels can have an adverse effect on the taste and character of a beer, simply because fermentation takes place at a much faster rate. Whereas wort in a traditional square fermenting vessel would typically take around a week to ferment, this period is reduced to 3-4 days when fermentation is switched to conical vessels. Another characteristic of conical fermenters is the yeast sinks to the bottom of the vessel once fermentation draws to a close. This happens even when “top fermenting “yeast strains are used.  Shepherd Neame use conicals, so do Fuller’s plus Wells & Young's. I suspect Timothy Taylors use them as well, as I know they have considerably expanded their brewery in recent times  to cope with the increased demand, nationwide, for Landlord.

I don’t know about Hop Back or Exmoor, although I suspect they are still small enough concerns to stick with more traditional vessels. One beer though whose character was totally changed when production switched to conicals, was Draught Bass. This was despite the brewery claiming to have carried out extensive trials to ensure an almost identical match between Bass brewed in the old Burton Union Sets and that brewed using the more modern system. Despite my initial scepticism, I believe Bass did  achieve their aim to begin with, but after a while in its new environment, their complex, multi-strain yeast began changing, leading to a significant loss of character in the finished beer.

Of course, conical fermenters aren’t always the villains of the piece. Back in the early 1990’s, renowned Bohemian brewers Pilsner Urquell, carried out a similar exercise to Bass, switching the fermentation, and subsequent maturation of their world-classic lager from open cylindrical oak fermenters and massive, pitch-lined oak casks, to conical fermenters and conditioning tanks. Unlike Bass though, Pilsner Urquell managed to get the change right, and the finished beer is still a very good one. I know what I’m talking about here; I visited the brewery in 1984, when the old ways of doing things very much in place. I visited it again, last autumn, and to me the beer tasted every bit as good, despite all the high tech equipment now in place, and the company belonging to global brewing giant, SAB – Miller.

So if changes in fermentation methods aren’t always the reason why so many once cherished beers have lost their way, then what is? The answer has to be good old fashioned economics. In situations where accountants start to have more say in the running of a brewery, the temptation has to be to cut back on certain expensive ingredients, in favour of slightly cheaper alternatives. Maturation times are cut back, and the strength of a beer may even be reduced, just “ever so slightly”.

The end result speaks for itself, but in a market where most beers are promoted by brand, and where the brands in question are increasing in popularity and appeal, then so what if a few “old duffers” start claiming the beers aren’t what they used to be. For every once loyal follower of these beers, there are probably a dozen more new converts, “aficionados” if you like, who are all perfectly happy with what’s in their glass, having never known just how good the somewhat bland beer they are now drinking, once was.

This, of course, is often (but not always), the price of fame!