Thursday, 27 June 2013

A Day Out in London - Part 2

After crossing London Bridge, we headed along Gracechurch Street towards the Crosse Keys, our next port of call, and one of Wetherspoons flagship pubs in the capital. However, when Gracechurch Street merged into Bishopsgate we realised we must have missed it. Undeterred we turned right into the covered splendour of Leadenhall Market for the chance to visit the Lamb Tavern, an unspoilt gem of a  pub which dates back, in its present form, to the 17th Century and is on the site of a much older establishment of the same name. Alongside the usual Young’s offerings was Sambrook’s Pumphouse Pale. This turned out to be a very good beer, but at over £4.00 it pint it jolly well ought to be! One of the Lamb’s most attractive features was a large Bass mirror (see picture below), which would look nice on my wall at home!
We asked the barmaid as to the whereabouts of the Crosse Keys and were told it was definitely in Gracechurch Street, but on the opposite side of the road to where we had been looking.  Re-tracing our steps I  spotted the small, unobtrusive sign (no wonder we missed it), hanging next to the entrance of what must be one of Wetherspoons most ostentatious pubs. Converted from the palatial marbled banking hall that was once the London Headquarters of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, the Crosse Keys offers one of the widest ranges of cask ales of any JDW outlet; up to 24 in fact! These are displayed on TV monitors above the bar, but we hadn’t noticed that, so spent quite a bit of time perusing the pump clips before deciding what to order. We opted for Wayland Smithy, a 4.4% American red ale brewed by Oxfordshire brewers White Horse of  Stanford-in-the-Vale. I think Eric enjoyed his but I found the beer not really to my taste.(a touch too much roast malt for my liking).

Soon it was time to move on again, and we had a bit of a route march ahead of us, especially as we wanted to get back to the Charing Cross area. We made our way up Cornhill,  passing the Bank of England, before continuing  along Cheapside and the back of St Paul’s and then along towards Holborn to the Cittie of Yorke, a well-known London pub, and one of a number in the Capital  belonging to Yorkshire brewers, Samuel Smith. Sam’s are renowned for their keen prices and for their policy of only stocking “own-branded” products in their pubs, so as well as their one cask ale Old Brewery Bitter (OBB), their pubs sell their own lager, stout, an extensive range of distinctive bottled beers, own-label wines, plus even their own branded crisps! We opted for the OBB; I didn’t notice what the price was as it was Eric’s round, but knowing Sam’s value for money policy it would have been on a par with what we paid in Wetherspoons.

The pub itself is well worth a visit, consisting of one long bar, with a high vaulted ceiling. It looks very much like a baronial hall, so it is surprising to learn it was only built in 1924. The sides of the building, away from the bar, are lined with booths which resemble confessionals, or the sort of enclosures once found in courtrooms for lawyers and their clients to discuss matters relating to the case, privately. Being a Friday afternoon, the pub was starting to fill up quite rapidly; not just with city workers finished for the weekend, but with a healthy sprinkling of tourists as well.

We drank up and departed for our final stop of the day, the Harp in Covent Garden. I wasn't certain whether I’d visited this award winning pub before, but I was certainly glad that we called in on our way back to Charing Cross. The pub was packed when we arrived, with people spilling out onto the street. This wasn’t a problem as the Harp has what must be removable windows. These help give a feeling of space and on warm summer days, allow both light and air into the pub. Once at the bar we were spoilt for choice with around eight different cask ales to choose from. To start I went with the Red Squirrel London Porter, whilst Eric opted for the Dark Star Original.

We spent longer than intended at the Harp, such was the atmosphere and the quality and range of the beer. There was also a bevy of attractive barmaids pulling the pints and serving the customers with just the right mixture of efficiency and charm. I ended up sampling the Conqueror, Black IPA from Windsor & Eaton and then finally Sambrook’s Lavender Hill, a 4.5% pale ale, before finally calling it a day.

From the Harp it was a short step to Charing Cross station and the train home. It had been a good day out, with some excellent pubs visited and quite a few good beers dunk as well. This trip wasn’t about searching out “extreme”, cutting-edge beers, but more a chance for a couple of old friends to get together, visit a handful of decent pubs, and catch up on what’s been going on over a few decent pints. Our next day out is likely to be to Hastings – local inhabitants, you have been warned!

Monday, 24 June 2013

A Day Out in London - Part 1

“A trip to London” my friend Eric suggested, “taking in a few pubs around the London Bridge area.” This seemed like an excellent idea; I had spent most of the week at home doing some decorating, and I ached from climbing up ladders and crouching down to reach awkward spots. Besides, I had not really had a chance to catch up with Eric since my return from Japan, so a day’s drinking in some of Southwark’s finest hostelries seemed the perfect opportunity for a break from the painting and a chance to swap experiences about the Far East, (Eric has visited Japan in the past, so we had a lot to talk about).

After a train journey of just over half an hour, through the pleasant and very green-looking Kent countryside, we alighted at London Bridge. Although it must only be two months or so since I was last up there I was surprised at the amount of alterations that had taken place. The station is undergoing a massive redevelopment programme, the first part of which seems to have been the demolition of the train shed on the “Surrey side”. This left us with an uninterrupted view of the Shard, London’s latest white elephant, (anyone who remembers Centre Point from the 1960’s will know what I am talking about!)

I had brought with us, for guidance, Des de Moor’s excellent “CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer Pubs & Bars”, but to start off I suggested we call in at the historic George Inn, just off Borough High Street. Eric hadn’t been there before, despite being a member of the National Trust, and was very impressed with the antiquity and character of what is the last remaining example in London of a galleried coaching inn. As it was only shortly after 11 o’clock, the pub was fairly quiet, and in view of the early hour, and the fact we had the whole day in front of us, I suggested we just have a half. The other reason for this was the George is leased to Greene King, not our favourite brewery, although we did spot a beer from Portobello Brewery, called Star on the bar. We were charged two quid a half, and later found out from looking at the price list, that the George charges a premium for halves, as pints were £3.85. This is a money grabbing practice which unfortunately has become much too common. It made our minds up to drink pints for the rest of the day.

The beer itself was not particularly great, not down to the brewery I hasten to add, but much more likely the end of the barrel. Never mind, we had a good look round before crossing the road and heading through the bustling Borough Market opposite. The majority of the construction work involved with squeezing in the new railway viaduct, high above the heads of the market below, has now been completed and the Wheatsheaf pub which had the top sliced off it in order to accommodate the new structure has now re-opened for business. However, it was not our intention to be drinking Young’s beers as since their move to Bedford they really are a shadow of their former self. Instead we headed for everyone’s favourite real ale pub in these parts, the Market Porter.

The pub was virtually empty when we arrived, in fact this was the quietest I have ever seen it, but then it was just before midday and I was certain that by early afternoon the place would be heaving as usual. With a choice of 12 cask ales on offer it was difficult to decide what to go for. In the end we opted for Signal Mainline from the recently opened Settle Brewery. We had purposely chosen a weak beer to start with, but whilst this 3.6% abv brew was pleasant enough, but a little on the sweet side so far as I was concerned, and thus didn’t really hit the spot. I said that there weren’t many people in the pub, but despite that there weren’t many places to sit down either. I put that down to the fact that tables and chairs take up too much floor space, and when the Market Porter is as packed as I’ve seen it every available square foot is needed to accommodate all the punters. We did however, manage to grab one of the last small tables, together with a couple of stools, in the extension at the rear of the pub. This gave us a chance to sit down, consult the guide and peruse the map, not that Eric could do much perusing as he had left his reading glasses at home!

We could, of course, quite easily have spent the rest of the day in the Porter. After all there were plenty of other beers for us to try, but onwards and upwards we decided to give somewhere else a try and decided on the Southwark Tavern, described in Des’s guide as a “contemporary pub”. The pub is situated right on the edge of Borough Market, fronting on to Borough High Street, and with its attractive tiled frontage, and evidence of its one time owners Meux and Co still clearly visible, we stepped inside. Apart from the dreaded Doom Bar, there were three other cask ales which caught our eye – Stonehenge Eye-Opener, Red Squirrel Jack Black – Black IPA and Wharfe Bank Fair Dinkum. We opted for the latter, a 4.3% cask lager, brewed using Australian hops. It was nice and refreshing and this time really did do the trick. The Southwark also offers a number of keg beers, including several foreign ones, and I’d made a mental note to look at these more closely on my trip back from the gents, but unfortunately quite forgot to do so when the time came.

We thought it wise to get something more solid inside of us before any more beer was consumed, so where better than one of the many food stalls operating in the adjacent market. A freshly cooked, hot, salt beef sandwich, served up in a doorstep wedge of crusty bread with English mustard and gherkins proved just the right amount of nourishment before moving on to our next port of call.

I’d had it in mind to visit Katzenjammers, a German-themed bier Keller sited in the basement of the old Hop Exchange. My son was rather impressed with the place when he and a friend had visited the other year, but after taking a wrong turning and ending up next to the cathedral, I decided to go along with Eric’s suggestion of crossing the river and seeing what was on offer in the City. This fitted in with the vague plan we had of gradually making our way westwards towards Charing Cross station.
 (To be continued).

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

A Success Story for a Change

The sight of a pub empty and boarded up is sadly an all too common one these days. Only recently I posted about the closure of the Harp at East Peckham; a pub that seemed to have lost its way and had resorted to exotic dancers and lap dancing to lure the punters in, only to have its license revoked following a storm of protest from local residents. We read too about the insatiable greed of the big pub companies (Punch and Enterprise), who milk their hapless tenants for every penny they can by a double whammy of high rents plus prices for beers and spirits that are way above what they would pay in the free market. It’s both refreshing and encouraging then to learn of a success story, of how a pub was saved from closure and conversion into residential accommodation, by an enterprising landlord and a lot of  TLC.

The Windmill, in Weald village, just outside Sevenoaks, hit the headlines a few years ago for all the wrong reasons; in fact the story about the pub’s then landlady allegedly refusing to allow a collection for the Royal British Legion’s  annual poppy appeal was even covered by the national press. Many villagers were naturally upset over this action, and ended up boycotting the pub. The landlady moved on, the pub was closed and put up for sale by owners Greene King. That’s when it could have ended up as a private house, but fortunately it was bought by experienced licensees, Matthew and Emma, who had previously run the award winning Stile Bridge at Marden, near Maidstone.

After being closed for a period of extensive refurbishment, the Windmill re-opened last October, under its new owners, as a genuine free house. Being free of any tie Matthew and Emma were able to follow the same policy they had at the Stile Bridge of supporting local breweries and cider makers. The pub now offers six cask ales, all sourced from Kent or Sussex, plus a number of traditional Kentish ciders, including Chiddingstone, Biddenden and Double Vision.

 Rumours of just how good the refurbished pubs was under its new owners began to trickle through, and back in the winter a number of local CAMRA members called in to check it out and see whether the reports were true. Without exception, they were all enthusing about the place, but unfortunately I was unable to join them on both that occasion and also on a couple of “unofficial” visits undertaken later by a handful of members.

I finally got the chance to visit the Windmill last Sunday, as our social secretary had arranged a branch social at the pub. Travelling by bus from Tonbridge station, four of us alighted in Weald village and walked the short distance up to the pub. Two other members were already there, and later on we were joined by half a dozen others.  We were all delighted by what we found. The long “L”-shaped bar has been divided up into two parts by a glass screen, with a dining area at the far end. The newly painted walls are hung with various old brewery advertising material, including a selection from Belgium and Germany. Along shelves, just below ceiling level, are a large collection of brewery jugs, with again examples from the continent  mingled with  a number from closer to home, (spot the old Worthington “E” jug!). There are a couple of attractive tiled-fireplaces, to provide warmth during the winter months, but during the summer the pub has a bright and airy feel to it, enhanced by its freshly decorated look.

As reported, the Windmill stocks six cask ales, and on Sunday these were Harvey’s IPA, Larkins Platinum Blonde, Long Man Best Bitter, Sambrook’s Junction, Whitsable Oyster Stout and Westerham Audit Ale – the latter weighing in at a hefty 6.2%. I sampled the last four, all of which were in fine form. I was particularly impressed with both the Long Man and the Sambrook’s beers. What is equally refreshing, apart from the real ales and ciders, is the fact that the pub does not stock a national lager brand, (no Fosters or Stella here!); instead it offers Cristal from Alken-Maes in Belgium and locally-brewed Saxon Lager from Hepworth’s. The Windmill also stocks Hepworth’s keg Irish stout, Conqueror, in place of Guinness.

Being Father’s Day, the pub was doing a roaring trade, but our branch secretary Carole, had had the fore-sight to book ahead and had reserved a table for those of us wishing to eat . The menu looked enticing, with dishes ranging from the traditional Sunday roast to something a little more contemporary. I opted for the hake, served on a bed of Mediterranean vegetables with chorizo sausage and new potatoes. It was certainly both satisfying and filling, and was complimented well by the Sambrook’s Junction.

After eating, we congregated in the bar area, leaving our table free for another party who had booked their table after us. We had a presentation to make to landlord, Matthew, namely an award for most improved pub of the year. This is now the third year that West Kent CAMRA has made this award; previous winners being the Bedford, Tunbridge Wells and the King William IV at Pembury.

The Windmill certainly was a worthy winner this time round. As the afternoon progressed, the pub began to fill up nicely, with a good mix of casual drinkers, dog walkers as well as those wishing to dine. We noticed how Matthew made a point of going round from time to time, checking that everything was alright for his customers, but in such a way as to be unobtrusive and not fussing. This surely is the mark of a good host?

We left, shortly before five o’clock, to catch the bus back to Tonbridge. The service only runs every two hours on Sundays, but strangely enough the Sunday service is better than on Saturdays, or during the week, making it the perfect time to visit. In fine weather the pub can easily be reached via lanes and footpaths from Hildenborough station making for a pleasant stroll out in the country.

The Windmill certainly is a welcome addition to our stock of fine pubs and just shows what sympathetic owners, who know what they are doing, and who listen to what their customers really want, can achieve. I will certainly be returning at the earliest opportunity.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The National Beer Scoring Scheme

For quite a few years now, members of West Kent CAMRA have been submitting beer scores for pubs they visit onto the Campaign’s National Beer Scoring Scheme (NBSS for short). The scheme ranks the quality of a particular beer in a pub on a scale from 0 -5, where 0 signifies No Real Ale and 5 denotes a Perfect pint. (see below for more details).. 

What do the scores mean?

0        No cask ale available.
1        Poor
Beer that is anything from barely drinkable to drinkable with considerable resentment.
2        Average
Competently kept, drinkable pint but doesn't inspire in any way, not worth moving to another pub but you drink the beer without really noticing.
3        Good
Good beer in good form. You may cancel plans to move to the next pub. You want to stay for another pint and may seek out the beer again.
4        Very Good
Excellent beer in excellent condition.
5        Perfect
Probably the best you are ever likely to find. A seasoned drinker will award this score very rarely. 

Branch members can access the system and see which pubs are persistently clocking up high scores and which rank lower down the order. Of course the reason pubs may be ranked lower could be that they’re not visited so often, due perhaps to location or, simply because they’re just not as popular with the membership as others.

The scheme is especially useful to branches when it comes to selecting entries for the Good Beer Guide, so why have I, up until now that is, had nothing to do with it? You could say it’s because I’m a miserable old bugger, but anyone who knows me, (apart from my wife!), will say this isn’t true. Is it because I eschew modern technology? Again not true, as I am fully computer literate, (I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I wasn’t). Or, is it because I just can't be arsed?

The answer to that last question was yes, but very recently I have had a “Road to Damascus-like” conversion, and it’s all down to CAMRA’s new “WhatPub” database, probably the first national pub database of its kind. In the early days of the NBSS members had to submit their scores on cards, either to their branch pub-coordinator, or by posting them off to CAMRA Head Office, who would then notify the relevant branch accordingly. This was the main reason I ignored the scheme, as I had far better things to do with my time than fill in scraps of paper!

Eventually the campaign did move to an electronic system, but it was still a pain in the backside so far as I was concerned, having to sit in front of a computer screen, inputting data. Then last year (2012), I finally moved into the 21st Century and treated myself to a Smartphone, (Android type, as I don’t like Apple). Now I can access “WhatPub” whilst I am actually in the pub (assuming there’s a Wi-Fi connection), and input my scores whilst the information is still fresh in my mind, and what’s more the system is easy to use.

I know there have been a number of teething problems along the way and that it was not possible to transfer data across from the old system to the new. This did cause quite a few problems for branches during the transition phase, but that all seems to be sorted now. I also know that many branch pub-coordinators have spent a lot of time ensuring the basic pub information on “WhatPub” is as up to date as possible. Our own branch chairman, Iain spent many hours sorting out software which enabled the comprehensive information on our own branch pub database to be seamlessly transferred over to “WhatPub”, but the job’s been done now and we’ve got a very good system and one which actually works. So next time any one sees me in the pub, tapping away on my phone, then I’m not playing games, or updating Facebook, but rather submitting data onto the national NBSS.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

One Way to Make a Living or Desparate Times Call For Desparate Measures

There was a story in our local paper (Kent & Sussex Courier) this week about the closure of yet another pub. Sad, but hardly headline news you might say, but for the last six years, the Harp Inn at East Peckham hasn’t really been a pub in the true sense of the word. Instead it has functioned  as a licensed “sexual entertainment venue” (strip club to you and I). Until now that is, because on 30th May, Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council refused to grant the Harp a new licence, following objections from 43 local residents.

Living reasonably local to East Peckham, I was obviously aware of this establishment, although I must admit I didn’t realise it was still operating in this fashion. Four years ago I remember hearing lurid tales of seedy goings on at the Harp from a couple of drinkers my friend and I were chatting to in a Tonbridge pub, but put this down to the beer-fuelled ramblings of a couple of "likely lads" and the tendency of people to embellish a story for effect. It didn’t strike me as the place for a quiet pint of decent ale, so I filed the place away right at the back of my memory and forgot about it until I saw yesterday’s paper.

Back in the nineties, the Harp had a reputation as a half-decent boozer; in fact at one time it majored quite heavily on serving a good selection of cask beers. For example, it was one of the few places locally to stock Hog’s Back beers at a time when they just weren't available in this part of the South East.  What I think did for the pub, was the unfortunate death of the then landlord, coupled with its location right on the edge of East Peckham, in fact so far on the edge that it is necessary, and a lot safer, to drive there. According to the local paper, “Struggling with falling trade in 2007, Lee Swainsbury, landlord of the Harp Inn, decided to liven things up by bringing in some raunchy entertainment” This was after he had tried staging live music events and taking on a chef in a bid to attract custom.

The strippers obviously did the trick, but owing to the nature of the “entertainment” the windows were boarded up and the once quite attractive pub building had become a bit of an eyesore. Mr Swainsbury still has 21 years lease remaining on the building, but was quoted as saying he has no plans for the future of the Harp Inn. Manager, Graham Hammond was rather more outspoken over the closure though, stating that "The locals have no right to claim they lived in a traditional English village."

He may have a point, as East Peckham is no picture-postcard, snapshot of Old England, although I perhaps wouldn’t go quite so far as refer to it as a “s***hole” as Mr Hammond did in print. When I first moved to this part of West Kent, nearly 30 years ago, the village boasted five pubs. Now, with the closure of the Harp, the number has dropped to just two, with one establishment trading as an Indian restaurant, and the other, an attractive old building at the opposite end of the village from the Harp, empty and boarded up. Given this environment it is perhaps not surprising that the landlord of the Harp had to resort to what is euphemistically referred to as “adult entertainment “in order to pull in the punters.

Final word from Mr Hammond, who said, “The place cannot operate as anything other than it is. The village is simply going to end up with another derelict building or an even more undesirable pub.”  I for one hope he is wrong and that some entrepreneur takes on the Harp and re-opens it as a traditional pub, but being realistic, for a moment and given the depressed state of the pub trade, I’m afraid I can’t really see that happening anytime soon.

Footnote: No discussion about an establishment of this nature could be complete without thought for the  ladies that used to work/perform at the Harp. It is well known that workers in the “sex industry” are often vulnerable young women who find themselves open to exploitation for a variety of reasons. I do know from my brief encounter with the two local drinkers, four years ago, that most of the girls who worked there were East European. I am not suggesting for one minute, that they were exploited by the Harp’s management, but who really knows what brought them to these shores in the first place, and what exactly led them to have ended up working in the so-called “adult entertainment “business.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A Welcome Return to English Ale

Last night I had my first proper session on English ale since my return from Japan, just over a week ago. This followed a layoff of several days whilst I allowed my body to adjust itself back to a new time zone, and to catch up on some much needed sleep. True, I did enjoy a very welcome pint of Hog’s Back Hop Garden Gold on Saturday, plus a bottle of Goose Island India Pale Ale the following day, but up until then I’d been quite abstemious.

Last night I attended a meeting of the sub-committee formed by West Kent CAMRA, to organise the beer festival we’ll be holding later in the year (October), in conjunction with local preserved railway, Spa Valley. The festival will be our third collaboration with the Heritage Railway, and promises to be the biggest and best yet. One of the main attractions of the event is that it allows drinkers to travel up and down the line between Tunbridge Wells West and Eridge where, not only can they enjoy a drink or two on the train, but they can also find a selection of different ales awaiting them at each of the three stations.

The largest selection will be at Spa Valley’s Headquarters, the engine shed at Tunbridge Wells West, but this year we hope to have an enhanced selection at both Eridge (the other end of the line, where there are connections to mainline services to London), and the intermediate halt of Groombridge (once an important junction on the rail network in this border area of Kent and Sussex).  As well as the beer selection, there are a whole range of logistical and associated issues to sort out, but with Spa Valley’s General Manager in attendance we made good progress last night, and now have plenty to build on.

So what about the English Ale I referred to earlier? Well the meeting took place in the Good Beer Guide listed Royal Oak, in Tunbridge Wells, and on the bar alongside Best Bitter and Knots of May Mild from Harvey’s were Dark Star Hophead and Gadd’s No. 3 from Ramsgate Brewery. Leaving the Harvey’s to one side, I started on the Hophead and then graduated on to the No. 3 when the former ran out.

Both beers were pale in colour and well-hopped. The Hophead had the edge with regard to hoppiness, but the No. 3 weighed in a lot stronger at 5.0% which probably accounts for the fuzzy head I had this morning, (either that or having lost my tolerance for beer, following my six day layoff). Both though, provided a welcome return to the delights of English Ale.

As an aside, Ramsgate assign numbers to several of their regular brews, but strangely enough the stronger the beer the lower the number. Thus we have Gadd’s No 7 at 3.8% and No.3 at 5.0%. In between is No. 5 at 4.4%. The idea behind this apparently is that one could drink seven pints of No. 7, but only 3 of No. 3 without falling over, or otherwise feeling the after effects. I don’t know how true this is, but it makes a good story, and is a good advertisement for some fine beers which we don’t often see in this neck of the woods.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Beery Thoughts From Japan

Perhaps this post should be titled “Beery Thoughts ABOUT Japan”, as I'm home now and think I’ve just about recovered  from my lengthy journey back from the Far East, to comment on my recent trip. I will begin by saying that it was a fantastic experience and almost like something out of another world. Familiar in parts, yet almost totally alien in others, my visit to Japan must surely rank amongst the best experiences of my life.

The first thing which struck my colleague and I as we journeyed by train from Kansai Airport, through the vast urban sprawl that makes up Osaka, towards our final destination, Kyoto, was how clean everything was. We saw no buildings disfigured by the ugly scrawls of graffiti that despoil so many European and North American cities; neither did we see, once having alighted from the train, any litter. Everything was clean, tidy and well ordered. The people were calm and polite, with none of the pushing and shoving one witnesses in towns and cities in the UK. The trains, of course, were spotlessly clean and ran exactly to time, and our centrally located hotel was the height of sophistication.

For most of our time in Kyoto, we were looked after by people from our parent company  When I say “looked after” we were very well looked after, as the Japanese are fantastic hosts, who are proud to show their country off to foreign visitors, and with good reason as they have much to be proud of. We spent three very full days engaged in meetings, fact-finding tours and various other discussions at head office, and in the evenings our hosts took us out to dinner. We visited a variety of different restaurants, ranging from modern Japan meets South East Asia fusion type places, to a traditional Japanese establishment, where we had to leave our shoes downstairs and sit on cushions on the floor at a long, low table facing our hosts. I won’t pretend the cuisine was my favourite, but I tried virtually everything that was placed in front of me, although I did baulk at the raw octopus!

Whilst there might be considerable differences between the palates and preferences of Japanese and Europeans, one thing we do have in common is an appreciation of good beer. Everywhere we went, beer seems to be the preferred drink, and is enjoyed by men and women alike. I don’t know much about the history, or indeed tradition of brewing in Japan (although I expect Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont's World Atlas of Beer will have something to say on the matter, once I get round to looking it up), but there appears to be a strong German influence on the type and styles of beer drunk there. This was manifested in an establishment we visited on our last two evenings in Japan; Kyoto’s Beer Restaurant.

Unashamedly styled on a Bavarian Beer Hall, the Beer Restaurant is sited in the basement of a tower block, just outside Kyoto’s sprawling central; station. As well as serving locally brewed  Asahi, one of Japan’s best known brands, the Beer Restaurant also offered draught Löwenbräu, bottled Export Bass plus a couple of bottled Belgian beers whose names escape me. I opted for the Asahi Kuronama, described as Japan’s favourite dark beer. Brewed from three types of roasted malt:-Dark, Crystal and Munich malt, the  blend of these three types of malt maximises the goodness of each and creates the distinct richness and smoothness of the beer. I have to say it really was very good, and served in three sizes – small, medium and large I ended up over-indulging on our first visit there, consuming three "medium" sized mugs of this excellent beer. Fortunately the following day was our final one in the country, and was reserved for sight-seeing rather than business.

This particular visit was our first evening without our Japanese hosts, which was the prime reason for our choosing a European style restaurant, rather than a more locally themed one; and the following evening we returned there again, having been joined by a more senior colleague who had just flown in from England. This latter individual is a seasoned visitor to Japan and after a meal in the Beer Restaurant he suggested we move on to a bar housed in the maze of shops and commercial outlets below Kyoto station. The Man in the Moon Pub is themed as an Irish bar, and whilst it does serve Guinness, it also has a number of more locally brewed beers. The first of these beers, Yona Yona Ale was presented in a can, and is one of a range of beers brewed by Yoho Brewing based in the small town of Karuizawa, near Nagano. The company promotes itself as producing Japan's best selling craft beers, and their portfolio includes an IPA, a Black Porter and an Organic Ale.

The Yona Yona was very good and I was all set to order another, when my colleague spotted a row of interesting looking bottles arranged on a shelf above the bar. They had English labels, and included an IPA, a Pale Ale, a Pilsner and an Imperial Stout. Enquiries revealed they were from Minoh Brewery, based in nearby Osaka, but unfortunately the bar only had the Pale Ale left. Two of us gave the beer a try. It was bottle-conditioned, but the bar staff were not aware of this, so we ended up with a cloudy glass of beer. Despite this, it was rather good with a strong citrus flavour from the Cascade hops used to brew it. I wisely made that my last drink though, as we had an early departure the following morning. Nevertheless, after a week on the “regular stuff” it was good to sample some Japanese Craft Beer.

So what of the “regular stuff”?  Well, again I have to report that this too was pretty good, and with 30 degrees of heat to contend with outside, provided some welcome and cooling liquid refreshment. Of the big Japanese brands we sampled Asahi’s best known brand – Extra Dry, sold in large (600ml?) bottles and tasting considerably better than the UK version, which is brewed under licence by Shepherd Neame. We also sampled beers from Kirin, Suntory and Yebisu. All are pilsner style beers, and served in substantial tapered glass mugs. From memory, the Suntory and Yebisu beers stood out above the Kirin, although I later found out that Yebisu beers are produced by Japanese brewing giant Sapporo, and are positioned as the the company's "Premium Brand".

Finally, a word or two about takeaway beer. In Japan it seems the can is very much king, with precious little beer sold in bottles. Living on a crowded island, the Japanese are very keen on environmental issues and claim that because cans are lighter and easier to transport, and also easier to collect and recycle, beer packaged in this fashion is the way to go. I brought a few cans back with me to try, and also to see how they would survive the long flight home, (ok as it happens). There’s nothing that exciting amongst them, but they are something to wet my whistle at the weekend, and also something to remind me of a fantastic trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.