Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Fuggles Beer Café

Fuggles, a famous variety of hops used in the brewing of traditional English ales, and named after Richard Fuggle of Brenchley, who introduced the hop back in 1875 after finding it growing wild in a hop garden in nearby Horsmonden. The village of Brenchley is roughly eight miles from where I live, but travel in a different direction and one reached the famous Spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells. Here there is another Fuggles, in the form of Fuggles Beer Café, the latest addition to the Tunbridge Wells drinking scene. Fuggles has been open just over a week now, but when a group from West Kent CAMRA called in last Wednesday; it was only its sixth evening of opening. This is what we found:

Fuggles Beer Café occupies a former retail outlet towards the top end of Tunbridge Wells, just along from the town’s main Post Office and shopping centre. A page on Facebook had allowed local beer-loving enthusiasts to monitor the progress, over a period of several months, as the shop was converted from its previous use into a modern and functional looking bar. Despite having quite a narrow frontage, the bar space at Fuggles extends back a long way, in fact right to the rear of the premises, where there are some comfortable looking sofas for patrons to relax on. The functional feel is enhanced by the exposed duct work, and other utility services suspended below the ceiling. The serving area is approximately one third of the way down, on the right hand side. The bar counter is adorned by the usual hand pulls, whilst behind the bar there are ten anonymous-looking keg taps set, American-style, into the tiled rear wall. A large chalkboard behind the bar gives full details of all the draught beers on sale, both cask and keg.

There were four cask and ten keg beers on sale last Wednesday. The place was buzzing when I arrived, with a good mix of customers. After my spectacles had de-misted, I managed to locate my friends towards the rear of the bar, seated at a table. Some were already getting stuck into the three glass “tasting bats” that the pub offers. I opted for a refreshing pint of Otley 01 Gold to begin with, before moving on to the “craft keg” stuff. The “bats” fall into two different price bands, depending on the strength of the beer. For beers up to 5.0%, three third pint glasses will set you back £4.50; whilst above this level they work out at £5.50. Seeing as some for the craft beers were 9.0% abv, this was quite a good deal.

I went for three beers in the lower range to begin with, namely Kirkstall  Framboise, a refreshing 3.6% Raspberry beer, Wild Beer Scarlet Fever, a tasty 4.8% amber ale and Titanic Stout 4.5%, a beer I am familiar with in both cask and bottled form. All were good in their own right, with the Titanic exceptionally smooth and chocolate like, suggesting it was  dispensed by nitrogen-mixed gas. Later I moved on to the higher end of the spectrum, a choice which included two beers at 9%. One was Houblon Chouffe, a Belgian-style IPA, whilst the second was another Wild Beer Co brew called Ninkasi, a fruity Saison-style beer. In between I enjoyed a slightly weaker IPA; Devil's Rest IPA, from Burning Sky, which weighed in at just 7.0%!

It is early days yet, but it was good to see this exciting new venue so busy. Fuggles might seem a bit new at the moment, with a noticeably strong smell of paint last week, but to be fair the owners have been working around the clock to get the place ready on time. The management will soon be offering food,  in the form of locally sourced pies, sausage rolls and scotch eggs. With an eclectic range of interesting beers, and a good café-style atmosphere, Fuggles is a welcome addition to the increasingly diverse drinking scene in Tunbridge Wells. It will be interesting to see how it develops further over the coming months.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Larkins Porter at Last!

Last Friday I managed to sample, for the first time this year, one of my favourite, seasonal “winter” beers. At 5.2% abv, dark and full-bodied with lashings of scrumptious chocolate from the chocolate malt used in the grist, Larkins Porter is a beer whose appearance each November is eagerly awaited by its devotees. Every year, Larkins brewer and company owner Bob Dockerty, produces just two brews of this superb beer; one in mid-September, and the other towards the end of November, (round about now). Following brewing and primary fermentation, each brew is allowed to mature, in cask, for a minimum period of six weeks before it is released to trade. (During exceptionally cold and prolonged winters, I have known Bob to brew a third batch of Porter in January, but this is by far and away the exception).

Bob has been brewing Larkins beers for the best part of thirty years. The brewery is housed in a converted cow-shed at the family farm, on the edge of Chiddingstone, in a splendidly rural setting over-looking the valley of the River Eden. Three different strength bitters are produced: Traditional at 3.4%; Chiddingstone at 4.0% and Best at 4.4%. All are quite similar in character, and it is difficult to tell the last two apart. Traditional is the best seller by far, outselling the other two beers by a factor of 150%. This is hardly surprising given the rural location of the majority of Larkins outlets. Although just 3.4% in strength, “Trad”, as the beer is normally referred to, packs in a lot of taste for its low gravity, and is a fine session beer, and the ideal lunchtime pint. Being relatively low in alcohol, drinkers in local pubs can enjoy a couple of pints of Trad safe in the knowledge they will not be over the drink-drive limit for the journey home.

Porter, on the other hand, is a totally different beast. At more than one and a half times the strength of the Trad it is definitely a “one pint” beer for anyone contemplating getting behind the wheel.  Consequently very few pubs stock it, particularly those located in rural areas, and as for outlets in the towns, I know of only one pub that stocks the beer, and even then it is only on an intermittent basis.

Fortunately the Castle Inn, at Chiddingstone is one pub where a pint of Porter, during the winter months, is practically guaranteed. Situated just a few hundred yards along the road from the brewery, the Castle Inn is an impossibly attractive pub in an equally impossibly attractive village. The pub, the local tearooms plus the village shop and post office are all owned by the National Trust, who bought them in 1939, along with other nearby houses in Chiddingstone, as an almost perfect example of a Tudor one-street village. The Trust leases out these properties as businesses to suitable tenants, and after many years under one such leaseholder, the Castle changed hands a few years ago, and seems to be doing equally well under its new management.

Chiddingstone takes its name from the large sandstone outcrop in the village known as the 'Chiding Stone'. It’s also only 10 minutes drive from my workplace, and so a lunchtime visit is eminently practical. It was a grey, chilly late-November day when I arrived in Chiddingstone, and after parking the car just up the road, I made my way to the Castle. The building dates back to 1420, but it didn’t become an inn until three centuries later. Like many of the buildings in the village, it’s constructed in typical Kentish style, with half-timbered sides, gables and a red, tile-hung frontage and roof.

What I like about the place is the appearance that time has stood still. I say “appearance”, because in spite of its olde worlde feel, the Castle is bang up to date in many respects, not least of which is the high standard of food and drink which it offers. A free Wi-Fi connection is also available - other pubs please take note! Going back to the time-warp theme for a moment though, the Castle is that rarity these days in so much as it still has two separate, but linked bars.

I usually head for the public, as not only is this bar unspoilt; it is also where the village characters congregate. Bob Dockerty numbers amongst the locals here, but not normally until the day’s work at the brewery is finished. Other characters include farm workers, gamekeepers, foresters and other assorted “country folk”, but on Friday I had the bar to myself. I could hear a few diners along the passageway, in the saloon bar, but with no-one to talk to in the public I had to alert the bar staff to my presence by an effected cough and noisily moving one of the bar stools!

I had, of course, noted the Larkins Porter pump clip upon entering, so as soon as mine host appeared behind the bar I ordered a pint. It wasn’t cheap at £4.20 a pint, but then we are talking National Trust prices, plus all the atmosphere and ambience of an unspoilt 18th Century inn. In addition, the beers in the Castle are priced according to their strength, so that a pint of Trad for example, may be some 50-60p cheaper.

I am pleased to report though, that the Porter was worth every penny, being smooth, chocolaty and malty, balanced by just the right degree of bitterness. As I said earlier, Larkins Porter is definitely a “one pint” beer for anyone getting behind the wheel. On top of that I had a busy afternoon’s work ahead of me, so with the taste and memory of this excellent beer still fresh in my head, I bade farewell to the Castle and returned to work. Fear not though, I will be back before the porter season is out!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A Pint Amongst Friends

In what will be the final part of this series of four posts, I want to pull together the separate strands of the previous three postings and come up with what to me is THE most important thing about the enjoyment of beer. Several respondents have already come close to mentioning it, and I myself have also hinted at it in my previous ramblings.

Basically what it all boils down to is, it doesn’t matter how good the beer is, if the setting/context/company/lack of company/ general ambience, or combination of any, or all of these factors isn’t right, then one’s enjoyment of the beer will not be as good as it would be if this were not the case. I could even throw in a few other factors, such as the beer not being served in the correct, or appropriate glass; the beer being served at the wrong temperature, or not poured correctly; the glass being dirty, in fact there is a host of different things which could ultimately spoil ones drinking experience.

If all this sounds a bit too OCD, then please accept my apologies. Given a first class beer, in tip-top condition, I wouldn’t let any individual one of these factors totally ruin my enjoyment of the beer, but when several combine at the same time, then it becomes a different story.

Many years ago, I was in a pub with a group of friends and as friends do, particularly when the beer is flowing freely, we were discussing a number of what at the time seemed quite deeply meaningful issues. One member of the group asked the question, “What, in your opinion, is the most satisfying and enjoyable experience in the world?”  He went round the table, and we all answered in turn. I don’t remember many of the answers, and I believe my own was rather facile, but one reply stuck in my mind. It seemed too simple a thing at the time, but the more I thought about it, not just immediately afterwards, but on and off over the passing years, the more it made sense, and the more I thought what a brilliant answer this particular friend had come up with.

My friend's answer to the question was, “A pint amongst friends.” Astonishingly simple, but oh so true, and as my drinking and general life experiences have increased, and become more enriched over the years, I often hark back to that night in the Plough & Harrow, at Oad Street near Sittingbourne, and my friend’s pertinent response. The only rider I might add to that answer would be, “In a decent pub, or otherwise pleasant and enjoyable surroundings.”

As I said in my last post, beer is the best long drink in the world, and a sociable drink at that. Sure we might enjoy a decent glass or two of beer at home, either stuck in front of the television, or else sitting in front of the computer. I quite often relax in this manner, in fact I’m enjoying a glass of beer now (Budvar Dark), as I write this post.  Even better though than enjoying that glass of beer alone, is enjoying it whilst sat down to dinner with ones family or with friends. The enjoyment of the beer, and the way it compliments the food, coupled with the  conversation which might be occurring, plus the general ambience of the whole situation, all combine to create a far more enjoyable experience than just sitting their alone, supping at the beer.

In a pub or bar environment the same rules apply. Having a good time, over a pint or three, whilst in the company of friends, really takes a lot of beating. Combine this with a decent, friendly pub (or bar), full of atmosphere and good vibes, and the whole experience shifts up a gear or two to a different level. In summer, the same could equally apply to sitting in a pub garden here in the UK, or enjoying a barbecue at home, or at a friend’s house. Further a field, enjoying the open air experience of a litre or two of bier in a traditional Bavarian Bier Garten, or on the terrace of a West Coast American brew-pub. Obviously a decent beer adds to the experience, but even a relatively common one can be almost as enjoyable under the right circumstances.

Many beer writers and beer hunters get a bit too carried away at times, in the constant pursuit of something different or new. Sometimes it pays to take a step or two back, enjoy the moment, or the occasion for what it is, and be thankful for what is in front of one. As another friend of mine used to say, as we chinked our glasses together at the start of an eagerly anticipated drinking session, “May these be the worst of your days!”.

Footnote: the photo at the top of a group of friends enjoying an evening in the pub, was taken nearly 30 years ago. See if you can spot yours truly?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Beer Choice

In a recent post I criticised licensees and the general public for “playing it safe”, with regard to the selection of beers that are available in the average pub. At the time I was undecided as to just who is to blame for the lack of choice in many pubs; and to a certain extent, I still am. Is it a case of publicans reacting to their customers’ lack of adventure? Or, is it that landlords and landladies prefer to stock a “safe” selection of well-known brands in the belief that their customers will feel more comfortable with beers they are familiar with?

Actually the reliance on tried and tested familiar brands of beer, which is so common to many of the nations’ pubs, is probably a combination, in varying degrees, of both factors. However, like many beer lovers, I am being a little churlish here, as even the most average pub today stocks a far greater range of both beers and other drinks than was the case when I first started drinking, in the early 1970’s. 

Back then your average pub would most likely have been tied to a brewery, and would have stocked almost exclusively beers from the owning brewery, with the notable exception perhaps of Guinness. The brewery’s own beers would have consisted of a mild, a bitter and a keg bitter on draught, with probably the full range of the brewery’s bottled beers (light, pale, brown, stout and sometimes a barley wine.) on a shelf behind the bar, and not in a fridge. Some pubs had started to sell Draught Guinness, but by no means all did, so the bottled version was the order of the day. Draught lager, in the form of a watered-down Heineken, alongside Harp Lager, brewed by a consortium of brewers, headed by Guinness, was probably more commonplace than draught stout. That was it in the majority of pubs, and there were certainly no guest beers and virtually nothing in the way of imported bottled beers available either.

How times have changed, with most pubs today stocking between one and three real ales, one or two keg beers, two or three international draught lager brands, various bottled beers – both domestic and imported, plus several different ciders – one of which will probably be on draught. Then of course, there has been the rise of the “beer exhibition” pub, where often upwards of six and sometimes even ten cask beers will be available. Fine, so long as they are all kept well, and the pub manages to shift them before they start to deteriorate.

Actually, I can remember similar pubs back in the early 70’s making a feature of selling a wide range of beers. These pubs were invariably free-houses, but the difference between these early “exhibition” pioneers and today’s establishments is that beers stocked in the former were, with a few notable exceptions, virtually always keg. Keg was modern, keg was easy to handle and with the considerable variation in quality of traditional cask beer during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, keg was seen as the way forward. People actually liked it and even asked for it. People that is, who didn’t know any better, and here I have to confess to being one of them. For a young lad and his friends, all of whom had only recently started drinking, the lure of McEwan’s Export and Younger’s Tartan, available locally only at the Five Bells in Brabourne, a few miles outside Ashford, proved too strong. To us these were exciting new beers, which we hadn’t seen before, and to our young and inexperienced palates they were almost irresistible.

To return to the main thrust of the argument; we have a situation today where drinkers have a degree of choice that is without parallel, and yet still we cry out for more. CAMRA’s best selling Good Beer Guide has become more and more a Good “guest” Beer Guide; hardly surprising when there are now in excess of 1,000 breweries in the UK. And yet, leaving questions of quality aside for the time being, could there now be too much choice?

The dramatic increase in the number of new breweries and the large number of different beers available is mirrored elsewhere in our consumer society. Take a walk down the aisles of any large supermarket and it is quickly evident there is a vast array of different foodstuffs and ingredients available to today’s shoppers, giving and un-paralleled degree of choice that would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago. With so many different choices available to consumers there is a degree of “information overload” which ironically leads to a situation of, “more variety, less choice”.

As in the supermarket, so in the pub, and when faced with a bank of hand pumps, all adorned with an array of unfamiliar pump clips, many drinkers end up confused or even totally bewildered. Is it any wonder then that many will just opt for something they know, especially when they are unable to decide which of the myriad of different beers to go for, or they feel self-conscious whilst standing at the bar trying to make their minds up as to which beer to have. Despite counting myself as fairly knowledgeable about beer, I have been in similar situations when confronted with a totally alien display of different pump clips. (Hint, landlords and landladies, please can we have more use of legible chalk boards, or even printed menus, which give us drinkers some proper details about unfamiliar “guest” ales on sale in your pubs? Things like style of beer, strength, basic tasting notes, who brews the beer and where are they based!)

In response to my earlier post about “playing it safe”, fellow blogger the Pub Curmudgeon replied that “I don't think you can really blame drinkers for preferring to stick to the tried and trusted. After all, lager, stout and smooth drinkers do, so why shouldn't cask drinkers too?” He has a point and I know several CAMRA members who eschew the new wave of “Golden Ales” with their American hopped, citrus-loaded flavours, and stick doggedly to traditional “Brown Bitters” which they know and trust. One member, who I know well, won’t touch anything dark, thereby denying himself the delights of mild, old ale, porter and stout!

To take this “narrow-mindedness” with regard to beer a stage further, an even more extreme example can be seen in the group of drinkers who attend the Kent Beer Festival every year, but then spend their whole time there drinking Shepherd Neame! This is in spite of the enormous variety of beers available at the Kent Festival. Perverse in the extreme, or horses for courses? Whatever your view, whilst this situation appears odd, it is not much different to what goes on at the grand-daddy of all beer festivals – Munich’s Oktoberfest.  It is perhaps not widely acknowledged in this country that at the most famous beer festival in the world, there are only six different beers available, and all of these are brewed in the same style. (By decree, only Munich’s “Big-Six” brewers, Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Lowenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten are permitted to have tents at Oktoberfest, and all offer a specially brewed, Märzen-style beer, with an abv of around 6%). Once seated in one of the tents, and visitors NEED to be seated in order to be served with a beer, there is not much incentive to move on and try the beers in one of the other tents. So in a strange kind of way, our Shep’s lovers at the Kent Festival are not so different from say, Hacker-Pschorr devotees at Oktoberfest.

Choice then, whether it is too little or too much, can sometimes detract from one of the chief pleasures of beer. Apart from the obvious attraction that a good beer tastes good and a great beer tastes even better, beer is a sociable drink; in fact it is often described as the “best long drink in the world”. This leads me on to the final part of this particular thread, and one which I will be discussing in greater detail next time. I am referring to the occasion or setting in which beer is drunk, as this can often be just as important and rewarding as the appreciation of the taste and the overall appeal of the beer itself. See you next time.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Beer Quality

My two most recent posts touched on the related subjects of beer quality and beer choice, and these are areas I want to explore further. In this post I will look at quality, whilst in the subsequent one I will examine the issue of choice.

Those of us who enjoy the odd pint or three of cask-conditioned ale (commonly known as “Real Ale”), will be only too aware of just how important quality can be. Most beers consumed in the pub environment, are brewery-conditioned, and as such require little in the way of further attention once they arrive at the pub. Cask-conditioned beer, on the other hand, are “living” beers in so much as they reach the pub in an immature state and require a further period of fermentation (conditioning) in the pub cellar before they can be served.  This maturation allows condition to develop in the beer. By condition I mean dissolved carbon-dioxide gas, which when present at the correct level, gives the beer that pleasant slightly prickly feel on the tongue. Without it, the beer would be flat and lifeless.
The conditioning period also allows the remaining yeast distributed throughout the beer to drop out of suspension, so that the beer ends up bright and sparkling. Get this process right, and the beer can be amongst the best you have ever tasted. Get it wrong and the end result is a flat, stale, cloudy pint which not only reeks of old socks but is also sufficient to put a novice off ever trying a pint of real ale again!

Seasoned real ale drinkers know this, and given the often unknown factors which come into play here, reluctantly accept it. Brewers also know that despite their best efforts in the brewery to produce a first class pint, the final part of the process is outside of their control. This is why brewers both large and small, have invested a lot of time and money by running courses in cellarmanship for pub landlords and landladies.

Unfortunately, a lot of pubs these days are not owned by breweries, but by Pub Companies instead, and many of these organisations are not so much interested in teaching their tenants about looking after beer, as they are in screwing every last penny out of them. It also has to be said that many new entrants to the licensed trade are rather wet behind the ears when it comes to looking after beer, and as some don’t even drink the stuff, how can they possibly know whether they are letting a good, a bad or an indifferent pint over the bar when you the customer walk into their pub and order a beer?

Fortunately there are industry-led organisations such as Cask Marque, who provide training and advice to publicans and bar staff, so all is not lost. Cask Marque, and individual breweries, not only teach licensees how to look after cask-beer properly, but also stress the importance of fast turnover. Because traditional casks are open to the air, it is essential that the beer within them is consumed within a few days. Three days is ideal, five will just about be ok, but anything above this and there is a serious risk of flat, oxidised, off-flavoured beer which is sufficient reason for a seasoned drinker to hand his or her pint back and,  as I said above, enough to put a newbie off real ale for life!

That’s cask beer dealt with, so what about brewery-conditioned “keg” beers? Surely these are foolproof? Well, not always. True they are much more robust compared to cask-conditioned beers; there is no “live” yeast to worry about, and as they are stored in sealed containers under a blanket of CO2 gas at all times, they are not exposed to the oxidising effects of the air. Even so they can still be spoilt by careless handling and sloppy hygiene practices. The pipes, which deliver the beer from the keg to the bar tap, still require cleaning as despite keg beers being both filtered and pasteurised, there is still a tiny amount of residual yeast present which can, over time, lodge in the beer lines and associated fittings, and multiply so that eventually off-tastes and even haziness can appear within the beer.

Then there’s the vexed question of temperature. The Australians and, to a lesser extent, the Americans have a lot to answer for in this respect. Nobody likes a warm beer, and the myth that the English drink warm beer is one which thankfully has now been well and truly laid to rest. However, whilst a warm beer is an unpleasant drink, an ice-cold beer is equally repellent. Although lager-style beers are designed to be drunk cold, they should not be drunk at a temperature that is so cold it makes one’s teeth rattle. On a visit to the historic Pilsner Urquell Brewery, in the city of Pilsen last summer, I was surprised to see on the wall of the brewery restaurant a prominent illuminated digital thermometer, displaying the temperature of 7°C with a notice underneath proclaiming that all beer served on the premises, was stored and served at a constant temperature of 7°C. This apparently, is the optimum temperature for the enjoyment of Pilsner-style beers. Go much above this figure and the beer starts to taste flabby and warm, but go too far in the opposite direction and the beer loses its subtle flavours as well as its aroma. Try telling that to the clowns who came up with the concept of “Extra Cold”! Actually they are probably the same people responsible for the daft adverts for Fosters, think - “Well you wouldn’t want a warm one would you?”

My answer is “No, of course I wouldn’t want a warm lager, but then neither would I want one which is so icy cold and close to freezing that it sets my teeth on edge, and is totally devoid of any flavour!” Fortunately this daft fad, which in JDW outlets at least, also involved a digital thermometer showing the temperature hovering around freezing point, seems to have died a death. I don’t recall seeing it Wetherspoons recently, but I may be mistaken.

Cask-conditioned, real ales should be served at a slightly higher temperature than lagers. Being top-fermented, they need to be kept and served at a temperature that reflects the slightly warmer conditions they were fermented at. It used to be said that the optimum temperature for serving top-fermented, cask-conditioned beers was 10° -15° C, with 13° C the ideal. In recent years, especially with the advent of the paler, hoppy Golden Ale style of beer, the optimum temperature seems to have dropped to 11° C. Again, Wetherspoons seem to have led the way here, with not only adequate cellar cooling, now virtually de rigueur for pub cellars, but also with insulated cellar pipes and jacketed cooling around the hand pump cylinder at the point of dispense.

I must admit that being a little “old school”, and being brought up on beer which was served at the older, slightly higher temperature, chilled cask beer took a bit of getting used to, but now it is something I welcome, especially during the summer months.

To sum up then, in order to satisfy even the most discerning of consumers, the beer must be bright and clear so to look appealing in the glass. It must be served at the correct temperature, with the correct amount of condition and must not have any off-flavours or nasty tastes and smells. In short, it should be presented and served to the customer in the condition its creator (in this instance the brewer), intended. It’s not hard is it??

Friday, 15 November 2013

Playing It Safe


On more than one occasion in the past I’ve complained about just how “conservative” many pub landlords are when it comes to choosing which beers to stock. I’m often amazed whilst visiting pubs up and down the country at just what a narrow range of beers many of them stock, with tried and trusted, well-known brands more often than not the order of the day.

This uniformity, and lack of choice, has been a particular bug-bear of mine for some time, but just recently I’ve started to wonder whether the blame for this curse of “sameness” is as much, if not more, the fault of the nation’s drinkers, rather than hard-pressed licensees. The thing which really got me wondering about this was my experience in Norfolk, last weekend, where I found the guest ale in the pub I was visiting to be past its best, whilst the regular (and well-known) local beers were in excellent nick.

This is not the first time I have experienced such a thing, and I have to say that if in a well-run, and often Good Beer Guide-listed pub the better known, familiar brands are all in first class condition, whilst the unusual “guest ale” is not, then the fault lies more with the pub’s drinkers, who are reluctant to try something a little different, than it does with the unfortunate landlord. I say unfortunate, because in this kind of situation we have someone who is clearly trying his or her best to provide something a bit different for the customers, and they are just turning their noses up at it, sometimes literally!

This point was brought home to me back in the summer, when a well-known local pub, (I won’t say which one), was holding one of several beer festivals it puts on throughout the year. This particular festival had a London theme, with all the beers coming from the new wave of independent breweries which have sprung up in the capital during the last few years. Despite an average of eight different and, it must be said, very good beers on sale at any one time, a significant number of the pub’s regulars were unhappy that their favourite tipple (Harvey’s Sussex Best), had been taken off to make way for the festival beers. In order to placate them, one member of the bar staff was making trips down to the cellar to draw off pints of Harvey’s for them, direct from the cask!

Of course it could be argued that the sensible thing here would be to have had the Harvey’s on alongside the festival beers, thereby keeping both the stick-in-the-mud locals, and the more adventurous festival goers happy. However, it seems that a substantial number of people are either afraid to try something a little different, or are so stuck in their comfort zones that any attempts by pub landlords to tempt them with something new are doomed to failure. Small wonder then that many publicans don’t bother trying at all or, having tried a couple of times, give up and stick with the likes of Bombardier, Doom Bar, Old Speckled Hen et al.

Although we all know pubs where this situation does not apply, they tend to be places which major on offering a wide and varied selection of different beers, as well as other drinks such as ciders and perry. Your average back street local, or your traditional village pub, is still likely to stick with “safe” brands, rather than something a little more adventurous, purely so as not to offend, or even alienate, the regulars. Most pubs do not have the luxury (if that’s the right word?) of having significant numbers of beer geeks or CAMRA members amongst their regular clientele to be able to stick their necks out, for a long enough period, to make these changes, wean the customers off their regular beer and cajole them into trying something different.

The daft thing is though that given a little encouragement, coupled with a bit of subtle education, people can quite often be persuaded to step out of their comfort zone and try something new, whether it’s the latest offering from the micro-brewery down the road, or a beer from the new craft brewery in the next town. Unfortunately, whilst this is happening in some of our major towns and cities, it is not occurring elsewhere and the end result is more of the same, “safe” boring beers. This in turn leads to less outlets being available to stock the new and exciting beers, thereby restricting their access to the market place.

So are heading towards a two-tier system in Britain, where trendy craft-beer bars and “exhibition-type” real ale pubs cater for beer geeks and the ticking fraternity, whilst the remainder of the nation’s rapidly dwindling pub-stock cater for people who just want a place they can go to socialise, and where the drink on sale is secondary, and in some cases almost immaterial? OR should there be some attempt to bring these diametrically opposed groups (and drinking establishments) together?

It can be done through things like education, increased travel, (both at home and abroad), but it may prove a lengthy process. To a certain extent the process is already occurring (witness the vastly increased range of beers available at your local supermarket, and contrast it to the situation 10-20 years ago, and you will see what I mean). However, if we travel too far along this road we risk the same sort of homogenisation I was referring to earlier, and what I was trying to avoid. Many people though are happy as they are (and there’s nothing wrong with that, of course!), and are content to carry on drinking their favourite, often boring beers, whether they be Doom Bar or Fosters. After all, diversity and variety is what makes the appreciation and enjoyment of beer the experience it is today.

A couple of final thoughts on the subject; there have been suggestions recently that CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide has morphed into something of a “guest beer guide”. This has come about because local branches, keen to demonstrate the diversity of different beers within their particular branch areas will, all things being equal, tend to select pubs which offer a greater choice of ales over those that just offer a single boring “brown” beer. Forty years ago, when the guide was first published, real ale was hard to find and pubs which sold any cask beer at all, irrespective of quality, were likely to be included. I certainly believe the GBG no longer fulfils its original purpose, and has long outlived its usefulness.

Last, whilst I obviously appreciate the availability of a good variety of beer in a pub; given the right occasion, the right people, the right pub and the right set of circumstances, an excellent time can be had in a place which just offers a “safe” beer, but obviously the whole experience would be even better if the beer selection was that little bit more exciting.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Brief Visit to Norfolk

It was nice to get away last weekend and swap the hustle and bustle of the crowded South East for the quiet of rural Norfolk. An overdue visit to my parents was the reason for my getaway, and whilst my trip didn’t leave a lot of time for beer, I still managed a few pints on the Saturday evening.

My parents live in a fairly large, but quite strung-out village called Swanton Morley, which lies about three miles to the north-east of Dereham. They have lived there for the past twenty years or so, having moved to Norfolk, from Kent, following my father’s retirement. I suppose they could now be counted as locals, despite not having been born and raised in the county, and they seem to like where they are living. I hadn’t visited since the spring, so it was nice to spend some time with them and catch up on what had been going on.

I didn’t spend the night at their place. My mother hasn’t been in the best of health recently, and I did not want to add to her workload. Instead I put up at a very nice bed and breakfast place in the nearby village of Elsing. Bartles Lodge, not only offers overnight accommodation, but also caters for fishermen, offering fishing for species such as carp, tench, bream, perch, rudd and roach on three lakes located within the grounds.  It is situated right in the centre of the village, opposite the imposing church and right next to the village pub; the Mermaid Inn.

I have stayed at Bartles before, and have drunk, and eaten, in the Mermaid. On this occasion I had eaten at my parents, but on returning to the B & B, was still eager for a few pints to round off the evening. It was gone nine when I finally arrived at the Good Beer Guide-listed pub. There were around a dozen or so people inside; some sitting down enjoying a meal, whilst others were stood at the bar. At the far end, a mixed group of youngsters were enjoying a game of pool, but everything seemed nice and relaxed.

Four cask ales were on sale; two from Woodfordes (Wherry and Nelson’s Revenge), along with Adnam’s Broadside and guest ale - Viking Bitter, from Rudgate. I opted for the latter to start with, and after paying for my pint, I went and sat down in one of the comfortable chairs close to the fireplace, in order to enjoy my beer. Unfortunately the Rudgate wasn’t quite up to scratch, and if anything was a little “tired”. The beer wasn’t bad enough to return, but as my first pint of the day, and an eagerly anticipated one at that, it was rather disappointing.

Unperturbed, I decided to make the most of the indifferent pint, and settled down in front of the cosy wood-burning stove, and began to read the day’s  Daily Telegraph, plus associated supplements. As I mentioned earlier, the pub was reasonably busy, but not bursting at the seams either. The Mermaid is a comfortable pub, which dates back to the 17th Century. It consists of a single, long room with the fireplace at one end, and the pool table at the other. Despite the presence of the hand pumps on the bar, all cask beers are served by gravity, from a separate room behind the bar.

After my disappointment with the Rudgate, I opted for something more local, and hopefully safer.  Despite their popularity and widespread availability throughout Norfolk, I have never been a huge fan of Woodforde’s. I went for the Broadside instead, which proved a wise choice, as the beer was in tip-top condition and made up for the poor first pint. I ended up having two pints of it, enjoying the warming glow from both the beer and the stove. The landlady wandered over for a brief chat, which was a nice welcoming gesture on her part. I told her I was staying at the lodge next door, and I imagine both establishments derive mutual benefit from being so close to one another.

I left, shortly before closing time, but after most of the customers had drifted off. I was feeling tired and in need of a good night’s sleep (which I had at the Lodge). Although my visit had been a brief one, it was nice to have spent a bit of time in a very pleasant and welcoming village pub. Sure there was nothing overly special about the range of beer, but sometimes (quite often in fact), there are other, more important factors that make a pub what it is. I am pleased that I experienced these “special qualities” last Saturday, at the Mermaid in Elsing.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Good Old Days?

“Until the 18th century, or even later, beer was the staple drink of most men and women at all levels of society. Tea and coffee were expensive luxuries; while water might well carry disease. To supply the needs of both owners and servants, every country house with an accessible source of water had a brewhouse, usually close at hand."

“Country House Brewing in England 1500 – 1900” shows the role beer played in the life of the country house, with beer allowances and beer money an integral part of servant’s rewards. Generous allowances were made for arduous tasks such as harvesting. For celebrations such as the heir’s coming of age, extra-strong ale was provided. This book, which is heavily illustrated, is an important and original contribution to architectural, brewing and social history.”

I’m reading a very interesting book at present. It’s titled “Country House Brewing in England 1500 – 1900”. It was given to me back in the summer by a former customer of the Cask & Glass who, knowing my interest in all things beer, thought of me when he was having a clear-out at home. It’s a hardback book which runs to over 300 pages, by the time all the indices and appendixes are taken into account. Being what can only be described as a “learned treatise” it’s quite heavy going, which explains why I’m only just half-way through it, but given the amount of research that author Pamela Sambrook has put into the book, coupled with the astonishing amount of detail, this is hardly surprising.

The period covered by the book begins with the changes wrought by the dissolution of the monasteries. King Henry VIIIth's tour of destruction ended centuries of monastic brewing in England, and led to the establishment of breweries in large country houses, which themselves had evolved from former manor houses. As the nation slowly became wealthier, and conditions became more peaceful, the homes of the landed gentry were increased in size and became more and more opulent. The number of servants and retainers needed to run such establishments also increased, and large estates grew up to support these palatial piles.

Country houses were, by and large, self-sufficient in so far as they were supplied with foodstuffs from the farms on the estate. They also baked their own bread and, of course, brewed their own beer. Lots of beer, in fact, enough to satisfy the entire household and the myriad of servants employed therein. From simple beginnings, brewhouses attached to the local country pile slowly became more advanced, although they rarely matched the sophistication of their commercial counterparts. Even so, many of the larger establishments had separate and well-designed brewhouses capable of turning out substantial quantities of ale and beer. These quantities of course, varied according to the size and wealth of the house, but figures in the region of 400 gallons of ale and double this amount of beer every month, were not unusual!

Note the terms “ale” and “beer”. The former was a much stronger drink, produced from the first runnings from the mash tun, whereas the drink referred to as "beer" was produced from the second or third runnings, and as such was considerably weaker. Beer was the everyday drink of the household, and in particular that of the servants, whilst ale was the preserve of the lord/duke/squire etc and his family. Being considerably stronger, ale also required a much longer period of maturation before it was ready to drink.

Fast forward from the peak of country house brewing, during the latter part of the 18th and the early part of the 19th centuries, to the early part of the last century, and brewing in the remaining great country houses was in terminal decline. This dramatic fall-off was aided and abetted by drinks such as tea and coffee which were far easier to prepare, and which also had a far less soporific effect on household staff. Other factors, such as paying employees a proper living wage in cash, rather than a much lower remuneration which included a generous allowance of beer, also contributed to the decline. The effects of two devastating world wars were the final nail in the coffin of private brewing.

As I said I’m still halfway through the book, but the section I’m reading now which describes the faults and afflictions which could often arise in domestic beer, and some of the equally foul ways in which these defects were counteracted, makes me glad for modern, hygienic brewing practices, rather than any romantic notions I may once have entertained about beer in the “good old days”. Fascinating stuff, as they say, and there’s more to come. For anyone with more than a passing interest in domestic brewing, this is a volume which is well getting hold of.

 “Country House Brewing in England 1500 – 1900”. Author - Pamela Sambrook. Published by The Hambledon Press. ISBN 1 85285 127 9

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Waitrose Deal Still Available

The deal on selected beers at Waitrose that I mentioned earlier is still on. Not only can you get virtually the full range of beers from Fuller’s at four bottles for £6, but beers from the likes of Badger, Bath Ales, Brains, Black Sheep, Duchy Originals, Hog’s Back and Hook Norton are also available at the same price. Even better, you can mix and match across the entire range of the offer!

Also worth snapping up are the 750ml bottles of Meantime India Pale Ale and London Porter. At 20% off the normal price, they work out at just £4.16 and £4.04 respectively.

I am surprised, but obviously delighted, the offer is still running, as I hinted earlier  it may be coming to an end soon. It might still pay you then to get down to Waitrose sooner, rather than later, especially if you want to stock up on these beers before the offer ends.

Some Seasonal Thoughts for Late Autumn

There’s not a lot to blog about at the moment. Summer is well and truly over, and even autumn seems to be passing with alarming speed. Now, with winter just around the corner, it’s a pretty quiet time of year, even though the countdown to Christmas is well under way. This is especially true in the retail trade where Christmas goodies (and also a lot of Christmas tat), seem to appear earlier and earlier each year. Also it’s the time of year when events such as Christmas parties and dinners are also planned and booked up in advance. In my own case I’ve got our company Christmas dinner to look forward to, followed by our local CAMRA branch dinner a couple of days later. I perhaps should go on a diet in the weeks leading up to these events; otherwise I’ll be finding that much of my wardrobe doesn’t fit me any more!

Speaking of CAMRA, towards the end of this month we’ve got our branch AGM coming up. This year we’ll be holding it at Tunbridge Wells Constitutional Club; a venue which won the Kent Club of the Year award, for 2013. The AGM is always well worth attending for a look back at what the branch has been up to over the past year, and to look ahead, formulate policy and decide the way forward for the coming year. There are also, of course, matters like approval of the branch accounts and election of officers to sort out. As an incentive to encourage members to attend, there is normally a free buffet. The meeting usually ends with nominations for the following year’s Good Beer Guide which, seeing as surveying and selection is done almost a year in advance, will be the 2015 edition. I don’t intend taking much part in the latter part of the meeting, as my thoughts on the Good Beer Guide are well-known, but I might stick around for the pub-crawl which traditionally takes place after the meeting has ended.

Moving on to the closely allied subject of beer, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of dark ales gracing the counters of local pubs, although the Punch & Judy did have Caledonian Poltergeist Porter on sale the other night. As in previous years though, I’m late in tracking down one of my favourite dark ales, namely Harvey’s Old Ale. This delicious, seasonal dark ale has been out for over a month now, but I still haven’t come across any. Unfortunately, due to a prior engagement, I missed the branch bus trip to Lewes, last weekend, where I’m assured there was Old Ale a plenty. The beer seems mainly confined to Harvey’s tied houses, although I do know from past experience that it is available for the free trade. It seems though that many licensees prefer to play things safe and stick to tried and tested bitter brands, rather than stick their necks out slightly and try something different. I’m certain they would have no trouble in shifting a darker ale, it just looks like they are afraid to move too far out of their comfort zone!

This coming week should see the welcome appearance of another favourite dark ale of mine, in the form of Larkins Porter. I know Bob has brewed a batch, but I also know that like every year, he likes to let the beer mature for six weeks, in tank and cask, before releasing it to an eager public. Bonfire night is usually the time for this dark and delicious, full-bodied beer to appear, so I will be looking out for it with great anticipation.

At the end of the month, the Bailey family are off to Prague for a long weekend, to enjoy the splendours of the Czech capital, and also to experience the city’s Christmas Markets, which set up their stalls around this time. Needless to say there should also be plenty of opportunity to enjoy some of Bohemia’s finest beers, in some atmospheric and unspoilt pubs. A full report will follow when the time comes.

Well that’s about it for the moment, with nothing particularly of note to report, apart from me continuing to stock up on beers for Christmas.