Saturday, 27 May 2017

Düsseldorf Altbier



Many beer lovers will have heard of Altbier, and many will know that the style is largely confined to the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf and its immediate surroundings. 

I had tried Altbier on a number of previous occasions; mainly in bottled form or at the foreign beer bar of a home-grown beer festival. Last week’s trip to Düsseldorf allowed me to sample the beer on its home ground.

The name Altbier, literally means “Old Beer”, and the description is apt as the beer is produced by top-fermentation; a much older method of production than bottom fermentation, which is used to produce lager-style beers. 

Altbier is usually a dark copper coloured beer, with some fruitiness present in the flavour. This is derived from fermentation, at a moderate temperature, using a top-fermenting yeast. The primary fermentation is followed by a period of maturation at a cooler temperature. This gives the beer a cleaner and crisper taste, more akin to lager-type beers, than is the norm for top-fermented beers. 

Brauerei Schumacher
As well as being the dominant beer style in Düsseldorf, Altbier can be found in other parts of the Lower Rhine region, particularly in the towns of, Krefeld and Mönchengladbach. 

The first producer to use the name Alt to distinguish its top fermenting beer from bottom fermenting kinds, was the Schumacher Brewery, which opened in Düsseldorf in 1838. We visited the brewery on the last morning of our trip, and discovered that it still employed many traditional methods.

The most common Altbier, in terms of volume sold, is Diebels, a brand which forms part of the Anheuser-Busch-Inbev brewing empire. Schlösser Alt, is another commonly seen Altbier, and this brand is owned by the Radeberger Gruppe.  We came across the latter in a number of  Düsseldorf pubs, and with regards to the former, I brought back a couple of cans of Diebels to try at home.

Eight pubs are listed in Düsseldorf as brewing Altbier on the premises, and we visited five of them. I won’t describe them all, but  will pick out the three which particularly took my fancy.

Zum Schlüssel in Bolkerstrasse, provided a welcome respite from the crowds jostling in the streets outside. This was late on Saturday afternoon, and the Alstadt was packed with people out for a good time. It also happened to coincide with the finale of the  Bundesliga, which saw Bayern München crowned as champions (again). Many pubs were showing the game live, with large TV screens erected outside to draw the punters in.

As I said, we were glad to escape the throngs of people, and although most of the tables inside Zum Schlüssel were fully occupied, we managed to find space at one of the “stand-up-to-drink” tables in a corner, right at the front of the pub. I was particularly impressed with the Schlüssel Altbier, finding it refreshing and with a nice bitter “bite”. We stayed for several glasses, and had a Gouda roll each to go with the beer. This snack is known locally as a "Halve Hahn".

Zum Schlüssel can trace its history back to 1632, but like much of the Altstadt, the pub was destroyed in one of the heavy bombing raids carried out by RAF Bomber Command in 1943. Not exactly the air force’s “finest hour”! The pub was rebuilt after the war, and whilst the exterior looks relatively modern and functional, the interior  has been fitted out in a traditional style.

The same can be said of Zum Uerige, which we visited the following morning. This pub looks even more modern than Zum Schlüssel, but a look inside is like stepping back in time, with a maze of different inter-connecting rooms. Uerige’s Altbier was, if anything, even more bitter than Schlüssel’s, but provided a good “pick-me-up” on Sunday morning. Matt and I sat outside, enjoying the warmth from the sun, whilst watching the people strolling by.
Zum Uerige

The following evening, we visited Zum Uerige for the second time; this time in the company of our
tour group. A trip to the Gents, and then trying to memorise your way back, led to several members of our party, including me, ending up in the wrong place, but with the weather set fair, it was nice to sit outside.

Brauerei im Füchschen, was our last port of call on Tuesday night. This was housed in a square and rather functional-looking 1950’s building, but like other Altstadt pubs had a traditional interior, with plenty of dark wood and beams on the ceiling. “Füchschen” translates as “little fox”, and a picture of a small fox looking up lovingly at a large foaming jug of beer, is the brewery logo.

This short insight into Düsseldorf Altbier gives a taster of the delights which await lovers of traditional should they choose to visit this vibrant city, but the beer itself is available all over town, and you will not need to look far in order to enjoy a glass or two.


Friday, 26 May 2017

Four days in the Rhineland



As a consequence of four varied and beer-filled days in Düsseldorf, there’s lots for me to write about. But first it was back down to earth with a bang, with a full in-tray waiting for me at work this morning, and with two key members of my staff about to depart on their own holidays, there’s not been a lot of time to think; let alone decide what to write about first.

There were eleven of us on this trip, all male and, with the exception of my son Matthew, all over 50 years old. Quite a few of us were over sixty, and there were also two septuagenarians. One of them asked Matt how he felt about coming on a “Saga Holiday”, with a bunch of OAP's, but he took it all in his stride and had a good time; as did we all.

Although we based ourselves in Düsseldorf, we had a day out in Cologne, and also a day exploring the area around Wuppertal; a day which included a ride on the 110 year old Suspension Railway, which operates at a height of around 40 feet above the River Wupper, and runs for a distance of just over 8 miles.

We visited two fine old breweries; one producing Kölsch and the other Altbier. Both were old established, family firms, still employing traditional methods, but both were also companies which had not been afraid to invest for the future.

We also found several brew-pubs and these, when added to the many fine and traditional old pubs which can be found in the two Rhineland cities,  contributed to a  rich and varied local drinking scene.

Full coverage about these, and other experiences, to follow in due course.

This post should have been published yesterday, but I forgot to click the right button; in fact I fell asleep in front of the computer! 

Apologies, therefore, if it doesn't quite read right.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Düsseldorf



I won’t be blogging for a while, as Saturday morning I’m off travelling again. The destination this time is the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf. This will be my third trip in as many months to Germany, and my third major city within the country.

Son Matthew and I will be joining a group of fellow beer lovers from Maidstone CAMRA; although I hasten to add this is not an official CAMRA trip. This will be my second outing with the group, as two years ago I travelled with them to the town of Jihlava, in the Vysočina Region of the Czech Republic. That particular trip consisted of brewery visits and sight-seeing in equal measure, and we certainly travelled through some of the most pleasing countryside I have seen; with rolling hills, dark forests and stretches of verdant green pasture.

The group visiting a brewery two years ago
The Düsseldorf trip, of course, will be a lot more urban in nature, but the tour organiser has a number of brewery visits lined up for us; including one in Cologne, where we’ll be spending the second full day of the trip. Düsseldorf is famed for its Altbier; a copper-coloured, top-fermented beer, brewed in the “old” or “alt” style. It is also served in 30 Cl cylindrical glasses, similar to those used for Kölsch in the neighbouring, and rival city of Cologne.

There are some classic pubs to visit, and from what I’ve seen we’ve got a full itinerary to look forward to. Matthew and I are flying out a day ahead of the main party, so we’ll have time for a spot of sight-seeing and some shopping before the rest of the group arrives.

It will be my first visit to Düsseldorf, although I have been to neighbouring Cologne on five separate occasions. It will be Matthew’s first visit as well, and will provide a chance for him to see and experience a part of the country which is very different from Bavaria. If nothing else, it should demonstrate just what a diverse nation Germany is; a diversity which expresses itself in beer as well as many other things.

I must say it will be nice to get away for a few days, and nice also to get away from a Brexit Britain obsessed with meaningless slogans (“strong and stable”, “control of our borders”). Most Germans I spoke to on my last trip, thought the UK had taken leave of its senses. As a nation which knows only too well what happens when the extreme right is allowed to bully and lie its way into power, I tend to think they know what they are talking about!

A full report of course, plus some photos, when I get back.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

CAMRA Members Weekends - a few reflections



Last month saw CAMRA holding its Member’s Weekend and Annual General Meeting. The event took place at Bournemouth, on the sunny south coast, and a few days by the sea would have been very nice and most agreable. Given  the resort’s relative proximity to where I live, I had little in the way of excuses for not turning up. I could even have gone there for the day had I so desired.

However, a number of things kept me away, not least of which was a growing disillusionment with CAMRA; certainly at national level. The much vaunted “Revitalisation Campaign” seems to have run out of steam, and there are various other shenanigans going on behind the scenes, which all point to a lack of direction within the organisation.

In the end I decided that attending the AGM would not be the best use of my time, but I have been to several of these events in the past and thoroughly enjoyed them. So as I’m feeling in a slightly reflective mood, I thought  I’d take a look back at some of  those past AGM’s and share some of my recollections of them.
According to my calculations, I have been to six Annual General Meetings of the Campaign for Real Ale, (they weren’t called Member’s Weekends in the early days). Four were back in the early 1980’s, and the other two were in much more recent times; the Isle of Man in 2010 and Norwich in 2013. What happened in the intervening period equates to a large chunk of my middle years, during which I changed partners, became a father, raised a family, had several changes of job and ran my own off-licence business.

Obviously, much else changed as well during this period; both within CAMRA and with the beer, brewing and pub scene in general. Recounting these various changes, is beyond the scope of this post, but it is worth noting that I too changed and the rather earnest twenty-something who went along to those early meetings, and listened intently to all the debates, has been replaced by a rather more cynical and laissez-faire individual, with a slightly world-weary approach to the whole thing.

Durham, in 1981, was the venue for my first CAMRA AGM, and I remember travelling up by train, with three CAMRA colleagues from Maidstone, where I was living at the time. The city’s university was hosting the meeting, with the conference debates taking place in one of the lecture halls. We had lodgings, of sorts, in the halls of residence.

The highlight of the weekend, was looking round Durham’s impressive and imposing cathedral, but we also managed to find a number of decent pubs. The beer choice was far from impressive in those days, and was limited to brews from Bass, McEwan’s, Vaux and Whitbread (Castle Eden), but we still had a good time, and for me it was good to meet and socialise with members from up and down the country.

The following year, it was Bradford’s turn to host the event. I attended with two of the colleagues who’d attended the previous year, but this time we were accompanied by our respective wives. There’s not a lot I remember from that particular AGM, apart from travelling out by bus to Keighley on the Saturday evening.

There we meet up with the girls who had spent the day in nearby Howarth, whilst us “more dedicated” men-folk were stuck in the debating hall. We visited several excellent Timothy Taylor’s pubs that evening, where Golden Best and Best Bitter ruled the roost; with not a drop of Landlord in sight.

1983 brought the AGM closer to home, with the event taking place at Reading University. My then wife and I travelled in convoy with a group of slightly younger, local branch members from Maidstone. We stopped for lunch at the Crooked Billet, a Brakspear’s pub in a woodland location,  up in the hills close to Wokingham, before carrying on into Reading itself.

There’s not a lot I can recall from that particular AGM either, apart from the memorable evening we spent at another Crooked Billet; this one a wonderfully unspoilt, rural alehouse, in the tiny hamlet of Stoke Row. Entering this basic, country pub was like stepping back in time. There was no bar as such, just a simple serving hatch in the door of the ground floor cellar. The excellent Brakspear’s beer was served straight from casks, stillaged in full view of customers. I understand the Crooked Billet has now become a restaurant; its new owner having rescued it from a state of almost total disrepair.

Conference venue IOM 2010
The AGM moved north of the border in 1984, for its first incursion into Scotland. Edinburgh’s  grandiose McEwan Hall was the setting for the conference, whilst a few friends and I, again from Maidstone, stayed in a guest house. I think that was my third visit to the Scottish capital, but I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to appreciate all that Edinburgh had to offer, or to get into the spirit of the AGM. My marriage was on the rocks, and whilst I tried putting on a brave face, I was hurting quite badly inside, and shouldn’t really have been there. Consequently my memories of both the conference, and the city’s pubs, are rather sketchy.

A year later, I had got divorced and then re-married. My new wife, the present Mrs Bailey, wasn’t particularly into either beer or pubs, although to her credit, she did persuade me to become more engaged with CAMRA again, after a period of non-involvement.

It was to be a quarter of a century, before I next attended a CAMRA AGM, and by 2010, the event had been re-badged as the Members’ Weekend. Douglas, Isle of Man, was the venue for that particular AGM, but it’s also remembered as the weekend of the Icelandic volcano; the one with the unpronounceable name!

I was oblivious to what had been going on in the outside world, as I had arrived on the island late on Thursday evening. It was only after breakfast the following morning, when I phoned my wife, that I learned that European airspace had been closed because of the enormous ash cloud from the volcano, and that all flights had been grounded.

I was due to meet up with a couple of friends from my own branch, alter that morning, and also with a group from Maidstone CAMRA. My friends had flown over the day before, and the Maidstone contingent had, like me, travelled over by ferry. It seemed that most of the delegates had also arrived the same day, so the conference went ahead almost as though nothing had happened.

Getting back was fun; I was OK as I’d booked a return ticket, but the Sea-Cat back to Liverpool was much more crowded than it would have otherwise been, and I’m sure the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company really cleaned up that weekend. As for the AGM itself, well I enjoyed the beer exhibition and the excursions to Castletown and Port Erin in the south, and to Peel and Ramsey in the north. The pubs we visited at these destinations and points in between, were also good, although I must confess I grew a little tired of Okells’ beer. As for the IOM, well I’m glad I went, but it’s  not somewhere which features high on my list of places to return to, (sorry all you Manx people out there).

Somewhere I am always pleased to return to is Norwich; the host city for the 2013 Member’s Weekend. There were no transport problems this time, but I had arrived a day early in the city, as I had planned to visit my parents. As it happened, they were both ill at the time and asked me not to pop over, so instead I spent the day exploring Norwich and its many pubs on my own, before meeting up with friends from Maidstone CAMRA in the evening.

That meeting took place at the wonderful Fat Cat, which was bursting at the seams with AGM attendees. We adjourned later for a curry, before heading back into the city centre for yet more beer in the Golden Star. This was my last Member’s Weekend, and I can safely say that the social side was by far the best part of the event.

I would go further and say that the activities which take place outside of the conference hall are definitely the highlight of an AGM. The local branch whose job it is to host the event, will normally organise a beer exhibition, highlighting the best beers the area has to offer, and there will be various brewery visits taking place s well, over the course of the weekend.

Some people go along purely for the socialising and the pubs; as I discovered at this particular Member’s Weekend. It was Saturday morning and the first full day of the conference proper. I was walking up into the city, from the boarding house I was staying in, when I bumped into a couple from another Kent CAMRA branch. I won’t embarrass them by revealing their names, although they’re quite well known within CAMRA circles, but as we continued towards St Andrew’s Hall, where the conference was taking place, the couple suddenly turned and said goodbye.

“You’re not coming to the AGM then?” I asked, somewhat puzzled. They laughed, and both replied with a firm “No”. As one of them pointed out, “Who wants to spend a beautiful spring day, shut up in a stuffy hall, listening to a load of waffle and hot air?” They told me they were off  to explore Norwich and sample its many delights. They would, of course, be taking in the odd pub or two along the way. They wished me a pleasant day, and sauntered off in the direction of the city’s castle.

Slightly taken aback, I wished them the same, before hurrying on towards the conference hall. As I sat in the coolness of the historic surroundings, listening to the various debates, and occasionally raising my hand when there was a vote on a particular motion, I found myself thinking of this couple from the opposite end of Kent, and wishing I had done the same.

I later found out that this husband and wife team, who were regular attendees at Members’ Weekends, never went along to the actual conference; preferring instead to make the most of their time in a different part of the country. And who could blame them?

The conference adjourned for lunch, and I went along to the beer exhibition, where I bumped into several people I knew. I also enjoyed a couple of cheese rolls and several pints of local ale. We went outside into a courtyard area behind the hall. The sun was still shining and there and then I made up my mind that I would not be returning for the conference’s afternoon session. Instead I made my way out of the hall complex, and back into the real world, away from some of the  more crass and pointless motions being debated.

It was very pleasant, walking around in the mid-April sunshine, and I had a wander around the centre of Norwich. I didn’t call in at any pubs, because not only had I drank plenty at lunchtime, but I was also booked on a tour of Woodforde’s Brewery, that evening, and the coach was due to pick up outside the conference venue, shortly after  5pm.

The tour of Woodforde’s was very good, and the visit included a meal at the brewery tap next door. The Fur and Feather is an excellent pub which my wife and I had been to on a couple of previous trips up to Norfolk. As well as good food, it serves a wide range of beers from the adjacent brewery, all served by gravity, direct from the cask.

So there we have it; my own experiences of CAMRA Member’s Weekends and AGM’s, looking back over a thirty year period. If I wanted to summarise them I would say they offer an excellent opportunity to visit and explore some different parts of the country, and to meet up with members from all over the UK. You may find the debates intriguing, or more likely they will bore the socks off you, but if you are a member, and haven’t been, then why not give one a go? Who knows, you might even bump into yours truly, should I have a change of heart and decide to show my face!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

No longer a Gose virgin



Until the other day I’d never tried a Gose, but now, having enjoyed a glass, I must say I rather like it and would certainly give the beer another go. With its unusual inclusion of coriander and salt in the grist, I found the beer surprisingly  refreshing and definitely much more palatable and agreeable than a German Weisse Bier.

For the initiated, Gose is a top-fermented beer that originated in the town of Goslar, in Lower Saxony, Germany, from where its name is also derived. It is brewed with a grist malted wheat constitutes at least 50% of the grain. Gose was first brewed in the early 16th century.

Due to various trading links, the beer was slowly introduced to other parts of Germany, and it became particularly popular in the city of Leipzig; so much so that local breweries copied the style. By the end of the 1800s, it was considered to be local to Leipzig and there were numerous Gosenschänken (Gose taverns) in the city.

Gose belongs to the same family of sour wheat beers which were once brewed across Northern Germany and the Low Countries. Other beers of this family are Belgian Witbier, Berliner Weisse, Broyhan, and Polish Grodziskie

Dominant flavours in Gose include a lemon sourness, a herbal characteristic, and a strong saltiness (the result of either local water sources or added salt). Gose beers typically do not have a prominent hop bitterness, or aroma, and typically have a moderate alcohol content of 4.0 to 5.0% ABV.

My example was purchased through Beers of Europe, and was labelled  Original Leipziger Gose. It is a naturally conditioned beer, but because my bottle had been standing for so long in an upright position in the fridge, it poured virtually clear, with just a slight haze. When I looked, there was quite a crust of yeast remaining in the bottom of the bottle.

The beer maintained a reasonable head until over half way down the glass. There was nothing much in the way of aroma, but on the palate there was a refreshing sharpness, which blended well with the coriander. I could also taste the salt lurking, quite prominently, in the background.

My bottle was brewed at the Gasthaus & Gosebrauerei; a brewpub and beer hall housed at the Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig. For the rail buffs amongst us, the Leipzig Bavarian station is Germany's oldest preserved railway station, which first opened in 1842 for the Leipzig–Hof Railway, by the Saxon-Bavarian Railway Company

The station was closed in 2001 for the construction of the Leipzig City Tunnel. It re-opened in December 2013 after the completion of the tunnel. Since then it is integrated into S-Bahn  system. The new station is built directly underneath the site of the former station which has been converted to a variety of uses, including a brew-pub; as mentioned above.

Because of the use of coriander and salt, Gose does not comply with the all-conquering Reinheitsgebot, but is allowed an exemption on the grounds of being a regional specialty. It acquires its characteristic sourness through inoculation with lactobacillus bacteria after the boil. The beer was originally spontaneously fermented, but sometime in the 1880s, brewers managed to achieve the same effect by using a combination of top-fermenting yeast and lactic acid bacteria.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:Creative_Commons
Gose was delivered, still actively fermenting, in barrels to the local pubs. Casks were stored in the cellar with the shive hole left open, so that the still-active yeast could escape. When fermentation had slowed to a point where no yeast was emerging, the Gose was ready to bottle and it was filled into traditional long-necked bottles. These were not closed with a cap or cork, but with a plug of yeast which naturally rose up the neck as the secondary fermentation continued.

Gose’s popularity eventually waned, and by the outbreak of World War II, only one Leipzig brewery continued to produce the style. After the war, the brewery was nationalised by the East German government, and eventually closed. Gose clung on stubbornly, but were it not for the work of pub owner Lothar Goldhahn, who wanted to revive the style, in order to sell it at the "Ohne Bedenken", a former Gosenschenke, which he was restoring, it is likely the beer would have disappeared altogether.

Goldhahn questioned local drinkers in order to ascertain its precise characteristics, and then searched for a brewery to produce it, but  no local brewery was willing to make such strange beer. Eventually the Schultheiss Berliner-Weisse-Brauerei in East Berlin agreed, and following successful test brews production started in 1986.

Gose has again found popularity, and the style is now brewed outside Germany, in the United States, Canada and Britain. As I discovered, it is an extremely pleasant and thirst quenching beer, making it the ideal drink for a hot summer’s day, (not many of those around at the moment!).

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Fuggles - West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year



Last night a group of around 15 local West Kent CAMRA members gathered at Fuggles Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells for the presentation of the bar’s  award for Branch Pub of the Year. The evening also coincided with a “tap takeover” from Gun Brewery.

Fuggles was heaving, and was probably the busiest I’ve seen it, but I managed to squeeze in, and after buying a glass of one of the Gun Brewery beers, I made my way to the rear of the bar where I found my CAMRA colleagues waiting at two specially reserved tables.

I thought I had missed the presentation itself, but as luck would have it, things were running late, so I was able to witness Branch Chairman Craig handing over the certificate to Fuggles owner and founder, Alex Greig. I was unable to hear the speeches, but I know that the award was well received and well deserved.

Fuggles’ success reflects the dedication, hard-work and commitment Alex and his team have put in since opening their door for the first time, back in 2013.. With 20 ever-changing draught beers, including 6 cask ales, real cider and over 100 speciality & rare bottles, plus over 100 gins and whiskies, together  with food & coffee served all day,  Fuggles is definitely one of the premier go-to places in Tunbridge Wells. Other operators have had to raise their game, in order to compete, so the overall effect has been a general raising of standards. As if that wasn’t enough, Fuggles will be opening a new outlet, under the same name, in Tonbridge, later this summer.

Things were a little hectic last night, but the company was good and so were the beers. I stuck with the offerings from Gun; themselves a successful and highly rated brewery specialising in small-batch, unfiltered beers. They are based on an organic farm, at Gun Hill, deep in rural Sussex, and brew a wide range of well-crafted and highly drinkable beers.

For the record I enjoyed Vermont Pale 4.4%, Hons the Serenity 4.4%, Zamazama IPA 6.5% and Imperial Stout 7.4%. All were excellent, and all were keg – if that means anything. There were several other Gun Brewery beers I would like to have tried, along with a cask session ale from Thornbridge. However, with a busy day of work beckoning the following morning, I resisted the temptation.

So an excellent, if somewhat blurred evening. Congratulations to Alex and his staff on this well-deserved award, and I look forward to being able to drink beers of this calibre, within walking distance of home, once Fuggles opens in Tonbridge in a few month’s time.


Acknowledgments

Photos courtesy of Fuggles plus Craig and James Beesom. I did take a few of my own, but the quality left much to be desired, so thanks chaps.



Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Dark Star Brewing Company



Dark Star are the second largest brewery in Sussex, after Harvey's, but they have humble beginnings which can be traced back to the Pitfield Brewery in the Shoreditch area of London. Back in the mid-1980’s, Pitfield’s brewer Rob Jones, developed a porter, which he called Dark Star. The name came from the title of a track by his favourite rock band, the Grateful Dead; the legendary laid-back West Coast counter-culture, rockers. In 1987 the beer was voted Champion Beer of Britain. The beer is still brewed and is now known as Dark Star Original.

Rob took the recipe with him in 1994, when he moved to the Evening Star pub in Brighton where, in the pub cellar, on a  brew plant only marginally bigger than an oversized home-brew kit, the Dark Star Brewing Company was born. As well as continuing to brew the original porter-style beer, Rob and his colleagues  developed the characteristic style of hoppy beers which the company is renowned for today.

In 2001 the brewery relocated to a new purpose-built brewery at Antsy, near Haywards Heath, and then in 2010, they moved again to their current home, a 16,000-square-foot unit in the village of Partridge Green. The new 45 barrel brew-house was officially opened by veteran beer writer Roger Protz, and straight away led to a fourfold increase in production,

I first visited Dark Star, back in 2011 with my local branch, West Kent CAMRA, and last Saturday  the branch was privileged to visit the brewery again. I of course went along, and the first thing which struck me was how much the brewery  has expanded since that initial visit. Six years ago there was a significant amount of empty space, but now virtually every square foot appears to have been utilised.

Our party of twelve travelled down to Partridge Green by mini-bus, through the attractive Sussex countryside. Our journey down from Tunbridge Wells took us first to East Grinstead, and then across to Turners Hill. From there we travelled in a south-westerly direction, towards Handcross and then Cowfold, through what I always describe as “rhododendron country”. Although a non-native and rather invasive species, these rambling plants which originated in the Himalayas, have a beauty, which really comes into its own at this time of year.

On arrival, we were ushered into the main brewery where a table, set out with jugs of several varieties of Dark Star beer, was waiting for us. We were met by Matt Gayley, who is one of several brewers at Dark Star.  After introducing himself, Matt told us to help ourselves to the the beers. He then went on to tell us some of the history of the company, before introducing us to  Dark Star’s Head Brewer, Andy Paterson. Carrying on from where Matt had left off, Andy told us all about the  brewery before showing us round the place. Both our guides were very knowledgeable about the brewing process and also extremely passionate about the brewery and the roles they perform there.

We climbed up on the gantry to view the large, stainless-steel brewing plant which, despite the Bavaria name-plates on the four main vessels, was actually built in Hungary. It is a typical continental-style plant, with a mashing-in vessel and a Lauter tun. As hop separation is achieved by means of a whirlpool, hop pellets are used, rather than whole leaf hops. One interesting fact which came out was that far more hops go in at end of boil, than at the beginning. This is to ensure those lovely hop aromas remain in the beer without all the volatiles disappearing up chimney. Some beers are also dry hopped

Dark Star crush their own malt, which comes in palletised in bulk bags from Simpsons Malt. The company are looking at installing a malt silo, which will be cheaper in long term and will take up far less space. There had been talk of a further move, but with these sorts of better space utilisation, they should be able to stay where they are, although they are considering moving the beer maturation and storage facility, to one of neighbouring units on estate.

Another improvement they are looking at is to switch from the use of dried yeast, which has to be added fresh to every brew, to “wet slurry” yeast, which can be re-pitched several times. The company have own laboratory, and also a small, pilot-scale plant which enables them to develop new beers. At present, Dark Star brew between seven and ten times a week, with the capability of turning out two brews a day.

We saw the impressive rows of fermentation vessels as well as the aforementioned maturation area. Dark Star are still primarily a cask-ale brewer, although they do also package their beer in key-kegs as well as bottles and can. Most of us bought some bottles from the well-stocked shop at the front of the brewery.

We also partook further of the generous range of beer supplied, which included Hophead 3.8%, American Pale Ale 4.7%, Revelation 5.7%, Festival 5.0%, American Brown 5.0%, plus of course Dark Star Original 5.0%. There was also a special brew in the form of Six Hop Ale; ABV unknown, but as hoppy as its name suggests. I sampled all the beers, apart from Festival which I am not particularly keen on, but before people’s imaginations start getting carried away, the glasses were only third of a pint.

The tour of Dark Star was definitely one of the best brewery visits I have been on for along time, especially as we had the opportunity to chat with and ask questions of the head brewer. I would put it on par with the tours I made a couple of years ago, in the Low Countries, where I visited Rodenbach, De Mollen and the La Trappe Brewery at Koningshoeven.

If you can’t afford the time for a tour, then a visit to the brewery shop is also well worth while. Alternatively, Dark Star’s excellent beers can be purchased on-line.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Some unexpected surprises



There were a couple of unexpected surprises to round off yesterday’s trip into darkest Sussex, and they made for a pleasant end to the day. I am sure retiredmartin will appreciate them, so it is with him in mind that this brief post is written.

We left Downland Brewery, slightly later than anticipated; what is it with blokes, their beer and their ability to talk the hind leg off a donkey? The idea was to stop off in the pleasant town of East Grinstead for both a "comfort stop" and for more beer – as though we needed any! Our tour organiser had selected  the Open Arms; a recently opened micro-pub, and the first such establishment in the town.

He had contacted the pub several weeks ago to make sure they could accommodate our party of twelve persons, and received a positive response. He also phoned last week, just to remind them and to check it was still OK for our visit. Again the response was positive, so imagine our dismay when our mini-bus pulled up outside at just after 5.30pm to find the place well and truly shut.

Keeping an eye on the visitors
The Open Arms, was anything but open and with no sign of life inside, we were left with little option but to find somewhere else. Our driver was contracted to be back in Tonbridge by a certain time, so we were short of options, until our chairman Craig, suggested calling in at the Queen’s Arms, Cowden Pound, aka "Elsie’s".

The pub was just a short detour off our way home, and being closer to Tunbridge Wells than East Grinstead, our driver agreed. The only question was would the Queen’s Arms be open? Our question was well and truly answered as we approached the pub, as there were people outside queuing to get in. The car park was also quite full, with a coach parked in the road at the side of the pub. There was our answer.

We squeezed our way inside and eventually managed to get served. Larkin’s Traditional was the only beer on sale, although with no pump-clips on the hand-pulls it was difficult to know this. Martin found the same on his recent visit, and I’m not sure of the reason. Unfortunately the landlord and his helper were far too busy to answer such trivial questions, so I will leave the mystery unsolved until a future visit.

The Larkin’s was in top form though and just £3.20 a pint represented excellent value. We only had half an hour before our bus was due to depart, but after the day’s earlier excesses I was happy to just have the one. A few hardy souls managed two, but their constitutions are obviously a lot stronger than mine!

We discovered that the coach party were on their way back to Egham, having travelled down to Sussex for the Downland Brewery open day. I hadn’t realised that the brewery had opened especially for the presentation of our certificate, but word had obviously got round and the group from Egham had taken full advantage of it. Two of our group knew the person in charge of the Surrey contingent, who was none other than the steward of the town’s United Services Club; a venue which is renowned for its beer festivals which feature a choice of “hard to get” beers.

It was good to see the Queen’s Arms so busy, although the handful of locals hemmed in at the far end of the bar, looked a little bemused. We noticed one gent who was drinking “Gold Label” barley wine, poured from a can. Was this the same individual who Martin noticed? One of our party remarked that it was precisely because she didn’t want the pub to be swamped by coach parties, that legendary landlady, Elsie Maynard had insisted the Queen’s Arms should not be included in the Good Beer Guide.

We departed on time and our driver dropped various groups of along the way. The four of us remaining decided that a pint in the Humphrey Bean, Tonbridge’s JDW outlet, would be a good idea. It wasn’t that any of us really needed more beer, although in my case the alcohol was helping to numb a particularly bad toothache.

The pub was quite busy, but we managed to find a table. My three friends opted for the Black Dragon Welsh Cider, but I had other ideas as soon as I saw the pump-clip bearing the famous Red Triangle. I knew I could leave the Bean without having at least one pint of Draught Bass, but unfortunately it wasn’t the finest pint of this legendary beer, which has crossed my lips.

I admit that my palate would have been a little jaded after a day on the beer, but the Bass was flat as a pancake and had very little condition. It was nowhere near as good as the Bass I’d enjoyed the previous Saturday at the Express Tavern. On the plus side, it was good to see this beer in our local Spoons so that, plus the unexpected visit to Elsie’s, was the icing on the cake for what had been a most excellent day out.