Saturday, 16 December 2017

Hungry for a horse!

Thursday evening, in what was a first for me, I visited a “Hungry Horse”. The latter is a nationwide chain of 225 pub-restaurants, owned by Greene King of Bury St Edmunds. It was founded in 1995, and promotes itself as offering low cost meals for families and groups.

There are only a handful of Hungry Horse establishments in Kent, but the nearest is now only around 15 minutes drive away, thanks to the completion recently of the road improvements to the A21 between Tonbridge and Pembury.

The Hungry Horse pub in question is the Robin Hood, a large estate pub to the east of Tunbridge Wells town centre, and the other side of the rail tracks from the suburb known as High Brooms. It is a former Whitbread pub which was quite well known to me during the later 1980’s, when I worked on the nearby North Farm Estate.

The company I worked for at the time, used the Robin Hood quite regularly, taking advantage of the pub’s function room which they would hire for presentations or meetings; and one year it even hosted our Christmas party as well. It was a pleasant enough place which at the time I was familiar with it, sold a very acceptable pint of Fremlin’s Bitter, but when work took me  elsewhere, I rather lost touch with it.

The pub was built at the end of the Edwardian era and started life as a private residence. It became a public house in 1971, and was named the Robin Hood because of its proximity to the Sherwood housing estate. The latter estate has had a bad reputation amongst Tunbridge Wells residents over the years; somewhat unfairly in my book, but I suppose every town has its less salubrious side, which locals will look down their noses at.

After Whitbread stopped being a brewer and started running coffee shops instead, the Robin Hood passed into the hands of Enterprise Inns, and in 2007 a major refurbishment of the premises was carried out. It was all the more surprising then when, just six years later, Enterprise closed the pub and put it up for sale. This was where Greene King stepped in and rescued the pub, converting it into a Hungry Horse in the process.

Back in the late summer of 2013, I wrote about how another nearby pub had been given a new lease of life after somewhat ironically being closed by Greene King. At the end of my article about the Brick Works pub in High Brooms, I hinted that another local pub was due to re-open, but this time GK were the saviour, rather than the villain.

I deliberately didn’t name the pub, as I said I wanted to visit the place first, and see the developments and changes for myself, before writing about them, and also revealing the pub which was, of course, the Robin Hood. Little did I think it would be over four years until I managed a visit.

That opportunity came on Thursday evening, when my son and I were over at the North Farm Retail Park. After spending rather a long time in PC World, looking at new laptops, we were both feeling hungry and keen to find somewhere to eat. Matthew had over-dosed rather on MacDonald’s during the week, and didn’t fancy a KFC either. It was his suggestion to try the Hungry Horse a.k.a. the Robin Hood.

The car park seemed pretty full when we arrived, but we managed to find a space in the over-flow area. We entered towards the rear of the pub, close to the section which formerly housed the function room. It seemed strange stepping back inside after a gap of almost 25 years, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

The former high ceiling had been replaced by a lower, false one, and the open plan layout had been divided up into a several separate areas, creating a much more comfortable and cosy feel to the place. As both of us were strangers to the Hungry Horse concept, we took a little time perusing the menu, but soon realised that the offering was quite similar to Wetherspoon’s.

There are deals available which are day specific ( “Big Plate Specials” on Tuesday Curry on Wednesday, free dessert on Thursday). The option we selected was the burger one, which is available Monday to Friday and allows customers to add a drink to any burger selection for just £1. The choice was little limited of course, I had a pint of GK IPA, whilst Matthew chose a pint of Carlsberg. 

As with Spoons, we ordered at the bar, both choosing the “Pit Burger” option (a beef burger topped with smoked streaky bacon, cheese and slow cooked BBQ pulled pork rib meat).  The food arrived quickly, was piping hot and nicely presented; although Matthew wasn’t keen on the chips being stuffed into a small metal bucket. For the princely sum of just under £9 each, it was a good deal all round.

The pub was less busier than the car park suggested, although its Tardis-like interior seemed capable of accommodating lots of people without appearing over-crowded. We were both pleasantly surprised, and whilst my pint of IPA wasn’t exactly over-flowing with character, it was still well-kept and in good condition.

The verdict is that we will definitely return, and next time bring Mrs PBT’s along with us. She was out with a group of her girly mates that evening, trying out the Rose Revived, a lovely old pub on the edge of Hadlow which has recently received a full re-vamp and revert to its original name.

I collected her and a couple of her friends just before closing time, so was able to see for myself the work that had been done. The Rose looks well worthy of a return visit and Eileen and her friends were singing the praises of the food there as well.

So with a budget price “fill your boots” establishment and a tastefully renovated 400 year old inn for the Bailey family to visit, what's not to like?

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Best Before End?

It seems hard to believe now that “Use By” and “Best Before” dates haven’t always been a feature of food labelling, but incredibly what most consumers would now view as eminently sensible, or even essential information, only made its appearance in 1970, and that was on a voluntary basis.

I am certainly old enough to remember the days before shelf life information first appeared on foodstuffs, even though I’m unsure how people consumers managed, and why there weren’t more instances of food poisoning.

We take these things for granted these days, and even drinks like beer have a “Best Before” date (BBE) somewhere on the container. One thing worth bearing in mind is that unlike a “Use By” date which is a safety warning to be heeded, a BBE  is only a guideline. The foodstuff might not taste as fresh if you exceed the latter, but it will not harm you.

I put this to the test the other day, when I came across a bottle of Fuller’s Golden Pride, with a BBE date of 19th Feb 2016, lurking in my cellar. (I haven’t really got a cellar, just a stack of beer crates and boxes, in the coolest part of the extension). Described as a “Superior Strength Ale”, and with an ABV of  8.5%, this high strength beer was nearly two years past its “Best Before” date. So was it still drinkable?  

There was only one way to find out, and that was to crack open the bottle and taste the contents. The beer was still nice and clear, with plenty of condition. It had an attractive, deep amber colour, which was topped by a sticky-looking head.

Taste-wise, the beer had taken on a distinct sherry-like character, which reminded me of Oloroso Sherry or Madeira wine. It still possessed a fair amount of residual sweetness, but it wasn’t cloying or unbalanced. It obviously wasn’t a beer for rapid consumption, but drank slowly over the course of an hours or so, it was quite pleasant. 

The other surprising thing was this Golden Pride had thrown quite a sediment, despite it being a filtered and pasteurised beer. This resulted in the last couple of inches pouring with a bit of a haze, but the beer was none the worse for that.

I wouldn’t intentionally age a brewery-conditioned beer in this way, but it does prove that a beer of this strength is able to survive and remain perfectly drinkable, long after its BBE date has passed. Had it been a bottle-conditioned beer, then I feel it might have retained a bit more of its original character, but that’s not meant to be a criticism of  this particular bottle.

There is still another bottle left in my store; this time slightly younger, with a BBE May 2016, along with a bottle of Woodforde’s Norfolk Nip, ABV 7.0% BBE November 2015. I really must get myself a bit more organised!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Grand Tour - Part One

Every Spring, West Kent CAMRA organise an outing or two to present awards to those breweries whose beers scooped a prize at the previous year’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival.

Not only do these presentations show  appreciation for the particular brewer’s beer, but they also provide an excuse for local CAMRA members to visit the brewery, to see for themselves how the beer is brewed, and find out what other beers may be available. They also act as a “thank-you” for the volunteers who have given up their time in order to work at the festival.

I always enjoy these outings and even though I’ve visited dozens of breweries over the past four decades, I always learn something new from each one. This got me thinking, and after doing a spot of totting up, I estimate I’ve been to 44 breweries; some more than once. Of these breweries, 34 have been here in the UK, whilst the remaining 10 have been overseas.

For those who like statistics, 20 of the home-based breweries are old, established family brewers – the type of firm which predates CAMRA and which, in most cases, can trace its origins back to the 19th Century, or even before.  Sadly, eight of these companies are no longer in existence; their brewery buildings either converted for other uses, or demolished altogether.

The remaining 14 UK breweries are what might be termed “micro’s”, even though in some cases they are now quite substantial concerns. Most of these “new kids on the block” are based in industrial units, although a few occupy buildings which once had other functions, such as farm-buildings or, in one case, old army Nissen huts.

I’ve obviously got some personal favourites amongst the above groups, so I thought I’d share a few of them, but in order to prevent this post running away with itself I’m going to concentrate on breweries here in the UK for now, and write about the foreign ones separately. Right, here we go.

First Brewery Visit:
This was to the Marston’s Brewery at Burton-on-Trent, and took place during my first year as a student, at Salford University in 1974. It was organised by one of the university societies, and involved a return coach trip to Burton.

I honestly don’t remember that much about it, apart from visiting a pub next to the brewery, prior to the tour, and then stopping at another, somewhere in Cheshire on the way back. There was no sample room at Marston’s back then, so instead we were “refreshed” after the tour in the adjoining company sports & social club.

The beer was all pressurised, but of course, free, and to an impoverished student, that was important. The fact that the club also provided us each with a ploughman’s, also helped eke out my student, leaving me with more money for beer.

Most Recent Brewery Visit:
The visit by our CAMRA branch to the Dark Star Brewery at Partridge Green, West Sussex took place back in May, and was actually my second visit to the brewery. The first tour had been back in 2011, shortly after the company moved into the large 16,000-square-foot unit, which is now their home.

Last May’s tour was one of the best I have been on in a long while, as it was conducted by two members of the Dark Star brewing team. It was also good to see how much Dark Star have expanded in the space of six years, as they now utilise virtually every square foot of space of  their current home. For more information  about this brewery visit, please  click on the link here.

Most Interesting Visits:
There are two of these - Harvey’s of Lewes, a brewery which needs little in the way of introduction; and the former Bass No 2 Brewery in Burton-on-Trent.

Harvey & Sons(Lewes) Ltd
I have been round the brewery three times, and possibly a fourth; but I have always learned something new each time. This is because on each occasion the tour has been conducted by Miles Jenner,  Harvey’s Head Brewer. Miles has the ability to hold his audience spellbound, as he relates the history of the brewery in conjunction with an explanation of the brewing process.

The sample cellar beneath the brewery, is the other  obvious highlight of a tour around Harvey’s.

Bass No. 2 Brewery.
The Bass No. 2 Brewery has now sadly been demolished, but it was housed in a delightful group of Victorian red-brick buildings. With its teak-clad mash tuns and gleaming coppers, it  was as traditional as any brewery you could wish for. I was fortunate to tour the brewery back in the late 1970’s, when I worked for the Wines & Spirits division of Bass.

I also saw the famous Union Rooms, where Draught Bass, fermented away in a series of interlinked oak casks. The only sound audible was that of the gentle hissing of the fermenting beer as it forced its way out of the swan-necked pipes at the top of each cask and into the collecting "barm troughs". It was certainly a magnificent sight. Afterwards I enjoyed some excellent Draught Bass, direct from the cask, in the brewery sample room.

Best Country Brewery Visit:

T.D. Ridley & Sons were based in the small hamlet of Hartford End, to the North-west of Chelmsford. The brewery itself stood on the banks of the River Chelmer, in a truly delightful and very rural setting, and the sight of the brewery emitting clouds of steam, whilst working away in such idyllic surroundings, was one to behold.

Just over a quarter of a century ago, I visited Ridley’s with a group of local CAMRA members, and was shown round by the head brewer.  Much of the plant was of a very traditional nature and the tour, of course, ended in the sample room where we were able to try several others of the brewery's range of beers, including a number of interesting bottled ones. Sadly in 2005, the Ridley family sold the brewery and its 67 pubs to Greene King, who ceased all production at this charming, old, country brewery.

Most Memorable Brewery Visit:


My visit to Ruddles was basically a PR tour of the company’s new brew-house, which coincided with the launch of their new Best Bitter. Ruddles were based in the village of Langham, just outside Oakham, and after our look around we were entertained to lunch by company chairman, Tony Ruddle, in the hospitality centre, where a substantial spread of food had been laid on.

The food was excellent, consisting of local delicacies such as Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Red Leicester and Stilton Cheeses, with chunks of freshly baked crusty bread to soak up the beer; the latter flowing freely from jugs which were replenished at regular intervals.

Best Small Brewery Visit:
Hogs Back Brewery is housed in a group of 18th century farm buildings, just outside the Surrey village of Tongham, and close to the famous Hog’s Back ridge which gives the brewery its name.

I visited Hogs Back around 15 years ago, on a coach trip with a group of local CAMRA members. This was a tour with a difference, as after a brief introductory talk, we were given a free souvenir half pint glass which was filled with the first of several different Hogs Back beers.

As we progressed round the brewery, looking at different stages of the brewing process,  our glasses were recharged at each interval with a progressively stronger beer. So after starting off with one of the brewery’s weakest beers, we steadily worked our way upwards through the range (TEA, Hop Garden Gold, OTT), finally ending up on the 9.0%  A over T.

We’re running out of time here, and also out of space, but there’s just room to mention a couple more breweries:

Most Missed Breweries:
Young’s & Co of Wandsworth and Fremlins of Faversham; both gone to that great brewery graveyard in the sky. 

A trip round Young’s was always going to be good; what with the antique mash-tuns, the old steam engine and the menagerie of farmyard animals. The latter included the magnificent, working dray-horses plus the large ram, who acted as the brewery mascot.

Young’s was a brewery dear to the hearts of many CAMRA members, and was one which should never have been allowed to close. I did two tours, and thoroughly enjoyed them both.

The Fremlins Brewery in Faversham was a massive old brewery which was almost certainly operating way under capacity before its closure. Whitbread, who owned the plant, probably hadn’t spent a penny on the place in years, but it was still a fascinating brewery to look round, and a fine example of a provincial 19th Century, town brewery. The beer (Fremlins Bitter), was good too, and one of my all time favourites.

I could go on, but for brevity’s sake, will draw things to a close now. Next time we will be looking at some of the overseas breweries I have visited.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Saturday morning in West Kent

“Rejoice, we’re on our way out”; so screamed the banner headline on the front of the Daily (hate) Mail. I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to be rejoicing about, but I had a good inkling, so without further ado I inverted and turned round the stack of Little England’s favourite daily, leaving would be purchasers to be greeted with an upside-down sports page, and carried on with my shopping. I doubt many residents of Kings Hill would bother buying Middle England’s finest rag anyway, but there’s nothing like making sure.

I don’t expect many of you will have heard of Kings Hill, so to put you out of your misery, it is one of several new villages built in Kent since the 1950’s. It occupies the site of the former RAF West Malling airfield, which was one of the front-line airfields during the Battle of Britain.

The airfield was decommissioned by the RAF in 1969, but it remained in civilian use until the late 1980’s, when work started to transform the site into a new village community of mixed residential and commercial properties. The latter are mainly fancy-looking office buildings; some of which are corporate headquarters for faceless companies. The development work began in 1989 and seemingly continues to this day.

As its name suggests it is situated on a hill, close to the small market town of West Malling. It is a cold and windy place and I don’t like it at all, but it does have a reasonably-sized ASDA, and that was the attraction, for Mrs PBT’s at least, which led to us making the 20 minute journey over from Tonbridge.

The drive over was the second best part of the morning, with the drive home being the best, but at least this did allow us to appreciate the Kent countryside on a cold winter’s day; even if it was from the warmth of the car.

Now Mrs PBT’s prefers to do supermarket shopping on her own.  She is quite insistent on this, so there are no joint moments of indecision in the aisles whilst Thursday evening’s meal choice is debated. This suits me perfectly, but what to do with the time, before I receive my summons to assist her at the checkout?

Shopping locally in Tonbridge, poses no problems as I can head off into the town on errands such as banking, man-shopping or just generally having a look around. With Fuggles now open I can also pop in for a swift half depending, of course, on the time of day.

The other food-shopping destination are the Tunbridge Wells retail parks at North Farm; a destination which is now much easier to reach following completion of the upgrade to the A21 between Tonbridge and Pembury. Whilst Mrs PBT’s is in ASDA, I normally head over to Gregg’s where I can pick up a half-decent cup of coffee and take advantage of their free Wi-Fi.

Kings Hill is a different proposition altogether. Cold and draughty, even during the height of summer, there is nowhere to sit out and watch the world go by. The only other shops are an opticians, a Chinese restaurant and a Costa Coffee. I have resorted to the latter before, out of desperation, but it is pricey and full of “yummy mummies” and their “charming” children. Perhaps they make up the bulk of the Daily Fail’s target audience in Kings Hill, in which case they may have had to look a bit harder on Saturday for their fake-news fix.
After disposing of our household’s collected re-cycleable items in the correct bins, I popped into ASDA, to pick up some cheap beer and sort out their newspaper display.  I took my purchases back to the car, and then wandered around aimlessly, not relishing the prospect of handing over my money for an over-sized cup of frothy coffee; but also not keen on returning to the supermarket.

My wanderings took me past Kings Hill’s only pub and it was here that an “A” board caught my eye. Fresh coffee and tea available inside at prices a lot more amenable than Costa’s. The pub in question is called the Spitfire, which is highly appropriate in view of the role played by the aircraft and also RAF West Malling in the nation’s history. The name is doubly appropriate as the pub belongs to Shepherd Neame, and Spitfire is their top-selling ale-brand.

This would be the first time I’ve set foot inside the Spitfire, but given my known aversion to Shepherd Neame beers this is hardly surprising. A decent cup of coffee was a different proposition though, so I decided to bite the bullet and step inside.

As the photo’s show, the Spitfire is a monument to brutalist modernism. This means it does not look out of place amongst the rest of King’s Hill’s buildings. The modernist look extended through to the interior as well, but the pub seemed well patronised, and after ordering my coffee I had difficulty in finding an empty seat and a spare table.

I was happy to hand over my £2.00 for what was a very reasonable cup of coffee. I much prefer to give my money to a “local” brewery such as Shepherd Neame, rather than a multi-national chain like Costa Coffee. The only thing was it seemed as though some of the “yummy mummies” thought the same too. Perhaps it was my fault for choosing to sit in the raised area with the comfy sofas, but there really wasn’t anywhere else free.

Fortunately, the group with the noisiest and worst behaved child departed, not long after I’d sat down, leaving me free to people-watch and skim through the emails accumulated on my phone. I didn’t see much cask being served; Spitfire (obviously), plus Whitstable Bay Pale were the beers on offer, but I didn’t witness that much lager being poured either. Most of the customers were either like me and having a quick coffee or were larger groups who had called in for lunch.

To end, I can think of far more enjoyable and productive ways to spend a few hours on a Saturday, but needs must and all that. I will remember the Spitfire though as a place to retreat to, the next time Mrs PBT’s decides  to shop at Kings Hill.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Go easy on the roast

I’m still working on the lengthy post I mentioned the other day, and what with Christmas meals, shopping and log-splitting – not necessarily all in the same order, I haven’t progressed the long post at all. So by way of a stocking filler (you can tell Christmas is approaching), here is a slightly off-beat post.

It concerns a couple of beers I had yesterday afternoon, at the work’s Christmas meal. As I mentioned in the previous post, our company dinner was held at the Little Brown Jug at Chiddingstone Causeway, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it was one of the best events of its kind that I can remember.

The pub was looking spotless, all decked out for Christmas, and with a welcoming log fire, blazing away in the grate, provided the perfect welcome.  The food was excellent, and I particularly enjoyed my crispy braised pork belly, with smoked mash, celeriac and pear puree, sautéed bacon and kale and mustard sauce. I had a couple of glasses of Chardonnay as well, just to be sociable, but also because only three of us were drinking wine on our table.

The company was good too as, unlike previous years where people tended to sit with members of their own departments, we spread ourselves around. I ended up sitting with colleagues from dispatch, production plus R&D, and it made a nice change to mix and mingle with different people.

But what about the beer? That all important drink which makes a good pub great and an excellent one fantastic. The regular beer on the bar was Larkin’s Traditional, and I ended up on this, but first I fancied something a little different. There was a choice of  two beers from Tonbridge Brewery, but unfortunately they were very similar and both appear to contain an ingredient I am not at all fond of.

Now Tonbridge Brewery are something of a local success story, expanding  from small beginnings brewing in a converted garage attached to the owner’s home on the edge of Tonbridge, to occupying an industrial unit in nearby East Peckham. Through sheer dogged persistence, they have expanded slowly and steadily, without any fanfare or headline-grabbing publicity, into a brewery which now supplies over 200 outlets in Kent.

They produce an interesting range of well-crafted beers, including three which I am really fond of, but unfortunately the two on sale yesterday afternoon, were not to my  liking. Tonbridge have a new beer out, called Countryman. I first spotted it last week at the Elm Tree near Paddock Wood. I didn’t try it then, but seeing it on the bar at the Jug, I thought I’d give it a go.

I should perhaps have been a little wary when our new recruit in the sales department, who was in front of me at the bar, pronounced that it was dominated by a liquorice flavour. She’s only been with us a few weeks; not long enough for me to realise she’s a bit of a beer connoisseur. My pint was already being pulled when she gave her verdict, so I had to stick with my choice and find out for myself.

She was right as there was an over-whelming “burnt” taste to the beer, which I recognised instantly as either roast malt or roast barley. Now roasted grains have their place in darker beers, such as porters or stouts, where they contribute both colour and a rich roasted flavour, but when used in a “bitter” they tend to dominate and mask the more subtle juicy malt flavours along with the hop bitterness derived from choice aroma hops. So I really wish certain brewers wouldn’t insist on using these roasted grains in their bitters ales.

I drank my pint of Countryman, longing for something with a cleaner and more refreshing taste, but the only alternative, apart from the Larkin’s, was the other beer from Tonbridge. This was the brewery’s best selling Coppernob, a 3.8% fairly dry copper-coloured bitter.

I had a feeling that this too contained some roasted grain, and I was right. There wasn’t quite as much as in the Countryman, but it was still too high for my liking. I ended up on the Larkin’s Traditional, slightly disappointed that the pub had selected two Tonbridge beers that were just too similar.

Now I am probably coming across here as both churlish and ungrateful. Churlish for saying this when the management and staff of the LBJ went out of their way to look after us and to ensure we had an enjoyable evening.  Ungrateful because the company picked up the tab for both the food and the drink.

I can assure you that I am neither and, as stated earlier, I had a brilliant  time.  I don’t want to criticise Tonbridge Brewery either, as they have some excellent beers in their portfolio (Union Pale, Alsace Gold, Blonde Ambition and Ebony Moon), plus there was nothing at all wrong with the quality of the Countryman or the Coppernob.

All I am trying to say is, I don’t like the use of roasted grains in bitters or best bitters and really wish brewers would desist from using them in this fashion.

Footnote; other beers springing to mind where I detect the presence of roasted barely/malt, include Wychwood Hobgoblin, Goacher’s Dark,  Bath Ales Barnsey and most so-called “Red Ales”.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

So Christmas begins

I’m working on a rather lengthy post at the moment, so in case I don’t finish it this evening, I wanted to say it’s my company’s Christmas “do” tomorrow afternoon. There will therefore be no blogging on Friday evening, when I eventually stagger home.

This year’s event follows a familiar pattern, of work in the morning, before we all march off up the road to the Little Brown Jug pub; around five minutes walk away. There will be a sit-down, three-course Christmas meal, accompanied by the odd glass or three of beer or wine.

The Little Brown Jug is opposite Penshurst station, in the small village of Chiddingstone Causeway, where our factory is based. The station will be handy for a train back to Tonbridge, tomorrow evening, but I think most of the workforce, who don’t live locally, will be relying on someone to drive them home.

There does seem a strange reluctance amongst many people today to use public transport, which is foolish, as in these straightened times the bus and train companies are likely to cite “lack of use” as a reason to cutback on services.

OK, rant over and back to the Christmas theme. The Jug is a Greene King pub which is leased to a local company called Whiting & Hammond. It has a reputation for good food, and beer-wise normally stocks Larkin’s Traditional, from the brewery just a few miles down the road.

This time of year I’d prefer something a little stronger, such as the rarely seen 4.4% Larkin’s Best, but we will have to wait and see as to what else is on, (most likely Rocking Rudolph, that faux Hardy & Hanson beer from the GK stable). With the company picking up the tab though, I shouldn’t be churlish, and there’s normally the odd half-decent bottle of wine floating about.

When I first started with the company, eleven and a half years ago, we had a couple of lunchtime Christmas meals, at the Bottle House up at Smart’s Hill. However, getting staff to and from this attractive, but very isolated country pub proved a logistical nightmare, and also an expensive one due to the cost of taxi hire, so the company then switched to holding an evening “do”.

We were allowed to bring our partners to these events, but as the workforce grew in numbers, these evenings also worked out expensive. The current afternoon celebration works quite well, and although some may have described me as a grumpy old git, I do actually enjoy mixing and socialising with my colleagues, (well most of them, anyway!)

That just about sums up our company Christmas meal, but the family and I will be looking forward to another celebratory dinner the following weekend; this time with friends from West Kent CAMRA. The Brecknock Arms, at Bells Yew Green, conveniently close to Frant station, will once again be hosting our event. With Harvey’s Old and Christmas Ale on draught, that too could prove to be a boozy event.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The paradox of choice

Whilst in Lewes the other week I picked up a copy of "Sussex Drinker"; the quarterly news-magazine published by the combined Sussex CAMRA branches. Seeing as my son and I were in the company of friends from Maidstone & Mid Kent CAMRA, I also picked up the latest edition of “Draught Copy”; their own magazine, which also appears on a quarterly basis.

I hadn’t really looked at these magazines until the other night, when flicking through them I was amazed, and also somewhat taken aback, by the numbers of breweries there are in the two counties. Kent currently has 39 operating breweries whilst Sussex can boast a staggering 60!

Now I know other writers, such as Curmudgeon and Boak & Bailey have written about this before, but the number of breweries in this south-eastern corner of England is surely way too high, and in the long term, unsustainable.

With beer sales in decline, fewer people going to the pub and indeed pubs continuing to close at an alarming rate, where exactly is the market for all these beers or, more importantly, where are they managing to sell their beers?

Of course some of these 99 breweries are brew-pubs, or one man bands. Others specialise in bottles and concentrate on selling their beers into farm shops or at farmers’ markets, but this must be a pretty precarious way to earn a living. On the other hand, there are also quite a few success stories amongst this number,

But where will it all end? It was rather sad to read in “Sussex Drinker”,  of the demise of Ballard’s Brewery; one of the pioneers of the small brewery movement, a phenomenon which actually predates the much more recent micro-brewery explosion.  Ballard’s started brewing in 1980, so were not far short of their 40th anniversary.

However, just over two weeks ago it was announced that Ballard’s would be closing, but their beers would continue being brewed by the Greyhound Brewery in West Chiltington, which is just down the road from Ballard’s home at Nyewood, West Sussex. Francis Weston, Ballard’s brewer for many years, will oversee the transfer of the recipes to their new home, whilst the brewing plant has been sold and is being shipped out to Serbia, of all places.

“Sussex Drinker” also reported on the closure of the Beachy Head Brewery, due to the imminent retirement of its founder and brewer, Roger Green.  Then of course there is news of start-ups, such as Brewing Brothers in Hastings and Brew Studio at Sompting.

As others have pointed out, we must be close to saturation point with regard to breweries; if we haven’t reached it already, and although the choice of beers which are now available appears a good situation to be in, the converse is actually true. These days when confronted in a pub, by an unfamiliar beer on the bar, I am likely to think twice before ordering a pint, whereas at one time I wouldn't have hesitated to give it a try.

Too much choice, actually means less in a perverse way, and the fact that the beers brewed by some of these new breweries are mediocre at best, actually helps no-one, as for a while at least, it ties up bar space which could be taken by beers brewed by people who know their trade.

Ultimately, some of these poorer efforts will fall by the wayside, but in some instances not before one or two of the better breweries have been driven out of business by too much competition chasing far too few outlets. This really is an example of competition actually stifling choice and not working in the consumer interest.

The pattern of what is happening in Kent and Sussex is being repeated up and down the country, with most areas of Britain potentially offering a range of beers which would have seemed unimaginable a decade or so ago. But will this amazing choice ultimately "kill the goose that laid the golden egg", or will we see the long predicted, but yet to materialise, shake up in the brewing industry, and the cutting out of the slack?