Monday, 31 August 2009

Munich - Some Highs and the Odd Low

The eight days my son and I spent in Munich were mainly, but not exclusively devoted to beer sampling. There was of course the odd bit of sight-seeing, some shopping and just generally chilling out, but the real highs were sampling the excellent products of Forschungsbrauerei, our day trip to Tegernsee in its glorious mountain lakeside setting, plus a return visit to Kloster Andechs.

The lows, were not really lows but slight disappointments. Arriving in Holzkirchen only to find that it was a Ruhetag (rest day) at Brauerei Gasthof Oberbrau and not being able to sample Holzkirchen Oberbrau; no real worry here, we travelled on to Tegernsee instead. The other disappointment was travelling to Geltendorf, at the far end of S-Bahn Line 8, and discovering that buses to Kaltenberg (home of Prinz Luitpold of Bavaria, as well as his castle-cum-brewery), only seemed to run when there was an "r" in the month. Small matter, we travelled back into Munich and visited Maisacher Brauerei instead.

I must expand a bit more here about Forschungsbrauerei. We visited on a Saturday, which was the only rainy day of our trip. A moderate S-Bahn ride to Perlach station, followed by a short walk, through the rain, saw us arriving at this renowned brewery shortly after 4pm. The biergarten was obviously closed, due to the inclement weather, so we made our way inside the cosy Braustuberl. After being shown to a vacant table we ordered a half litre each of Pilsissimus, the brewery's everyday 5.2% lager bier, only to have it pointed out to us that after 4pm beer is only served in litre mugs! No matter, we settled for a mass each of this tasty brew, it arriving at our table in traditional, stone-ware mugs which have the advantage of keeping the beer cooler for longer on hot days (not that it mattered that day!) The place began to slowly fill up, by which time I at least, although my son chickened out, decided to try Forschung's other product, the legendary St Jakobus Bock. This is a beer that doesn't take any prisoners, and at 7.5% is not really a beer to be drank in litre quantities. Having said that though this brew ranks amongst the finest beers I have ever drank, being intensely malty with a well-balanced hoppiness. The Pilsissimus was also a superb drink, with a wonderful, almost peppery bite from the whole-leaf hops used. Both beers were by far the best we sampled on the entire trip, and looking back I regret not making a return visit later on in the week.

A word of advice if you are planning to visit Forschungsbrauerei; it is closed on Mondays, and only opens for seven months of the year, from March to mid-October. During the other five months brewer Stefan Jakob and his uncle Sigmund Steinbeisser concentrate their skills on brewing research for other breweries. This is still a real family-run enterprise, and I cannot emphasise enough how, despite my somewhat limited German, we were made to feel really welcome, and left feeling we had sampled a true taste of Bavarian hospitality.

That's all for now; more about Tegernsee, Kloster Andechs, plus a bit about some of Munich's hidden beer gardens in future posts.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

First Reflections on Returning from Munich

Well we got back from Munich earlier today, somewhat tired after eight days travelling in and around the Bavarian Capital. When we were last there in 2007, the so-called "credit crunch" was just starting to unwind. In fact, at the time CNN (the only English language TV station available in our hotel) were making dire predictions about what would happen if the banks were to stop lending money to one another, as well as to the likes of businesses and private individuals.

Now two years on, I am pleased to report that Munich, along with the rest of the western world, seems to have survived the worst of the economic downturn. The city was perhaps looking a tiny bit shabby in places, but there seems to be a lot of construction and also renovation projects in progress - always a good sign.

We were blessed with glorious weather, with only one day of rain. We visited some fantastic beer gardens, and sampled some excellent beers. The best of these though, came from outside the city, with the honourable exception of Forschungs - whose beers must rank amongst some of the finest I have ever tasted. Of Munich's "big Six" brewers, Augustiner rose way above the rest, especially when served direct from large wooden barrels, as in the Hirschgarten. Hofbrau was also quite drinkable, but the likes of Lowenbrau, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr and Paulaner, whilst pleasant enough thirst quenchers on a hot summer's day, were not what I would call particularly "challenging".

This small gripe aside, we were really impressed by the popularity of the city's beer gardens. They attract people of all ages and from all walks of life. They act as great social levellers, and are places where people can go to relax after a hard days work, or to meet up with friends. At the weekends they are heaving, and are particularly popular with family groups.

Over the next week or so, I will be posting details of some of the best of these gardens, so look out for these.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009


Tomorrow my son and I are off to enjoy the beery delights of Munich; capital of the Free State of Bavaria and Germany's third largest city. It will be my third visit and I am really looking forward to it. We'll be there for nine days, hoping the sample the wares of all the city's breweries, as well as some from further afield.

This trip we're going armed with a copy of the "Beer Drinkers Guide to Munich", a well-researched guide to the best of the city's beer gardens and beer halls, written by Larry Hawthorne, an American author who seems to have devoted the past 20 years to producing the guide, which is now in its sixth edition.

I don't have a lap top (and I don't think my wife will lend me hers), so I won't be posting for a while, but I'll be taking notes and plenty of photo's to report back on my return.

I'll sign off now then as we've got an early morning flight, and I need my beauty sleep. Auf wiedersehen and Prost!

Friday, 14 August 2009

An Own Goal?

For the past two or three years I have subscribed to an excellent magazine entitled "Beers of the World". This full colour, glossy magazine does exactly what it says on the cover, namely it carries features and articles on beers from both around the world, as well as those from the UK. It is published once every couple of months, and my only real criticism is the way the publishers send out reminders for renewal of subscriptions several months before they are actually due.

This aside, Beers of the World is a really interesting read, and features contributions from several well-known and distinguished writers, including Roger Protz, Jeff Evans, Des de Moor and Zak Avery. Its pedigree therefore is second to none, and I always look forward to its arrival on my doormat. Imagine my shock then when the August/September issue arrived a couple of weekends ago, and what looked like a flyer fell out. I nearly threw it away, but on reading it I was informed that the current issue would be the last, as the magazine will in future only be available on line. Readers were offered either the choice of changing their subscriptions over to the magazine's sister publication, "Whisky of the World", or a refund on any money remaining.

I phoned their helpline and chose the latter, but not before I'd vented my strong disapproval at the publisher's decision. (Apparently I wasn't the only caller to do so!) Unfortunately the poor girl on the other end of the line knew precious little about why this decision had been taken, but I suspect it's probably due to falling advertising revenues and the high costs of printing and distribution. I was talking about this to some colleagues the other day, and it transpires that several other magazines have gone down the same road; all have sunk without a trace! The main conclusion we all reached though, and one that the publishers so far seem to have missed, is that people primarily read magazines to relax. Sitting in one's favourite armchair, with a cup of coffee, or better still glass of beer, whilst flicking through the pages of an interesting magazine, is both calming and restful. Trying to do the same thing hunched over a computer screen just isn't the same! OK I know that these days you can carry a small lap-top around with you, but sitting on a train, or waiting for a bus what is easier? messing around with a computer, or just pulling a magazine out of ones bag or back pocket? I know what I'd rather do.

On a closing note I feel particularly sorry for Beers of the World editor, Sally Toms, who along with her editorial team has done an excellent job with this magazine. She writes in her last editorial about how she has been with the publication right from the start, and how much she has enjoyed visiting breweries, sampling new beers, judging at competitions, and above all just meeting the really nice people that, on the whole, work in the brewing industry. I wish you well Sally, in whatever venture you are up to next, and if our paths ever cross it would be nice to enjoy a couple of beers together.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

So Much to do so Little Time!

Just sitting here enjoying a glass of Pivovar Herold, an excellent Black Lager from the Czech Republic. Have just finished moving 30 two foot square paving slabs from the front of my house to the rear. Did the same thing yesterday, having had 60 delivered in total. They should have been here last week but B & Q cocked up. When laid they'll form the new patio and the base for our new summerhouse-cum-brewery.

Have plenty to write about at the moment, but just don't have the time. We've got our official pub guide launch on Saturday, and I've also got to pack ready for Munich, grab some Euros, get a haircut and a thousand and one other things! Never mind; it's better than sitting here twiddling my thumbs!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Sunday in the High Weald

Having done all the domestic things on Saturday, including the shopping and mowing the grass, Sunday dawned warm and bright - just perfect for a walk in the country. In common with other West Kent CAMRA members I've volunteered to hawk our recently published "Gateway to Kent" around a few of the local hostelries. Apart from the town ones (Tonbridge), the rural ones I've selected are all within easy driving distance from where I work, meaning I can cover them at lunchtime. Well most of them; the Kentish Horse, in the small hamlet of Mark Beech was just that bit too far for a lunchtime visit, so I decided a weekend walk in the country, taking in the aforementioned pub would be a better solution.

I travelled out by train to the small, pleasant town of Edenbridge, alighting at the top station. I then made my way to Edenbridge's other station; Edenbridge Town. Like several towns in this part of the country Edenbridge has two stations, a relic from the days of different, competing companies who originally built the railways. From the Town station there were just two stops to my final destination of Cowden. I'm ashamed to say that in the twenty-five years or so that I've lived in this part of Kent I have never travelled, until now, on what is known as the Uckfield Line. I am doubly ashamed of this fact, as for the past 15 years I've been a member of the Wealden Line Campaign - an organisation campaigning to restore rail services from Uckfield (where the line is currently truncated), through to Lewes. The link was originally cut in the late 1960's to make way for a mis-guided relief road scheme in Lewes, thereby transforming what was a useful through route into nothing more than a branch line to nowhere. Despite the obvious benefits of restoring just 8 miles of track, successive governments and railway management, have shamefully buried their heads in the sand and have poured cold water on all proposed re-opening schemes. East Sussex County Council must be singled out here for particular criticism, as it was their road scheme that led to the cutting of the line in the first place, and it has largely been their intransigence that has prevented the line re-opening. I digress, but it's something I feel rather passionate about, having worked for three years in Lewes. It always niggled me that apart from the long way via Redhill, I was denied the opportunity of direct travel by train from my home town of Tonbridge; something that was quite straight forward, prior to 1969.

Cowden station is pretty and very rural in its location, but like many others in this part of the world is some distance from the actual village itself. My route to the Kentish Horse lay through some woodland alongside the tracks. From here it was a short walk over the top of Cowden tunnel to Mark Beech itself. It was cool and very peaceful walking through the woods, and apart from the noise of the up-train, nothing disturbed the solitude. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled upon a small, but attractive looking house in a clearing, right in the middle of the woods. It was like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and I half expected to see an old lady, dressed in black, in a tall pointed hat, leaning on her broom-stick by the front door. I later found out that the house is a holiday let, that can be reached by car via a narrow track - so much for romantic illusions!

Leaving the shade of the woods behind me, I was soon exposed to the full heat of the midday sun. Once again though, apart from the noise of the planes departing from Gatwick, no man-made sounds disturbed the quiet of the countryside. I could see the spire of Mark Beech church in the distance, and made my way towards it. The path led trough the churchyard, and the Sunday service having just finished, I was invited in for a look by a member of the congregation. The church is mid-Victorian, and quite attractive in its own way. It was certainly nice and cool inside.

However, I had a pint waiting for me, and a king-sized thirst to match, so I passed out of the churchyard and into the rear garden of the Kentish Horse. It is several years since I last had the pleasure of visiting this pub, and I was not disappointed with what I saw when I stepped inside. The pub has a bright and airy feel to it, which complements its obvious antiquity. Harveys Best and Larkins Traditional were the beers on offer; I opted for a pint of the latter. The landlady was pleased to take some guides off me. I too was pleased as it meant I would not have to carry them back with me.

The pub was starting to fill up nicely, no doubt in part due to the excellence of the menu. I took my second pint outside and sat there enjoying the sunshine and watching the world go by. I decided to make my next stop at the legendary Queens Arms, at Cowden Pound. A visit to this CAMRA National Inventory-listed pub really is like stepping back in time, as nothing much has changed in this simple country ale-house since the 1930's! Known locally as "Elsie's", after its delightful and quick-witted landlady, the Queen's Arms is one of a small number of fast vanishing, unspoilt, heritage pubs. Elsie was born in the pub, and her mother ran the place before her. No-one is quite sure exactly how old she is, and no-one would certainly dare ask her. However, Elsie has not been too good recently and apart from Sunday lunchtimes, the pub is now only open during the evenings.

The Queen's Arms' other claim to fame is the fact that it does not sell lager, in any shape or form. A sign outside proclaims to to the outside world "Lager not Sold Here". One single draught beer is sold; currently Adnams Bitter, but back in the days when the pub was tied to Whitbread, Fremlins, and then Flowers were the beers sold A bank of three hand pumps adorns the bar, apart from that there is nothing else; no fancy chilled cabinets, and only three optics. In the old days, Elsie did not sell vodka either, but has relented since the collapse of communism! She used to serve simple bread and cheese lunches, in ample portions, but unfortunately has had to stop since her health took a turn for the worse. The pub still has two bars, but the larger saloon is only used for special occasions, like the regular folk evenings. The public bar is very basic, with a lino floor, and bare wooden bench seating around the outside walls. A welcoming coal fire provides the heat during the winter months. The Adnams is served in over sized, lined glasses, and costs just £2.70 pint. If you don't like Adnams, gin, whisky or vodka, there is a choice of bottled Guinness, Ramrod or Strongbow!

I had just missed Elsie when I called in. The chap looking after the bar for her told me that she had gone out the back for her Sunday lunch. This was a real shame, as she is quite a character. She is one of the very few people I know who still speaks with the soft burr of a proper Kentish accent. Unfortunately, the county's proximity to London has meant that the much harsher "Estuary English" is now the "lingua Franca" in these parts. As I mentioned earlier, no food is available at the Queens Arms, apart from plain crisps that is! However, some of the regulars have taken to bringing in their own, and there were some cheese and crackers on counter that I was invited to share.

Pubs like this are a dying breed and one has to fear for the future of the Elsie's once she is no longer capable of running the place. I left happy and contented after a couple of pints of Adnams. I made my way to Hever station and caught the train back to Edenbridge. I was going to stop for a pint in the town, but after the experience of the Queens Arms, anything Edenbridge had to offer would have seemed a poor second best! If you are ever in this part of Kent, then call in at Elsie's, before this marvellous piece of living history vanishes for ever.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

GBBF Day One

Tuesday, my one and only visit to Earls Court this year. It's more than a few years since I last attended GBBF for the Trade Session. Although strictly speaking I'm no longer actively involved with the licensed trade, I still have quite a few contacts, so it was quite easy getting hold of a couple of tickets. I travelled up with a friend from work, but once inside the hall we soon met up with a number of other West Kent CAMRA members who'd had the foresight to grab a table. We made this our base for the rest of the day, and there were enough of us to ensure the table wasn't left totally unoccupied whilst the remainder of us went off foraging for whichever beers (and food) took our fancy.

My strategy this year was to start off with a few milds and weaker bitters, before moving on to the porters and stouts. Having done this, I would then move across to the imported beers on the Biers sans Frontieres stand. The inter-active beer lists on the GBBF website, which allow one to select and save those beers which take your fancy, and then come back and edit it later on, were a great innovation. How much easier it was to produce one's own "wish list" at the click of a mouse, without having to print off and copy out great chunks of text.

The strategy got off to a poor start, with several of the beers I wanted to sample not available. No problem, I had brought a reserve list, which just happened to be the first one I had knocked up. As this contained over 50 entries, I had sensibly whittled it down somewhat, but in the end it came in handy. The other really good innovation about this year's festival was the use of colourful "chalk-boards", displaying lists of all the beers on sale at each bar - full marks to the person(s) behind this idea.

We missed the announcement of the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) results, but whilst I wouldn't want to take anything away from the winners, Rudgate Mild doesn't really strike me as Supreme CBOB. I met up with plenty of old friends, including several members of Maidstone & Mid-Kent Branch. I also had a brief chat with Phil and Debbie Goacher, plus their brewer Simon and his girlfriend.

For lunch I enjoyed a pasty from the Crusty Pie Company, followed by a mature cheddar roll from the Traditional Cheese Company. Much later on, and plenty of beer later, I had an excellent red Thai curry, courtesy of Nuch's Kitchen. I have to say that my two favourite beers of the festival were both from the Czech Republic, and both from the same brewery. Brewed in the Moravian town of Humpolec, Bernard Brewery's excellent Cerne Pivo (dark) and Sveltly Pivo (light), both unpasteurised, and in the case of the latter, unfiltered as well, really hit the spot so far as I was concerned, and have whetted my appetite for a long overdue return visit to the Czech Republic. The best home-produced beers I sampled were Yates Fever Pitch, a 3.9% bitter, Grain Tamarind, a really tasty 5.1% IPA and the Bristol Beer Factory's 4.5% Milk Stout, who's name speaks for itself!

I have been looking at comments posted on other blogs, including those of the festival organisers. Several have drawn attention to the large percentage of female visitors, estimated at around 40%. Whilst I too noticed this phenomenon last year, as an ordinary punter, Trade Day seemed much more of a male preserve, reinforcing my admittedly somewhat prejudiced view of it as a glorified "publicans outing". Nevertheless it was an extremely enjoyable day out, and from CAMRA's point of view a highly successful one, with numbers significantly up on last year. The organisers and all the hard working volunteers should be congratulated for the truly professional event that the Great British Beer Festival is today.

Footnote: now that I've had a couple of days to recover I'm sorry that I won't be attending the festival again tomorrow (Friday). Unfortunately, with a holiday in Bavaria fast approaching I don't really feel justified in spending another full day at Earls Court, much as I would like to. However, I'm extremely heartened by what I experienced, and by all the positive feedback about the event that I've read to date. Well done, CAMRA!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Shoreham Pub Crawl

I can't think of many better ways of spending a wet and windy July evening than visiting a pub. Last Wednesday's CAMRA social surpassed this by taking in not one but four pubs. The village of Shoreham is situated in the picturesque Darenth Valley, between Sevenoaks and Swanley, and only a few miles from the M25. It is however, a world away from the frantic pace of the country's busiest motorway, ranking as one of the most attractive and prettiest villages in this part of Kent. With small, narrow streets, stone-built and half-timbered cottages and the River Darent running through its centre, it is hard to believe that London is less than 30 miles away.

Shoreham is readily accessible by train, so it proved the ideal venue for a crawl around its four pubs. There used to be five pubs in the village, but the Royal Oak, which many CAMRA members regarded as the best pub in Shoreham, unfortunately closed its doors for the last time several years ago. Still, four pubs in a village this size isn't bad going, especially in today's economic climate, and I am glad to report that on the night of our visit, all four were pulling in a reasonable trade.

This was the first time I have visited Shoreham in daylight, as previous pub crawls here have always been held either earlier or later in the year. It was good therefore to be able to walk down from the station along the unlit country lane without needing a torch! As we entered the vilage we passed Ye Olde George Inne, the first of Shoreham’s four pubs. The plan was to head for the furthest pub and then work our way back here, leaving ourselves handily situated for the short walk back up the hill to the station. Crossing over the fast-flowing Darent, and passing both the Kings Arms and the Two Brewers, we made our way to the Crown for our first pint of the night.

The Crown is a rambling old building with low ceilings and plenty of exposed beams. Somewhat unusually in this day and age it still has two separate bars. We chose the lower, and larger of these, and after discarding our wet weather gear, settled down to enjoy a beer or two. Greene King Abbot and Westerham Summer Perle were the beers on offer. Most of us opted for the latter, finding it an ideal summer pint; the only thing missing was summer itself!

From the Crown it was back to the Two Brewers. This pub, with its one large L-shaped bar, open-plan layout and red and gold wall-paper reminds me more of a restaurant than an actual pub. It was certainly quite busy with diners when we called in. Sheperd Neame Spitfire and Greene King IPA were the beers on tap. I am not a great fan of either of these beers, but opted for the IPA over the Sheps.

We then moved on to the white weather boarded, 16th Century Kings Arms; an altogether smaller, and perhaps more intimate pub. Although some of the internal walls have been removed, the pub effectively still has two bars. The Harveys Best was the beer of choice here, and to my mind was probably the best pint of the evening. All too soon though it was time to brave the rain again and move on to the final pub on our crawl, Ye Olde George.

The George had been closed on my previous two visits to Shoreham, as for some reason the previous licensee had kept strange, and rather erratic opening hours. Happily this is no longer the case following a change of ownership that has given the pub a new lease of life. Ye Olde George Inne lives up to its name, with low-beamed ceilings, and uneven floors, but what we found most attractive was the Batemans XB on sale. Although the brewery's stronger XXXB is occasionally seen in this neck of the woods, its weaker, but by no means less tasty stablemate is a real rarity. It was something of a pity then that we had to leave before last orders in order to catch the last train back to Sevenoaks.

So ended what had been a most enjoyable, but somewhat hectic tour of one of Kent’s prettiest villages.