Sunday, 23 September 2012


Following on from my recent post about craft beer and the debate continuing on other people's blogs, I had an unusual bottled beer to try the other day that makes a real point  of being a "Craft Beer", so much so that even the crown cap carries the message "I Drink Craft". I acquired the beer, courtesy of  Tandleman, who kindly gave me a bottle to try, when I met him at GBBF last month.

Called KREECHR, the beer is an unpasteurised strong, 6.5% abv lager, craft-brewed in Bavaria, (name of brewery and exact location, unknown), and  marketed by an organisation called,  who are a South African/Portuguese brewing co-operative. There's a tie up with international sportswear  manufacturer Puma. "We created KREECHR in very limited quantities (600 cases) especially for PUMA in celebration of their entry in the 2011 Volvo Ocean Race.". There's also a tie up with  Oh Beautiful Beer ,  which as far as I can make out is a design house that  "celebrates remarkable graphic design from the world of beer."

As I'm not particularly sporty, I'm not that familiar with Puma's range of sportswear, but a look on their website reveals that Kreechr is the brand name of  beach shoes/sandals produced by the company, for toddlers and young children. Quite what the health police will make of this particular tie-up remains to be seen, but naming a beer after kids' shoes probably doesn't comply with ASA guidelines!

Still, that's not my problem, and as for the beer itself, I have to admit it's rather good. Smooth tasting, as one would expect of a beer that boasts a brewing time of 8 weeks, and with a nice hop character from the choice aroma hops used in its production, probably Saaz or Hallertau. Plenty of character and dangerously drinkable, despite its high strength, is my verdict on the beer. Thanks for this one Tandleman!

The Brewers and Union's website shows that they produce seven different beers, all nicely packaged and most of which are lagers. There is also a wheat beer, plus a Tripel. The website seems very keen on promoting the concept of craft beer with sections entitled "What is Craft Beer", "Craft Beer Nutrition" and "Craft Beer Care". These are illustrated by some entertaining videos, but most importantly, so far as the beer drinker is concerned , is the "Find Our Craft Beer" section; either here or in South Africa.  Most of the UK outlets are in London, as might be expected, and appear to be either up-market wine-shops or boutique-style bars. Nevertheless, I'll be looking out for when they start to become more widely available in order to give some of the other beers a try.

Well, no more blogging for a week or so. On Tuesday I'm off to Prague for a short break. No doubt I'll be enjoying a few "Craft Beers" out there! Cheers!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

It's Not All Roses in the Garden of England

I count myself lucky to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Kent has long been known as the Garden of England, and not without some justification either. The county grows much of the nation's fruit, in particular apples and cherries, as well as soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries. The part of the county I live in is also the home of the Kent cobnut, a large variety of hazelnut. Most importantly, for us beer lovers, until comparatively recently times, Kent was the area where most of the nation's hops were grown. Regrettably, that honour has now passed to Hereford and Worcester.

As befits such an attractive and rural county, Kent possesses some real unspoilt country pubs, and I have written about them many times in the pages of this blog. In fact I have probably written about them so much that people must think I live in a wonderful rural paradise of picture-book pubs, all  providing refreshment and sustenance in form of marvellous beer and wholesome home-cooked food, to weary travellers and hard-working country types alike.

I make no apologies for having painted such an idyllic picture, as I am proud of where I live and wart to share some of the many delights, both scenic and pub-wise, that Kent has to offer, but before I get to carried away I need to put the record straight, come down to earth a little and let people know that not everything is quite so rosy in this little corner of England as it might at first seem.

Like many parts of the country, Kent has suffered its share of pub closures, and whilst we've been spared some of the worst excesses of the ongoing cull of the nation's pubs, we've by no means been immune from it. Thankfully many of the county's rural gems have escaped, on the outside at least, but the price of their survival had often been conversion, either in part, but some times in full, to up-market eateries with prices, and clientele to match. Some pubs have even been converted into posh Indian restaurants!

At least with these conversions the building is still functioning as a licensed premises, where there is every chance that come a change of ownership, or circumstances, it can make the change back to a more traditional pub. More worrying is when a pub is deemed to be worth more as a private dwelling than as a public house, and is sold de-licensed, never to open its doors to thirsty punters again. There has of course been the piecemeal erosion of the county's stock of pubs over the years, particularly in some of the larger villages where communities that once may have been served by say four or five pubs, are now down to just two or three or, sometimes, just one. This gradual thinning down is, of course, nothing new and is a process that has been continuing for decades.

Fewer pubs, means less choice, less variety of beers and less choice between say a basic village boozer and an up-market food-led pub, but whilst this process of slimming down has been continuing slowly in rural areas, in the county's towns it has accelerated rapidly in recent years and is showing no signs of slowing down. The cull of pubs in urban areas of Kent is almost exclusively due to high (over-inflated) property prices, which is a downside of living in the affluent, but over-crowded south-east. Particularly badly affected are the larger town pubs, occupying substantial areas of land, especially where car-parking areas and  pub gardens are taken into account. Where such closures and subsequent redevelopments do occur, one almost has to admire the ingenuity of the architects and developers in being able to squeeze such a large number of (highly profitable) dwellings onto the space formerly occupied by a solitary public house. I say almost, because I, as a local inhabitant, would much rather see amenities, such as a thriving pub, remaining there for the benefit of the whole community to enjoy, rather than see a handful of greedy property developers make a quick buck at the expense of local residents!

In Tonbridge, where I live, this land-grabbing phenomenon has been responsible for the demise of several formerly thriving town locals, and reached its ultimate conclusion last year with the closure of the last pub in the northern part of the town. Thirsty residents in the most populated area of Tonbridge now have no choice but to travel into the town centre when they want a drink, or to stay at home with a few bottles or cans from the local supermarket. The ultimate irony is that one of the last pubs to close in this part of town, a former well-used and spacious roadside pub serving two local estates, has now been converted into a Sainsbury's Local - something that was not wanted, or indeed needed by the local community given that it is opposite a large parade of  independently owned and run local shops, but then when are the wishes of local residents ever taken into account by the powers that be when granting permission for such developments to take place? No-one can prove conclusively that money talks in such cases, but it surely must grease a lot of palms!

This process has also been taking place in nearby well-to-do Sevenoaks, where the worst loss arising from this property speculation was that of the Farmers. a very busy and well-run pub, opposite the town's railway station and a  favourite stopping off point for many commuters on their way home. Despite a high-profile campaign to save the Farmers, the sale went ahead, the pub closed in 2005 and was subsequently demolished. Some seven years later there is still a large hole in the ground, surrounded by hoardings, occupying the site which is now officially listed as one of the town's worst "grotspots". At least the development on the site of the former Railway and Bicycle on the opposite side of the road has gone ahead.

Equally prosperous Tunbridge Wells is also now starting to suffer the attentions of the dreaded property developers. There are two campaigns running at the moment to save a couple of community pubs that have been closed by their respective owners as unviable, when everyone knows the real reason is the development potential afforded by the large pieces of ground they both occupy. The High Brooms Tavern. in the Tunbridge Wells suburb of the same name, is owned by Greene King; whilst a short distance away, on the other side of the tracks, the Robin Hood, a substantial community pub, has been closed by our old friends Enterprise Inns. The development value of  these slices of real estate runs into significant sums of money in both cases.

So there we have it; on the one hand we've got a lot to be thankful for living in this picturesque corner of the Garden of England. But on the other hand this is small comfort to the residents of many of our local towns who are denied the opportunity of a pub of their own and have nowhere they can now go for a drink.

Stop Press: News has reached me that the Robin Hood has been bought by a brewery. No further details are available at present, but hopefully it looks as though the pub may have been reprieved.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Craft Comes to Kent

Craft comes to Kent, or to Tunbridge Wells to be precise. Last week on a CAMRA social in Tunbridge Wells, we finished our tour of the pubs in the Common-Mount Ephraim area of town by calling in at a fairly recently opened place called the Wells Kitchen. I had heard people talking about this establishment before, but mainly about the food. What I didn't know until the day of our visit was that the Wells Kitchen majors on keg craft beer. The building that houses the Wells Kitchen has been home to a number of other drinking emporiums in the past, including a night club and, more recently, a Yates. Certainly in this latter guise it had a reputation as something of a trouble spot, so it is encouraging to see it open in its new re-incarnation as a friendly and modern town pub.

As mentioned, the Wells Kitchen was our final port of call that evening, and after some excellent Harvey's at the Mount Edgcumbe, and some decidedly less excellent Dark Star at the Royal Wells Inn, I was looking forward to something a bit different to stimulate my somewhat jaded palate. We all know that feeling of walking into an unfamiliar pub for the first time and anxiously scanning the pumps for something either recognisable or novel, well my first experience of a craft-keg pub was just like this but several orders of magnitude even more unfamiliar than normal, The other members of our group had already identified what they were going for, and had made their purchases (Larkins Traditional), but I was glad that I had held back for the universal consent amongst my companions was that the beer was flat and lifeless.

In a way I was not surprised; it was dispensed direct from a cask kept behind the bar and whilst the cask was jacketed there was no evidence of any cooling. Sensing my hesitation, the manager asked if I would like to try a few samples. I had already spotted the pumps for the Freedom Brewery, and another that caught my eye was that from Chapel Down Vineyard. Also available, and one that had been spotted by several of my companions, was Liberty Ale from Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. Now I would quite liked to have gone for this, but t £6.00 a pint, no way! The manager explained that the high cost was due to the beer having been shipped halfway across the world and I could see his point, but the prices charged for some of the the other beers was also on the dear side, and we are talking in the main about local ones!

I tried one of the various Freedom brews on sale, their Pilsner I believe, but wasn't that impressed, so in the end settled for a glass of Chapel Down Curious Brew.  I have written a previous post about bottles of this company's beer being on sale at Waitrose, but this is the first time I had seen any of them available on draught. Curious Brew is the company's lager,and it is brewed using champagne yeast rather than normal brewer's yeast. Andy Hepworth, from the Horsham based brewery of the same name, is the man behind this brew. Chapel Down themselves are based at Tenterden, and are a wine producer with a serious (ie. extremely good), reputation.

I found the beer a touch too floral  for my liking, with a quite pronounced peachy flavour, but it was still pleasant enough. However. at £4.20 a pint it was definitely a beer to sip and savour rather than swill straight down. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to ask the manager his name, as he was called away to deal with a matter in the restaurant. This was a shame as he seemed really passionate about the beers he was selling.   He had twigged that we were from CAMRA and was apologetic about his single cask offering and the poor state it was in, but in his defence stated that there just wasn't the market for cask ale at the Wells Kitchen,  Apart from the Anchor Liberty Ale, and the Larkins, all the other draught offerings were craft lagers - Freedom, Curious Brew. plus one from Hepworths. They has tried craft-keg ales but like the cask they just hadn't proved popular, so the pub decided to major on craft lager instead.

I will definitely be calling back, as the Wells Kitchen is a welcome addition on the local pub scene. Also it is  good to see someone who is so passionate and enthusiastic about beer behind the bar.  My one gripe however, and this seems to apply to all craft establishments and is a question posed by many a beer blogger, "Why is the stuff so expensive"?

ps. The pub also stocks a wide range of bottled beers, which includes ales as well as lagers.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Beer as a Commodity

As more and more people switch from drinking in the pub to drinking at home,  beer is increasingly being regarded as a commodity rather than something to be enjoyed on a night out. A slab or two of canned lager now forms part of many people's weekly grocery spend, and the underlying thought process behind which band to choose is almost invariably that of price. Whatever brand of international lager happens to be on offer that particular week will usually dictate what ends up in the shopping trolley, especially when it is the lady of the house that is making the purchase. I don't mean to sound sexist about this, but I speak from personal experience when stating that is is usually women who are in charge of the weekly shopping budget, so it is inevitable they get to choose what the money is spent on.

We are all aware of the devastating effect this switch in drinking habits is having on pubs, but despite the large price differentials between the price of a pint in the local pub and that of a can from the nearest supermarket, there are other factors, apart from those of cost, that are keeping drinkers in their droves. away from pubs.  For the moment though, rather than elaborate on what these factors are, I want to address the effect this is having on consumer choice, and the availability, and indeed survival of local breweries.

Selling beer to supermarkets must be a mug's game, even for the major brewers. The former will inevitably demand substantial discounts, holding the threat of de-listing of particular brands from their shelves if the brewer(s) concerned don't play ball. Often the only way that brewers can maintain their margins is to cut costs and this is normally achieved by cuts in the brewing process. For example, lagering or maturation times might be reduced. There might be a small reduction in the alcoholic strength of the beer, meaning the brewer has to pay less duty to the Exchequer. Stella Artois is probably the best known example of a beer that has been reduced in strength in recent years, but there are also many examples of well-known ale brands having received this treatment as well (Bombardier, Old Speckled Hen to name but two).  Money saved by such reductions is rarely, if ever, passed on to the consumer. Even worse than the aforementioned, is the temptation to use cheaper and, by implication, inferior ingredients. Increasing the use of cheaper adjuncts, such as maize, rice or various sugars, rather than more expensive malted barley, is one example, as is the use of hop extracts rather than whole or pelleted hops. It is because of such practices that the commoditisation of beer has become such a cause for concern in recent years.  

This is the case in the UK at least, but what about countries like Germany, where beer is seen as part of the national psyche, as well as a matter of national pride, and where drinkers are protected by the world's oldest consumer protection law; the Reinheitsgebot? Whilst the latter undoubtedly  protects the consumer from the use of adjuncts and other inferior ingredients, the fact that it stipulates what beer can  be brewed from (malted barley, hops, yeast and water), does not prevent brewers from using either cheaper varieties of these key ingredients, or alternatively, less of them. Like in  the UK, beer in Germany is increasingly viewed as a commodity, much to the detriment of consumer choice and product variety, and is leading to beer as a drink becoming de-based and de-valued.

Fellow beer blogger Barm, I Might Have a Glass of Beer posted an article back in June about this situation using as his illustration a programme shown recently on German TV.  The programme highlighted all that is wrong with the German beer industry today, claiming that because the market is currently marked by consolidation and price wars, small breweries are closing. Cut price beer means German drinkers will not support their local breweries and buy the discounted big brands instead. Consumers in Germany take very cheap beer for granted, but although German brewing tradition is superb, German brewers have not paid enough attention to what has been happening in the rest of the world and have fallen behind. They all brew the same beer and have not kept up with the development of new hop varieties or techniques. The development is towards a monoculture such as previously existed in the USA, less hop, less aroma, less malt, less distinctive beers. 

I have seen  this discounting for myself, both recently, and also on previous trips to Germany. In supermarkets, beer is literally dirt cheap. So cheap in fact that even given the large disparities between beer duty/tax between Britain and the Federal Republic, much of what is stocked in supermarkets is sold at almost give-away prices. I have of course taken advantage of this situation, and have struggled back on several occasions with a  suitcase stuffed full of interesting bottles.  I say interesting because I have been quite discerning in my selections. For example when in Bamberg I restricted my purchases to beers from the city's 9 breweries and on a subsequent trip went so far as to buy a selection of beers directly from some of the breweries themselves. The choice of beers we noticed in shops on our recent trip to Munich though, was rather less inspired, and consisted in the main of the products of the city's Big-Six breweries, coupled with nationally available brands such as the aforementioned Becks, Bitburger and Warsteiner. Having said that it was good to be able to purchase bottles some of the stronger beer styles, such as Bock and Doppelbock, that are only available on draught at certain times of the year.

Commodity type beers were taken to the extreme at a small branch, a short distance away from our hotel, of budget supermarket NORMA, Here plastic PET bottles of "own-brand" beer were on sale at a ludicrously low price, I don't remember quite how low, as I wasn't paying that much attention at the time, but they did seem quite popular with shoppers. What did interest me was the Lobkowicz Baron Czech dark lager, sold at just 44 cents (plus 8 cents deposit) a bottle. This was a real bargain, and an excellent beer to boot, but I suspect it was a "one-off" special purchase, along the same lines as what Lidl's do over here. 

The biggest commodity market, so far as beer (and pretty much everything else) is concerned, has to be the United States. Home of the six-pack, and virtual pioneers of  lumping beer in with the groceries. It is several years since I last crossed the Atlantic, but even on my last visit I was able to witness the massive shift in people's perception of beer, from something cold and wet you buy in cans, to stick in the fridge and enjoy whilst watching  TV, or after mowing the grass in the "back-yard",  to craft-brewed, speciality beers, packed full of character and flavour that rank amongst the finest in the world.

Interestingly enough, Barm's article cites several examples where American breweries scooped awards in German beer style categories. It seems that so far as these awards are concerned, the best German style pilsener is no longer brewed in Germany, but by Sierra Nevada, in the USA, the land with no purity law, no beer culture, no centuries of tradition, where almost nobody even knows the word pilsener. What is even more disturbing is that in blind tastings, consumers had great difficulty telling apart the five best-selling German beers, (those produced by: Krombacher, Oettinger, Beck’s, Warsteiner and Bitburger), and none were able to correctly identify all five. Analysis in the laboratory at the brewing school Doemens Institut confirmed the similarity: all five beers have a similar gravity and level of bitterness..

A spokesman for the German brewing industry was forced to admit that German brewers have not been concerned  enough with what makes their product stand out among the competition. He thinks they are turning a corner and will concentrate more on regional roots. Yes, they still make cheapie brands, because they do not want to lose the consumers.

Back in the UK, despite what the Daily Mail would have us believe about it being "cheaper than water", beer is not sold at anywhere near the low price it is in Germany. This means discerning  UK consumers are prepared to pay that little bit extra for premium bottled ales, and certain lagers, whereas in Germany they expect to pay the same low prices as they would for standard everyday Helles and Pilsners.

Hopefully though, things are starting to change. In the upmarket Galeria-Kaufhof, just off Marienplatz in central Munich, we noticed an interesting display of bottles beers from both Fullers and Sam Smiths, including such delights as India Pale Ale, Porter and Imperial Stout. Perhaps even in Germany, as in both the UK and the USA,  there is hope for the stay-at-home beer drinker after all?