Monday, 29 August 2016

Kentish Rifleman - Beer Festival

For a brief interlude I return to native soil for this post, but with quite a lot more to write about, I shall no doubt be spouting on about my experiences in the Netherlands for some while yet.

Anyway, it’s always good to be back home after time away, however briefly that might be, and the prospect of a long weekend ahead, only mitigated by the fact it’s the last Bank Holiday before Christmas, meant there were a number of beer festivals, and other beer-related events going on to tempt me away from house, garden and family.

There were at least three such events taking place within a ten mile radius of my house, and probably quite a few others which I was unaware of, so with this in mind, it was a choice between the long established beer festival at the Halfway House, near Brenchley with its 60+ beers, or the much smaller scale event at the Kentish Rifleman at Dunk’s Green. The Bank Holiday Weekend represented the first ever beer festival for the latter pub, so with the prospect of combining a walk with a visit to the Rifleman, the latter pub was the one which received my patronage.

Hadlow Tower
My friend Don, who is a keen rambler, had organised a walk to Dunk’s Green as part of West Kent CAMRA’s social programme for the weekend. The other event was a trip by bus to the Halfway House for their beer festival. With the latter event taking place on the Saturday, when buses are far more frequent, and the walk to the Kentish Rifleman scheduled for Sunday, it meant that keen devotees of the juice of the barley could, if they so wished, attend both festivals.

One brave soul did exactly that, and it was good to see Clive sitting there, on the bus from Tunbridge Wells, when the remaining three of us alighted at Tonbridge. We journeyed as far as Hadlow, alighting at the far end of the village, and then followed a series of footpaths that led us slowly up towards the Greensand Ridge. After walking through several fields of cows we paused to take in the view back towards Tonbridge and across the to High Weald in the far distance.

The now sadly closed, Artichoke
The view was partly occluded by ominous looking dark clouds, but fortunately, apart from a few spots of rain, we managed to stay dry for the entire day. Temperatures were considerably down on what they had been for the past week, and there was a welcoming breeze blowing which had dispelled the strength-sapping high humidity associated with the heat-wave. Walking was therefore much more pleasant than it might otherwise have been.

We turned due west, skirting the Victorian mansion of Oxen Hoath House before coming across the sadly closed Artichoke pub at Hamptons. We paused to take a few photos, whilst reflecting on the loss of this attractive old inn. I’m not quite certain of the reasons for its closure; or exactly when it closed its doors for the last time but I remember being surprised when I heard the news, as it always seemed a really popular venue. The Artichoke has now been converted into a private dwelling

Crossing the lane in front of the pub, and skirting the grounds of a very attractive property, we continued across a ploughed field, in a roughly north-westerly direction, eventually arriving at our destination around 2.15 pm. It wasn't a long walk, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was sufficient to work up a decent thirst.

Dunk’s Green is little more than a hamlet, but it is fortunate in still having its own pub; and a fine one at that. Dating in part from the 16th Century, the Kentish Rifleman survived a serious fire back in 2007, which necessitated some major restoration work, especially to the roof. Looking at the pub today it’s difficult to imagine just how bad the damage was at the time. The front entrance leads straight into the main bar, which is long and low. Leading off from this is another long and quite narrow room, which is slightly more upmarket, and is mainly used by diners. At the rear of the pub is an attractive and secluded garden and this was where the beer festival was taking place.

Garden at the Rifleman
The beers were racked in a barn, facing the garden and the landlord, whose name escapes me, but I think it’s John, was the person doing the serving. There were 10 ales in total from the following breweries: Arundel, Brentwood, Skinners, Tonbridge, Triple fff, Whitstable and Yeovil. There was also a range of traditional ciders. All beers were very reasonably priced at just £3 a pint, “To keep things simple”, as the landlord said.

Feeling rather thirsty after my exertions, I went straight in on the pints, rather than my usual practice at beer festivals of drinking halves. I particularly enjoyed both the Betty Stoggs, from Skinners and the Kent Coast from Whitstable Brewery, but the best beer I had was the 4.0% Golden Galaxy from the Brentwood Brewing Company.

One of my companions was less impressed with the Yeovil’s Glory, from Yeovil Brewery, and I have to report the Arundel Castle, from Arundel Brewery was distinctly cloudy.

So what about the temperature and condition of the beers?  In a recent post, Tandelman, with some prompting from correspondent py, quite rightly drew attention to the often poor quality of the beer served at CAMRA festivals during the summer months. The main problem being a lack of suitable cooling leading to beer being served at temperatures far in excess of ideal during hot weather; or to paraphrase py, “beer served as warm as day old piss.”

Fortunately, the white painted barn, with its thick solid walls, proved the ideal place in which to keep the beer, and I noticed packs of ice as well as bar towels, draped over the casks. The beer was consequently just about the right temperature, and there as certainly plenty of condition in the beer.

Beer List
The only thing missing was people, as apart from ourselves, there were only two other tables occupied in the garden. Many of the pub regulars were sitting just outside the public bar; somewhere I have seen people gathering on previous visits to the Rifleman. I don’t know if they were aware the beer was just £3 a pint at the festival, or perhaps they weren’t too bothered, but it did seem strange them not taking part.

Later on several other people did turn up, and they included Bill, who runs the cider bar at the Tonbridge Juddians Beer Festival, plus some neighbours of mine from just down the road. Like us, this group of four had also walked, but they had followed a different route from north Tonbridge.

Shortly after the newcomers arrived, the pub chef appeared to light the barbecue, and start preparing some food. Unfortunately we had to depart at 3.45pm, in order to catch the penultimate bus back to Tonbridge. We headed back towards Hadlow, following a slightly different route through the delightful, and virtually hidden, Bourne Valley.

Hops growing wild in the Bourne Valley
It’s difficult to believe that a century or two ago this area was home to a thriving paper-making industry; the fast flowing River Bourne having provided a source of power for the mills which one populated this valley. Nowadays, apart from the odd farm on the tops of the hills, the Bourne Valley is practically deserted.

We arrived back in Hadlow in sufficient time for the bus, but with not quite enough time for a pint in the Two Brewers. This two-bar Harvey’s pub, is now the sole remaining pub in Hadlow; a village which even within my memory could boast five public houses.

Instead of a pint of Harvey’s, we waited until we arrived back in Tonbridge, and called in at the Humphrey Bean; the town’s JDW outlet. Thornbridge Jaipur had been spotted on sale there, over the Bank Holiday Weekend, so we were keen to catch a pint, if the beer was still on. Fortunately it was, and a pint of this strong, 5.9% IPA, was just the right beer to finish on, after what had been a most enjoyable day out in the Kent countryside.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Visit Brabant - Part Two - a Cycle ride, a boat trip, plus two breweries

Continuing with the narrative of our stay in the historic city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch), which formed the prelude to this year’s European Beer Blogger’s Conference, we pick up with the majority of party as we are about to depart from the Abbey of Koningshoeven at Berkel-Enschot.

As I alluded to in the Part One of this narrative, the Dutch bikes provided on behalf of our hosts, Visit Brabant, took a bit of getting used to; the main point being remembering to pedal backwards in order to brake. That and the rather light steering; but once we were underway the group set off at quite a pace, under the leadership of tour guide Nathalie.

I found myself towards the rear of the party, in the company of our other guide, Yannick. We had met Yannick in Brussels last year, when he acted as r guide for the post-conference excursion to West Flanders. Yannick works for Visit Flanders, the tourist organisation covering that particularly region of Belgium. He told me that he’d been asked by conference organiser Reno Walsh, if he could join the team from Zephyr Adventures, for this year’s event, as not only would this negate the organisers having to fly someone over from the United States, but it would also have the benefit of employing someone with local knowledge, capable of speaking the language (Flemish is very similar to Dutch, but don't say that in the company of anyone from either country!).

Anyway, Yannick kindly held back to keep me, plus a couple of other stragglers company, and to also make sure we didn’t get lost. I was rather surprised though, when he told us the ride would be around an hour in duration, as I was expecting something shorter; however, I am pleased to say that despite now being the wrong side of sixty, I managed the ride without any problems, apart from a rather sore backside! The latter was caused by an overtly soft and rather too well sprung saddle, which was in sharp contrast to the much harder road bike saddle I am used to on my bike at home. Speaking to a work colleague, who is also a keen cyclist, the other day led us both to conclude that somewhat perversely, the harder the saddle, the more comfortable the ride.

Taproom Brouwerij Vandeeoirsprong  (and above)
Once we had left the abbey grounds, and cycled a very short stretch along public roads, we turned off onto a path running alongside the canal. Canals in the Netherlands aren’t the narrow affairs they are in the UK; instead they are broad and deep, allowing the passage of quite large vessels along their length. With barely a cloud in the sky, it was an extremely pleasant and enjoyable ride through the picturesque Dutch countryside, and a great way to spend a Thursday afternoon.

We eventually reached our destination the village of Oirschot, and after crossing a bridge over the canal, and riding through the streets of this attractive North Brabant village, we found ourselves at Brouwerij Vandeeoirsprong, where we were welcomed with a refreshing glass of their Amber Bier. The brewery is a newcomer on the scene; having only been operational since 2015, but it occupies the site of a much older brewery, as we later found out. For the minute though, sitting out on the patio, at one of several picnic tables, gave us the chance of recuperating a bit after our cycle ride.

The patio is adjacent to the Brouwerij Vandeeoirsprong taproom, but before venturing inside, we were led through a courtyard, to a much older, farmhouse-like building at the front of the complex. Here we were given a talk by a member of the brewery, whose name escapes me. He explained the history of brewing on the site, and the brewery’s place in a village which once boasted four breweries.

I was correct about the old building, as it was part of a farm. It dates back to 1623, an important date in Oirschot’s history, as much of the town burnt down in that year and had to be reconstructed. The original brewery survived into the 20th Century, because it had the cooling equipment necessary to produce the new fangled pilsner; a beer style which swept all before it during the early years of the last century.

After the end of World War II, the brewery was known as de Kroon (the Crown), and was named after the family who owned it. By the 1980’s de Kroon were one of only 15 breweries left in the Netherlands, but a tie-up with Bavaria Brewery a decade later, didn’t bring the results the family were expecting., as not long afterwards, Bavaria signed an agreement with La Trappe at Koningshoeven Abbey, which left the Oirschot plant surplus to requirements.

De Kroon closed in 2000, only to reopen some 15 years later under a completely new name. That this happened at all, is in no small way thanks to the head of the Kroon family who, as well as collecting memorabilia associated with the old brewery, had the strength of vision to see the opening of the new brewery, on the same site. He achieved this by going into partnership with his niece.

I’m not certain where the name of the new brewery comes from, as the website is in Dutch only, but I did make a note that the new concern produces between 8 & 10 beers. It also sticks with classic, easy-drinking styles rather than going for some of the more OTT barrel-aged stuff favoured by craft hipsters. The beers certainly seem popular with locals from the village and surrounding area, given the size of both the beer garden and taproom.

De Kroon - Old brewery

After a quick tour of both old and new breweries and an all too short time in the taproom, we re-boarded our coach and headed back to Den Bosch. Before checking into our hotel, we discovered our hosts had another surprise up their sleeves in the form of a boat ride along the network of canals which ring the city. Some of these canals were defensive, and some were used to bring goods right into the city. Others were used mainly as open sewers, and nearly all the canals pass through underground tunnels at some point. Fortunately, in light of the latte use, the entire network has been cleaned and restored, and nowadays a boat ride, by means of small open, electrically-powered boats is a popular way to discover a hidden part of s-Hertogenbosch.

Canals - Den Bosch
The tour must have taken the best part of an hour, and afterwards we walked the short distance back to our hotel. I was glad of the opportunity of a shower and change of clothes; particularly after having slept the previous night in the terminal at Gatwick, in order to catch my early morning flight, but suitably refreshed we met up again in the hotel lobby in order to visit the third brewery shown on our itinerary.

This was the Café Bar le Duc, a brew-pub and beer-café, situated right in the historic centre of the city, and just a short hop from our hotel. Here we were shown the compact brewery by owner-cum-brewer Jan van Kollenburg. The business was started by Jan’s father; also called Jan and Café Bar le Duc is still very much a family affair, with the majority of the brewery’s production sold through the bar. The remainder of its output is mainly in the form of bottles, but Jan was quite enthusiastic about a new beer called Jheronimus, produced in honour of local artist Hieronymus Bosch; the medieval painter responsible for such works as “The Garden of Earthly Delights”.

Brew-kit - Café Bar le Duc
We sampled several of Jan’s beers, before being shown through to a reserved section of the very busy café next door. We enjoyed an excellent meal there, with some more beers from the in-house brewery to accompany the food. As I said, the Café Bar le Duc was packed, and as we left we noticed most of the surrounding bars and restaurants looked the same. Being a warm August evening, many people were sat outside, enjoying some a spot of real “café culture”.

I’m not exactly sure what time we departed but, unlike some of the group who visited another bar or two, I made my way back to our well appointed hotel for a most welcome and much needed appointment with my bed. After breakfast the following morning, the coach turned up to transport us to Amsterdam, dropping us at the Mercure City Hotel for the opening of the European Beer Bloggers Conference.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to Nathalie and the rest of the team at Visit Brabant, for their hospitality and for organising what for me, was one of the main highlights of the whole weekend. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity of visiting a part of the Netherlands which I perhaps wouldn’t have thought of doing so. s-Hertogenbosch and the surrounding Brabant region are certainly well worth seeing, and spending some time in, and I highly recommend the area to those people from the UK who want to experience something a little different.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Visit Brabant- Part One - Brouwerij de Koningshoeven

Street scene - Den Bosch

North Brabant, or just Brabant as it is often referred to, is a province in the south of the Netherlands. It borders the Dutch provinces of South Holland and Gelderland to the north, and the Belgian provinces of Antwerp and Limburg to the south. It takes its name from the early medieval Duchy of Brabant, which itself was a constituent state of the Holy Roman Empire, but subsequent wars, religious squabbles and political upheaval, led to the southern part of the former Duchy ending up as part of Belgium.

As if to compensate, parts of two neighbouring provinces were assigned to modern day Brabant, but like much of this part of Europe, constantly changing borders, as a result of historical events, mean this is all the history you are going to get from me. Of far more importance is the pre-conference excursion to Brabant which 15 other beer writers and I undertook the day before the 2016 European Beer Bloggers Conference kicked off in Amsterdam.

The excursion was organised by Visit Brabant, the tourist agency which looks after this province of the Netherlands, and they certainly pulled out all the stops to make us feel welcome and to show off this attractive and inviting area of the country. The excursion included an overnight stop in the historic city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch; normally abbreviated to Den Bosch.

Most of those booked on the excursion, were brought in from Amsterdam by coach, but several others had either arrived the night before or, like me, had journeyed by train direct from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. So, after catching the first flight of the morning from Gatwick, I was relieved to take my seat on the train south, and enjoy the ride through the Dutch countryside, which was looking its best in the bright, mid-August sunshine.

Koningshoeven Brewery - rear view
After an hour and a quarter, my train arrived at ‘s-Hertogenbosch shortly before 10.30am. It was already quite warm out, but with the aid of a pre-printed Google Map, I was able to find my way through the streets of this attractive city, to the Hotel Golden Tulip, which was going to be our base for the night. Here in the lobby, I met up with some of my fellow conference attendees, as well as Nathalie Verdult; the representative from Visit Brabant who had organised the excursion, and the lady who would be looking after us during our stay in the province.

I was able to check into the hotel and to leave my suitcase there, as we waited for the coach to arrive from Amsterdam, with the rest of the group. We then boarded the coach and travelled out of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the direction of Tilburg. Our first stop of the day was the Abbey of Koningshoeven at Berkel-Enschot; home to the Dutch Trappist Brewery of La Trappe.

Koningshoeven is one of just two Trappist breweries based in the Netherlands, out of the 11 currently in existence world-wide. The abbey is home to a community of 16 Benedictine monks, and as well as brewing beer it also produces cheese. Brewing began at Koningshoeven back in 1884, as a means of financing the monastery, and whilst the monks originally produced the beer themselves, it eventually became necessary to obtain outside commercial assistance.

Today the brewery is a subsidiary of the Bavaria Brewery(the second largest brewing company in the Netherlands, after Heineken), although the buildings and brewery equipment remain in the ownership of the abbey. The monks retain the ultimate authority over the brewing process, while Bavaria manages the commercial business. Nine beers are produced in total, although a number of them are seasonal brews only.

Three rules apply in order for a beer to be designated as a “Trappist”.

1. The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.

2. The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and the business practices it adopts must be commensurate with a monastic way of life.

3. The brewery should not be a profit-making venture. The income generated should cover the living expenses of the monks along with the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains should be donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.

The modern brew-house
We were ushered into a room within the visitor complex, and after being welcomed by Tom, our tour guide, we were given a beer to each to keep us going. I went for the 7.0% Dubbel; a beer I am very familiar with, but it was nice to drink it within the confines of the abbey walls where it is brewed. We were shown a short film about the abbey, and Trappist beer in general, before Tom led us away for a look around the brewery.

Tom is one of several lay people who work for the brewery, and was both amusing and, at times, rather loud. He kept us entertained as he told us some of the history of Koningshoeven, and explained how La Trappe beers are produced. The brewery was modernised and expanded, back in 1990, but the older plant is still there for visitors to admire.

At the end of the tour, we adjourned to the shady beer garden, next to the visitor centre, for a lunch of local ham, cheese, salad and bread rolls. More beer followed in the form of a 7.5% Isid’or beer for me, whilst other s went for either the 4.7% Puur (a pilsner-style beer), or the Witte Trappist 5.5%, wheat beer.

The garden was crowded with visitors, most of whom appeared to have arrived by bike. Afterwards it was our turn to cycle, although those who preferred not to were transported to the next destination by coach. I am still a fairly regular cyclist, so I was definitely up for a bike ride; as were the majority of the party.  However, when we were shown the sit-up-and-beg utility bikes, with no brakes on the handle bars, I almost had a change of heart.

The bikes!
There were brakes, of course, but in order to bring the bike to a halt you had to pedal backwards. This took a bit of getting used to, but on the plus side, each bike had three gears. As the Netherlands is one of the flattest countries on earth, the gears were only of use for accelerating away at the start, and if you wanted to put a bit of a spurt on. So with tour guide Nathalie leading the way, we set off to cycle to the village of Oirschott; our next port of call.

To be continued…………………………..

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

EBBC 2016 - Amsterdam

It was quite late when I arrived home last night, following my trip to the Netherlands, and then this morning it was in at the deep end, and straight back to work. Consequently, despite drafting several part-finished posts on my laptop, whilst at the European Beer Bloggers Conference, I’ve had little time in which to collect my thoughts and come up with something concrete about the last five days.

There’s plenty to write about, and like I say I’ve got several drafts to knock into shape, but after unpacking my case, watering the garden and having dinner, there’s precious little time to come up with an article from scratch. What I will say is I had a great time, in the company of some really nice people, all united by a love of good beer and all things associated with it. Apart from spending time in Amsterdam, I visited two areas two of the country I might not otherwise have thought of going to; and I’m glad I did.

I of course got to sample and enjoy a wide range of different and distinctive beers; the vast majority of them Dutch, and all demonstrating just how far the beer scene in the Netherlands has developed from the dark days when all that was on offer were the rather bland, industrial pilsner-style beers from the likes of Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch.

We visited several breweries, including major players Jopen, La Trappe and De Molen, plus a couple of brewpubs, and yesterday to round things off, I visited two classic Amsterdam pubs, plus another brew-pub.

The conference, of course, was the main reason for us to have been in the Dutch capital, and here we listened to presentations from renowned beer enthusiasts, such as  Low Countries beer expert and writer, Tim Webb, brewery historian, Martyn Cornell, Global Craft & Brewmaster at Heineken, Willem van Waesberghe and  owner of celebrated London beer outlet - The Bottle Shop, Andrew Morgan.
The weather was mixed, with brilliant wall-to-wall sunshine on Thursday, and torrential rain on both Friday evening and Sunday morning. This allowed for a 16 kilometre bike ride on the first day, and getting soaked on route to the station, for our trip to De Molen, on Sunday.

All in all it was a brilliant five day break, made all the better by meeting up with friends and acquaintances drawn from across Europe and beyond. Some more detailed reports will follow as time and other commitments allow.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Amsterdam for EBBC 2016

I’m off to Amsterdam on Thursday morning in order to attend this year’s European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference. This will be my third such event in a row, and after several hectic month’s at work, it’s something I’m really looking forward to.

Thursday's trip will be my first visit to the Dutch capital in over 40 years, as it was back in 1975, as a quiet and slightly introverted student, that a friend and I made Amsterdam the first stop on our month long Inter-Rail journey around Western Europe. Back then we stayed in the city’s Youth Hostel; a very relaxed and civilised affair, and a complete contrast to the strict and rather regimented hostel we stayed at in Hamburg – the next stop on our itinerary.

This time round I’ll be staying in the four star luxury of the conference venue; the Mercure Hotel Amsterdam City. How times have changed, and I bet this time round I don’t get approached by people asking “Any hash, man?” Even back in 1975, as a long-haired twenty year old, I was far more into beer than funny cigarettes; in fact I could count on one hand the number of times I have indulged in the latter.

Yours truly - Amsterdam 1975
Amsterdam in the mid-70’s was all Heineken and Amstel, but the constraints of travelling on a limited budget with a half-dozen or so countries still to visit, meant beer was something of a luxury, and a couple of 33cl glasses of an evening, was about all we could afford; that and a paper cone full of chips, sprinkled with salt and covered in mayonnaise - I can still picture them now after all these years!

Like many European capitals the beer scene in Amsterdam has changed out of all recognition with over 20 breweries now challenging the hegemony of Heineken and Amstel, plus dozens of specialist beer cafés in which to enjoy them. To guide me, I’ve a copy of Tim Skelton’s excellent “Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers”, but on a wider scale I’ve also got the same author’s “Beer in the Netherlands”; a comprehensive guide to the Dutch brewing and pub scene.

My Dutch experience kicks off mid-morning on Thursday, with the pre-conference excursion to the southern city of Den Bosch – famous as the home of the medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch; painter of those rather disturbing religious paintings depicting hell-fire and eternal damnation!

Our party will be visiting the city for much more pleasant purposes though, as the excursion includes lunch, dinner, a short bike ride, a canal tour plus three private brewery tours and tastings including a visit and tasting at the Koningshoeven Brewery of La Trappe. An evening pub crawl is also featured, for those of us who are staying in Den Bosch.

Typical Amsterdam "Brown Cafe"
After an overnight stop, we return to Amsterdam on Friday morning for registration and the beginning of the conference proper. If this year’s event is anything like the previous two there will be lots of interesting beers to sample, good food to  accompany the beers and, most importantly, some good company, with delegates drawn from all over Europe and North America.

There will be a number of presentations, and discussions, which include topics such as the Past, Present, and Future of Brewing in the Netherlands; Will Takeovers Threaten Diversity in the Beer Industry? Plus The Secret History of Pale Ale. There will also be a Multi-Sensory Workshop on Beer Flavours, plus a session on Beer Photography.

On the Friday evening, we’ll be visiting the town of Haarlem; just 20 minutes away from Amsterdam. The city is not only known for its glorious history, but also for its small community atmosphere, multitude of art and culture and cosy restaurants and cafés.The city's only brewery, Jopen Beer is hosting conference attendees for a tour, tastings and beer dinner on Friday, August 19th at the Jopen taproom and then the Jopen Church in Haarlem.

On Saturday evening, we’ll enjoy a beer dinner hosted by Pilsner Urquell who, for the sixth consecutive year, will be sponsoring the conference. We’ll also again have the chance of meeting with the company’s legendary Brewmaster, Vaclav Berka.

Brouwerij De Molen
Finally, on Sunday, a post-conference excursion will take us to Bodegraven, home of the renowned Brouwerij De Molen for a private tour, tastings, and a lunch.

I’m not flying back until Monday evening, so have earmarked the day for sightseeing around Amsterdam. A visit to the Rijks Museum, to see some of the Rembrandts and possibly a look in at the Van Gogh Museum, followed by a canal trip should just about touch the surface of the city’s cultural offerings, but then a spot of lunch, plus a few beers at a couple of Amsterdam’s legendary “brown cafés”, should round the afternoon off nicely. Then it's back to the airport of the flight home.

There will obviously be lots to write about, and as this time I am taking a laptop, I may manage the odd brief post from the conference; if I can tear myself away from all that beer! Here’s to a successful trip.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

All Aboard

I actually enjoyed the pre-Great British Beer Festival Party, organised by the British Guild of Beer Writers, a lot more than the main event. Held the night before, on the Tattershall Castle, a converted former river ferry moored on the Thames just off Victoria Embankment, the ship proved the perfect setting for this annual get together of beer writers and bloggers.

I travelled up to London straight from work, my train terminating at Charing Cross, which is conveniently just a short hop from the Embankment. I walked down towards the river, boarded this attractive old steamer and found my way to the rear (stern?) of the vessel, which had been reserved for the BGBW event.

There were quite a few people there already, so after checking in I wandered over to one of several beer taps, and poured myself a beer. My first choice was Brick Field Brown 5.4%, a tasty brown ale from Five Points Brewing. I spotted a couple of people I knew, so I went over and joined them. I am not going to list out all the writers and bloggers present whom I either knew or recognised, but a mention should go to Peter Alexander (aka Tandleman), Ed Wray, BryanB, Steve Lamond and Matthew Curtis. Matthew deserves a special mention, as he was the inspiration and driving force behind this year’s event, having organised and set everything up for the evening, in conjunction with the London breweries whose beers I have described in this post.

From memory there were around four self-serve beer stations, each fitted with two taps.  The beer of course was “craft keg”, but was none the worse for that, and the fact the beers were served chilled was most welcome on what turned out to be a rather hot and humid evening.

It was very warm down below, so Peter and I headed upstairs, to the open deck at the stern. From here we could see along and across the Thames including an uninterrupted view of the London Eye, which is virtually opposite where the Tattershall Castle is moored. 

There were plenty of bottled beers available upstairs; all nicely chilled in ice-buckets, and with nice clean chunky tumbler-type glasses stacked in front to drink them from. I was really impressed with the Battersea Rye from Sambrooks, but there were also a number of larger bottles from America, including some from one of my favourite North American brewers, Rogue. Peter had a particularly cloudy beer called Bogan; a collaboration brew between Gipsy Hill and Three Boys breweries, which was described as a New Zealand Pale Ale. He said it tasted alright, but it added a whole new dimension to the phrase “London Murky”!

It wasn’t long before the majority of people from downstairs migrated up to join us. I imagine they either realised it was too hot down below, or they’d got wind of the imminent arrival of some food. This came in the form of beef burgers; “burgers to die for” was how I’d describe them, as they were absolutely scrumptious, with well-cooked tasty beef, plus nice chunky gherkins and tomato. Chips, in paper cups, formed the perfect accompaniment.  Later on, when the serving staff brought another round of burgers along to us, I couldn’t resist grabbing a second helping. My excuse was the food helped to soak up any excess beer!

Towards the end of the evening, some of us went back down below deck, to have a crack at some of the keg-stuff. I enjoyed a very nice Alt-style beer from Orbit Beers, called Neu, plus a smooth and tasty 8.8% Imperial Milk Stout from The London Beer Factory.

I drifted off shortly before 10.30pm and wandered back up to Charing Cross for my train back to Tonbridge. I fell asleep on the journey home; not so much because of the amount of beer I’d drunk, but more from the effects of the busy weekend I’d just had up in Norfolk.

It was an excellent evening, made all the better by the setting, the people, the food and of course the beers!  I would like to thank Matthew Curtis, the Guild and event sponsors, Cask Marque.

Footnote: So why did I enjoy the Guild’s party better than the Great British Beer Festival itself? The answer’s simple; the size. There’s no denying GBBF is awesome - as the Americans would say, but for me the event is just too large, and too busy.

I prefer somewhere smaller and more intimate, and the party onboard the Tattershall Castle was just the right size. The event afforded the opportunity to mingle and socialise, without feeling part of some gigantic merry-go-round. It also allowed me to taste and enjoy some stunning beers, of the sort which just wouldn’t be available at GBBF, as they are served by non-CAMRA approved methods. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think CAMRA do a fantastic job each year in putting on this flagship festival, which showcases the very best British cask-conditioned ales, plus some excellent beers from abroad, but these days I prefer something a little quieter and a lot less hectic.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Trade Day at GBBF 2016

Olympia, shortly after the doors opened
As reported earlier this week, I attended Tuesday’s Trade Session at the Great British Beer Festival. I would not normally be concerned about disclosing freebies but, for the record, I gained free entry to the festival by applying for a Press Pass - something any beer writer is entitled to do. Several CAMRA friends I met up with at Olympia, also gained free admission, by tapping up their friendly local publican or brewery rep, which is what I used to do, back in the day.

I stopped going to GBBF on Trade Day several years ago, purely because it seemed to be a glorified “publican’s outing”, but from what I observed on Tuesday, the event has morphed into much more of a “brewers, their workers and supporters” day out, and that can only be a good thing!

The main comment I would make is that the organisers have got the whole event off to a tee. Years of practice, and years of fine tuning, means the phenomenon which is the Great British Beer Festival is a slick, highly polished and ultra-professional event, which runs like clockwork to a well tried and tested formula. I couldn’t fault it at all. There was plenty of seating; something the festival lacked just a few years ago. There was a huge variety of different food stalls, selling all manner of different foodstuffs - essential at an event like this for soaking up all that beer which people imbibe. There was adequate room in which to circulate and, for those of us who remember the greenhouse effect, back in the 1990’s, from that massive glass canopy at Olympia, air-conditioning! Consequently, customers remained cool as did the beer.

Talking of beer, there was an incredible range of cask-conditioned “real ales” from all over the British Isles, plus a significant number from the United States. There were beers from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, as well as a range of bottled beers. For those strange folk who choose to drink fermented apple and pear juice at a beer festival, there were bars serving traditional cider and perry. In short there was something for everyone.

Prior to attending, I made full use of the interactive beer list on the CAMRA-GBBF website, and prepared a couple of personalised “wish-lists”; porters and stouts from UK breweries, plus a number of Italian beers from the foreign beer bar. In the end, none of the latter were available on Tuesday, but I enjoyed the beers I had chosen from the “dark side”. Pick of the bunch was Prince of Denmark; a strong dark and very complex beer from Harvey’s, which weighs in at 7.5% ABV, The beer normally comes in bottled form only, and is rarely found in cask form.

Whilst on the subject of Harvey’s, the company chose the festival as the launch pad for their new-look corporate identity. Simplistic in nature, yet still eye-catching; the company’s mobile bar was decked out in the new décor with its light blue background and silhouette-like designs. I also discovered that after years of restricting sales to within a 60 mile radius of the brewery, Harvey’s now intend to extend their sales area to cover the whole of the UK. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen, although I must say the thought of their delectable Sussex Best being served using a “sparkler” horrifies me!

The Harvey's team showing off their new look
So apart from saying I had a most enjoyable day out, catching up with friends whilst sampling some really good beers, that would really be it, were it not for the fact that shortly before 3pm there was a lot of booing and heckling going on in the vicinity of the stage. This was the result of CAMRA’s decision to postpone the announcement of the Champion Beer of Britain award. It’s long been the tradition on Trade Day at GBBF for the results of this contest to be announced, and whilst many CAMRA members were probably aware that the announcement would now be taking place in the evening, at a posh dinner being held at the nearby Hilton London Olympia Hotel, I don’t think that many members of the licensed trade knew about the move.

Consequently there was much dissension, and indeed outright anger in the ranks as the CAMRA spokeswoman charged with announcing the lists of the finalists in each category, but not the overall winners, stood up at the microphone to say her piece. At one point she told them to “Shut up”, as it was becoming difficult to hear what was being said. Fortunately for those who care about such things, the lists were later displayed on a screen, at the side of the stage.

I won’t go into the full details behind this decision here, but there were charges of “elitism” being thrown at the Campaign. The actual reasons for the change are far more mundane, and spring from a desire to combine the announcement of the winners, with the actual presentation of the awards. Previously, the latter did not take place until October; some two months after the festival has ended, so having the brewers present in order to collect their awards at GBBF, probably makes a lot more sense.

Two beers from Marble Brewery - both excellent
Whilst at a personal level, I am totally unconcerned as to which beer and brewery comes out top in this competition, to win such a prestigious award as Champion Beer of Britain is obviously a huge honour for the brewery concerned; especially as it normally results in a rush of orders for the beer. To a point I missed the long-standing piece of theatre which is normally takes place mid-afternoon on Trade Day, and I would certainly not have wanted to be in the same shoes as the girl standing making the announcement and having to break the bad news to that audience of angry publicans. Watch this space, as they say, to see whether CAMRA hails the evening dinner and presentation as a success and presses on with similar plans for next year’s event.

Before summing up, I ought to mention that I didn’t stick exclusively to dark beers at the festival. Much as I like porters and stouts, I reached the stage where I fancied something a little more refreshing; something pale and with a nice hoppy, thirst-quenching bite to it. Lagonda IPA 5.0% from Marble Brewery fitted the bill nicely and shortly after I had a glass of Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier, brewed by Heller Trum of Bamberg.

Sclenkerla, of course, are famous for their dark Rauchbier (smoke beer), but the Helles doesn't contain any smoked malt in the grist. Instead it picks up its smoky character from the mash filter. Despite having drunk Schlenkerla beers many times, at their classic old tavern in the centre of Bamberg, I have never seen the Helles on sale there. The opportunity to try it at GBBF was therefore too good to miss, and I was not disappointed. The beer was pleasantly refreshing, with a good combination of smoked malt and spicy hop flavours, with a character which belied its 4.3% strength. If you are not into smoked beers, but fancy trying one, then this is the beer to ease you in gently. (See post dated 3rd August).

My friends and I left the festival, some time after 8pm, and travelled back by means of the London Overground to Clapham Junction, and then a train to Waterloo mainline. A short walk across to Waterloo East saw me catching the train back to Tonbridge, but my companions decided to adjourn to the nearby Waterloo Tap, for one final beer. Did I enjoy the event? Yes, of course. Will I be going again next year? Probably, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Farewell to Swanton Morley

Last weekend was almost certainly my last visit to Swanton Morley; the mid-Norfolk village my parents retired to, nearly a quarter of a century ago, and the place where they spent their twilight years. On balance they were happy years, and it was only my mothers increasing frailty, in recent years, coupled with my father’s advancing Alzheimer’s, which brought their time in the village to an end. My mother sadly passed away 18 months ago, and with dad now living in a nearby care-home it was time to put the family bungalow on the market and say goodbye to 25 years of memories.

It is amazing just how much “stuff” people accumulate over the course of a lifetime, and my parents were no exception. The younger of my two sisters, who lives in nearby Dereham, had begun the process of sorting things out and slowly removing various items, several months ago and then, shortly before her recent wedding, my son and I went up to assist with the disposal of items from the garage and various sheds.

We filled up three large skips, and also made several runs to the local dump, and to various charity shops. Last weekend was the time for moving and/or disposing of large items of furniture, including beds, mattresses, a sofa, bookcases and shelves, plus a dining room table and chairs. The latter came back to Kent with us, using the van we’d hired for the weekend. The bungalow is now completely empty and looking very sad and forlorn.  It was only whilst looking around the place for the last time, and checking everything was secure before locking up, that the sadness finally hit me. It was the end of an era, and with nothing now to take my sisters and I back to Swanton Morley, it really was time to take leave of the village.

I couldn’t leave though without saying goodbye to at least one of Swanton Morley’s two pubs; so on the Saturday evening, following our return from running various items over to my sisters, my son and I strolled down to the nearby Angel for a bite to eat, plus a few well-earned beers. Fortunately the kitchen was still open, enabling me to order a very nice Red Thai Curry, whilst Matt went for a Chilli-con-Carné with rice and cheesy nachos. Beer-wise, he stuck to Kronenbourg, whilst I set out to sample the pub’s cask beers.

First up was Nethergate Wild Fox (NBSS 3.0); a 4.3% ABV seasonal ale from Nethergate. Nothing special to write home about, but pleasant enough, all the same. This was followed by that old favourite, and a permanent fixture on the bar of the Angel, Hop Back Summer Lightning. This legendary 5.0% ABV golden ale, needs little in the way of introduction, and was in good nick, coming in with an NBSS of 3.5. I was tempted to have another, but I could feel this beer starting to go tp my head, so I slipped back down the gravities to another Norfolk favourite, Woodforde’s Wherry. The latter was definitely beer of the evening and was in almost perfect nick. I scored it at NBSS 4.0, but it could even have come in at 4.5!

I’m pretty certain I found the same with the Wherry the last time I called in at the Angel. It is obviously a local favourite, and whilst it has never been my favourite beer, I could quite easily have drunk it all night last Saturday. I had a brief chat with the landlord before we left. He said that the last hour before the kitchen had shut, was the busiest he pub had been all day (food-wise). I wondered why he seemed so surprised, as surely on a nice warm summer’s day, people are going to want to spend time in their gardens (particularly in a rural area), before wandering down to their local, in the early evening, for something to eat.

He told me that the Angel’s kitchen was tiny in comparison with that at Darby’s; the pub down the road, but the latter is set up to cater for larger parties; whereas the Angel is much more a locals pub, which attracts the odd bit of passing trade. Apparently the Angel is owned by the same people who own the Victoria, at Hockering, just a few miles back along the A47, going towards Norwich. He told me that because the Victoria was holding a beer festival; something I know the Angel does as well.

Mine host couldn’t stop for long, as he still had a sink full of washing up to finish off, but it was somewhat ironic that on what was probably my last visit to the pub, that was the longest chat I have had with the landlord. It was also ironic that the beer was of such high quality too, as it hasn’t always been quite so good.

So farewell Swanton Morley; I know my parents enjoyed living in the village, and I too go away with fond memories of the place. Next time we are up visiting dad, I fully expect we’ll be staying somewhere closer to Norwich; somewhere with the bright lights and shops to please my wife and son, but also a city with many fine pubs. Until our paths cross again then……………………