Sunday, 13 April 2014

Brains Craft Brewery

This "craft beer" movement that you may have read about on the internet and the newspapers is a funny thing. I still don't think anybody really knows what craft beer is but as long as decent ales keep appearing I'm happy for the movement to continue. Some of the more established breweries have noticed that there's money to be made with this weird craft thing and more and more beers are now suddenly "crafted" by brewers. I find this pretty patronising mainly because it's obvious beer is crafted unless they've previously been digging beer out the ground or just cut open a tree and wait for the ale to spill out? But I guess if the breweries think they sell a few more bottles by slapping "craft " on the label then fair game to them.

One brewery that has embraced the craft movement further than just re-badging existing beers with a craft label is Brains. This Welsh outfit have started a new brand of beers from the Brains "Craft Brewery." They've got some beer writers and other non brewers in the beer world to help out with creating the ales. Now I'm sure these guys are excellent at tasting and reviewing beers but whether they know how to produce a decent one themselves is open to debate. I know if I was given the chance to make a beer it would probably end up being a horrific failure with an initial hoppy flavour leading to vomiting, paralysis and eventually death. That's why I stick to writing about beer rather than making it, and even the writing I'm not great at seeing as I completely failed to produce any new content last Sunday.

The Brains Craft Brewery beers were available in Tesco on a 4 for £6 offer so I thought it rude not to give them a try. I could tell they were craft beers immediately as they had trendy labels and were in kid sized 330ml bottles. First up was Barry Island IPA, labelled on the bottle as an American Style IPA and a collaboration with "YouTube real ale reviewer extraordinaire" Simon Martin. True to the description this was a hoppy, boozy drink. It was a good attempt at recreating the highly hopped, Lagunitas style IPA. Recommended.

The other brew I tried was the Boilermaker. According to the Brains website this is a collaboration with "Ben and Tom from Thinking Drinkers." I have no idea who they are but according to their website they are trying to "revive the lost art of discerning drinking." A bold aim but this beer isn't going to help their cause. Despite the label promising vanilla notes and a whisky finish, I could taste neither. Instead it was a rather muddy IPA flavour, nothing outstanding and nowhere near as pleasant as the Barry Island IPA. A shame as this beer sounded the more exciting of the two but it just didn't deliver on what was promised.

It's good to see Brains trying something different and getting the beer blogging community involved. More experimentation in the brewing industry is always welcome and who knows what winning formula they may hit upon. But some experiments shouldn't be released into the wild and while the Barry Island was definitely ready for release I think the Boilermaker could have done with a bit more work before being sold to the public. It's not the first craft beer I've tried that wasn't ready for public consumption, and luckily thanks to Tesco's deal it wasn't so much of a costly mistake to me as some other craft beers have been. Overall though I look forward to trying more beers from the Brains Craft Brewery.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Eltham GPO and The Claret, Addiscombe

I recently had the chance to visit two pubs nearby to me that I'd heard good things about but hadn't had the chance to visit. First up was the Eltham GPO. This is a recently opened Antic pub in the suburban mediocrity that is Eltham. The town already has one decent boozer, the Park Tavern, and the GPO is conveniently located on the same road as the Tavern. In a former life the GPO was called The Old Post Office, and it was a chav infested Jaegarbomb spewing hellhole best avoided by everyone. Now that Antic have got their grubby mitts on it the place has been spruced up, but also spruced down, being furnished with vintage furniture and sporting exposed piping and walls as part of the decor.

Having been impressed with the beer selection at the Baring Hall Hotel, another new opening from Antic in nearby Grove Park, I was looking forward to more exciting beers here. However the landlord has played it safe with the beer selection at the GPO, with five solid if not very exciting ales on offer, including Timothy Taylor Landlord. I opted for a pint of local brewery Hopstuff Fusilier, which was a classic best bitter. It was in good nick and went down perfectly with a very tasty Fish and Chip dinner, chosen from a food menu which again plays it very safe with pub classics such as sausage and mash. I did enjoy my time here and would stop in if I happened to be in the area, but unlike the Baring Hall I didn't feel it was a pub worth going out of the way to visit. Hopefully with two pubs in such close proximity to each other, the Park Tavern and Eltham GPO might step up their game ale selection wise.

Over to Croydon which despite its grim exterior and sometimes questionable inhabitants, it is bereft with decent pubs. In nearby Addiscombe is the Claret Free House. Unassuming from the outside, it looks like it could be a wine bar or restaurant. But inside there's no doubting this is a traditional local boozer, with a long bar and mock tudor interior. Five handpumps displayed a tantalizing selection of beer.

The Claret is "famous" for serving Palmers Best Bitter, with a certificate proudly displayed proclaiming that they have served over 1,000,000 pints. It would be rude not to try it and after a sip I could see why they sell so much. This was a easy drinking, slightly floral ale that went down a treat, perfect for a session or a quick one after work. Next up was W.J King Lost Kingdom. This was a heavier bitter, with gentle raisin notes in the aftertaste. It was fine but not as charming as the Palmers. Finally there was the Westerham Puddledock Porter. With its low ABV this was a light and refreshing porter, not too heavy on the coffee notes. This is the first porter I've ever described as refreshing.

A small collection of regulars were in, and the crowd got bigger as the afternoon wore on towards clocking off time. A telly in the corner was showing the cricket and I got the pleasure of watching England perform terribly in the Twenty20. It was a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere and although I was the youngest customer in there by far, I never felt uncomfortable. A pub well worth visiting if you're in the area.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Maidstone

Having visited Whitstable, Herne, Sevenoaks and Rochester, I was starting to struggle about where to visit next in Kent. Faversham, Gravesend and Margate just weren't that appealing to me in this chilly weather, and more importantly they didn't have many pubs listed in the Good Beer Guide. Just as all seemed lost and I was resigning myself to visiting Dartford The Lovely Jemma suggested I go to Maidstone as it's "quite nice." A quick look at the guide showed there were at least four pubs there worth visiting, so off to Maidstone it was!

My impression of Maidstone is that it is a rather generic market town, not as big or pleasant as Rochester but a step up in size from Sevenoaks. Like the other Medway shopping towns I'd visited Maidstone mainly consisted of one long street packed full of shops going through the centre of town. From what I saw there didn't appear to be much else to do in town apart from shop or go to the pub, so I imagine being a teenager here must be pretty boring as most don't have a huge amount of money to spend on shopping and they can't have a drink in the pub (legally.) I guess there's always huffing glue or bothering old ladies to keep them amused.

Luckily for those over 18 or with a decent fake ID and a old face the pubs are pretty good. The first pub I visited was The Swan, a Shepherd Neame hostelry near the train station. Walking in on a Tuesday lunchtime there was only one other customer in. I spotted an India Pale Ale from Neame on the bar and as I'd never tried it before I thought I'd give it a go. I was served by a young lad who didn't look old enough to drink the ales he was serving, but he poured a pretty good half. Shepherd Neame beers rarely rise above "average" in my book but the Pale Ale was actually "pretty good." Light and hoppy this went down a treat while I sat outside in the sunny but blustery weather. A good start to the day.



Next up was the Rifle Volunteers. Judging from the reviews on the internet this appeared to be a "love it or hate it" kinda place. Walking in I thought I'd walked through a time portal to the 70's. This small pub was the most old school venue I'd been to in a while. I doubt the decor and furniture had changed since the pub first opened, but it had a quaint charm. I was the only customer in and I struck up a friendly conversation with the landlord, Alan, who filled me in on the history of the place. It was originally a Neame pub until the brewery sold it over his head in the mid nineties. Just as it looked like the place would turn into houses and Alan would be out of the job, the Goachers brewery came along and bought the place. Alan certainly sounded grateful for the opportunity Goachers had provided him.

Three Goachers ales were on offer, and I started with the Fine Light Ale, which lived up to its name. A splendid, easy drinking tipple. I noticed Alan had the Extra Mild on, and I mentioned I had a below par half of this at the Man of Kent in Rochester. "Try mine" he said, and I took him up on the offer. Well it was like drinking a completely different ale to the average sup I'd had at the Man of Kent. The coffee and chocolate notes were coming through splendidly, it's amazing how much of a difference good conditioning and care can make to the taste of a beer. Sadly I didn't get the chance to try the Extra Stout, but I promised Alan that when I'm next back in Maidstone I'll pop in and give it a go. He only serves the same three ales plus one lager, and a couple of cans of cider are on standby in case a non real-ale drinker wanders in by mistake. I'm pretty sure the Stout will be on next time I visit.

My next pub was at the other end of town. The Pilot, a Harveys pub, had a blackboard outside claiming this was a "country pub in town." The traditional exterior and rustic interior went a little way to matching that claim, but the pub being right on a very busy main road destroyed the illusion. A decent selection of Harveys beers were on offer. The Mild was disappointing with not much flavour coming through, but maybe I'd been spoiled by the Goachers. The Old Ale was much better and its malty flavours went down a treat. Finally the Porter was an interesting tipple - very fruity and even a bit sickly at first but once it had settled down it was quite a pleasant pint.

A fifteen minute walk back to the other end of town brought me to The Flower Pot. Voted Pub of the Year and well regarded by CAMRA and seemingly every beer lover on the internet who has visited, I was looking forward to this place. It didn't disappoint. The last three pubs being tied houses meant I was limited in beer selection, even though all the drinks had been great. Walking into the Flower Pot I was delighted to see a Marble Pint was on offer and I immediately had a half. It was spot on, this gloriously hoppy, easy drinking session beer being in fine form. A Sausage and Chips and a pint of Oakham Jesters Ferret with its citrus notes ended the day on a good note. With the friendly, knowledgeable staff and cosy atmosphere alongside the decent beers I could see why this place has won many awards.

Overall I had a good time exploring Maidstone's fine pubs. It was nice to visit such a varied selection of boozers with different beers on offer. The only sad thing was how quiet all these pubs were on a Tuesday afternoon. The Swan, Rifle Volunteers and Pilot weren't serving food, so I could see why maybe these pubs weren't busy during the day. As Alan said to me in the Volunteers, people just don't go out for only a drink at lunchtime these days, and haven't for a long time now. Not even tradesmen or labourers go out for a lunchtime tipple much these days. But even the one pub that did serve food, The Flower Pot, only had two other customers in at 2pm when I popped in.

The restaurants and cafes in town were busy so people do want to go out for a lunchtime meal, but it seems nobody wants to visit the pub at lunch for just a drink these days. I hope the evening trade keeps the excellent traditional boozers such as the Rifle Volunteers going but I do worry they may not be around forever if they don't find a way to adapt to the fact that people are drinking less in pubs. I wouldn't want these places to start serving food as I think it would destroy some of the character - but I'm not sure what the alternatives are.