Thursday, 19 November 2015

Beer In Essex "I don't think any of us actually brew in our sheds" The Future Champions Beer Fest 4

Beer In Essex
"I Don't Think Any Of Us Actually Brew In Our Sheds"
Future Champions Beer Fest 4
The Victoria Inn, Colchester

Beer festivals in pubs can often be hit and miss affairs as far as I am concerned. There are some beers seem to be ubiquitous, and whilst they can be good I'm generally looking for something a little different, a good variety that will hold my attention for a whole afternoon. All too often I'm rather disappointed and after an hour or so I'll cut my losses and head for pastures new.

It's just after midday on a mild but decidedly damp early November afternoon as I get off the train at Colchester station and take the short walk to the Victoria Inn on North Station Road. With every step I take my anticipation grows as I know with absolute certainty that the festival I'm headed to will not have a single beer on its list that I will have had before. I also have a slight sense of apprehension as, despite this being a festival I have been planning to attend since I was first told about it back in March, I won't be drinking a single commercially produced beer.

The Future Champions Beer Festival, otherwise known as the Shed Brewers Festival of which this is the fourth, began as an idea following a meeting of the local home brew club, the Shed Brewers. Sheena and Andy had been given some of the beers to taste and were amazed at how good they were, which got them talking about the possibility of an actual home brew festival. Realising that there would be some legal issues with regard to beer duty, Sheena spoke to a friend of hers who just happened to be an ex-licensing officer, and a suitable solution was found. Planning started in early Spring 2012 and subsequently has done every Spring since, mainly due to the fact that the home brewers don't meet that often. It proved to be a resounding success. This ticket-only festival has grown in popularity and reputation every year since and now sells out weeks in advance, so I was rather intrigued as to what I might find.

Although the doors have only been open for around twenty minutes by the time I arrive there's already a good crowd drinking in the pub itself. Deciding not to head immediately up to the function room where the festival is being held I take a seat at the bar and order a half of Muck Cart Mild from Bedfordshire brewery Son Of Sid. It's toasty flavours are rather pleasing and it's light enough to sharpen my taste buds before I embark on the main event. Sheena and Andy come over for a chat and tell me that they've already had to turn away a couple of disgruntled local 'tickers' who had ignored the fact that would need a ticket to gain entry.

Sheena encourages me to go upstairs and after noting several beers on the bar that I'll be back to try later I make my way up the stairs into the function room above. My £12.00 ticket entitles me to twelve thirds of beer, but there appear to be more than twelve beers available and this is confirmed when I'm handed my programme. With fifteen beers available I realise that I'm going to need some judicious planning and start to read the descriptions provided to enable me to navigate my journey through the afternoon and into the evening.

With any sustained drinking bout common sense says that you drink the lower abv. beers first, leaving the heavy-weights until a little later on, but I'm intrigued by the 5.5% Idle (Weisse) brewed by Keith Bailey so even though it's mid-range strength-wise on the list I decide, on balance, that it won't cause me too much damage later on and head straight for it.

It has a beautifully carbonated off-white head, and the classic German hefeweizen aroma of
zesty lemon and dry coriander seed backed buoyantly with notes of bubblegum. It is perhaps a little more full-bodied than I anticipate but the deep lemon interspersed with light orange wine gum flavours tell me that I've made the right choice and I savour its long lingering finish before draining my glass in no time at all.

One of the best things about this particular festival is that the brewers themselves are present, and even though they take their turns serving from the assembled stillage they take this opportunity to talk to each other about the beers they have brewed and more importantly, from my perspective at least, are on hand to give impromptu interviews.

I manage to grab a few words with Keith, who has come down from Norwich to enter his beer, and ask him about his brewing and the Shed Brewers.
"I don't think any of us actually brew in our sheds," he tells me, "I've been home brewing for about four years, and I took it up as a way of saving money. I started brewing from kits at first but soon moved on to all-grain brewing with some interesting results in the beginning."
The Weisse beer is a standard beer for him I'm told, and is made using White Labs WLP380 yeast. After chilling the wort to 13 degrees and pitching the yeast before letting it come up to 17 degrees over two to three days. He seems genuinely delighted that I like his beer.
Interestingly, I discover that he grows Cascade hops in his back garden and we talk about his favourite beers styles (US-style Pale Ales and British Oatmeal Stouts for the record) and beer in general for some time. The one question that I have to ask him however is whether he has any aspirations to brew commercially and his response is very definite.
"Absolutely not" he says. "This is just a hobby and I don't really have any interest in taking it to the next level."

Heading back to the bar whilst contemplating my next beer choice I notice that names are being taken for three separate tutored tastings (light and golden ales, dark beers, and speciality beers) a little later on. Realising that this is my opportunity to actively taste all of the beers available today I manage to get my name, as well as that of fellow Essex beer writer Martin Oates who will be joining me later, added to the latter two tasting sessions. This means that I need to focus on the lighter beers at this stage but after a decidedly mixed bag of Blonde and hoppy Golden Ales, generally good but not overly memorable I decide to up my game and go for the strongest beer at the festival, a 7.2% double IPA called HopHopHop.

Brewed with Summit, Centennial and Cascade (three hops you see, hence the name), it's a beautifully sticky and thick dark amber beer that's heavy with lime and pine flavours. Luckily for me the brewer, Jon Wood, is on hand and we move to a convenient table at the back of the room for a brief chat.

Originally from Ipswich but now living in Colchester, Jon works in IT and has been all-grain brewing for around seven years. I ask him whether his job influences his brewing philosophy and what he likes to brew.
"I am a bit of a self-analyst," he confesses, "and I'm always striving to improve. I really like Brewdog beers and they do inspire me, but I really like to experiment. There's no set style that I favour, I like to try everything. This years beer for example is quite a jump from last year when I entered Brown Leaf Bitter, a 4.0% session bitter brewed with East Kent Goldings and Challenger hops that I grew in my garden, but this year I really wanted to do something bigger."
In addition to growing hops in his garden he also grows Bacchus grapes which he uses to make his own wine. This variety gives lower yields in the UK but has an acidic Sauvignon Blanc quality, and I ask if he's ever considered combining the two and brewing a beer with grapes or wood chips soaked in wine.
"I hadn't," he laughs, "but it's certainly something I'd consider."
"Maybe next year?" I ask him.
He smiles but won't commit. "Maybe" he replies.

One of the things I like about the Victoria Inn is that I always feel welcome there. Despite not knowing anyone apart from Sheena and Andy. who are busy with the bar and barbecue downstairs, I have no trouble finding people to talk about the beer, some of whom have been going to this festival since its inception. Everyone tells me that this is the best yet but there are a few beers that are dividing opinion.

There is a nineteenth century style brown Porter brewed with Oak-cured amber malt called "Smoke on the Porter" which is a little too much for some whilst others, myself included, are drawn to its smokey chocolate caramel flavours. This is the lowest abv. beer available, at 3.8% and I later discover that the brewer, Ashley Carr, was in hospital at the time. I wish him a speedy recovery.

Braggot is not a style that you come across often and certainly not one that I'm overly familiar with although Uncle Zester, Siren's collaboration with Michigan meadery B.Nektar is currently front runner for my beer of the year, so I'm expecting good things from the two featuring today.

The first, Old Bag, is brewed with both honey and apples but without hops and it is these flavours that are evident throughout. It's quite dry but without being overly sweet and I rather enjoy it. Less to my taste however is Beowulf, brewed with local honey from hives sited near Colchester Zoo as well as Northern Brewer and Fuggles hops before being aged for two months. There's something about it that I find a touch stale, although that is purely my opinion and the brewer, Dave Souch, is certainly experienced. He tells me that he's brewing for just over six years and that his 8.5% Vanilla Bourbon Imperial Porter, which ticks quite of few of my 'that's a beer I really want to try' boxes, was the beer of the festival last year.

It's Dave's girlfriend, Claire Barrett a teacher from Colchester, who is the brewer of what is possibly my beer of the festival. Her Salamander, a chocolate chilli stout brewed with home grown chillis, is a slow-burner of a beer that grows in flavour and warmth as you drink it and I'm amazed to discover that it's her first all grain beer.
"I really like chilli chocolate and wasn't aware of any beer being brewed with those flavours, so I thought I would research chocolate stouts and chilli beers and give it a go. Of course since I've brewed it I've come across two others but I'm quite pleased with it."
I asked her what made her take the plunge and start brewing.
"I've come along to the last two Future Champions festivals with Dave," she replies, "and thought that if I was going to be part of this then I really needed to brew a beer of my own."

As I finish speaking to Claire it's time for the first of the two tasting sessions I've signed up for. Martin has arrived by this time and I go downstairs to say hello to him, his girlfriend Michelle and their friends before we take our seats ready to taste the dark beers. These are led by Andy Gill, a SIBA judge and accredited wine judge and he encourages us to say which flavours we are finding as well as guiding us the through the styles. Some of the brewers are also on hand to add comment and insight as well as hear how their beers are received and I notice that Claire is emotionally moved by the universal praise her beer receives.

There's a couple more dark beers that stand out for me at this session as well. Colin Miller's Cherry Porter (Special) is brewed with vodka-steeped cherries, and has a smooth cherry stone and chocolate taste that develops wonderfully as it warms in the glass. Similarly benefiting from a little warmth is Simon Baker's Madagascan Vanilla Oatmeal Stout which tastes like a deliciously creamy vanilla toffee yoghurt.

I manage to grab Simon, another home brewer who works in IT, for a few words after the tasting and ask him about his brewing.
"It's something that I've been doing for around four years," he says, "and I've entered beers in this festival for the last three. I was inspired to brew after reading Dave Line's 'Brew Your Own Beer' book, and I entered a black IPA brewed with Simcoe and Citra my first year, and a Porter called Mr Shifter in the second.
For this beer I soaked two Madagascan vanilla pods in Jim Beam to kill off any nasties that might be present before making an English Oatmeal Stout and putting them into the boil with Fuggle and Citra hops".
He plans to brew a 6.8% black IPA for himself for Christmas and wouldn't mind a collaboration with either Mighty Oak or Maldon Brewing (Farmers) in Maldon if that could be arranged.

The Speciality Beer tasting session enables me to complete the full list and after I check my tasting notes for each of the beers I head back upstairs to fill out my card by re-visiting some of my favourites and chatting with Dan, whom I know from the Hop Beer Shop micropub in Chelmsford and who is an SXBottleshare regular.

Evening is turning into night as I leave the Victoria Inn and head for home, although not before I gulp down a swift half of Crouch Vale's Conkeror to help me on my way.

The Future Champions beer festival has exceeded my expectations, and any concerns I had about the quality of the beer and the skill of the brewers are far from my slightly blurry thoughts. I'll definitely be back next year, the atmosphere alone was worth the price of the ticket. Perhaps I'll see you there.

If you fancy trying your hand at brewing, you can contact your local Craft Brewing Association using this link.
Alternatively you can email the Victoria Inn at: who I'm sure will be able to point you in the right direction.
If you've enjoyed this write up and want to read a report on this years festival from a different perspective I would urge you to read Martin Oates blog post which you'll also find interesting.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Commitment To Beer: An afternoon with Marks & Spencer

A Commitment To Beer
An afternoon with Marks & Spencer

It's a quarter to one and I'm sitting in the Mad Bishop and Bear pub in Paddington station killing time. I've been here for the past twenty minutes nursing a pint of frankly average Ruck & Roll from St. Austell Brewery, observing the South African rugby supporters at the bar and occasionally checking and re-checking the route to Marks and Spencer's Head Office in North Wharf Road just around the corner. I down what's left of my beer, pull on my coat and head out into subdued hustle and bustle of a mainline railway station on a damp Wednesday afternoon.

Ten minutes later I'm heading up the steps into the nerve centre of one of the UK's most recognisable and respected brands. Founded in Leeds in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer, its name is a byword for quality and service, and although it has had a hard time in recent years it seems to have ridden the storm well, restructuring the business and concentrating on what it does well. Being quick to spot an opportunity, over the last few years Marks and Spencer have considerably expanded the range of beer that they offer. They have responded to the growing craft beer market by re-inventing and re-invigorating their own range to an impressive degree, so much so that they have earned two successive 'Retailer Of The Year' awards (2014 and 2015) at the International Beer Awards.

Today is Marks and Spencer's Autumn Beer Tasting 2015.

In order to showcase their range of fifty-three different beers including their most recent seasonal releases, they have invited a select group of beer writers along to sample the whole lot, the first time that they have done so. This strikes me as quite a brave thing to do, and displays an assured confidence in their selection that they are willing to open themselves to potential criticism in their own front (tasting) room from such as Melissa Cole, Jane Peyton and Christine Cryne, whose pedigree is renowned and opinions are highly respected. There is an obvious publicity benefit to be gained from a positive reception however, and this is why we have been invited to enter the inner sanctum.

I'm met in reception by Natasha Redcliffe from Westbury Communications Ltd, an independent food and drink PR agency, who have organised this event, given my visitors badge and taken up one floor to meet the team from M&S responsible for putting this range together.

Entering a rather sterile room I am confronted by a long line of bottles stretching nearly its whole length, and most of its width as well. Although I am the first to arrive I notice that all of the bottles have already been opened, and there appears to be some furious quality testing going on with some slurping and spittoon spitting being undertaken by the three people moving down the line from various points. I haven't been to a wine tasting for more than ten years, and I suddenly find the alien absurdity of this happening at a beer tasting both confusing and amusing in equal measure. Perhaps its snobbery, but one of the great pleasures of beer is that it tastes all the way down, with some flavours revealing themselves after the swallow, and to see it treated in this way makes me feel a little uneasy.

I put my feelings aside as they put their glasses down and introduce themselves as; Jenny Rea: Product Developer - juice, soft drinks, beer, cider, spirits and alcoholic drinks, Richard Applegate; Technologist - beers, ciders, spirits and chilled juice, and Joe Homeyard; Buyer - beers, ciders, spirits and chilled juice.

These are clearly people that know their business and know their market, and after I introduce myself I waste no time to start asking them about the range itself.

Richard takes me over to the assembled bottles, and explains the way they have been grouped for us today and displayed in their stores in order to appeal to different buyers.

"The brown labelled bottles" he says indicating the first twelve, "are our craft beer range. Designed to appeal to those who want something more from their beer, they have more unusual flavours and concentrate on quality ingredients. They are something special, something different. Next we have the eight single hopped beers also with their own distinctive labelling, followed by the British Regional range, some traditional styles with some newer beers, and finally our Belgian beers."

It's an impressive selection, and it is at this point that I'm handed a glass and told to help myself, but the Essex boy in me comes to the fore and I ask why they no longer feature Brewers Gold, brewed by Essex brewery Crouch Vale, in the their single hopped range.

"We took the decision to take that out as it simply wasn't selling as well as the others", Richard replies, which immediately leads me to my next question.

"So what does sell well?" I enquire

"Interestingly," he responds "the beers that we find sell the best are those that feature lighthouses on the labels. So we have the Cornish IPA (brewed by St Austell, whose rugby themed beer I had earlier but this is much better) and those Adnams beers in the Southwold range that also feature one."

He is at a loss as to explain why this is so, and when I express my admiration for the label artwork he points out something to me that I hadn't previously noticed.

"If you look closely at the artwork on our label art you may spot some unifying themes. For example," he say picking up the 9 Hop Kent Pale Ale bottle, "you'll notice that there are bottles hidden within the label artwork on the bottles themselves, and similarly hop cones feature on many too. You can also find beer glasses of all shapes hidden there. Our design team had a lot of discussion about this, and we believe it adds something a little extra to the buying and drinking experience, something that you might not have immediately expected."

Another thing you might spot on the label is the 'Made With British Hops' badge.

"It's something we are particularly proud of," Joe says, entering into the conversation at this point, "and we have redesigned the label to emphasise this more. We have particularly requested that British hops are used with some beers, and we're keen on supporting British hop producers."

"We also have beer and food pairings on each bottle," says Rob, picking up the nearest bottle and pointing to the 'A perfect match for ...' section on the back, "it's something we're keen on developing."

I'm interested as to whether there are any plans to group beers with foods in any stores or train staff in suggesting beer and food matches.

"Not at this stage, all though we have considered it. Obviously it is important for us to train and up-skill our staff where we can but we've no plans to introduce this in-store at present. We have heard that some stores have organised trips to their local breweries, but only get to hear of these later on. This is something we encourage, and our only misgiving is that we don't get invited along."

"What about growler fills in branches?" I ask.

"No." comes the firm reply.

One thing that I have wondered about, particularly with regard to beers like the Citra single hop beer brewed by Oakham, is whether they are just the breweries usual beers re-badged and bottle for M&S. I had read only that week on some social media circles speculation about whether the new black IPA 'Black' was the same beer as Purity's own 'Saddle Black'. I want to know whether this is the case.

"We do use those beers as a guide, but the beers produced for us are variations on the breweries own beers. It could be that we've asked them to bring out a certain character to emphasise a certain aspect of the beer, or for the abv to be reduced, but mainly we just ask for something just a little different. Our Warwickshire Amber Ale for example, is based on Purity's UBU. It's a beer we really liked and asked if they would do a beer like it for us and they were more than happy to oblige."

The bottling, I discover, is all done by three specific companies trusted by Marks and Spencer's for all of their drinks, not just for beer. The breweries have their specially commissioned brews collected and taken away to be bottled and labelled separately so that they can maintain quality and consistency.

I'm keen to find out about the beer that they carry from breweries such as Siren, Buxton and Fourpure and where they fit in to the range, and whether they plan to carry more from them. Are they actively seeking out new breweries and beers to put on their shelves?

"That isn't the case at all." Rob says. "The beers fit gaps in our existing range. They attract customers into our stores as they are from breweries they recognise, have read about and are keen to try, or simply look distinctly different from our in-house range."

"Should we expect to see sour beers on the shelves soon?" I enquire.

"It's something we've looked at" Rob confesses,"in fact we have discussed it this week, but we feel that we're not ready to put sour beers on the shelves just yet. We do constantly review our range, however, and take note of new styles and breweries that are doing something different, so maybe at some time in the future, who knows?"

Other beer writers have started to arrive and I realise that I have taken up plenty of our host's time, and there's plenty of beer to be drunk here, some of which I haven't had before, and so it's those I head to first.

I pour myself a glass of the new Salted Caramel Porter. Rob had mentioned that this was a beer that they had particularly asked Meantime to develop for them and that they were rather pleased with it, and whilst I find it drinkable, it's a bit thin and sweet for me however and I don't really get any salted caramel flavours from it. Much more to my taste is the the Smoked Ruby Ale brewed by Adnams. Based on the brewery's own 1659 Smoked Ruby Beer, made with cherry-wood smoked malt, it goes particularly well with duck or game, and I remember enjoying its original incarnation with an excellent venison pate one evening.

The Warwickshire Amber Ale that Rob mentioned earlier also impresses me, as does the Sovereign single hop offering.

Finding much less favour with all of us is the Welsh Golden Ale brewed by Brains. It is the only beer that comes in a clear glass bottle, and despite having been kept out of the light prior to today's tasting, just by sniffing the bottle that nasty slightly musty off-flavour associated with a light-struck beer is very apparent. Tasting confirms this to be the case, and we all leave it well alone.

It is at this point that I have a notion that I will possibly never have the opportunity to taste the whole of Marks and Spencer's in-house beer range in one place again, so I set myself the challenge of achieving this before I leave. Thankfully a block of M&S's superb three-year old matured cheddar, Cornish Cruncher has appeared and this is hastily devoured by all present, the fat helping to ward off some of the effects of the alcohol.

I eventually manage it about a quarter to five. Drinking thirds, probably a little less, of mostly tasty relatively low alcohol beer over nearly four hours is, as you might expect, not really a chore. With plenty of good conversation, Martyn Cornell, Bryan Betts (the beer viking), Glynn Davis and two guys from Brewdog who didn't have the letter 'y' in their first names as far as I recall, had joined us, but it was time for me to go.

I pulled on my coat and grabbed my bag, said my goodbyes and thanked them before making my way down in the lift with and walking to the station for company.

Sitting on the train I reflected on an afternoon of good beer, and not only that good beer that can be found in Marks and Spencer's stores up and down the country. Not every branch can carry the full range of course, shelf space prevents that unfortunately I was told, but the range and choice of styles is really quite mind-boggling compared to what you would have found on those same shelves three or so years ago. Times really have changed.

We had of course been invited to help promote the range, with the hope that we would write about it and talk about it to a wider audience, in fact it actually surprises me how few beer drinkers and brewers I speak to realise what can be found there. More importantly, to me at any rate, it shows the commitment that M&S have made to beer. Long may it continue.

NB: I have put pictures of Marks & Spencer's bottle labels old and current throughout this post. Have fun, as I did, spotting those bottles, hops and glasses.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

We're SWEssex CAMRA And We Do What We Like! A Brush With My Local Branch

We're SWEssex CAMRA And We Do What We Like!
A Brush With My Local Branch

I am not by nature a person who is prone to rant, in fact if you read my posts on a regular basis then you'll know that I try to find the positive in everything I do. I have on occasion been critical of certain beers that breweries have produced, particularly in my own county of Essex, but I have always tried to offer a balanced argument with words of encouragement and praise where I think it is due.

I am passionate about the beer scene in Essex. For too long I feel we have been introspective, trying not to offend anyone, churning out the same formulaic brown beers and golden ales, all the while keeping those abvs. down. The local drinkers that embraced CAMRA in the late seventies and early eighties when it was a genuine force for change still see themselves as the core of the organisation. Cask beer was, and still is, their fight, and they fought hard to keep it. Admittedly there were many brewery casualties along the way; Gray and Sons ceased brewing in Chelmsford in 1974, Ind Coope became the Romford Brewing Company in 1980 and switched to keg-only production before being closed completely in 1992, and of the Ridleys Brewery in Hartford End was sold to Greene King and closed in 2005, but we now boast thirty-one active breweries, with the majority of these less than ten years old.

You could argue that there has never been a better time to drink beer in Essex. Some brewers have decided to be adventurous and brew beers that embrace the new traditions and the growth in the craft beer market across the world, but it has on the whole been a tentative 'toe-in-the-water' experimentation rather than a total immersion and seeing where the current takes them. All of the larger Essex breweries without exception have a brown bitter, a golden ale and an India Pale Ale in the English style as part of their core range. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this but I think I have found a fundamental problem, a cause and effect that has meant that we haven't developed in quite the same way as breweries in other counties.

In the early days of CAMRA when campaigning was at its most furious the lack of good beer available to the drinker in the county was shockingly poor. In the late nineteen-eighties, when I first discovered what a fantastic drink cask ale was, Greene King IPA, Abbot Ale, Courage Best Bitter, Courage Directors, and Ruddles County, were beers that were revered. You just have to look through local beer guides at the time to realise that this was mostly all there was. I used to travel miles to drink beers from Suffolk's Maldon brewery, and a visit to London meant delights from Young's or Fullers.

By this time, of course, CAMRA as an organisation was in its late teens, and for many of the original local branch members this was all that they could find to drink, their palates were used to it, it was what they truly loved. They still, and they still have that passion, but time has moved on. CAMRA is now over forty years old, it's middle aged, and many of those original campaigners have retired, or are very close to doing so. With retirement brings more free time, more time to socialise and drink the beer that they love. They've earned it after all. They know each other well, they are comrades in arms, a social club of drinking companions. They know their stuff. They support local breweries, well they say they do at any rate. Always happy to offer an opinion. They are the drinkers. "Please us" they say, "and we'll publish a favourable review in our local magazine. CAMRA is a national concern, the biggest consumer organisation in Europe, it'll be good publicity for you." In short, we know best.

My own experience with my local CAMRA branch, South West Essex, has been limited to say the least. Despite being a CAMRA member in the region for a quarter of a century I've never been invited to attend a meeting or a social event, in fact all I've ever received through the post from them has been an invitation to help staff the 'Grays Beer Festival' although I haven't even had one of those for the last five years or so. Maybe they got the hint.

I'd heard stories about this particular group, and have on occasion viewed them from afar at local beer festivals. One pub, which for obvious reasons I won't be naming, supposedly lost its Good Beer Guide listing after refusing them a room to have a meeting on a particularly busy Saturday evening. It's now back in the guide, and I am told that they actively courted the branch to this end, although on a recent visit I found the beer quality to be the poorest I have known it to be in more than ten years.

Recently however, I have thought that I really should get to know them, to really find out what makes them tick. My reasoning being that to truly understand beer in Essex I should really speak to and drink with the people who have seen it evolve over the longest time. So, when I discovered that they would be meeting at the Spread Eagle in Brentwood last night, a pub not far from me, and that Trevor Jeffrey, the brewer at Billericay Brewing and a good friend of mine would be in attendance, then I decided that if I was going to meet some of then then I wouldn't get a better opportunity to do so.

The Spread Eagle in Brentwood, my destination, has undergone something of a transformation in recent months. Owned by Punch Taverns, it was once well known in the area for drug dealing and under-age drinking. This summer however it has had a change of tenancy, and Jack, the new landlord has brought good beer and most importantly a good old-fashioned home-from-home pub feeling back to the place. It's quickly become my local. I both live and work nearby,and it just so happens to be directly on my route home. I'll be posting a proper review of the The Spread Eagle in due course, suffice to say that it has become my port in a storm or a place where I feel I can unwind amongst friends.

Trevor had told me he had arranged to meet them there just after eight o'clock, the plan being that they'd stay for about an hour before moving on to the local Wetherspoon's in the High Street. I can time the walk from my house almost down to the second, I do it every day, so I walked through the door right on cue at five past the hour.

Normally I can walk straight in and be served, but I was forced to stop in the narrow doorway and plan my route with care. Arrayed in from of me, two deep and taking up the full length of the bar were the local CAMRA branch. As I paused for a second, I was bundled in the back and almost knocked sideways by a large gentleman who was greeted by those closest and asked what he would like to drink. Thankfully there were plenty of staff on, they were expected after all, and I took my pint of Rooster's Yankee to a suitable viewing area, content to observe and wait for Trevor, who had yet to arrive.

One of the things that I particularly like about The Spread Eagle, something that sets it apart from the rest of the pubs in Brentwood, is that Jack prefers the dimpled pint mug, and serves his beer in them by choice. The CAMRA crew had clearly just been served, and these mugs were being passed out amongst the fifteen or so members, when to my surprise they started to be passed back across the bar to a chorus of grumbling voices. Curious as to what had occurred I took an interest in why this was the case. I hoped it wasn't the beer quality, and it wasn't, it was purely the glass that was at fault. To a person, both men and women were among their number, they had all required that their pints were poured into straight and Nonic glasses. This was something that I've never seen before and I couldn't really understand why. Two of the men who were closest to me, one of which suffered from terrible halitosis on receiving their drinks exclaimed "That's more like it, a traditional glass, it makes the beer taste so much better." Now, I'm currently reading Martyn Cornell's latest book, Strange Tales Of Ale, and I had just finished the chapter that shows that the dimpled mug was introduced by Ravenhead in 1934, a full ten years before the introduction of the Nonic glass. Be that as it may, it strikes me as a very odd thing to do.

Several members were moaning loudly about the lack of tables, and how they really wanted to sit down. This was a little strange as there were several free tables, but they were not near the bar and a couple of them were in different parts of the pub meaning they couldn't stay together as a group. I suspect that it was because of this a couple who had been enjoying a drink before they were surrounded, got up to leave, whereby the chairs were almost dragged from under them before they had barely gathered up their things.

I looked across as they departed and saw that Trevor had made his way in. Now, considering that he is a local brewer and he was wearing a brewery sweatshirt, and these aren't available to buy, not a single one of their number acknowledged his arrival or uttered one word to him as he made his way through them to talk to me. Of all the events of the evening this was the one that I found most surprising. In fact all the time I was there did one of them approach him. On one occasion he pointed out to me some of them that he knew by name, and though they undoubtedly heard him at least one of then consciously turned their back to him as their name was mentioned.

Before he had arrived I had, with no shame, let my British Guild Of Beer Writers membership card be very obvious in my wallet when I had paid for my beer. I noticed that the two men next to me had seen it, they nudged each other and nodded towards it, but I was still met with a shield-wall of broad South West Essex backs.

I had only allowed myself an hour to meet them, I wanted to get home before my children went to bed, but I came to realise that Iwasn't going to get the opportunity to introduce myself on this occasion either than to wade in and do so. I paused for a moment before considering not to do so. Did I really want to be associated with such a group behaving in such a boorish and ill-considered arrogant manner?

The high point of the night came just before I left when Trevor presented both myself and Jack with a bottle of his latest beer, Clever Trevor, for us to try at a later date, and I put on my coat and worked my way through the crowd and went outside.

As I walked away clutching my beery prize, a had a pang of regret that I'd left Trevor to the mercy of those people for the rest of the evening. I don't know if they ever spoke to him, I don't know if he even stayed, but I did feel that I had had a lucky escape.

Before I get a string of comments stating that not all CAMRA branches are like this, that you do things differently where you are, and that this is surely an isolated incident, I fully appreciate that this may be the case. However what I would say to you is that should not happen at all. There wasn't a single person in the pub who didn't know that this was a CAMRA group, and I don't think that it could be said that any of them enjoyed their presence. How is it that you can promote a drink by de-camping and making a general nuisance and obstruction of yourselves wherever you see fit?

Maybe I'm missing a point somewhere down the line, but if I am then will someone please tell me what it is?

If this rot has set in, and I can't believe that South West Essex is the only branch in the country that are guilty of this type of behaviour then CAMRA is surely doomed. Excluding people at a grass-roots level, creating an elite clique and having your own in-jokes and foibles will hasten your demise not expand your active membership in the long term.

I really hope that isn't the case. Recent motions at the AGM prove that there is flesh blood coming through and opinions are beginning to change. As I arrived home and put my beer in the fridge I wondered if it might be too little too late.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Beer In Essex: Cask Ale, Competition And White Elephants - An Afternoon With Brentwood Brewery

Beer In Essex
Cask Ale, Competition And White Elephants
An Afternoon With Brentwood Brewing Company

It's a bright sunny afternoon when I set out to walk the three miles across Brentwood from my house to Calcott Hall Farm, the home of the Brentwood Brewing Company, and walking up the drive I notice that the field to my right is full of ripe pumpkins ready to be picked. Halloween may be a month or so away but I've already heard that the pumpkin beers have started appearing in the stores across the Atlantic, with the season for these seemingly getting earlier and earlier Stateside. I'm not generally a fan of these beers as I find them too heavily spiced with ginger and cinnamon for my palate, and wonder if the brewery I'm visiting will find a use for them.

I ring the bell and am let in to wait in the brewery's tap room, although I barely have time to settle down into the inviting studded red leather sofa before Roland, the breweries co-founder and owner, appears and immediately offers me a beer. There is a question that I need to get out of my head, so I have to ask him about the pumpkins I spotted, and whether any will be making their way into the brew kettle any time soon.

"Definitely not!" is the resounding response, and whilst on balance I'm rather pleased, there is a small part of me that can't help but feel that it could just be an opportunity wasted.

The main reason for my visit is to follow up on a discussion I had with Roland a few weeks before about his taste in beer and preference for cask over keg. I wanted to get to the root of this preference, as he freely admitted that there were some keg beers he enjoyed, but none that he found truly satisfying. After visiting the SIBA BeerX in Sheffield earlier in the year for example, he tried plenty of keg beer but needed to finish on cask at the end of the day.

"I think it's simply the taste, " he states very matter-of-factly, "it suits my palate more. Cask beer has a certain character, particularly the bitterness, that I don't find in other beer."

"Do you have a favourite cask beer?" I ask.

"My own," he says without hesitation, "that is Brentwood brewery beer. Basically, when it comes down to it I'm tight, and I think, and I know this isn't actually right, that I'm putting money back into my own pocket."

I'm guessing that this is something that most brewers and brewery owners do, and it certainly makes good sense to be seen to drink the beer that you produce as a positive endorsement of its quality. I do however push him to give me another brewery's beers he would drink instead of his, a brewery whose beer he admires perhaps?

He replies with just one word. "Harvey's".

We discuss beer and breweries, both local at national, at some length as I'm poured another beer and Roland is particularly keen to stress how much small breweries are being squeezed.

"Head brewers in general earn around £15000 to £18000 a year at the moment which isn't great considering the work that they do. In order to make good money from brewing a pint of cask ale needs to be around the £5 a pint region, and taking a penny off a pint in duty doesn't help breweries at all. Drinkers then expect it to come off the price of their pint, and they are really only interested in that price being low, in fact they expect it, but the cost of production and materials continues to rise. We're stuck in the middle, being squeezed more and more."

This kind of open, frank and candid attitude is something that I've experienced in all my dealings with Brentwood Brewing and Roland in particular. It's refreshing to hear somebody speak in this way at a brewery in Essex and I ask him about dealings with the other breweries in the county. I am interested to know if they ever meet up and swap ideas or talk through their problems.

"Not really to be honest," he says, "other than at the occasional beer festival or SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) meetings, and even then the area we are in, (SIBA Eastern, encompassing Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Lincolnshire, Peterborough, and Suffolk) is so large that it almost makes it impossible."

Considering it's nearly 200 miles from the top to the bottom, and the roads being such that it would take over three hours of driving from a brewery like Brentwood in the south to Tom Wood's in the north, time and other constraints make it rather impractical. Apparently, Brendan Moore of Norfolk's Iceni Brewery, and representative to SIBA for the region has tried to organise more local regional meetings of brewers from three or so counties, but these have come to nothing due to poor communication, something I find hard to comprehend in the modern age.

I can of course see that breweries in different parts of the country have different problems and concerns, both logistically and with regards to their marketplace, but what about on a county level? Surely Essex brewers talk to each other about the problems that they face when if and when they meet, sharing ideas and asking for advice of particular problems they are having?

Somewhat surprisingly and rather unfortunately this is not the case. The brewers and indeed the owners, only talk in general terms if and when they do meet, I am told, and are generally quite guarded. I'm curious as to why this would be, as it would seem to make more sense and be more beneficial to help each other out. Apparently not, and when I ask why this is I am given a one word answer. Competition.

This makes no sense to me, and noting my confusion Roland is obliged to expand on his reason.

"We are concerned that any idea that we have will be copied, and in todays market it's all about having an edge and being one step ahead. That is the main reason we don't really talk to each other, that and time constraints, but we're really worried about our ideas being copied by the big boys, the big countrywide brewers."

This is quite a statement, and whilst it makes sense on one level it is quite difficult for me to process when I look at it from an outsiders viewpoint. In my experience, certainly at local level, brewers are very keen to tell you what they're up to next. It is after all good publicity to let prospective customers know what to look out for as I creates a sense of anticipation and raises the profile of the brewery in the minds of the consumer.

I ask about collaborations with other breweries in the county or even further afield, and both Roland and his son Ethan, Brentwood's head brewer who has now joined us, agree that they would consider the possibility although they have no plans at present, nor have they had any approaches as yet. Personally I see this as a great way for a brewery share ideas and techniques, and breweries that have done so have grown from strength to strength, so hopefully there will be some scope to do so.

At this point Roland is needed to attend to a customer who has come to pick up several polypins of beer for his daughter's wedding that weekend, so I take the opportunity to follow Ethan into the brewery itself, the first time I've actually seen it up close since they moved to the current site in 2013.

The set up is very similar to that which I remember from when I spent a Brewery Experience day with them back in 2012, the subject of my second ever blog post, at their previous home just up the road from the White Horse in Coxtie Green, a pub still referred to as the Brentwood Brewery Tap.

The new site has a tap room of its own that is open at weekends for beer to be purchased to drink or on the premises or to be taken away, along with a range of brewery merchandise.

There's plenty of room for expansion here however. Currently a 20 BBL brewery, with brewing taking place 2-3 times per week, Ethan shows me the space in which he hopes to install a further two fermenting vessels which will greatly increase capacity and give him a little more room to experiment under the Elephant School brand, as he has plenty of ideas of his own.

I'm interested to discover that Brentwood actually brews a beer that is kegged, Wapping Hoppy 4.0% with the tag-line "The Home of Hoppy" which it supplies to the new home of English Hockey, the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre, just up the road to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. They also supply cask beers, Wapping Gold and Wapping Cape, which are simply existing Brentwood Brewery beers re-badged.

I ask Ethan what we should expect from Brentwood in the next couple of months, thinking that he may not wish to give too much away, however he is keen to tell me of his upcoming plans.

"We'll be brewing Spooky Moon again soon," he tells me, "our Autumn seasonal, to tie in with Halloween coming up, and I plan to brew a few special one-off beers under the Elephant School label, the first of which will be a White Mild."

I'm familiar with White Stouts, pale beers with the body and flavour of a stout that plays with your mind when you drink it, similar to a Black IPA in a way, but in reverse of course. A White Mild is however a new thing on me and I ask Ethan how he proposes to brew it.

"I haven't quite figured that out yet," he states with a huge grin on his face, "however we haven't used the elephant name in any of our brews so far, and White Elephant would be perfect for that."

I have to agree.

There are also plans afoot for a winter release of a barrel-aged Chockwork Orange, their dark Old Ale-style beer brewed with oranges, possibly in nip bottles, a special tasting event, or even a combination of both. Whatever they choose to do it will certainly be something that you won't want to miss out on, so keep an eye on the brewery website for any information on this or indeed any other release.

Four hours have passed since I arrived in seemingly no time at all, but as I'm getting ready to leave the heavens open so I head back to the tap room where I'm poured another beer and we continue the conversation.

Plans for a possible micropub in Brentwood are mentioned (something I've discussed with three separate and completely unconnected parties in the last few weeks), as well as ideas for beers, both new and maybe the revival of a few of the older styles, but as these are still ideas at this stage I will leave them there.

All too soon the sun reappears and bidding farewell to Ethan, Roland and the rest of brewery team I head back to my home on the other side of town. Both of them independently offer me a lift but I refuse, preferring to reflect on a good afternoon and time well spent amongst local people with a real passion for what they do and a genuine love of good beer.

It's turning into a beautiful early-Autumn evening and I realise that I quite fancy another beer.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

It's 'Cheers For Charity' On A Big Beery Night

Forget Coffee ...
It's 'Cheers For Charity' On A #BigBeeryNight

Cancer. It affects us all. Whether directly or indirectly we have all experienced the effects of the loss of a loved one ourselves or seen those close to us lose someone dear to them.

It claimed my Mother-in-law five years ago.

To see such a strong woman with so much life in her and so much love to give laid low in the space of a week after a protracted two year battle was devastating, not only to our family, but to the great many friends she had made and those whose lives she had touched.

In her final week, as she gradually wasted away seemingly before our eyes we, and particularly my wife and sister-in-law, were comforted, supported and advised by Macmillan Nurses. They weren't requested, we didn't need to apply for them, but they simply introduced themselves and provided their help and knowledge when and where it was needed. They even organised, in the space of two days, a place in a hospice for my Mother-in-law, as she was determined not to die in hospital, although in the end she passed to quickly for this to happen. The help didn't stop there either, and they made sure that we knew that they were there for us whenever we needed them.

Gwen, my Mother-in-law, loved life and was one of those people who saw the good in all things. She also liked a beer or two. She was never a big drinker, she always drank halves, but she loved good tasty beer, 'a proper 'bitter' bitter', as she would say. She always made sure that there was good beer in the house for whenever I would visit, and would take great delight in finding a bottle of something that I hadn't had before.

These are the things I remember, along with the good times and the laughter, so when my good friend Steve from the Beer O'Clock Show, who himself had lost his Mother, Father, and Mother-in-law to the disease, was wanting to do something for Macmillan, and that it involved beer, I immediately said I would help.

What started as a conversation he had with beer blogger Phil Hardy on Twitter has grown, in the space of just a few days, into a Big Beery Night that will take place on Friday 25th September.

Many of you will of course be aware that Friday 25th is the day that Macmillan coffee mornings will be taking place all over the country, and while coffee is a great drink, I'm sure you would agree that it's not quite as good as beer.

Here's how you can take part:

Instead of abstinence however, on the Big Beery Night you are positively encouraged to drink and donate as you do you so. The idea behind it is simple, on the evening of the 25th September buy yourself a pint, grab a bottle of something amazing, or get your growler filled and drink it. Take a picture of what you're drinking and post it to Twitter using the hashtag #BigBeeryNight. All that then remains for you to do is to pay for your beer a second time in a manner of speaking, by donating the same amount to this Just Giving page that has been set up especially to receive your donation.

You can do this as many times as you like; beer, photo, post, donate,  over and over again if you wish. The target has been set at a modest £1000, but seeing as there's a little while to go and considering the amount has already been raised it looks as though that will be smashed.

Just how much is raised is really up to all of us. You can drink as little or as much as you like, and at if at least the cost of one of those beers is donated you will have been part of the #BigBeeryNight

If that wasn't enough, there will also be a Twitter auction on the night, with more and more beery prizes, experiences and even artwork being donated every day, you'd be wise to keep an eye on the Beer O'Clock Show Twitter feed for all the details.

It promises to be a fantastic evening, one that everyone who likes beer and wants to do something to help support a wonderful course can get behind and be proud to do so. Gwen would most definitely have approved. In fact she would probably have set up a Twitter account just so she could join in.

So get your beers ready, and start making plans for the #BigBeeryNight on Friday 25th September.

I'll see you there.

If you would like to read what others have written about this event you can do so here:
From the Beer O'Clock Show website
From Phil Hardy's site - Beersay
From the BeerViking
From Rach Smith's - Look At Brew

Monday, 14 September 2015

Beer In Essex - Review: Farmers Yard, Maldon

Beer In Essex - Review
Farmers Yard, Maldon

The micropub as a recognised entity is barely ten years old, a consequence of the 2003 Licensing Act becoming law in 2005 and enabling small premises to obtain the right to sell alcohol, and whilst they were initially few and far between, the last five years has seen an explosion in their number up and down the country.

There are over 125 such premises now in existence, premises that were once shops, offices or off-licenses, all given a new lease of life in a straight-forward no-nonsense and often very often cramped environment with no food or entertainment, united by the philosophy of 'Keep It Small, Keep It Simple'.

The Farmers Yard is the third micropub to open in Essex, The Hop Beer Shop and the Billericay Brewery Micropub being the other two, and like the latter is run by a brewery, with this one belonging to The Maldon Brewing Company.

I am fortunate enough to be able to attend many events where brewers are present, and indeed count a number of them as friends, however for the majority of drinkers contact with the people that actually brewed the beer in there glass is a rare thing indeed. There are certain beer festivals where this is possible, although often only on certain days, and the occasions of brewer-drinker interaction are generally seldom. We are fortunate in Essex that you can often converse with the brewer on a fairly regular basis, whether it be Ian from the Essex Brewery Company at a farmers market, Roland and Ethan from Brentwood Brewery when they open on a Saturday, or Trevor from Billericay Brewing at his brewery or micropub, and now Nigel and his son Mike in Maldon, you can go and share a beer with the very person who enabled it to be in your hand in the first place.

Situated at the lower end of the High Street, the Farmers Yard has a relatively plain shop-front, its green-on-white signage would be easy to miss, although it was drawing quite a crowd when I ventured inside on Saturday afternoon. Admittedly it had only been open a week and still could be considered a bit of a novelty from the locals but there was a real buzz about the place, with plenty of conversation and laughter, and I had to weave my way between the tables and drinkers in order to get to Nigel and order a drink. I opted for a half of one of Maldon's newest beers Ella, brewed unsurprisingly with Ella hops, and tasting very good indeed.

There's no bar here, only an open doorway with a till tucked away, with the beer served by gravity dispense straight from the cask on stillage in the back room, something that is a common feature of many micropubs. Whilst he was gone I took the opportunity to have a proper look around at the layout and my fellow drinkers.

Three high wooden tables surrounded by stools take up much of the space, and these were all occupied by what would be fair to say was an older crowd, and I mean no disrespect by saying that many of them fitted the oft-pilloried CAMRA activist stereotype. I had noticed that there were a number of beers available, not all from the Maldon Brewing Co. but other Essex brewers too, as well as local cider and wine by the glass. Occupying the whole of the wall opposite the door is a wooden shelving unit full of bottles of the latest Maldon brewery beers, and I purchased some bottles to take home with me, including a few of the strong Golden Ale, Xylonite, which I have earmarked to feature in the upcoming Beer O'Clock Show 'Essex Showcase' podcast.

I wasn't able to stay for too long on this visit , I had a pressing engagement elsewhere, so after a brief chat with Nigel (whose surname is Farmer, hence the name of the pub) I was on my way. I'll be back again soon for a pint or two, with plenty of time to sit and chat when I'm need to pick up some more of their bottled beer, and I'm confident it will be just as busy then as it will more than likely be on another Saturday afternoon.

There will be a second micropub opening on nearby soon, as Mighty Oak, the other brewery in Maldon have had permission to convert the vacant Pink Rose cafe at the other end of the High Street, and I'm looking forward to being able to visit and drink in both. Fresh beer, straight from two breweries to your glass in the same town served by the people who make it was recently the exclusive domain of the newer breed of city breweries. To be able to do have a similar experience in one Essex town was once the stuff of dreams, but by the end of the year this will be very much reality, one we can all drink to.

The Farmers Yard can is at:
140 High Street, Maldon, Essex CM9 5BX
Opening times:
Monday to Friday 11.00am to 2.00pm and 5.00pm to 9.00pm
Saturday 11.00am to 9.00pm
Sunday 12.00pm to 9.00pm

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Beer In Essex: Four Coggeshall Pubs

Beer In Essex
Four Coggeshall Pubs

On a warm Saturday morning a few weeks ago we were stuck for an idea of what to do or where to go. It was one of those late Spring - early Summer mornings where you really feel that you'd have wasted the day if you didn't get out of the house and do something positive. Searching for inspiration, my wife turned to the internet and consulted one of those 'days out in...' guides that can easily be found. A National Trust property in Coggeshall, Paycockes House and Garden, caught her eye, and as I neither of us could recall ever having been there, or indeed having ever been to Coggeshall itself we duly set off pleased to have found a suitable destination.

My only recollection of Coggeshall prior to this was that the late eighties, early nineties television show Lovejoy was filmed in the area, and that the previous owners of our current house had moved there when we bought it from them.

Consulting the Good Beer Guide for a suitable lunch recommendation upon our arrival, we headed to The Chapel Inn, of which more later, for some very good food and a couple of very well kept pints from the local Red Fox Brewery. Paycockes House was just around the corner, and well worth a visit. Beautifully kept and respectfully restored it is a fine example a 15th century wool merchants house, and the children were particularly delighted to be able to play croquet in the garden, but it was the walk around the unspoilt town that provided me with the desire to find out more about it and this was subsequently the inspiration for this piece of writing.

The origins of Coggeshall itself, as well as its name, are lost in the mists of time and it has been referred to with many different spellings through the years. Growing up at the intersection of the River Blackwater and the Roman Road of Stane Street that linked Colchester to Ermine Street, the main Roman Road north, it is referred to in the Domesday Book as Cogheshal, a settlement of some sixty men, with ploughs, horses, oxen, sheep, and even a mill. It prospered from the mid-Fifteenth Century as the local monks were able to breed sheep with particularly high quality wool, from which the famous Coggeshall White cloth was made. It also had a regular Saturday market. With the decline of the wool trade, the economy was centred around silk and velvet, but by the late Nineteenth Century it had also become renowned for the quality of its brewing.

In Ian P. Peaty's excellent Brewery History Society Publication, Essex Brewers: The Malting & Hop Industries Of The County, a constant source of reference for me, eight pages are devoted to the breweries and mentions of brewing in the town, only Chelmsford and Colchester have more, such was its importance in the county.

As wool was such an important factor in the growth of the town it is natural that I should start with one of the pubs that takes its name from the trade itself.

The Woolpack (91 Church Street) dates from the 15th century, and is the oldest secular building in the town. Originally built as a home for a prosperous wool merchant, by the early 16th century it had become a hostelry catering to those in the same business, with wool auctions being held there regularly and there is a record of an Albert Emmings roasting a whole bullock there at a Shrove Tuesday party. Within the space of some fifty years however it had returned to its original use as private dwelling.

In 1665 it was purchased by Thomas Lowery, previously vicar of the church next door, St Peter ad-Vincula (which my Latin translator tells me is St Peter in chains), who had been ejected from the Church of England over his Puritanical views following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. He continued to preach despite this, and independent congregations would gather under his roof to hear his words, and this is commemorated by a blue plaque on the wall of the pub itself.

Speaking of the church I have found an anecdote in several books that concerns a group of men (the number varies from four upwards) who, having spent the evening in the inn next door, became convinced that they could move the church by pushing against it hard enough. Having tried in vain, and after removing there jackets, they came to the conclusion that the reason that they were unsuccessful was that they were pushing against the wind. After going round to the other side and pushing with all their might for a short while, they went back to see if they had made any impression at all. Finding their jackets gone they reasoned that they must have pushed the church right on top of them.

After the death of Thomas Lowery the building passed to his son, Jeremy, along with the vast sum in those days of £900, and upon his death it passed to his son Jeremiah Lowery. By 1708 Jeremiah had converted the Woolpack was back to an inn, who in turn sold it to a George Long and it was known as the Punchbowl for a short time.

Its half-timbered frame was covered in plaster in the early 19th century, but a refurbishment in the 1930s this was removed, the building restored to the state we see it in today, with a magnificent brick fireplace discovered behind a boarded-up wall during the same work. It has suffered from some subsidence during the years, indeed its floor sloped by eight inches from the centre to the walls at one point, so a false floor was laid in the 1950s and this remains.

Today it still retains plenty of character, a memory of a bygone era, it really is like stepping back in time. A row of four cottages once stood in what is now its car park, so there is no excuse not to spend a little time there should you happen to be passing by.

If you continue towards the town, almost facing you near the very end of Church Street you will find The Chapel Inn (4 Market Hill). As its name implies it is built on the site of an old chapel (although evidence of Roman drainage aqueducts can be found in the beer cellar), however I have found some conflicting evidence regarding its origins.

The pubs website states that the original chapel was erected in 1256, and there is reference to the home of one John Sewell Sheriff of Essex in the reign of Richard II, owning property there, which was either the chapel itself or certainly very close by. During the Peasants Revolt of 1381, his home  was looted by the rebels, although the current pub's assertion that he was decapitated on the premises at the time seem a little improbable as there are possible references to him as late as 1389.

The Will of Thomas Hall, a local resident, dated January 15th, 1499 has the following passage:

"I bequeath towards the edifying and making of a chapell within the said Towne of Cokesale (Coggeshall) XXS to be paide when the said chapell is werkying."

Whether this is a new chapel, or a modernisation of the earlier one is unclear, however construction certainly took place, and there are references to it as "an olde chaple" in 1549.

In 1588 the property was conveyed to the fullers and weavers of the town before being demolished in either 1787 or 1795 depending on which account you read.

The current property, which had been known as Ayworth's, Edgworth and Seals (Sewells) after previous owners is mentioned as being sold (along with The Woolpack above) in 1828 following the bankruptcy of the brewer of the Coggeshall Brewery at The White Hart (that we shall visit shortly),Mr. I. Brightwen, with two floor maltings being a feature of the yard at the rear.

At some point the building was a hotel as well as an inn, and featured a brewhouse being run by a Mr Walter Green, and in more recent times was owned by the Ind Coope brewery, which had its origins much nearer London though still in Essex, having been founded in Romford.

Today it is a friendly community pub and, as I noted earlier, boasts Coggeshalls only entry in the Good Beer Guide, and one in which you will find beer from the nearby Red Fox Brewery regularly on the bar. I can also recommend the food having eaten there on a recent visit so make sure it's on your itinerary, particularly if you're after some Essex brewed beer.

Turn right out of The Chapel Inn and down Market Hill for a few short paces and directly in front of you you cannot mistake the pale frontage of The White Hart Hotel (Market End).

Parts of the building date from the late 15th century, although it may have been built on the site of a much earlier building as it situated alongside the old Roman road. A former coaching inn, and one in which you may still stay the night, it was once the only staging post on the Colchester to Braintree route.

It is also known that the Coggeshall Brewery was situated at the rear of the building as in 1837 it was up for sale, being described thus:

"Coggeshall Brewery, including an excellent brewhouse: 3 floor malting house ... malt, barley and seed chambers ... the whole forming a frontage of 95 feet in Stoneham Street; at the back is an enclosed yard and an excellent garden. The property is supplied from an inexhaustible spring rising in a small garden a short distance from the brewery. The population of the town and neighbourhood (is such) that an intelligent merchant with moderate capital must succeed."

A company of gypsies stayed at the inn for a while in September 1842, although it appears that they were confined to the out-buildings as one of their number, Cassello Chilcott aged 28, is recorded as having died in the stables after suffering a long illness. She is buried in the churchyard of St Peter ad-Vincula, here gravestone being one of the first you see if you climb the path to the church itself.

Today the White Hart Hotel is run by Olde English Inns, the hotel arm of Greene King, and is said to be haunted by the unnamed ghost of a young woman, although this may not be that of Cassello Chilcott as there have been reported sightings even before she died there. Looking on the website it gets good reviews for the friendliness of the staff although the rooms themselves appear to be a little small and in need of some renovation. It would be a good base from which to explore the town and the surrounding area, so might be worthy of consideration should you wish to visit.

The fourth a final pub on my tour of Coggeshall is, I'm afraid, no longer an inn but a private house, but one that I feel is still worthy of attention.

The Fleece (27 West Street) is attached to Paycocke House, being purpose built some five years afterwards in 1503, for wool merchant Thomas Paycocke's son as an inn and stables.

Whilst not as grand as the White Hart Hotel it still gained a good trade from its location on the old Roman road, albeit a little out of the main town, with its rear being home to the Gravel Brewery, founded in 1870, before this moved opposite the Cricketers pub, like The Fleece no longer trading, somewhere between 1875 and 1897. The brewery itself was started as a sideline by the renowned seed growing company Kings Seeds, a business that is still in existence today.

The Fleece itself is described as having one bar with an enormous fire place in which log fires were kept constantly burning during the winter and must have provided some much welcome warmth for a weary traveller on a bitter evening.

In later years it was bought by Greene King, who in turn closed and sold it in 2013 although the sign still remains, as does much of the brewery branding on the exterior wall. It is a fine building and it is not difficult to imagine the sound of conversation and laughter coming from it in days gone by.

Visiting Coggeshall is like going back in time, to the days of Pepys or Dickens, when the coaches thundered along the main street of this once thriving town. It is places like this, that contrast almost completely with the hustle and bustle of my corner of Essex, that fill my heart with joy and truly make me believe that I live in the best county in the country.


Essex Brewers & The Malting & Hop Industries Of The County - Ian P Peaty, The Romance of Essex Inns - Glyn Morgan, Alka-Seltzer guide to the Pubs Of Essex, Titbits and Tales of Essex Inns - Mavis Sipple, A Pub Crawl Around Essex - Graham Dover, The Essex Chronicle, The Chelmsford Chronicle, Borrow's Gypsies Blog website, Olde English Inns website, The Chapel Inn website