Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Geese and Fountain, Croxton Kerrial: Scotch Eggs and Peacocks

The Geese and Fountain
Scotch Eggs and Peacocks

If you want to find out where the best pubs are then you can do a lot worse than ask a local brewer, and if that brewer or more appropriately brewster in this case, is as well respected as Sara Barton then you'd do well to heed their advice.

Planning an overnight stay in Grantham with the aim of visiting both The Angel & Royal, where King John, that most villainous of English monarchs once held court, and The Beehive, the pub with the living sign, I found a hotel online that just so happened to be a stones throw from Brewsters Brewery. After sending an inquisitive tweet about the best place to find their beer we were invited to the brewery itself and spent a good couple of hours there drinking beer and chatting with Sara and Sean. Discussing the best places to eat and drink locally they recommended The Geese and Fountain on the main road between Grantham and Melton Mowbray as the best place to have lunch the following day, particularly after discovering we were headed that way (the historic Anne of Cleves pub was another on my list of places to visit and the famous pork pies an obvious draw). They thought we'd be as suitably impressed as they were, and they'd had their daughters birthday party there not that long ago so having our children along with us wouldn't be a problem either.

After a slight detour to Newark which included a visit to the impeccably stocked Real Ale Store lunchtime beckoned. Heading back down the A1 to the same junction we'd encountered it earlier that morning, a six mile drive along the A607 brought us to the front door of The Geese and Fountain.

When I arrive at a pub to find a sign stating "Over 100 beers in bottles and cans" my pulse tends to quicken ever so slightly, and I have to confess to hurrying across the threshold so see what was within leaving my family to organise themselves in the car park. This is a tactic I regularly employ, ostensibly to enquire if children are permitted but in reality it's so that I can take in the beer selection and plan my route along it. This was definitely the case on this occasion, and such were the riches arranged before me I took rather longer than usual to re-emerge and give them the all-clear.

Opting for a half of Hopcraft Brewery's Killing Joke, a smooth Jester hop accented Pale Ale from Wales, I remarked on the fact that there were several other Welsh beers available on both cask and keg. Nick Holden, the landlord, explained that they were just finishing a Welsh beer festival and handed me a list of the fourteen beers and cider that he had featured during the week. I had already noticed that they still had Waen Brewery's sublime Lemon Drizzle on keg and made a mental note to have a half of that before I left.

Food was required but as we'd had an extensive full English at the hotel buffet a few hours before we chose scotch eggs and pork pies from the lighter pub food menu, and when they arrived we immediately knew we had made the right choice. The scotch eggs were freshly cooked and wonderfully warm, crisp on the outside with meat that was perfectly savoury and a bright yellow yolk that was exactly the right balance between firm and runny. These had featured, we were told with a justifiable degree of pride, in a Telegraph article on the Britain's best pub snacks written by Adrian Tierney-Jones someone who, as beer geeks and readers of the Telegraph will already be aware, has impressive credentials in both beer and pub grub. You can read the full article here and if you compare Adrian's picture with mine then it might be argued that they're possibly even better now. The pork pies, from a single producer, was chosen from a single supplier in Melton Mowbray after a full tasting of all available locally and selected because it hit the right peppery notes.

Suitably impressed in and sated in all departments I approached Nick for a few words while my wife and children, having finished eating, picked  one of the board games to play.

He was more than happy to talk and show me around the pub whilst another member of staff covered for him behind the bar, so I started by asking him about the Geese and Fountain, how long it had been here and how he came to be running it.

"It wasn't always called the Geese and Fountain," he told me, "that's the name we gave it when we re-opened it in August 2015 after it closed in 2012. Before that it was called the Peacock Inn and you can still see that name picked out in black tiles on an outbuilding in the car park. The peacock appears on the coat of arms of the Duke of Rutland who owns the land around here, and all the pubs on his estate shared the same name. It was originally two cottages, not a pub at all we think, however there are records showing it as coaching inn dating back to the eighteenth century. It had been a Whitbread's pub at some point too, and behind our sign on the front door there still is a large Whitbread sign, but I don't think that any other breweries have owned it."

"I took over the pub with my partner Kate Ahrens as we both felt that this was an exiting time to be in the trade. We are both former health care workers and although I'd previously worked in the industry, at the Magnesia Bank in North Shields and running a vegetarian restaurant in Lewisham, London, I hadn't been behind a bar in twenty years, and Kate had never worked in the trade at all."

With the background established I was keen to press Nick about how he felt about what was happening with regard to beer both nationally and locally and in particular presenting it alongside food of such quality.

"There's been a renewed interest in beer and brewing recently and it's the real ale and craft beer cross over that excites me the most. We're lucky that we have so many good local breweries practically right on our doorstep and while the Vale of Belvoir has a great reputation as a food destination it hasn't, in the past, done enough to promote local beers as the perfect accompaniment to local food. You'd find so many places selling excellent local meats, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese and locally farmed vegetables and fruit but having pretty standard wine and beer offerings that bypassed the local producers in favour of more mainstream brands."

"When we're travelling we always like to experience the produce of the whichever area we are in at the time, and we really wanted to establish the Geese and Fountain as a pub that offers the best in local food and drink. This underlies our commitment to local ales, lagers and ciders as well as local spirit producers, Burleigh's gin is produced in Loughborough and Two Birds produce a range of flavoured vodkas and some unique gins in Market Harborough, and we're always adding more to our range."

It's easy to think of these locally sourcing specialist retailers as being solely the preserve of larger cities, especially when beer is part of the equation, but this obviously isn't the case. We had decided to visit The Geese and Fountain purely on Sara's recommendation, it didn't feature in any books or online guides I'd read when we'd been planning our visit and, believe me, I'm rather meticulous, not wanting to miss out on any hidden treasures, and yet here I was in a talking to the landlord of a pub that was making my heart sing. I realised that I was sporting a huge grin as I ordered that half of Lemon Drizzle I'd promised myself so, not wishing to make myself appear a gushing loon I adjusted my expression and asked Nick about the change of name and the pubs unique sign.

"Whilst we were of course aware of the historic name of the pub we wanted something that reflected the village of Croxton Kerrial itself. If you follow the road down the hill you'll find that there is indeed a fountain and a pond with geese on it. It seemed a natural fit."

"The sign above the main entrance, a little tableau of geese and the model fountain was put together by Adam Mills who is a plumber and kitchen/bathroom fitter. He lives in the house opposite the pub, a large part of which he built himself, and he decided to build us a model of a fountain, or water spout, when his mum turned up at his house one day with some metal geese she'd bought at a garden centre. We're rather pleased with it."

As well they should be, it's a striking feature, one that would make you stop on your travels to view on its own and, as you'd stopped anyway, head inside for curiosities sake.

I freely admit that I could have happily spent the rest of the day in The Geese and Fountain, and had we not had to be home that evening we could well have stayed, there are six Bed and Breakfast rooms available and plans afoot for more development, using an old skittle alley as function room and community cinema, and setting up an allotment gardening area, but at the moment they're quite rightly focusing on getting the basics right.

There is much more I could tell you but it's more fun to let you discover it for yourself (see if you can find the clues as to which football team Nick supports, for example) and you'll find that all the staff are friendly and happy to chat.

So, if you're heading either up or down the A1 as I know many of you do, I'd encourage you to break your journey at Grantham and head along the A607 to The Geese and Fountain. Whether lunchtime or evening, perhaps for an overnight stay, you might find yourself having a rather longer visit than you'd planned. You can thank me later.

You'll find The Geese and Fountain at:
1 School Lane, Croxton Kerrial, Grantham, NG32 1QR
Telephone: 01476 870350
On Facebook at: The Geese and Fountain
And on Twitter at: @Geese_Fountain

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Whatever Happened to The Local Guides?

                                                    Whatever Happened to                                               
                                      The Local Guides?                                   

Whatever happened to local beer and pub guides? Those local CAMRA pub guides. Slim of width and back pocket friendly, handy (sometimes fold-out) map enclosed. Visiting a strange town never seemed quite so strange with a trusty guide firmly in hand. 

When planning a trip for business or pleasure they were, for me at least, an essential purchase to ensure that however bad the accommodation, terrible the food, and inclement the British weather I could always find good beer close by. Relying on an army of enthusiasts sent out to visit every pub in their county, they contain the name address, telephone number, opening times, brief description and, because these were CAMRA guides, the real ale (or not) that could be found there.

The opening pages are often simply an introduction to the guide and a list of the (incredibly few) local breweries contained within the county's borders whilst others have more lengthy prose, providing an insight into the issues of the day. Frightening headlines such as "Nitrokeg - the new threat?", "New Keg. New Threat.", "Pubs in Peril", and "Coming Soon ... The £2 Pint" seem as relevant to the Campaign now as the ever were, although if you consider that the last one is from the 1992 edition of Avon Ale, a county that no longer exists, then perhaps we're not as badly off as What's Brewing's letters page might have you believe. There are some lighter and more informative articles too. The Real Ale Drinkers Guide To Kent Pubs (1993) includes one on Pub Games In Kent and Hop Research At Wye (college, the home of the worlds oldest hop research department, a Derbyshire guide (of which more below) has one on Fly-fishing, and The North London Pub Guide (1995) has a handy guide to night bus routes in the North London area.

Most counties had several editions with a new updated versions every three to five years on average some, Essex for example stretching to nine, the last of which was published in 1997. I don't recall seeing any reviewed in What's Brewing's book section any later than the turn of the century, although there may have been one or two, but most county's final editions were published long before this. For a recent excursion I ordered the latest Derbyshire edition I could find from an online store and even though I expected it to be out of date I didn't quite expect it to be nearly a quarter of a century old.

I know this is the digital age where guide books are something archaic. Many cities have applications that can be downloaded (Craft Beer London for example is excellent), enabling you to pin-point your position and find the nearest pub or bar, or even plan your route to your destination of choice but, for me at least, a smart phone in one hand and pub guide in the other is a beer explorers delight.

There are of course some more modern guides, good guides that will take you to the best bars and pubs in key European cities, and I can certainly recommend the Cogan&Mater published "...In 80 Beers" guides if you're visiting the cities covered as I have used them myself on several occasions. I've put some of my favourites in the picture below, a mixed bag but all worthy of investment if you're visiting the areas covered.

Inevitably some cities have lots of guide books, constantly updated. London and York in particular have a glut of 'best of' books that will tell you where to find a pub or bar to suit any whim or persuasion. Good those these are I do have a hankering for the return of those Angus McGill Evening Standard London Pub Guides of the 1990s, their mixture of wit and information meant they were the only guide books I have read through from cover to cover on more than one occasion, and I still look through them now and again.

I have asked myself whether I'm just being nostalgic, looking not-very-far back at a time when mobile phones were actually phones and not the gateway to everything and everywhere they are today but the more I think about it then the more I'd like to see the return of the local guide. While I appreciate that things move faster these days, with new breweries and venues on a seemingly daily basis, it's the successful ones that thrive and grow, staying the course year on year. The Good Beer Guide is limited by space and it's championing of real ale, surely there is a need for these guides now, directing visitors to the best places today and serving as reference guide for the next generation of drinkers and further generations to come who might look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Irish Craft Beer: Is now the time?

Irish Craft Beer: Is now the time?

If you didn’t know there had been a craft beer revolution in Ireland similar to the explosion of new breweries and beers on this side of the Irish Sea then you might be in for a bit of a shock. What you could be forgiven for however is thinking that it had been on a fairly low key scale, such has been the small amount of Irish craft beer reaching these shores up until now.

It’s strange to consider the amount of beer that reaches the UK from the United States with logistically harder obstacles of transport and trade to overcome as well as freshness issues to be taken into account, that we don’t see more from nearest neighbours.

Recently I was invited to attend the ‘Spirit of Sharing’ event organised by Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, and held at the Irish Embassy in London. Hosted by Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall who proved himself to have a good working knowledge of Irish beer, highlighting an example of a beer and food menu in a restaurant he had visited relatively recently.

The purpose of the evening was to bring together food and drink writers, bloggers, and retailers with small Irish drinks producers from the areas of whiskey, poitin (which I’d never had and developed an immediate taste for), cream liqueurs and beer.

There were representatives of six Irish breweries present: Boyne Brewhouse, Carlow Brewing Company (O’Hara’s), Drew Fox Brewing (Clever Man), Galway Hooker, White Hag Brewery, and Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company, all showcasing their wares. To have six stands out of a total of fourteen dedicated to beer shows how seriously it is now being taken.

All the beer I drank was of a good or very good standard, with the best being on a par with some of the more well-respected UK craft brewers, and the worst the equivalent of our established family breweries.

It was an excellent evening, the canapes and chocolates that accompanied the alcohol were delicious, all Irish of course, and we were even given bottles to take home however, even though I got to have some conversations there wasn’t the opportunity to talk in depth that I would have liked.

Fortunately I had another chance a few weeks later when The Rake held a celebration of Irish beer, “Thank Goodness, No Guinness”, for St. Patrick’s day, featuring both cask and keg beers and celebrating some of the best that Ireland has to offer.

It was busy when I got there, but thankfully I spotted a few faces I knew; Steve from the Beer O’Clock Show and Simon Sanders, both of whom had been at the Irish Embassy. The casks were set up on stillage in the outside drinking area and I opted for a pint of the dry-hopped Kinsale Pale Ale from Blacks of Kinsale Brewery. Steve pointed out that standing immediately behind me was the man that had brewed it, Sam Black.

Based in Cork, Sam completed an MSc degree in Brewing and Distilling at Edinburgh’s Herriot Watt University in 2012 and opened the brewery with his wife, Maudeline, the following year. Currently brewing around ninety barrels a week, most of his output is currently bottled.

“We keg the remainder of our beer normally,” he tells me, “as there are only around eight or so pubs in Ireland who actually know how to serve cask beer.”

“The Irish Craft Beer scene, is very small at the moment, around two percent of the market. If you imagine the menu at McDonald’s, for example, it’s the equivalent of those little tubs of tomato sauce you get to dip your chicken nuggets in, probably even smaller than that. Heineken is by far the most popular drink, not Guinness as many people believe, so there’s a huge potential for growth.”

I ask him if it’s difficult to find craft beer outside of the main cities or towns.

“Not really,” he says, “you can generally find at least one outlet in most places, wherever you might be, that you’ll find some good craft beer. The older pubs that were there at the start of the Irish craft beer boom that have survived, and many went under, were the best in most instances. People have just started to make a profit out of it in the last two years.”

Having related this to others, I’m not convinced that you can find good beer everywhere you go but I gather from speaking to Pierce Cooney (otherwise known as Sonovagun, and who I’ll coming back to later) some breweries, such as Bru, have nationwide supermarket contracts that gets their beer the exposure they need.

Wanting to find a different viewpoint I found Liam Brogan from Ireland Craft Beers, the company responsible for bringing the beers over to The Rake for this event. He is the only full-time employee with the title of Chief of Operations, and far more enjoyable than his previous job as a chartered accountant.

“We see the whole of Ireland as one market,” Liam tells me, “and even though we’re based in Belfast we treat deal with the both Northern Ireland and the Republic as one market.” More like the Irish rugby team rather than the separate football teams I speculate. “Yes, exactly that,” he says.

“There are ninety breweries in the whole of Ireland, Northern and Eire” he explains, ”including contract brewers, and we see our job to be introducing them to a larger markets. We don’t sell in Ireland though, instead we’re currently concentrating on expanding into the UK, particularly London in the Brewdog bars, and in New York with its Irish immigrant community which we hope will give us a foothold in the US.”

I’m curious to find out how they overcome any trade and currency barriers, and how the beer gets to its destination at point of sale. He initially responds with a well-rehearsed sound-bite, which I suppose is the unofficial company slogan.

“We are the ‘One stop shop for all your export needs’. We collect from the brewery and deliver to the bar. We pay all the duties, taking all the trouble away from the buyer, and use existing hauliers to actually transport the beer, which cuts our costs overall.”

“The craft beer market has seen a huge global boom in the last five years, and we want to be part of that.”

I checked his figures concerning the number of breweries in Ireland on the Beoir website which provides a comprehensive list, particularly as I’d heard the Irish Ambassador quote sixty as the figure the previous week. If you consider the area as one, Liam’s figure is closer to the actual number but I’m assuming that Mr. Mulhall was only referring to those from the Republic.

There’s one man that I particularly wanted to speak to before the evening is out, and I manage to grab a few words with him just before he was about to leave for another event.

Rick Levert from Kinnegar Brewing grew up in upstate New York, meeting his partner Libby Carton in Germany where she convinced him to follow her back to her homeland and set up a brewery. The brewery is (unsurprisingly) in Kinnegar, County Donegal, they also have links with nearby Rathmullan house, a four-star hotel, having set-up a brewing academy offering weekend courses dealing with both the theory and practice of brewing.

I ask him first about the size of his brewery, before moving on to his future plans and the likelihood of us seeing his beer in the UK.

“Our system is currently around eight and half barrels, and we brew somewhere around nine to ten thousand litres a week, if you’ll allow me to use American units of measurement,” he tells me in his soft but firm East Coast accent, “which works out at around four-hundred thousand litres of beer a year.”

“Due to my upbringing in the US I have a slightly different perspective on the craft beer scene in Ireland. We’re currently concentrating solely on Ireland for the moment as we’re brewing at capacity and all of our beer is currently consumed there. The demand is there for our beer, we have a particularly strong base in both Galway and Dublin, and as every drop we can produce at the moment we just don’t have any to send abroad. We will be moving to a new brewery in about a year however which will be around a kilometre away from our current site, and we have factored in additional capacity which mean that we will be able to have around thirty percent of our total output available for export.”

Hopeful signs that we might see more beer from Kinnegar in the foreseeable future, it’s just that we’ll have to wait a little longer.

I did manage to have another conversation with an Irish brewer, although it wasn’t that particular evening. I’d sent an email to Malcolm Molloy from Drew Fox (Clever Man) Brewery having spoken briefly with him at the Irish Embassy, and he kindly telephoned me the week after the event at The Rake to answer my questions.

Based in Wexford, County Wexford in the South-East of Ireland, Malcolm had previously spent a long time in Chicago, having his own pub there, The Grafton, which gave him plenty of experience of craft beer, both selling and tasting.

With his children growing up and having a hankering to come back to Ireland, he made the decision to move back to Wexford in 2010. As he knew, as he says “a bit about beer” and drawing on his experiences he began planning his brewery in the middle of 2012, eventually opening around a year ago. He currently brews around twice a week on his two thousand litre kit, and is very open and honest with his answers.

I start by talking about the beer I’d had at “Thank Goodness, No Guinness” evening, referring to cask beer in general, and he re-iterates what Sam Black had previously told me.

“I don’t do cask beer, we’re strictly keg and bottle only,” he says. “Unlike the UK, Ireland doesn’t have cellarmen, and there’s no real training or education in keeping and selling cask beer. It’s much easier to clip on a keg and have a stock of bottles for both convenience sake and keeping the beer longer. By keeping to keg and bottle, every establishment that sells beer is a potential customer as there is no tie system over here.”

I’m guessing it’s not quite that straight forward but he refuses to be drawn, preferring instead to talk about the beer and how he views the UK market.

“As a nation we’re really just dipping our toes in the craft beer waters. With plenty of demand in Ireland expanding into the UK at this stage would bring a huge element of risk. There is plenty of opportunity for Irish beer to make inroads into the UK, being Irish still carries a great deal of provenance as a location and there are lots of people living there with Irish roots, but whether the time is right, well I’m not so sure.”

“The recent Irish craft beer scene has developed along different lines from typical English beer, taking its cue from, and emulating, American styles. We are lucky in that even though there is a constant yearning for newness, there is also a desire to drink what’s local.”

“We have to sell our beer through pubs at the moment and not on our own premises as a tasting room would be illegal under current Irish law. I doubt this will change either, as there would be a lot of resistance from Irish publicans and they form a big pressure group over here, carrying a lot of political weight.”

Having more of an understanding of the problems facing breweries there I ask him about his future plans.
“We’re looking to become the next Budweiser!” he jokes. “When we came to the market, we had a range of four core beers but something a little different from most breweries, with an Amber, an American-style Pale Ale, a Kolsch-style beer, and a peat-smoked Stout. When I planned the brewery I had already factored in potential growth and we have plenty of excess capacity, but at this stage we’re purely looking at establishing our footprint locally before considering other markets, although this most certainly would include the UK.”

Having spoken to those inside the industry I wanted some insight from some consumers, so I approached Pierce Cooney with whom I’d previously exchanged beer (I sent him some from Brentwood after he sent me a bottle Ejector Seat, that turf-smoked stout from Cleverman), and Wayne Dunne, the Irish Beer Snob, who releases the excellent beer podcast of that name with his wife Janice, and knows many of the brewers in Ireland personally.

I asked them both the question I posed in the title of this piece, whether or not they thought the time was right for Irish beer in the UK, and if so (or not) then why? The first to respond was Pierce as Wayne had other commitments to fulfil before getting back to me.

“Why isn’t there more Irish craft beer in the UK? That’s a good question. It’s probably a question of demand meeting supply. Craft beer has grown massively in Ireland and breweries are just meeting local/Irish demand at the moment, I’d imagine that they’re just not brewing enough to export. There is a lot of expansion going on at the moment however, and breweries are constantly stating that in order to survive they must export.”

“Secondly, in my opinion a lot of Irish beer just isn’t good enough to export anywhere at the moment. Most core ranges consist of a Pale Ale, a Red Ale and a Stout, and most of these are just bog-standard. It would be my guess that many importers in the UK have turned down Irish beer purely on the grounds of its (lack of) quality.”

“We’re still behind the UK in terms of innovation and scale, there’s nothing here of the standard of Brewdog, Buxton or Thornbridge for example, and a lot of times the beer from the UK that we actually see over here has been that which breweries haven’t been able to sell over there, so it’s shipped over here close to its best before date. I could be wrong, but that’s my theory, and my fear would be that due to a crowded market the UK would get Irish craft beer that’s just not selling in Ireland.”

“Having said that though, I do have a feeling that you’ll be seeing more Irish craft beer in the UK very soon.”

Wayne, along with Janice, has a similar take on the situation but with some surprising information when it comes to exports.

“Our take on it is that brewers who are setting up are first and foremost concentrating on getting the quality right along with satisfying demand in their local market. That in itself is a challenge given the relatively small scale on which some of these guys operate. We are constantly seeing new start-ups having to increase capacity within twelve months of opening. According to the latest figures, around forty percent of Irish brewers are exporting, although to be honest the main markets would be the US, Canada, as well as parts of Europe. The UK market, specifically England, is a much harder nut to crack, especially given the quality of some of the beers being produced there right now.”

“The overall quality is improving, but I do think that part of the problem is tying up some good distribution partners, those who won’t price their beers out of the market, particularly in relation the strength of Sterling versus the Euro.”

“It used to be that only the distilling side of our alcohol exports were being promoted abroad, so it’s good to see beer and cider being featured as well. For the first time ever Irish craft beer was sent to the President of the USA as part of a St. Patrick’s Day package. That was O’Hara’s (Carlow Brewing Company), and I know that they teamed up with Wetherspoons for their recent Cask Festival, and they have a dedicated UK distributor, but are they just another brand in a bulging portfolio? This is where distribution selection is crucial.”

“To sum up, it’s down to satisfying local demand first, then struggling to find suitable partners for export. From what I understand Bord Bia are starting to mentor companies who are ready to export, with operations like Ireland Craft Beers helping getting into the markets that they want to target.”

Looking at all the evidence, I’d have to conclude that whereas I’d personally like to see more Irish craft beer readily available over here I’m going to have to learn to be a little less selfish and wait a little while longer. Irish brewing, ignoring the old established brewers for the moment, is still in its infancy and needs to develop at its own rate. Somebody at The Rake said they were about five years behind what’s been happening in the UK, and whilst I don’t think that’s true, they’re proving to be fast learners, I think that they still have a fair way to go.

All is not lost however, and if you want to find some great Irish beer then you just need to know where to look. Bru, for example, have over eighty draught accounts in the UK and you can find at least one O’Hara’s beer, the County Carlow Irish Stout, in most larger Marks and Spencer stores countrywide. If you want a little more choice then you could do a lot worse than check out Honest Brew’s online store, featuring beers from both Eight Degrees and White Hag, and if you know anywhere else I can find Irish craft beer over here then please be sure to let me know.

Useful links:
Pierce Cooney on Twitter - but you should also check out his Instagram account @son0vagun
Wayne Dunne on TwitterJanice Dunne on Twitter and the Irish Beer Snob website including links to their podcast

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Rocking the boat to stop the ship sinking. Essex Beer: One year on.

Beer In Essex
Rocking the boat to stop the ship sinking
Essex Beer: One year on

It's been just over a year since I wrote this open letter to Essex brewers and breweries and I've been taking some time recently to reflect on how things have moved on, if at all. Looking back on my posts, the people I've spoken to, notes I've made, and perhaps most importantly the beer I've tasted, I have been collecting my thoughts and coming to conclusions that don't make for comfortable reading in some instances.

There's no doubt that 2015 was a big year for beer both in the UK and abroad and 2016 looks set to continue the trend. The number of new micro-breweries opening in the UK grew by 24% from 2013-2014 to 361, with a new brewery opening nearly every day (source: UHY Hacker Young), whilst in the US the number of breweries surpassed the previous high point of 1873, hitting a phenomenal 4100.

The global multi-nationals put big money on the table, buying controlling stakes in many well-known and highly respected 'craft' breweries. Starting with Elysian in the US being acquired by AB InBev in January, Meantime being sold to SAB Miller in May, Lagunitas selling a 50% stake to Heineken in September, and Camden Town Brewery becoming a wholly owned subsidiary on AB InBev in December, it was a year that saw Twitter erupt with bile, outrage and indignation, whilst self-righteous drinkers vowed never to touch beer from breweries they previously worshipped despite the beer itself not changing a drop.

Whilst Essex itself wasn't subject to such upheaval, there has been a marked growth in some significant areas. The number of breweries in the county increased from 29 to 33, and this was despite 1 confirmed loss (with the kit at Witham finally being removed), meaning that we've actually gained 5 new breweries (Watts & Co., Moody Goose, The Rock Brewing Co., The Pumphouse Community Brewery, and most recently Keppels) an increase of  just under 14%.

The biggest area of increase that can't have escaped your notice is the growth of the micro-pub. What began with the Hop Beer Shop opening Moulsham Street, Chelmsford in late 2014 has now expanded to Billericay, Upminster, Southend, whilst Maldon proudly boasts two, and with more in the planning stages drinkers in Essex will soon have an enviable choice of places to drink. Brewery taps continue that theme, with fresh beer direct from the brewery being an attraction not to pass up.

I could of course tell you all to give yourselves a huge pat on the back, quote Harold Macmillan and tell you that "our people have never had it so good", and while that would be right to a degree there's still an awful lot that is troubling me.

The first thing that I come across time and again is inconsistency. Whether it be from cask or bottle I know that I'm certainly not alone in wanting the same taste that I remember from the last time I had the beer. To be fair when it comes to cask this is generally very good, however I have been known to contact brewers directly to ask if they've changed the recipe of a certain beer as it has tasted far better (and in one particularly memorable case far worse) than when I previously had it. You could say that this would be a move in the right direction and it would be if it was maintained, but if I've had occasion to come back to the beer again I have found that often it's back to its former state. I've been embarrassingly caught out more than once introducing friends to a beer after extolling its virtues only to find it a shadow of the previous pint.

Before you berate me about breweries having no control over the way cask beer is served in pubs I am fully aware of that, but this isn't just a pub thing as I've noticed it at beer festivals too, and anyway I'll be coming on to cask beer presently.

If I had to highlight one particular area that several Essex breweries have a big problem with it would be their bottled beer. Some of it simply is not good enough, not by a long stretch. One of the biggest problems is that it is seriously lacking in carbonation. Bottle-conditioning your beer might keep you 'in' with your local CAMRA branch (you wouldn't want to upset them would you?) but if it doesn't work, and I assure you in most cases it really doesn't, all you're left with is a lifeless limp liquid with none of the nuance and sparkle a great tasting pint of beer has. The yeast tastes stressed, with its muddy taste often prevalent and whilst I try to muddle through, picking out what flavours I can, others have a different way of dealing with it. They tell me about it too.

I'm often asked to recommend local beer to people, and whilst this isn't actually a very difficult job I find myself quoting the same beers from the same breweries as I know they won't go far wrong. When people find out that I write about beer they usually have something they want to tell me and it's not always great. Bottles poured down the sink, being bought back to point of sale, and customers telling retailers that they wouldn't touch a particular breweries beers ever again are just some of the stories that have been told to me from drinkers across the county and beyond. Many of these bottles were bought as gifts, a treat for a loved one or friend, or maybe just because they wanted something a little different. Well they certainly got something a little different, a beer or brewery, or possibly even a whole county's output they forever file under 'Avoid!'.

There's a saying in customer service circles that if someone gets a good experience then they'll tell another person, but if they get a bad one then they'll tell 10 people who will in turn tell 10 others. Surely the purpose of running a business is to grow and bring more customers in, or am I missing something?

So, on to cask beer. A fantastic pint of cask-conditioned pint really is a thing of beauty, and we are lucky in some ways as well-kept cask beer is readily available in very many places in our county and the country as a whole. Contrast this with a conversation I recently had about another piece I'm writing where I discovered that the Irish Republic only has around a dozen pubs that know how to keep cask beer properly, then you'll realise how well off we are. Because of the Irish situation the breweries produce keg and bottled beer for the pubs there, but despite more and more keg and bottle outlets being opened up and down the country the vast majority of our breweries are seemingly not noticing what has been happening in the last few years. Whether this is intentional self-blinkering, thinking that the whole 'craft' thing is just a fad that will pass soon enough, or not wishing to fall out with the (in some instances rather scary) local CAMRA members I'm not sure. What I do know is that the beer scene in this country has changed in the last decade, and it has changed forever. Whilst I'm pleased to see some movements towards keg, and some have dabbled for a little while now, I appreciate that not all will want to look that way, however the writing is starting to appear on the wall. When it comes down to survival of the fittest then it might be a little too late to started re-inventing yourself.

It's time for me to get out my own particular drum and start banging it now, and some of you that know me reasonably well will know I've been playing this one for around six months now. Don't you know that it's good to talk?

I don't mean exchanging pleasantries at beer festivals, or picking up the phone to see if you have any spare hops, I'm referring to a real exchange of ideas or trying to work out problems together. I know that some of you are frightened about competitors doing the same beer that you've been planning for ages, but this isn't the Cold War for goodness sake, we need more trust in this day and age not less after all. In any case, any rival brewer would be foolish to rush out a beer that you've spent time perfecting (provided that you have) and brewing properly, putting out an inferior product before you are ready, and nothing will stop then trying to copy or better your beer after you've released it anyway, whether you've spoken to them or not. If that hasn't occurred to you then you haven't really though it through properly have you?

An avenue that some of you have turned to is to bring in a consultant, someone who has worked in the industry for a while with a 'proven' track record. I also know what some of you think of them when you've had a chance to reflect. Perhaps that might be a good topic of discussion to start with when you finally pick up the phone to each other.

Finally, if you think that I'm quite fortunate in that I don't have to change or move out of my comfort zone and it's all too easy for me to pass judgement then you'd be right, or at least you would have been a year ago. In the last year, having been with the same company for the last 28 years I found that I wasn't happy with the way things were going. I needed a challenge, something new, so I took on a new role. A new role meant training, extra hours, the possibility of failure (which would have cost me my job) and I have to admit that it wasn't easy. However, after some considered trial and error, having the excellent support of my peers and colleagues, and not being afraid to try new things, things that took me way out of my comfort zone at times, it all came together, the hard work paid off and began to reap the rewards. I continue to do so, it's a job I enjoy immensely, but I'm not so foolish that I can't see that I need to stay one step ahead of the game and that there is always something that I can improve on an work at, all the time keeping one eye on the competition. Can you see where I'm coming from now?

One very last note. I'm not going to name names or point fingers at this point as I can't see that being anything other than destructive at this stage, so don't even ask me if you see me. That doesn't mean that I'd never go there, just that I don't feel that the situation warrants it at the moment and I'd like to think it wouldn't get to that point. I will say that if you have a suspicion that any of these situations apply to you or your brewery than you may be right, and if you think that they definitely don't then you might want to think again.

With reference to the slightly mixed metaphor in the title, I hope that rocks the boat just a little bit.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Music, Moving, and a Mystery too. The Franklins Tale.

Music, Moving, and a Mystery too
The Franklins Tale

I remember seeing an interview with Eddie Izzard, the cross-dressing comedian with a penchant for marathon running, a few years ago in which he described the town he grew up in as "Rock and Roll Bexhill-on-Sea". I am assuming that he had his tongue very firmly in his cheek when he made that off-hand statement but I am reliably informed that the music is turned up extra loud when they make beer in that particular part of Sussex.

Franklins Brewery was founded in 2010 when Gary Doel bought Whites Brewery in Pebsham, Bexhill-on-Sea and changed its name and also bought a brewery in Yorkshire at around the same time, moving the kit down to the south coast to replace the older equipment that Whites were then using.

In 2012 Steve Medniuk formerly of Dark Star, joined the the brewery, and in just over a year bought Gary out on the 22nd October 2013, realising a long-standing ambition of owning his own brewery.

They brew on a ten barrel kit, having recently added two new conical fermeters and currently have four employees, Steve, Andrew, Paul, and Tanvir.

I was contacted by Tan (who handles their social media) a few weeks ago asking if he could send me samples of their new bottled beer to try, a new venture for them, and provide them with some feedback. I'm always keen to try something I haven't had before, and as East Sussex isn't my usual patch I wanted to find out more about the brewery and the way they operate.

It is to the first sentence of the press release that accompanied the bottles that I alluded to in my first paragraph; "Our micro-brewery is nestled on the beautiful sunny Sussex coast and it is here with the music turned up loud that we make our beer." The bottles arrived with a very plain and distinctive white label, another musical reference (white label releases in the days of vinyl were generally pre-release copies, or rare editions or those with exclusive mixes, and not available for sale), so rather than dive straight in I sent back an email with a few questions, firstly asking about what music they listen to when they're brewing.

"We are largely into Electronica and 90s music" Tan replied, "With Andy Wetherall mixes, Daft Punk and the Stone Roses being amongst our favourites. Our beers aren't boring and we hope that this reflects our personalities. Living in Brighton we're all pretty liberal social and bohemian and collaborations with artists, bands, record labels, festivals, independent film makers are all opportunities we would love."

After being cask only I wonder if the bottles are just an experiment at this stage, or part of a longer term plan. Will this format be exclusively for seasonal or limited release beers or can we expect to see the full range of Franklins beers in bottle in the future?

"The white label releases are just an experiment at this stage. We're in the process of re-branding at the moment, so when the designs are signed off they will be uniform across both pump clips and bottles. We do hope to expand the bottle range to encompass all of our beers, with Pavilion 35 most likely to be next followed by our new kegged Pilsner (tasting great by the way, with a lovely bitterness and a fresh dry finish)."

It's a shame I haven't got any of the Pilsner today, but it should be appearing in local bars soon I gather. That aside, what future plans does the brewery have?

"Well we've outgrown our current home as our sales figures have sky-rocketed lately and the beer is selling very quickly. We have a brand new 15 barrel custom made kit on order but I think it's more likely that we'll move premises before that arrives. We already have a short-list of locations and we'll be staying in Sussex too. All four of us currently live in Brighton so we wouldn't want to be more than a hours travel away from there."

"You'll be seeing more kegged beer from us in the future too, and there's plans for a canning line in our new location at some point. Beer-wise, look out for a grapefruit pale ale at the start of the summer along with some experimental German inspired brews. Steve loves to visit Berlin, he has friends there, so something with a German influence seems an obvious thing for us to try."

With my appetite firmly whetted, I need get into those beers and find out what I've actually been sent.

First out of the box is Mama Knows Best (4.2%), described as a malty, modern Best Bitter brewed with English malt and Mosaic hops.

It pours a beautiful Rosewood-Amber colour with a creamy off-white head sitting in the glass very invitingly, precisely the colour I look for in this style and shows that they know how to use their malts well. The aroma has a hint of mango but this is dominated by the smell of a freshly unwrapped strawberry flavoured Starburst sweet, I can almost taste the chewiness and, like the advert used to say back when they were called Opal Fruits in my childhood, it's making my mouth water. A light prickle of carbonation down the length of my tongue releases a muted earthy fruity caramel with mango, chewy lime and some plum notes balanced against a mellow brown sugar maltiness before this playful party combination is crashed by a pithy bitterness. The finish is woody and bitter with a light creaminess, and it sits surprisingly heavily on the centre of the tongue for some time before it fades with a little more sugary sweetness.

This is a good example of an English Best Bitter, very balanced and tasty without delivering anything remarkably different. The hopping is well done but I wouldn't immediately have picked it as Mosaic, although on consideration all the clues were there, and I think that's probably because I've become more accustomed to it featuring in heavily hopped Pale Ales, IPAs and Lagers. The big question is of course whether I'd have it again, and if I saw it on a bar in cask then I'd definitely give it another go as the added carbonation it would get from being hand-pulled would release more of the fruity creaminess in this beer that I absolutely love.

According to the notes I've been sent Franklins Citra IPA (5.5%) is "zesty, full and punchy", whilst the description on their website plays on the hop shortage and how they've "moved mountains" to make this beer available to their customer. Admirable stuff, but the real key is how it actually tastes and as there are already some very well known and widely available single hopped Citra hopped IPAs available that will be the real deal-breaker here.

The signs are promising from the outset as it has that classic citra beer aroma of caramel drizzled pineapple and mango that you might expect. Pouring a light but fiery copper colour with a thin white head I need to drink the thing to find out more than it's telling me at the moment. My first impression is that it's a bit of a bruiser, as full and punchy as I was promised, big on bitterness and big on flavour, but whilst all the right citrus and tropical fruit pointers are there it seems a little squashed together in a big gooey burst of intensely overwhelming and slightly muddled flavour. The caramel courageously beats it's way through the mire before being brutally stamped on by a clean and mercifully brief boot of bitterness. Thankfully there's still some life left in it, and even though it's swansong is fleeting it's well rounded, light, sweet and rather lovely.

You may feel I've been a little harsh on this beer but as I mentioned earlier the citra IPA market already has some well regarded champions and while this is good it doesn't quite step up to the next level. I'm sure that many of you will like this beer, and like it a lot, so if you see it around then give it a try. This is another that I'd like to find on cask or indeed keg, just so that I can give it another go.

The final beer of the three is Old Smokey (5.0%), a "dark, smokey Porter" brewed with beech smoked malt, oatmeal and chipotle chillies. The best Chilli Porters have a slow building heat that works alongside the chocolate toastiness of the malts but never quite over-powering them. Adding the beechwood smoked element, surely a nod to German Rauchbiers brewed in Bamberg, will hopefully give it an extra twist.

It pours a little thinner than I expected, its deep brown revealing ruby red highlights as I hold it up to the light, but its thin beige head dissipates disappointingly quickly possibly meaning than the oatmeal is being used for body here rather than head retention. The aroma is just as I'd hoped it would be, lightly smokey with the distinctive 'hot' smell of chilli heat, all on top of some sweet and deep milk chocolate. My suspicions about the oatmeal are confirmed when I drink it as it has more body than I first thought, and although it's undoubtedly smooth there's a touch of oiliness about it too, adding a hint of unctuousness. The chocolate is certainly the first thing that you notice as it sweeps across the tongue like the strokes of a flamboyant artists brush, gently depositing a burst of chilli heat perfectly at the top rear of the palate. The finish has an initial mineral taste before it slides away with a different, slightly fruity chocolate note leaving that prickly warmth gently tickling the back of my throat.

Of the three beers I find this the most interesting, its combination of elements giving it different layers to explore. Unlike the other two however, I think the 330ml bottle it comes in is exactly how I'd like to drink it as personally I think a pint would be a rather too much.

If you're curious about any of these beers then they can be found at Eebria Trade online, Bison Beer and Trafalgar Wines in Brighton, Borough Wines in Eastbourne, direct from the brewery itself of course, and at various pubs, restaurants and bars across Sussex.

I did receive these beers for free, they were sent to me to appraise and feed back to Franklins, writing about them was my decision and I don't feel that my opinion has been altered because of this. If you'd like another opinion though you can read Rach Smith's recent review here on her excellent Look At Brew blog.

Finally, it's time the mystery I promised in the title. Having made enquiries, reading local press cuttings online and asking the chaps from the brewery itself, nobody seems to know where the name of the brewery actually comes from. I used the Chaucer reference mainly as it suited my purposes here, but if anyone can enlighten me, or indeed them, I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Beer In Essex: Brentwood Reclaimed

Beer In Essex
Brentwood Reclaimed
A Local Odyssey

At the beginning of January I was asked if I'd like to contribute to this years #tryanuary campaign by writing a few words for the website as a guest blogger. Obviously I wanted to do something Essex-related but I also wanted to do something that I hadn't done before, something new. That is after all the essence of #tryanuary. Luckily for me my inspiration was close at hand, and I decided to revisit, rediscover and in some cases uncover some of the pubs that I had in my local town that I didn't know.

With one exception, which reveals itself instantly, I hadn't drunk in any of these pubs for at least ten years if at all. 

Unfortunately time restraints meant that they didn't all make the blog but they're all here, and for me they have become: Brentwood Reclaimed.

The Brewery Tap

Towards the bottom of King Street, less than a minute from the Brewery Tap. Once part of A. Fielder and Company, brewers, before the rest of the site was converted into shops in the late 1920s, the actual pub building and layout remain unchanged.

I used to drink in here when we first moved to the area as an old school friend used to live next door, but it’s been more than a decade since I last crossed the threshold. It’s not changed much, which is to its credit, and as I sit here on a Wednesday afternoon I reckon it’s not a bad place to be.

There’s a group of men aged 35-50 discussing the latest episode of Countdown whilst three women in the corner are gossiping about mutual friends, a half of lager each and a few empty packets of crisps sit ignored on the table in front of them.

Aside from Timothy Taylor’s Landlord there’s Fuller’s London Pride, Adnams Ghost Ship and Southwold Bitter on the bar. The beer tastes good, and as I drain my glass I wish I had more time. It’s been a while since I’ve been in here, but it won’t be too long before I’m back.

The Victoria Arms

Just around the corner from the Sainsbury’s superstore, tucked snugly into its space on the Ongar Road is the Victoria Arms.
Built in the late 1860s this Victorian boozer, a Gray & Sons tied house, could make a very good case for being the most aesthetically pleasing of all of Brentwood’s pubs. Head inside, through the unusual internal porch and you’ll discover that it’s bigger inside than it looks from the street, cleaner and brighter too.

The interior is split into two distinct sections, and although you can freely between them now it’s not difficult to spot where the central corridor once led to a Tap Room on the left and a Saloon Bar on the right. Look back from the bar and you can see the writing on the period etched windows confirms this.

Six hand pumps greet you, and I’m told that there’s a fair chance that you’ll find a beer from an Essex brewery on one of them. There’s four beers from Cornwall, two each from Sharp’s and Skinners, Greene King IPA and Maldon’s Farmers Golden Boar, on the bar when I pop in at lunchtime, and if you’re so inclined Heineken’s Meister lager provides a drinkable alternative to some of the usual brands.

A mix of ages of both sexes occupy the tables that keep to the edges of the room, eating, drinking and talking, each absorbed in their own company.

I take my pint and retreat to a table near the door to observe the comings and goings, content to watch the world go by for half an hour or so. The woman who served me comes out from behind the bar to clean the tables as soon as the patrons leave, smiling happily to herself as she does so.

I rather like the Victoria Arms and I’m guessing you will too.

The Artichoke

Standing like a guardian at the gateway to the town, The Artichoke has seen some changes in the two centuries of its existence.

Viewed from the busy crossroads that quarters Shenfield Common the uninformed visitor would never guess it’s true, older identity as, following a mysterious roof fire in July 2000, Mitchell and Butler’s reduced then removed that name from the building completely.

It’s a Toby Carvery now, Home of the Roast, it proudly proclaims, and it’s a bustling temple to the most traditional of English fare from breakfast time through to dinner and beyond. Cars pull in and cars pull out from the featureless car park behind the pub disgorging their passengers before waiting silently for them to return on this asphalt wasteland where, a mere stone’s throw away, 19 year old William Hunter was burnt at the stake during the reign of Bloody Mary for refusing to retract his Protestant beliefs.

Brentwood school is just next door, counting Douglas Adams, Hardy Amies, Robin Day, Griff Rhys Jones, Noel Edmunds and Keith Allen amongst its illustrious and not-so alumni. I’m given to wonder how many of them may have sneaked out of the dormitory for a clandestine pint or two in the later years of their attendance.

I doubt that they’d find much there to excite them today.

The polish gold metal fonts dispense Stella Artois, Carling, Carlsberg and Magners cider, Tetley Bitter and Fuller’s London Pride all on keg. I ask if they have any cask or interesting bottled beer, they don’t so I opt for a half of the latter.

It’s a soulless food factory now, designed to satisfy but not to be enjoyed as a pub should. There’s nobody waiting for anyone to arrive, no groups gathering for a drink before a night out, no clubs or associations meet here and the token bar seating area to the right of the door goes unnoticed by those waiting to be seated at the sign they must obey.

I have no reason to linger, so I drink quickly and leave. I don’t look back.

The Robin

There’s been a beer house on this site for at least the last three hundred years, and in a survey of businesses in 1788 it was notable for being the only one of eleven public house not on the High Street. It was known as the Robin Hood then, and more recently the Robin Hood and Little John, however a makeover and a change of name from legendary benevolent outlaw to red-breasted Christmas bird has given the building a different feel.

I recall the Robin Hood and Little John having a dubious reputation, but recent refurbishments have transformed the place I’m told by Tara who works behind the bar and is happy to chat and extol its virtues.

It’s a Heineken pub, not a temple of beer with Heineken, Amstel and Moretti on keg, and Deuchars IPA and Old Speckled Hen are the only cask beers (“because they sell well” I’m told) although they are occasionally replaced with seasonal variations.

A television opposite the bar shows Sky Sports, but it’s unobtrusive and I barely notice the sound coming from it despite me being the only customer. The interior is smart, light, clean and spacious, and the central bar is accessible from two of the three distinct areas that were once separate rooms. That was several alterations ago and you can walk between them easily now.

Situated on the main Ongar to Tilbury road along which once timber from Epping Forest was taken down to the docks, it’s taken me ten minutes to walk here from the centre of town so I’m in need of a drink. The Caledonian Deuchars IPA is the only sensible choice as far as I’m concerned and I’m delighted to find that it’s well kept and sparklingly bight.

The menu is American inspired; burgers hot dogs, pulled pork and chilli, but a packet of Monster Munch is enough for me today, and I make my way to a table near the door to devour them hungrily. After taking a delivery Tara returns and engages me if conversation once more and we happily put the world to rights chatting about local pubs, many of which she’s worked in, until it’s time for me to leave.

The Robin is the furthest pub in Brentwood from where I live and the beer range isn’t exciting enough to entice me across town often, but if I’m passing and want a place to rest and chat then I just might pop in.

The Gardeners Arms

In the oldest part of Brentwood, just behind the High Street, you’ll find the Gardeners Arms.

Built in the early eighteenth century as a workhouse for the poor of the parish, it fell under the ownership of the Billericay Union Workhouse in 1835 before being sold as an inn two years later.

It stood on Back Street in those days and overlooked fields leading to Thorndon Woods, but times change and so did the name of the road and it now stands stoically on Hart Street whilst giggling day trippers on their TOWIE tour scuttle briskly past on their way to the Crown Street boutiques.

The first thing I notice on entering is how dingy the place is.

I cross to the bar and have a choice of Greene King IPA or Sharp’s Doom Bar so I opt for a half of the latter. It’s poured in silence, the barman only speaking to tell me the price, and he takes my money and retreats to a stool on the other side of the counter.

Two men who look to be in their early sixties sitting adjacent to where I stand stop talking whilst I’m at the bar, only resuming their conversation when I’ve taken my beer to a far table.

The horseshoe shaped seating area was clearly once two separate bars, lit only by eight dim lamps, a fruit machine, five keg founts and two large televisions showing an R&B music channel. The barman is listening to talk radio from a old transistor and it sounds as if it’s coming from the inside of a wet cardboard box.

The beer is passable if unremarkable so I quickly finish the last third and head out into the rain.

The Rising Sun

It’s unusual for a pub to open in the middle of the afternoon these days. Three o’clock used to be the time when last orders were called not so long ago, but from Monday to Friday this is the time that the first pint of the day is pulled in the Rising Sun.

Noted as a “beer shop” in an Essex Chronicle report of 1851 and a quarter of a century later as a “beer house”, the current building dates from 1912 when the original was demolished and rebuilt in what was its own garden to accommodate the widening of the Ongar to Tilbury road on which it stands.

It is currently the only pub in Brentwood to feature in the Good Beer Guide and consists of two rooms with very separate uses. One is the lounge with a scattering of tables and chairs as well as some stools at the bar, whilst just beyond a smaller brighter space has two dart boards and a fruit machine.

Five hand pumps are arrayed in front of me as I enter, with Timmy Taylor’s Landlord, Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s Cornish Coaster permanent fixtures with the other two usually featuring a local beer, at least one of which is from the nearby Brentwood Brewery.

It’s obviously a regulars pub as everybody seems to know everyone who comes and goes, and although I don’t fall into that category they’re friendly enough and don’t seem bothered that I have entered their midst. It’s relaxed, and I feel comfortable taking my pint to a nearby table to watch the evening unfold.

It’s fairly busy, not overly so but steady enough and I find myself wishing this pub was on my walk home rather than being in completely the opposite direction.

I can’t think why I’ve never been in here before and order myself another pint. I could be here a while.

The Nags Head

Although technically in the parish of South Weald, the Nags Head is the first pub that you pass should you pull off the M25 at junction 28 and head towards Brentwood itself.
Originally a rural public house on the main route from London to Colchester, ownership can be traced back to 1826, it stands close to the crossing of two major roads, the M25 and the A12.

It’s a large brick building with an even larger car park, a destination for diners rather than the thirsty forest and field workers of times past.

Heading up some steps to the pub itself it has the feel of a slightly up market carvery rather than a pub and my suspicions are confirmed as I head inside.

For half past two on a Thursday afternoon it’s surprisingly busy and I have to wait a few minutes for a table as my companion and I have come down for a late lunch.

There’s a small but comfortable seating and waiting area before you get to the desk of the table manager and the bar, and it’s bright and clean inside with wooden floors and muted tones. It’s efficient but relatively informal.

A varied crowd of reasonably-dressed people have clearly made a little effort to come out to eat and chatter comfortably as they eat, office workers, two elderly ladies, young families and a group out for a birthday lunch are occupy the tables around us.

There are two hand pumps on the bar, Doom Bar and Broadside, and it’s the latter I fancy and order a pint. When it arrives it’s a little flat but palatable and not in the greatest condition. If I’d have thought about it then perhaps I should have gone for the Sharp’s beer, being the lighter of the two it probably turns over a little quicker.

The food however is good, tasty and relatively reasonably priced with the triple-cooked chunky chips in particular being very nice indeed, but we’re on limited time and we eat up hungrily and go.

I’d come back for food, but not for beer, and as it’s quite a walk from both where I live and the town centre I doubt I’ll return soon. Strangely a small part of me finds that a bit of a shame.

The Hutton Junction, Hutton

It’s Wednesday night and I’ve arrived back at Shenfield station a little earlier than I expected. Finding myself with a half hour to call my own I forgo my usual route up Mount Avenue, push on past my turning and head to the Hutton Junction.

Dating from at least the mid 1880s when the local railway station had the rather longer name of Shenfield and Hutton Junction due to the fact that it lies on the parish boundary of both, you’ll notice that it’s not actually a Brentwood pub. I’m sure you’ll forgive me this indiscretion as it’s a pub I’ve not visiting it before despite working just up the road for six years and only being a half hour walk from the centre of Brentwood itself.

It’s a Gray’s pub now, one always meant to go in but never quite made it. A ‘not quite but nearly’ pub that always fell at the final hurdle.

Tonight I bite an eighteen year bullet (I don’t live that far away either), head inside … and wonder why it’s taken me so long.

Walking up to the bar, the conversation around me is relaxed and friendly and the smile I get from the woman who serves me puts me at ease in an instant.

There are five cask beers to choose from this evening, Greene King IPA, Pendle’s Blonde Witch, Belhaven Burns Ale, Greene King XX Mild, and the beer I opt for Cottage’s Full Steam Ahead. I take my pint to the only unoccupied table and take a seat just as the bell for last orders rings.

Looking around the sounds are muted and respectful considering the late hour, and I recognise the faces of a few customers from work and one or two others who live locally. We smile and nod and carry on. No more is necessary.

I finish my pint and wind my way home just as the glasses are being collected. The perfect end to a good evening. I make a mental note to get a slightly earlier train home next time I’m in London so that I can squeeze in just one more drink at the Hutton Junction.

The Spread Eagle

All journeys, whether good or bad end with a return home. Or at least to somewhere you feel at home.

The Spread Eagle is that place for me. It’s not my closest pub, but it’s on my journey home, and in recent times and due to recent changes it has become my local.

It’s one of those pubs that, if you didn’t know it was there then you’d easily miss it. A stark white mid-Victorian building its triangular shape at a slight angle to both Queens Road and Coptfold Road at whose apex junction it sits.

Familiar places, familiar faces.

Head inside and look left to see a narrowing seating area with wooden tables of various heights, mis-matched chairs and an out-of-tune piano. Off to the right it opens out a little, and even though there’s slightly less seating it’s more comfortable and relaxed.

In front of you is the bar which has a few high stools, and on which stands three hand pumps serving draught Bass, Sharp’s Atlantic and Adnams Broadside, all kept in immaculate condition by Jack, an experienced landlord despite his relatively young years. The keg fonts have Shipyard IPA and Greene King East Coast, with Estrella, Amstel, Moretti and Staropramen the lager options, but you might see Brooklyn Lager in the place of the latter in the not-too distant future.

Bottles from Brewdog, Sierra Nevada, Goose Island and Curious Brew can be found in the fridge, offering a safe but tasty diversion if you’d like a change from the usual.

My usual is the Atlantic, at least for my first drink, and I ordered a pint when I came in. It tastes great and after a minute or replying to a work email I wander over to the bar for a chat with Jack, and we swap anecdotes whilst he expands on ideas he has for the place we’ve discussed on a few occasions.

A visit from Greene King head brewer John Bexon was well received, and the first of the brewing / home brewing club meetings due to take place of the 15th February has attracted a lot of interest from local home-brewers, commercial brewers and even further afield.

I return to my seat as there are customers requiring service, and I look around the bar with a contented sigh as soft soul music plays in the background. I finish my drink and decide whether to have another or head home. Looking at my watch it’s later than I thought. Maybe just a half.