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

Saturday, 15 August 2015

A Tale Of Two Sittings: The Knowledge And The Secret Bar: Drinking Beer With Meantime And Sharp's

A Tale Of Two Sittings
The Knowledge And The Secret Bar
Drinking Beer With Meantime And Sharp's

Having just returned from Paris (about which I'll post about separately soon) this was a title that I simply couldn't resist. You might think that it's one that I've used simply for literal effect, but there's more than clever wordplay behind it. as sitting, drinking and talking was very much the order of the day on each occasion.

Both breweries are now owned by multi-national national drinks firms, with SAB Miller acquiring Meantime earlier this year to much consternation, whilst Molson Coors bought Sharp's from the founder and owner Bill Sharp back in 2011. I was interested in getting both breweries perspective on what some have seen as selling-out and was pleasantly encouraged by what I heard from both parties. I'm jumping a little ahead of myself here however, and it was Meantime to which I was invited first of all, so that's where I'll  start.

So it was, one Thursday evening a month or so ago, I made my way to their brewery in Greenwich, a fifteen minute walk from London's O2 arena, for the launch of The Knowledge a series of beer appreciation courses for those wanting to delve a little deeper into this liquid that we love.

We were met at the new Tasting Rooms which were opened shortly before the buy-out was announced, by the current Beer Academy Beer Sommelier of the Year, Rod Jones. He was our host for the evening and gave us a brief tour of the brewery before we made our way to the upstairs Brewhouse bar, home to some of the late beer writer Michael Jackson's astonishing bottle collection.

On our way there we were treated to a view of Meantime's small but interesting barrel-ageing area, home to a very small batch of the much missed and much sought after Thomas Hardy's Ale. Originally brewed by Eldridge Pope from 1968 until 1999 when they ceased brewing completely, it was briefly revived by the Devon-based O'Hanlon's Brewery. After only five years they too stopped brewing it as it proving too expensive for them and their limited resources. Sadly the bottles from the cask we saw won't be seen in the UK however, as they we be shipped of to Italy, however it was hinted that a very limited amount may be made available. I live in hope.

We also got to see the first contribution SAB Miller has made to Meantime as Rod proudly introduced us to four shiny new fermenting vessels that inhabit the brewery yard. Standing proud and tall like the buildings just across the water in London's Docklands, they were certainly an impressive example of what investment can bring.

Finally, when we are all seated and have a full glass of Meantime beer (what else!) in front of us, Rod proceeds to tell us about the reasoning behind them taking this initiative.

"We have wanted to do this for some time, and indeed have been doing so on a limited basis" he began " and it's something we are hoping to roll-out to the on-trade shortly, as well as those who sell our beer in places like Waitrose"

"The thinking behind this, particularly for trade customers, is to educate them. It's about reclaiming working in the licensed trade as a career path, educating and helping them promote better beer. It's about realising that beer is not going to go back to the 'old men in pubs' thing."

"The industry is renewing itself constantly anyway. Bottles of light ale, the traditional pale ale and Mackeson have all-but disappeared from pubs. We think that there is plenty of interest in beer now, ... and we want them to come in and experience a working brewery ... and learn something about beer, This is a genuine education programme within the industry."

He then went on to explain the two levels of courses on offer.

The first level is split into four 'mini-courses': Beer Appreciation/How to taste beer; How beer is made; London beer history; and Beer and cheese, the latter being an informal talk and tasting of Meantime and other world class beers paired with various cheeses, with the aim of bringing out the best in both.

The second level consists of the Masterclass, a one-day five hour course that includes lunch and a full beer tasting, and covers all aspects of beer, including it's evaluation, identifying faults, serving temperatures and beer and food.

A limited level of knowledge is assumed when people come on these courses we are told, and should you be interested in finding out more about any of these, or would like to book yourself on them, then you can follow this link which will enable you to do so.

We talked about beer for quite some time with Rod impressing us all with his detailed level of knowledge. He talked to us on a wide range of beer related subjects from the simple and complex sugars in barley and malt, to the ancient Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh (in which beer plays a part in creating the first man), to hop oils, and the history of brewing in London.

There is one subject on which he won't be drawn, and that is on the SAB Miller acquisition itself. I ask him if it was larger company that approached Meantime or if there was any courtship on their behalf. Rod deftly side-steps this issue by stating that he wasn't party to the deal so cannot comment on it, however he is keen to stress the benefits that the larger brewery will bring, from increased distribution and investment to a wealth of industry knowledge. Most importantly though, for the time being at least, Meantime is being left largely to it's own devices and continuing to do what it does best, brewing good beer.

I finished the evening in good company and with good food and plenty of Meantime beer, talking more informally this time with Rod, along with Pete Brown and Jerry Bartlett before I had to drag myself away. It had been a very satisfying and informative evening and being issued with a certificate to say that we had completed the course was a rather nice touch.

A few weeks later, it's the first Saturday in August and I've just finished work for a couple of weeks annual leave. Rather than going straight home I change in the office before heading up to Finsbury Circus, a short walk from Moorgate tube station to attend the annual London Beach Rugby event as a guest of Sharp's Brewery.

You may think that the city of London is an odd place for a beach rugby tournament, however as I approach the venue it becomes clear from the noise level that quite a lot of people think this is very much the place to be.

The London Beach Rugby tournament was held in Covent Garden in 2013, and has been sponsored by Sharp's from the beginning. It moved to London's Docklands last year, but this year the Finsbury Circus venue became available and I gather that it will be held there next year too. The format is basically five-a-side touch-rugby on sand, but should you wish for a more detailed version of the rules they can be found here. The Sharp's team was coached by former England Tighthead Prop Phil Vickery, and it was my pleasure to meet and chat with him a little later in the day.

Despite playing well, the Sharp's team only made it to the semi-finals, with the eventual winners being a French team who are apparently the dominant force in the game, having won every year so far. Spread over two afternoons it's a thoroughly enjoyable way to watch competitive sport up close whilst working your way through Sharp's core range, so if it sounds like your thing then keep an eye out for it next year.

I had been promised a very special tasting experience and I'm met by Lara from Red Consultancy who has set this meeting up and she introduces me to James Nicholls, Sharp's Senior Brand Manager.

I immediately warm to James and his easy going manner. He is friendly, knowledgeable and most of all passionate about the brewery he has been with for over twenty years. Having started washing casks and helping out in his spare time, he has worked his way up to a senior position in the company but this hasn't jaded him in any way shape or form. The Sharp's fire still burns fiercely inside him.

We talk about beer in general and about Rock and the area of Cornwall where the brewery is based. It's an area I know well as I used to visit every year from 1988 until 1993 as, along with a group of friends, I'd spend the summer surfing and drinking in and around nearby Polzeath.

Inevitably the conversation turns to brewing in Rock, and when I ask him about the recent revelation that some Doom Bar isn't actually brewed in Cornwall he gives me an honest and straight-forward answer.

"I know this has caused a lot of fuss" he says "but It's only the bottled version that's brewed  by Molson Coors in Burton upon Trent, and this only accounts for 15 per cent of production. It's all a question of resources, and the remaining 85 per cent, which accounts for all of the cask production, is still brewed in Cornwall."

This actually makes a lot of sense, and having discussed this with a few people whose opinions I respect since then, I've come to the conclusion that if you're going to have your beer brewed elsewhere then Burton upon Trent, with its rich and historic brewing tradition, is certainly the place to do so.

It appears that Sharp's have largely been left alone by Molson Coors, with the multi-national bringing investment, distribution and industry knowledge, in fact exactly the same answers I got from Rod at Meantime.

The only difference between the two that I can see is time.

Remember that it's been nearly five years since Sharp's were sold, and in that time it cannot be denied that whatever you think of Doom Bar, its profile has been raised significantly and it has attracted a huge army of fans who actively seek it out. I myself have friends who talk about it in almost hallowed terms, and it's the one beer that they look out for if they want a pint of 'real ale'. Publicans undoubtedly know this and they will tell you that it always sells well, so much so that it has become a regular fixture on bars up and down the country. This of course raises the issue of consistency and I'm assured that even though this is hard to ensure on a practical level, Sharp's tries its hardest to make sure that this is so. It's clearly a brand reputation they're very proud of and very keen on protecting.

The reason for my visit was a VIP tasting, and I was soon led over to a mobile home-style vehicle towards one corner of Finsbury Circus. This, I'm told, is the 'Secret Bar'.

James says he'll be seeing us in a minute or two and promptly disappears whilst Lara and myself are ushered into the back of the vehicle and some fairly and quite cramped seating, but there is a partition door slightly ahead of us. The main door is closed, and with it the sights, sounds and smells of the rugby tournament beyond fade into memory. The partition door is rolled back and the 'Secret Bar' is revealed ...

Unfortunately that's as much as I will say as I have been asked by Sharp's not to reveal exact details about the bar itself suffice to say that it is designed in such a way that you whole focus is solely on the beer.

James is there of course, assuming the guise of barman, and I am served beer, as you might expect, and more besides. He is very keen to hear my opinions and those of Lara, as well as offering his own and we evaluate the beer as we go and talk about the flavours we find and the way they are brewed. It is a fascinating and enlightening experience and we are in there for some considerable time, nearly two hours, and though I'm told that this is a fairly new thing for them as well as me, they are normally in and out in around twenty minutes.

We emerge into the sunshine with the rugby tournament into its closing stages. Beer tokens are pushed into my hand and I'm given a hessian goody bag full of Sharp's beer. I'm not left to my own devices however and even though the tasting is over James and other members of the brewery team are attentive and on hand to talk about beer, answering any other questions that I have.

Several pints later it's time for me to leave, and although the rugby has finished the party will be continuing long into the night.

On the train home I reflect on the day the relative experiences I have had with both breweries. Meantime obviously had a product to sell, The Knowledge, and even though they were genuinely friendly the feel was a little more clinical than the easy-going charm that I felt from the staff at Sharp's. The events themselves obviously went some way to contribute towards this, and whilst Sharp's were obviously very comfortable with the role their parent company held in the day to day running of things, I didn't quite get that same feeling at Meantime.

Time will of course tell, so let's hope we continue to be drinking good beer from both of these breweries for may years to come.

I'd like to thank Rod and James at Meantime, and James from Sharp's for entertaining me and my questions and answering them in an open and honest way. I'd also like to that Don at Hope And Glory and Lara at Red Consultancy for inviting me along to their respective events. I had a great time at both and everyone without exception was extremely friendly.

Addendum: Some of you may have read this week, this article on the Beer Insider site regarding Grolsch, one of SAB Miller's other brands, now comprising 10 per cent of Meantime's London Lager. Whilst this is obviously a worrying development as it shows that the larger brewery is already influencing production, it might not be a huge cause for concern yet. It does however make me think of those four shiny new fermenting vessels that had recently been delivered and what beer they might contain in a few years time.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Beer In Essex - Review: Church Street Tavern, Colchester

Beer In Essex - Review
Church Street Tavern, Colchester

Tucked away down a side street, albeit one that will be instantly familiar to anyone that has been to the Colchester Beer Festival is the Church Street Tavern.

Head inside, turn left and head towards the bar with its shabby but strangely alluring frontage. You will think it looks rather bare surmounted as it is by two stainless-steel multi-tap keg founts, one at each end, but take a closer look and you might find something just a bit more interesting.

The taps, the last time I was in there earlier this year, weren't especially inspiring but different enough in this part of the world to be worthy of a mention. Both Calvors Lager and their Premium featured, Meantime's Red Ale, Brewdog's Brixton Porter, alongside Adnams Spindrift and their Dry Hopped Lager, which seems to be cropping up all over the place at the moment and that's no bad thing. It is however the bottle selection which is the real draw here, and on closer inspection you'll see why with Brewdog and Wild Beer Co. (a selection of four different) next to US favourites from Flying Dog and Brooklyn, and a few Belgian and German classics in the mix for good measure.

The decor is equally interesting with a seemingly randomly arranged and mismatched array of armchairs, sofas and occasional tables that reminds more of a furniture showroom in a department store than a bar. It's fun, it's quirky and I rather like it.

I'd certainly recommend a visit to the Church Street Tavern as it's relaxed, the staff are friendly and the beer range is different enough in this part of Essex for it to be worth a little of your time. It's a place you'll feel equally at home with a group of friends or on your own with a good book, and that suits me just fine.

The Church Street Tavern can be found at: 3 Church Street, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1NF
Website: Twitter: @ChurchStTavern