Monday, 19 June 2017

Ale on a train, or getting RATted…

The invitation to take a trip on the Watercress Line’s Real Ale Train – the RAT of the headline – came out of the blue. I know there’s a bit of an overlap between real ale fans and lovers of railways, but every time I’ve come across a beer festival held in association with a heritage rail line, the beer part was literally station-ary. So the idea of the bar being aboard the RAT was intriguing!
Welcome to Platform 3 in... when, exactly?
It’s over an hour from Clapham Junction to Alton, where the Watercress Line – or to give it it’s proper name, the Mid-Hants Railway – starts. Arriving on Platform 1 on a modern SouthWestTrains sliding door conveyance, we were a bit confused. There were no steam engines or whatever in sight, yet even the SWT platform felt slightly unusual, with its metalwork painted not in modern dark blues but in dark green and cream. Even its ticket office was a – very welcome! – return to the past, with wooden floors and readily accessible, airy and clean loos. 

It was clearly SWT-only though and it took a few moments more to work out that we needed to find Platform 3. Sadly this is accessed not by the attractively ancient (and closed) footbridge nearby, but by a shiny modern one further down the platform. Still, coming down the steps the time-shift was complete, with staff in proper uniforms with waistcoats and peaked caps, doors marked “Station Master”, and posters from the 1950s and beyond. No train though, and no tickets* waiting for us – we’re early, thanks to SWT’s hourly-only service from London, so we’re recommended the Railway Arms just up the road, which happens to be the brewery tap of award-winning local brewer Triple fff. Nice pub!

Returning half an hour later, we were introduced to Sue 'the boss', which seemed to mean in reality that she did a bit of pretty much everything! We later saw her helping load the galley, working behind the bar, helping clean the train, etc... Sue explained the RAT schedule: “We make two round trips, though the hot food makes one and a half because it gets off at Alresford,” she laughed. Alresford is the other end of the Watercress Line, some 10 miles away. 

10 minutes to departure and the queue for the bar already reached halfway down the next carriage. They're a mixed crew - beer buffs, young couples on a night out, what looked like a 50-something birthday party, and an awful lot of people who looked very familiar from the Railway Arms... 

The beer was all bright filtered with no sediment of course, despite being in normal real-ale firkins, otherwise it wouldn't survive the journey. It's why we saw something you'd never see at a CAMRA festival - a barman literally upending a cask to squeeze the last half-pint out. If there is a criticism it's that there's no cooling for the beer on the stillage - which is the bar, of course. In hot weather, as during our trip, the result is occasionally beer that's just a little too warm. Then again, the casks turn over remarkably fast, and the fresh ones are cool from the storeroom. Plus it’s only £2 a pint, with the first pint included in your £15 RAT ticket, so really there’s no complaint!

For many, it’s clearly more of a party on a train. For others it’s a mobile pub, and exploring up towards the loco I even found a folk music jam session underway. As the journey proceeded, and as special trays with holes for the plastic glasses to sit in streamed from the bar – you can also buy your own RAT-engraved glass tankard for a fiver – it did get a bit noisy. But it’s all very good-natured – cheerful voices and the occasional burst of singing. 

Plus while the light lasted, there’s the beautiful Hampshire scenery, the lovely 'step back in time' stations decorated with flowers, topiary and then, finally, yes – parked steam engines, lots of steam engines! (Our train was hauled by a heritage diesel, but most RATs are steam.) There's also shunters, a crane-train, and lots more.

It being two round-trips, there’s three short loo (and for some, ciggy) breaks at the end-stops while they move the loco to the other end. I noticed some people left halfway through when we were back at Alton – heading back to the pub perhaps. 

For those with staying power, the ales continued to turn over – the featured breweries that night were both from Hampshire, namely Longdog and Red Cat, but we’re also treated to a couple of other brews, such as a one-off single-hopped pale ale from Tillingbourne. The food is decent pub grub – chilli, korma, burgers – and while it’s served in take-away boxes, not on china with polished silverware, it’s reasonably priced and the cheerful volunteer staff have more than enough to clear up already!

Alternative engines are available
All in all, it was the best Friday evening we’d spent in a while (the RAT runs a few times a month, on Friday and Saturday evenings). A pub on a train with good beer and constantly changing scenery, what more could you want? And thankfully you’re back at Alton just in time to get the last train up to London – a cooler and quieter journey, but one that is, sadly, rather less fun. 

*Do you need a disclaimer? The railway kindly supplied our RAT tickets, but we covered our own transport from London, plus all our food, almost all our beer, and our own babysitter. Phew. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Step aside Care Bears, it's time for Care Beers!

Slightly short notice, but there's a new craft beer festival coming up next month in London, and it's all for charity, with the beer donated by kind brewers from London, the rest of the UK, and beyond. Here's the details, as passed on by fellow beer-blogger Matt Curtis:

A brand new beer festival arrives in London this July and all of its profits will be donated to charity. Craft Beer Cares will be taking place on Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd of July at Brew Club in Clapton, East London with proceeds being donated to The Newman Holiday Trust and Mind, The Mental Health Charity.

Beer has been donated to the festival by some of the most exciting breweries in the UK and beyond, including: The Kernel, The Five Points Brewing Co, Pressure Drop, Partizan, Brew By Numbers, Anspach & Hobday, Weird Beard, East London Brewery, Beavertown, One Mile End, Elusive Brewing, Siren Craft Brew, Cloudwater, Northern Monk, Wylam, Founders, Yeastie Boys, Hackney Brewery, Gipsy Hill and Magic Rock. In addition to this the festivals organisers promise that they have a few surprises up their sleeves for those lucky enough to grab a ticket.  

Speaking in anticipation of the event, lead festival organiser Gautam Bhatnagar had the following to say:

“We’ve been inspired by movements such as #CookForSyria and smaller events such as #BoozersWithoutBorders and wanted to play whatever role we could in organising something to help those in need. Our aim for this year’s event is primarily to raise funds for the charities Mind and The Newman Holiday Trust, and to scale up on previous efforts by asking for donations from the wider brewing industry.

“It’s been a really heart-warming experience seeing the many people involved in the craft beer community and their willingness to donate time, advice, energy, and - of course - the beer!  We’ve had a great response from everyone we’ve asked and that comes as little surprise to many of us given how wonderful the people in the beer industry are.”

Karen Bolton, Community Fundraising Manager for Mind, added: ““We’d like to say a huge thank you to Craft Beer Cares for choosing to support Mind through their first beer festival. Every penny raised will fund Mind’s vital work including the Mind Infoline, our advice services and the campaigning Mind does to secure a better deal for the one in four of us who experience a mental health problem every year.”

Tickets for the event cost just £14.40 (including booking fee) and includes a glass plus 7 beer tokens – with additional tokens available for purchase once inside the venue. The event will take place at Brew Club, Unit 9, 38-40 Upper Clapton Road, London, E5 8BQ

Tickets for the Saturday July 1st evening session can be purchased here and tickets for the Sunday July 2nd afternoon session can be purchased here

The festival's open from 6pm to 11.30pm on the Saturday, and from noon to 5.30pm on the Sunday. I don't know the venue, but it's in the Old Tram Depot near Clapton BR station. It's up the road from the Round Chapel which hosts the CAMRA Pig's Ear beer festival in December, if you know that. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

Fuller's Unfiltered bid for craft keg

When I first heard about the launch of London Pride Unfiltered at Craft Beer Rising earlier this year, my first thought was, oh-ho, a hazy rebranding for the craft generation. But could Fuller’s make the idea work, or would it be like an embarrassing parent trying to be hip? And was it just a rebrand, or a genuinely new beer?

I had all those questions in mind when I got the chance for a brief chat with Fuller’s head brewer Georgina Young – over a couple of glasses of Pride Unfiltered, naturally!

First, a bit of background – I’ve seen this sort of relaunch several times before, especially in Germany, where the marketeers have done a great job persuading the average Josef that all beer is yellow, fizzy and clear as a bell. The industrial Pils that you see advertised everywhere, in other words.

But for the Craft Bier pioneers a few years ago, this heavily-marketed industrial Pils was the enemy, and the easiest way to state your non-industrial credentials was to make cloudy beer instead. Cue lots of murky unfiltered Pale Ales, IPAs and others.

The German industrial brewers seem to have caught up much faster than the UK ones, with Naturtrüb (unfiltered and cloudy) Kellerbiers and others widely available there for a couple of years now. (Amusingly, many of the German craft brewers have now swung the other way, producing clear as a bell dry-hopped Pilsners and the like.)

The first thing George pointed out was that Pride Unfiltered is hazy, not murky or cloudy. More significantly perhaps, it needs to be reliably hazy – consistency is absolutely essential for a brewer such as Fuller’s.

“It’s really hard to get this level of haze just right,” she said, adding that “The haze is not yeast, it’s protein – quite fine.” She also stressed that while the basic recipe “is pretty much the same” as regular Pride, including Northdown and Challenger aroma hops, there are changes. Most notably that Unfiltered is also dry-hopped with Target.

Not too surprisingly, Unfiltered is very like regular Pride, but is drier and less malty-fruity, although that will in part be due to the lower serving temperature. There’s earthy and spicy hops on the nose, then it’s lightly fruity and dry.

And it seems to be doing well – on a recent visit to a Fuller’s pub which had Pride Unfiltered on tap alongside a couple of guest keg pale ales, the barmaid said it was pretty popular. The notable thing is it’s definitely not aimed at the keg Pride drinker, and indeed the Fuller’s folk say there’s no plans to replace keg with Unfiltered.

George also had some news about the Fuller’s beer range continuing to expand. “We’ll do eight new beers this year, four of them cask, plus Unfiltered of course,” she said. “We also have seasonal cask and keg beers and then monthly specials.”

They’re also increasing the range they distribute from other breweries, with Sierra Nevada the most prominent example. One of Fuller’s sales team noted that “We brought over 14 Sierra Nevada seasonals last year, this year there’s six definites plus maybe two or three more. This year’s list include Otra Vez, Sidecar and Tropical Torpedo.” Yet more reasons to visit the bigger Fuller’s pubs – although I don’t expect to see these in my local.