Monday 27 July 2020

Monday in the land of breweries

Merkendorfer Kellerbier
One of the disconcerting things about travelling in Franconia, aka Oberfranken, is realising just how many of the place names I instantly recognise without ever having been to the vast majority of them. It comes from seeing them in the listings at Untappd, of course – and becoming familiar with all the many ways that visitors can misunderstand them...

A common one is that beers often have the name of their home town as a prefix, and foreigners assume that’s the brewery name. Or they mix up breweries of the same name but located in different towns. Scheßlitz? That’ll be Drei Kronen – the one I’ve not been to, but which often gets confused with the one I have, which is Drei Kronen Memmelsdorf. Drosendorf? That’s one of the two Brauerei Göller, And Schammelsdorf is of course Brauerei Knoblach. I think we saw all of those names on our way out on Monday morning, and we weren’t on the way to any of them!

Instead we were after one of the other things Oberfranken has in spades, which is lovely countryside. Paradiestal, or Paradise Valley, is a popular hiking trail just off the A70 autobahn between Bamberg and Kulmbach – confusingly, it also has an autobahn Parkplatz (a motorway rest area) named after it, but this is not the start of the hike. That instead lies in fields and is rather awkward for the visitor to locate, unless of course you are sufficiently non-German to be willing to drive through fields along tracks marked “Farm traffic only”, or are local enough to know that the real route is to go the other way off the autobahn then backtrack through the village of Stadelhofen. But I digress, as indeed did our route.

"The Watcher"
Anyway, once you make it, finally locate the trail map and head off across the fields and into the woods, you are rewarded first by green valleys alive with flowers and butterflies, and then by the fantastical rock shapes for which the trail is reknowned. Carved out of the limestone by wind and water, they stand sentinel around the valleys, or lure the visitor up to explore lofty pinnacles or spooky caves.

Although we kept to the shorter 7km loop rather than the full 11km, we were still tired as we headed back to our start point. Fewer weird rocks, but still plenty of nature between the wheat and maize fields, and along the line of ancient apple trees. Finding a place for lunch had been a bit of a challenge – it’s still fairly common for places to take Mondays off (“Montag Ruhetag”) and the Corona crisis has made it worse. Some bierkellers and biergardens currently only open from Wednesday and some only do Friday-Sunday.

Fortunately I’d spotted a name I know well – Merkendorf – and found that one of the town’s two breweries, Brauerei Hummel, was open for beer and food. (The other, Wagner Merkendorf – one of at least four Wagner Bräu’s in the area, hence the need for the town name as a qualifier – takes Mondays off.)

Unlike last night’s dinner venue, the Löwenbräu Keller in Buttenheim, this wasn’t a verdant Bierkeller. It was the brewery yard, laid out with tables and benches – and with the usual-for-Corona one-way system and 1.5m-apart queuing lines taped out on the floor. (Table staff are all masked everywhere here, and guests must wear face-covers while moving around or queuing, but can take them off once seated.)

But it had a bit of greenery around, including a large shady tree, a play area which the kids loved, and the food and beer were hearty and – with one exception – excellent. I had the pork belly, roasty, salty, chewy and delicious, accompanied first by a classic hoppy-bitter and faintly toasty Kellerbier and then by Räucherla, their lovely smoky Rauch-Märzen. My one disappointment was ending with their Cowboy Schwarzbier – so sweet and gassy that I couldn’t finish it. Still, the brewery ‘shop’ was open, they’d sold out of the Rauchfestbier but we have Pils, Märzen and Festbier-Hell to try later – I’m sure they will make up for it!

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Fuller's pubco to flog its brewery tap, as it moves upriver

The Mawson Arms (source: Fuller's)
Fuller's pubco is permanently closing the Mawson Arms/Fox & Hounds and putting it up for sale, according to reliable local reports. The pub is legendary for several reasons – as the Griffin Brewery tap and the watering hole for many brewery staff, for having two names*, for confusing people by closing at 8pm, and for serving the best Fuller's cask beer in town.

The Fuller's pub company's excuse for the closure is that it doesn’t need the pub now that its staff have moved out. But of course the brewery and distribution staff are still there, and Asahi UK has moved its staff up from Woking into newly-vacated offices at the Griffin Brewery, so there’s not exactly going to be a shortage of people in the area wanting lunch and a beer.

Sure, there’s the George & Devonshire on the Hogarth roundabout, but that’s not a brewery tap. And while Asahi can end future brewery tours at the bar in the brewery shop, instead of in the Mawson, there’s no food available there. 
Pier House
Meanwhile, Fuller's pubco has moved to Pier House by Kew Bridge. When first I spotted the new offices there, the red, black and gold Fuller, Smith & Turner lettering took me by surprise. I remember seeing this line of buildings – originally built as a laundry – being refurbished into offices a few years ago.

Of course, the staff now at Pier House lost their offices at the Griffin Brewery when Fuller’s owners sold the family silver for a mess of Japanese pottage. And Pier House does look the part, with the lettering on the facade and the brass company nameplates on the doorframes. Plus, they have an even clearer view of the river, just across Strand on the Green - and a short walk away is Fuller's Bell & Crown, which is also a reliable source of excellent cask ale.

The Mawson was always going to be in an odd position following the brewery sale – even though it was physically on the wider brewery site, it wasn’t part of the sale to Asahi, nor apparently were the adjacent houses (now offices) on Chiswick Lane South. When I asked pub staff at the time (pre-pandemic, of course), they only knew that the pub wasn’t part of the brewery sale.

So who would buy the Mawson, given that it’s Grade II* listed and not an obvious site for residential conversion? I can’t help wondering if the breadheads at Fuller’s are hoping to flog it to Asahi – it’s even possible that the Japanese didn’t realise it wasn’t part of the brewery purchase to start with.

Otherwise that’ll be another slice of London’s brewing history gone, and like so much else it’ll be the fault of locals who care less about our heritage than the Japanese do.

*Although the best-known version of the two-names story claims that the modern building was once two separate pubs, in the pub itself they instead tell a story of historical confusion. Apparently there was a time when you needed separate licences to sell beer and spirits, and an earlier licensee didn't realise that a single business could hold both, so he added the second name for the second licence. Believe whichever you like!