Friday, 21 September 2018

Ongar: Going Downhill (Relatively) Quickly

Ongar: Going Downhill (Relatively) Quickly

The clouds gathered in judgement above me, dark and brooding with the occasional patch of grey-blue revealing itself at brief and surprising moments. The summer would bring a heatwave that nobody had predicted, but this springtime afternoon was like an uncertain and fickle child, changing its mind on a whim.

Ongar is only twenty minutes on the bus from my hometown of Brentwood, fifteen minutes on a clear run and with a driver who wants to maximise their turnaround time, but from the image obsessed high street I had left behind it seems half a world away.

The word "Ongar" means grassland, and it is home to the remains of a Norman fort. Only the earthworks remain and they are overgrown and dismal, preserved only by a crude wooden fence. The Central Line used to come out this far until 1994, but the trains now terminate at Epping and Ongar feels as if it it's resigned to the fact that they will never come back despite the occasional petition requesting its return.

The number 21 bus drops me at the top of the High Street and I cross the road and head into The Cock Tavern.

The Cock Tavern is a small, one bar pub at the top of the high street, and claims to be the oldest public house in the town. It certainly dates back to before 1765 when the first reference occurs, and at one stage it most certainly brewed its own beer.

It's a white weather-boarded building, a Good Beer Guide regular and always has a good selection of well kept cask beer. Today they have Otter Brewery Springfest, Mighty Oak The Joy Of Six, Harveys IPA and Red Fox Black Fox Porter. The latter is my choice and it has a medium bodied, pleasant coffee finish, a is a good start to the afternoon.
Music is playing, seemingly coming from the bar and the woman behind it is having a fairly animated conversation about her up coming holidays, and in particular how the pressure  on the aeroplane will affect her ears. This holds my attention for all of five seconds so I look around at my surroundings for something more stimulating.

A central brick fireplace dominates the room with a television on it that thankfully is not on, and this would seem to indicate that it once had two bars. A door, no longer in use confirms this. There are a selection of newspapers, leather easy chairs,  and tables with menus looking redundant as no-one is eating because, apart from those at the bar I'm the only one in there.

Despite the undeniable quality of the beer there's not really any atmosphere, but I expect it gets quite lively in the evenings, live music appears to be a regular occurrence. This is a pub I know quite well and I occasionally pop in here, if time allows, when I'm in Ongar to see a client. There's nothing to hold me here today though so I finish my pint and move on.

Crossing the road and heading down the hill I go into The Kings Head. This is the most central pub in the town and a plaque above its central arch proclaiming the date 1697, which is presumably the year it was built.

 Entering the bar through the open doorway to my left I immediately get the sense that this is a pub for diners not drinkers. The cramped bar area displays mainly keg beer, Kozel and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (off at time of visit - a not-so-subtle glass placed over the taps a clear indication). This is confirmed when a group of three come in and enquire about lunch. "Straight down to the restaurant area and they'll take care of you there", the barman tells them, and they walk the length of the bar, disappearing down some steps and out of sight.

Further along the bar, nearer the restaurant end I spy three hand pumps, two of which have London Pride and a third that has George Gale's Seafarer. This is the one I go for, its honey and lemon hop character cutting through the lingering taste of the Porter I finished in The Cock not five minutes earlier.

It's pleasant enough in here at this time of day, relatively quiet, with the piped music at just the right level so as not to be intrusive.

The beer and the signage make it clear that this is a Fullers pub, or at least pub-cum-restaurant affair, my glass carries their branding, and I recall hearing good things about the food here so its good to see a reasonable beer selection. It seems a very organised and efficient place despite the barman disappearing for fairly lengthy intervals, although it is quiet, and nobody who arrives is kept waiting.

The building itself retains many of its original Georgian features and, even without the research that confirms it, it's plain to se that this was a coaching inn at some point. Once there must have been two separate bars here considering that there are two separate entrances and fireplaces, and it's good to see that they've kept some of the original features, although it's the cast iron radiators (a Victorian addition) that supplies the heating now.

I'm surprised to find that I feel far more relaxed here than at The Cock, and this is despite the hubbub and banter of a group of workmen near me who are making a little too much fuss as they leave.

Finishing my drink I decide to have a quick look around and notice a separate room across the archway from the main part of the pub and head inside. Crossing the courtyard I can see the restaurant sprawling languidly at the rear of the building, it's white weather boarded exterior looking rather inviting. The room I enter is intriguing and surprising, and may have been a waiting room for the coaches, although now it looks rather plush, decorated as it is with skulls, horns and antlers and though I'd love to linger here a while, it's time to move on.

As I continue my journey down the hill, I'm caught behind a middle-aged man in a grey tracksuit taking his squat overweight dog for a walk, constantly drawing aggressively at a greasy roll-up between his lips. I manage to get around him and his noxious fog just as I pass the beautiful half-timbered building that was once The Bell. The support strut for its sign still points towards the high street, lonely and redundant as this is now a private dwelling although flashes of its former glory are still evident. It's the kind of building that will always say "Pub" what ever its use in later years, one that you feel is still rather proud that it was a lively social hub of the community even if its glory days are now passed.

Presently I arrive at The Royal Oak.

The Royal Oak is a strange pub, and it's very quiet at this time of day. So quiet in fact that I stand at the empty bar for almost five minutes before anyone realises that I'm there at all. "It's very quiet in here", I say to the lady who appears from what appears to be the door to the toilets and asks if she can help me,
"It always is until about half two", comes the reply.

The beer selection holds nothing of interest for me, but out of politeness I order a half of Kronenberg (I can't remember the last time I did that) as it's the best of a bad bunch. Fosters, Carling and Stella Artois are my other options, although I do notice some bottles of Old Speckled Hen in the fridge.

I get the feeling that this is a locals pub, although it's clearly an old one and has absolutely heaps of character. The building itself is around 400 years old, although for some of that time it was both a fishmongers and public house, a mix of trades that I suspect would seem very much at odds to todays drinkers.

Greene King IPA beer mats hint that this may feature on the forlorn hand pumps some of the time, although today they are purely an ornamental feature. Maybe they are awaiting a delivery, but the lack of pump clips of any variety seems to indicate that cask beer may well be off the menu.

Darts team trophies are displayed on the wall and there's a prominent dart board so it's logical to guess that this is what the pub is known for around here, and whilst there are darts behind the bar tempting me to 'throw a few arrows' they would inevitably prolong my drinking time here.

The lady who served me at the bar now has a companion and even though they occasionally look at me with slightly puzzled expressions I get the same feeling of warmth and cosiness here that I got in The Kings Head but not in The Cock. It's an oddly comfortable place, and if they had some decent beer on I'd be coming back, although as it stands this is highly unlikely.

I later discover that it's known locally as the Royal Coke, due to a past reputation, perhaps due to it serving an abundance of a certain brand of fizzy drink. Or perhaps not.

Leaving The Royal Oak and heading to the bottom of the hill I'm confronted by the broad expanse of The Two Brewers. Unfortunately for me it's closed when I arrive, although the sign outside says otherwise. This strikes me as odd for 2.00pm on a Thursday afternoon, but given that the last three pubs I visited were hardly a hive of actively it is perhaps understandable.

I remember this pub well enough, and peering through the window I see it hasn't changed much inside. I did have an amusing tale to relate which ended with a much younger, much drunker version of me slurring "...there's nothing drong with winking" at my companions and falling off my bar stool, but that can't be expanded upon sadly and I move on. I'm a little disappointed, but at least that story is safe for now and no-one need know.

Heading up hill again, away from the high street this time and into Marden Ash I take a left turn onto the Brentwood Road, taking a quick picture between the passing cars and head across the road to The Stag.

The Stag is a pub that I've often passed but never been inside. That is until now, and I'm very glad that I have.

It's a McMullens pub to my surprise, and the five hand pulls have two of their AK, which is what I order, two of Country and one of the dubiously titled Nympho from Rivertown which, I suspect, may be the craft arm of McMullens.

I'm the only customer here as well, and I settle down with my beer a little away from the bar, its light maltiness particularly welcome after the Kronenberg earlier. Countdown is starting on the television just above my head, but I'm not in the mood for word games and manage, with only a modicum of success, to block it out.

This is clearly another old pub, records show that it was built in the eighteenth century and served much of that time as a beerhouse. Similar to the other pubs I've been to today this once had two separate rooms betrayed by, as before, the two separate fire places at either end. It is now one long bar with a smart wooden floor, a green hued fish tank at one end and a rather distracting fruit machine at the other. The continued noise from Countdown combined, other music playing and the flashing fruit machine lights is an overwhelming sensory assault. Thankfully they turn the television off when asked.

A sign advertising Pie and Mash on Fridays and Saturdays would seem to mean that it picks up a bit as the weekend approaches.

The young women behind the bar, one of whom is in the process of finishing a bowl of breakfast cereal, are giggly and chatty when I go to order another drink and this puts me immediately at ease so I pull up a stool there.

The Stag is smaller on the inside than it appears from the road, rather cosy and manages to retain much of its character even with the modern alterations. It is exactly the kind of pub that doesn't immediately seem that inviting when you arrive but after investing some time, as I am able to today, it starts to open up and reveal itself properly. It's almost as if the building itself is as cautious of you as you are of it.

The landlord arrives presently and I discover that the Rivertown beer is called Nymph is reality, some wag having added the extra "O" on the blackboard and my suspicions are confirmed as it is a brewery in which McMullens have an 'interest'. I recall having seen Rivertown beers when I visited Hertford, the home of McMullens, last year. The brewery itself is a beautiful Victorian building, part of which was very sympathetically being converted into flats.

In conversation I discover that cellar for The Stage is, in actuality a shed adjoining the property which, according to the landlord makes all the keg beers extremely lively. I fail to understand how this is so but I'm sure there's somebody out there who can enlighten me.

He takes me out and shows me the cellar and I can see that there's plenty of outdoor seating and a children's play area should you arrive with younger ones in tow. I'm told it gets quite lively in here on Friday and Saturday evenings, the bar itself holding around 100 people at a push. Given its size I'd have thought that half that number would be a tight fit, but apparently not
I order a pint of the Nymph, and make my way outside just as the brief ray of sunshine I spotted turns into a sudden downpour. Hiding from the rain in the covered area I drink my beer, finding it full-bodied and malty and this, along with the AK, are by far the two best beers I've had today.

The Stag has been a very pleasant surprise and I like it a lot. Out of all those I have been to today this will most certainly be the one I return to when I'm back this way again.

Leaving The Stag I contemplate walking back to the high street and checking if The Two Brewers has opened yet, but time has caught up with me and, after checking the bus times, I note that there's one due in five minutes. There also happens to be a bus stop right across the road which pretty much makes my mind up for me.

The rain has stopped now, and just as I board the bus the sun breaks through once more. I write up the last of my notes and look out of the window at the featureless fields. I think I might just have time for a swift half in Brentwood before I walk home.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Falling in love again

Falling In Love Again

If you saw the tweet that I posted when I returned from my holidays this year you may have an idea where this post is going, and if you didn't then the wording and colours above may give you an indication. This isn't a 'What I did on my holidays' blog although you will have to bear with me as it unfolds.
I expect, by the time you read this, that may already have taken your summer holiday, indeed you may be looking forward to next years. After the heatwave that was so different from our traditional experience of cloud and showers, the days are noticeably colder and the nights noticeably shorter even though we're still having the occasional warm day.

After our adventures in Budapest, Vienna and Prague last year we wanted to stay a little closer to home but still, much to the exasperation of the children, do a three city break, although not necessarily spread over three countries.

Brussels, Amsterdam and Antwerp were the three we chose. Easy to get to, we're only a half hour drive from Ebbsfleet International, and as both internal and international European train journeys are so easy to book online, one that didn't require to much effort to organise at short notice.

The day of our holiday dawned, up early we set off with the usual mix of excitement and trepidation which is customary on these occasions, and just over three and a half hours later we had checked into the Radisson Red Hotel in Brussels.

Drawers and cupboards explored, cases partially unpacked and following a quick freshen up (the children having laid on their beds and logged on to the wifi first obviously) we were down in the lobby ready to go out and explore. Well almost, we all suddenly realised that we were hungry, and the smell of food from the hotel restaurant proved too much of a draw, so we made our way to a booth and waited for the menu.

Whenever I go to a hotel, any hotel, I hope for some decent beer to be served. Belgium is the one place where this is almost guaranteed and thankfully our hotel was no exception. Ordering a glass of Mort Subite Gueuze, I marvelled at its arrival. A pale golden liquid topped with a shock of foam of the purest white served, as one would expect, in its own glass. Holding it in my hand it seemed to glow as I raised it to my lips, the faintly fruity sour aroma enticing me in. Drinking deeply I savoured its beautifully clean flavour, it had re-awoken something within me and I couldn't help but smile. I had fallen in love all over again.

My love affair with Belgian beer goes back further than I can begin to remember, and what my first beer from that country was I can only guess at. I would suspect that it was a Hoegaarden, its glass so different from those I was used to drinking from, its golden colour so beautiful in the sunshine, its cloudiness so intriguing, it may even have had a half slice of lemon on top, something I wouldn't dare consider now. Or maybe I would.

I would have been familiar with the style, having read about the delights of beer from the continent from Michael Jackson's writing and from studying Roger Protz's European Beer Almanac. I also remember ordering some of those Beers Of The World boxes from a site whose name escapes me from an advert or pamphlet in What's Brewing. The world did indeed seem a lot bigger in those days, and to be drinking beer brewed from China and Finland I felt like I was taking a leap into the unknown. I felt like I was exploring another culture, another country through their beer and I would wonder about those that had brewed it and what their lives must be like.

Another revelation. I started to find Belgian beers in off-licenses particularly Bottoms Up in Gidea Park, which was practically next door to where the Gidea Park Micropub is now (see previous post). Alongside bottles of Pete's Wicked Ale from the US and Schlenkerla from Germany were such Belgian delights as Orval and Westmalle. This was 1994. I was in heaven.

Fast forward a few  years, and my first holiday abroad with my then girlfriend (now my wife) was to Bruges, spending days exploring the city and drinking in De Halve Maan with evenings turning into morning in 't Brugs Beertje. I still have some of the beer labels from that trip in one of my scrap books although how I got them off the bottles in one piece I can't imagine. I do remember drinking an awful lot of beer, including the fabled Westvletern 12 which was appeared one evening after talking to an English chap who had settled there for a few hours. I trusted him with my francs when he said he would pop out and come back with some cigars if we wanted some, and against my normal judgement, possibly swayed by alcohol and holiday bonhomie. He was true to his word however and he returned with the cigars about twenty minutes later, producing the beer was as a repayment of our trust. He told us the story of the brewery and the beer but I confess to not really knowing much about it then, and I think that by then I had gone beyond the stage where I could appreciate it.

Returning from Belgium I became completely obsessed with the beer, buying it from online retailers, joining beer clubs where I could get it and, even though I wouldn't to back to the country for another twelve years, discovering I could get a taste of both the beer and cuisine at the various Belgo establishments across London and The Belgian Monk in Norwich, close enough to Beccles where my parents had moved a few years before.
It was the diversity and intricacy of Belgian beer that I was drawn to. Then there was the glassware, the history and the uncompromising way that the brewers ploughed their own furrow and the loyal following that some of the beers and breweries attracted both locally and internationally. There was always something different to suit my mood or the season.
Of course I still maintained a healthy interest in what was happening here in the UK and it was the explosion of what we now call craft beer here, and particularly what was happening in London, that turned my head, pick up my laptop and start writing.

As an interesting aside it was actually a Brit who had moved to Belgium who encouraged me to start writing my blog. You may be aware of Rob Mitchell as the artistic director and chief photographer of Belgian Beer and Food magazine or his beautiful photographs for Duvel Moortgat. To me he is an ex-schoolmate and still a friend to whom I owe thanks.

It can reasonably be argued that the craft beer boom in the United States was, in part, inspired by brewery founders and aspiring visits to Belgium and wanting to reproduce the beer that they found on their return home. Greg Hall at Goose Island was inspired by such a visit to use Brettanomyces in Matilda, and in The Oxford Companion To Beer, Garrett Oliver opens the entry on Belgium with the sentence, "Belgium is to beer what Cuba is to cigars and France is to wine." This is turn inspired the beer renaissance here in the UK.
What was happening all around me, particularly in London and my native Essex fired my imagination, excited my taste buds and fuelled my writing. I put Belgian beer to one side but never away. It was always there when I needed it, waiting in the background, never pushy, biding its time patiently waiting but occasionally reminding me how special it was. Highlights included many splendid appearances in various guises at the #SXBottleShare , an amazing holiday to Bruges with the children and a rather splendid stag weekend with several friends in Brussels where I returned with a bag full of as much beer as my bag could hold.

And so I come full circle to this years holiday. The delights of Brussels, introducing some of my favourite places to my family, discovering some new ones and finally making it to the Cantillon Brewery and sampling its many delights in-house with others who had made the pilgrimage for much further afield than me. Then there was Antwerp, home of the Bolleke. Discovering some fantastic places and incredibly friendly people, particularly at Billie's, and the experience that is the De Koninck brewery. Travelling back to Brussels on the train and glimpsing Mechelen, home of the Het Anker Brewery and planning a trip encompassing both there and Ghent.
Upon returning home I realised that my current feelings echoed elsewhere, with The Food Programme's The Mothership of Brewing: Beer and the Belgians striking a particular chord. It's still available on the BBC iPlayer Radio and well worth a listen.
Like I said before, I've fallen in love with Belgian beer all over again, and whilst I've found some new breweries and noticed that some of the styles are influenced by what is happening in the industry worldwide they have also been exploring their own history and resurrecting some older recipes and styles, like the Seefbier I enjoyed so much in Antwerp.
The beers of Belgium are back in my life, although they never really went away, and whilst there may be plenty more to turn my head in the years to come I'll remember, like Dobie Gray sang in The "In" Crowd, 'Other guys imitate us, but the originals are still the greatest'.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Chris "Podge" Pollard, a friend and great supporter of my writing, particularly of his adopted Essex. It is to my eternal regret that I never made it on one of his  legendary Belgium Beer Tours, and I shall miss his gruff voice, kind words, generosity and unfailing enthusiasm about beer in general and Belgian beer in particular.