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The Jerusalem Tavern, Britton Street, Clerkenwell.

There are, in total, some forty eight hostelries featured in my forthcoming Clerkenwell and Islington Pubs book, but if you were to put me on the spot and ask me which one, above all the others, I would choose to drink in then I would answer, without a second of hesitation, the Jerusalem Tavern in my beloved Clerkenwell.

Things have changed in Clerkenwell since I grew up in the area and, as I discover each time I return, they continue to change, and rarely for the better. Fortunately, if you dig beneath the artifice and know where to look you’ll find reassuring signs of old Clerkenwell, of the real Clerkenwell.

It always comes as a relief then, amid all this change and ‘progress’, to head for the Jerusalem Tavern after a perambulation around the area. Upon entering this small but perfectly formed pub you are instantly and irresistibly transported back in time. Bare floorboards and mismatched wooden furniture dominate, the general air is distinctly antiquated and the feel is one of a Georgian tavern or coffee house. This must be one of London’s oldest surviving pubs, right?

Well, yes. And no.

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There has been a Jerusalem Tavern of one form or another in Clerkenwell, with slight variations in name, since at least the seventeenth-century. The current incarnation, in surprisingly sleepy and peaceful Britton Street, certainly looks not far off that vintage.  Although the ‘shop’ frontage dates from around 1810, the building itself is distinctly Georgian and a sign proclaims ‘Anno 1720’ to leave us in no doubt. But not all is as it appears, for the premises have been occupied by a pub since only 1996.

Number 55 Britton Street was originally a merchant’s townhouse and over the years has been home to a clockmaker’s workshop and an architectural practice. In the early 1990s, as the Jerusalem Coffee House, it operated as a recreation of a Georgian coffee house and the wood panelling, pew seating and Delft tiles you see today are from this period. They really do help give the Jerusalem Tavern a magical, old world feel.

Upon entering this small but perfectly formed pub you are instantly and irresistibly transported back in time

The earliest version of the pub is recorded in the mid-seventeenth-century as the St John of Jerusalem, where today’s Aylesbury Street and Jerusalem Passage meet. When it was demolished subsequent taverns, with the occasional and subtle change of name, cropped up in several nearby locations.

In the 1750s, for instance, the Jerusalem Tavern was located in Red Lion Street. There is a nice historical irony in the fact that in 1937 Red Lion Street was renamed Britton Street.

To further muddy the historical waters, from the 1740s onwards there was a tavern operating from inside St John’s Gate calling itself, at various times, the Jerusalem Tavern, the Old Jerusalem Tavern and the Old Gate. It stayed here until 1876, when it moved just a few yards to occupy a newly built building in St John’s Square, number 27, which is still with us today. By then it was calling itself the St John’s Gate Tavern but closed as a pub in 1915. The name then, as now, was inspired by the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, a powerful religious order that once dominated the area, and still do in some ways.

The current Jerusalem Tavern is the sole London pub of the small St.Peter’s Brewery, who are based in Suffolk. Despite their modest size they produce a breathtaking range of superb beers and the line-up here in Clerkenwell is constantly changing.

Choose your moment and this is the ideal pub for contemplation and gentle toping. On balmy summer days, the silence and stillness sometimes reminds me of the sleepy Clerkenwell I grew up with, the Clerkenwell that still had a distinctly village air about it.

On sombre afternoons in winter, meanwhile, with the fire lit in the small front bar and the sound of a ticking clock hanging heavy in the air, I come here to take refuge from the elements and, who knows, perhaps connect with a ghost or two. Clerkenwell, one way or another, is full of ghosts.

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Clerkenwell and Islington Pubs is published by Amberley on May 15.

 

 

 

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The Hope, December 2016. Once more open for business.

Last year, while researching my City of London Pubs book, I visited the Hope, a famous old early morning market pub located at the Smithfield end of Cowcross Street. What I encountered was a once grand old boozer that appeared to have rather lost its mojo. It was undeniably still striking in places with some beautiful surviving original tiling and etched glass to be seen, but was clearly not at its best, like a much loved old teddy bear that had had most of its stuffing knocked out of it.

Although I included the pub in the final draft of my book – even though technically it is in the London Borough of Islington and not the Square Mile – I must admit at the time I didn’t hold out much hope for the Hope, and these fears were confirmed earlier this year (see pictures below) when the pub closed for business and darkness descended on a hostelry which had for many years pulsated with the colour and life that only market porters can generate.

So I was delighted the other day to see that it has re-opened for business, and just in time for Christmas too. But first, a history.

The Hope was first established here late in the eighteenth century (the year 1790 is bandied about) but the current pub building dates from 1870 with many of its surviving tiles and etched glass dating from an 1890 upgrade. The pub is reckoned to be the work of Isaacs and Florence, an architectural firm once very busy in this part of London. Lewis Henry Isaacs, one half of the practice, went on to design the rather striking Grade II listed Farmiloe Building, which stands just yards from the Hope in St John Street and is well worth a look.

For many years the Hope, along with the nearby Fox and Anchor in Charterhouse Street, was famed for its early morning licence which allowed it to offer food and drink from 7am onwards, although strictly speaking only to those ‘lawfully engaged on business in the market.’

The newly revived Hope, sadly, will not be continuing with this early morning tradition, but that aside the signs are good and the decision to open at the weekend is to be welcomed.

It took several months to remodel the pub and for the most part it looks like a nice blend of makeover and sympathetic renovation. As long as I can remember one of the etched glass windows on one of the pub’s front doors was cracked, but this has now been repaired. Not a huge job in the scheme of things, I’ll grant you, but a sign of intent.

The Hope has a nice, spacious ground floor bar with a more upmarket first floor lounge which proclaims itself a ‘gin parlour.’ The overall feel of the interior is mock Victorian with a hint of Gothic, a design style which is a feature of countless pub reinventions across London at the moment. Apparently these days we all want to drink in boozers that look like they’ve come from the set of Ripper Street. Suddenly the ‘gin parlour’ bit makes perfect sense.

The new Hope also makes a big thing of its meat market connection and, in hindsight, would probably have been foolish to do otherwise. Some of the tables in the main ground floor are butcher’s blocks, although look a little too clean to be the real thing, while on the food front ‘award winning’ pies dominate the menu. They are made by the Pieminister company and come all the way from Bristol apparently! Do they not sell pies at Smithfield?

Some lettering embossed on one front window proclaims ‘pie and mash’ (‘award winning’ pies, naturally) although I suspect this is a very different offering from the pie and mash that some of us grew up with, and indeed still occasionally partake of, in such fine establishments as Manze’s.

On my visit I spoke to a very friendly Dutch lady who was busy lighting candles as the dark of the late December afternoon began to set in. So far, she told me, the reaction to the new Hope has been a very positive one with only the odd customer disappointed that the mammoth full English breakfast of old is no longer available.

So while in many ways the Hope offers few surprises with its all too knowing mash-up of boutique gin, craft beer and (mostly) recreated Victoriana, we should all breathe a sigh of relief that it has remained a pub at all. That it has also retained its original name, most probably a corruption of Hoop and Grapes or Hops and Grape, is a bonus.

And one tip if you do decide to pay the place a visit – and all things considered it’s certainly worth investigation – is to try and sit in the bow-fronted window looking out at Smithfield Market and the busy  junction where Charterhouse Street, Cowcross Street and St John Street converge. All of human life is here, even the odd meat porter.

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City of London Pubs is published by Amberley.

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Eddie Gadd, at the copper, in action at the Ramsgate Brewery.

There is nothing quite like a brisk walk along Tankerton Slopes to focus the mind, especially at this time of year as winter tightens its grip and the wind whips in off the Estuary with renewed Arctic vigour. And what better reward for the plucky perambulator than a pint of something dark and smoky to warm the cockles and stir the soul?

I am someone who drinks stouts and porters whatever the weather, but the autumn and winter months are when these types of beer really come into their own. This is the time of year for beers that are as black as Newgate’s knocker, beers of substance and richness and potency; beers such as Dogbolter from Eddie Gadd’s Ramsgate Brewery.

It is a devilishly drinkable drop that offers peat and treacle on the nose and slight spice on the palette, this is a contemporary porter for our time.

I had Dog one lunchtime as a student. Yup, pretty hazy bus journey home!

Eddie Gadd

Now there are quite a few dark beers of note produced by a number of Kent brewers, and as long as I don’t shuffle off to the great public bar in the sky any day soon I’ll hopefully write about some of them at some point in the future. However, Dogbolter holds a special place in my heart because it’s a brew that seems to have been with me for most of my adult life. It even seems to have moved from London down to the Kent coast at about the same time that I did. Clearly the two of us were destined for each other.

It is a remarkable beer with an intriguing history.

Dogbolter was the creation of David Bruce, the man who gave the world both Bruce’s Brewery and the Firkin chain of brew-pubs. The beer came about, so popular brewing mythology has it, when Bruce took his eye off the ball while brewing a batch of his fabled Earthstopper and, clutching victory from the jaws of defeat, adapted the recipe to produce what would ultimately become Dogbolter. A nice story, for sure, but one best taken with a large dose of Epsom salts.

I was fortunate enough growing up in Clerkenwell to have one of Bruce’s pubs, the Pheasant and Firkin in Goswell Road, just a few minutes walk away and much of my early beer education was undertaken here (it is now a Shepherd Neame pub and has reverted to its original name, the Old Ivy House). It was also in the Pheasant where I first encountered Dogbolter, complete with its trademark blurred pump clip, and I think it’s fair to say that many years down the line we are still very good friends.

The Firkin pubs offered a much-needed outlet for cask ale at a time when it was the exception rather than the norm. Originally much of this ale was brewed on the premises, and I well remember at the Pheasant gazing down through a glass floor at the brewing vessels crammed into the cellar below.

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The Old Ivy House, Goswell Road. Formerly the Pheasant and Firkin.

Alas, in 1988 Bruce sold up and over the next decade or so the Firkin brand went through a number of different ownerships, including a period in the hands of Allied Domecq, its cask ethos diluted with every passing year, until, in 2001, Punch Taverns (mercifully) retired what was by then a rather tawdry brand.

Thankfully Eddie Gadd of the Ramsgate Brewery managed to acquire the rights to Dogbolter and he continues to produce it, both for bottle and cask (it’s worth noting that in May, 2014 the West Berkshire Brewery, of which Bruce is chairman, also brewed a batch).

In Gadd’s hands, at 5.6%, it enjoys a cult following and a formidable reputation. Brewed with six different malts and with a nice dry hop finish – “Fuggles my old head brewer insisted,” Gadd recalls – the Dog seems to have matured nicely since its Firkin days.

Gadd, like myself, has a special relationship with Dogbolter. As a young brewer, learning his trade with Bruce’s in London, it was the first beer he ever made and it seems somehow fitting that today he is its custodian.

It is also nice to learn that before Gadd brewed Dogbolter he had encountered it as a drinker. “I had Dog one lunchtime as a student,” he tells me, “with no intention of getting into brewing. Yup, pretty hazy bus journey home!

“I won an International Brewing Industry Award for it [Dogbolter] in 1994,” Gadd continues, “and brewed it in Holland for the Firkin Brewery from 1996-2000. Punch Taverns bought the Firkin Brewery in 1999 and closed it down, and the Dog became a stray until I found a new home for it at my own Ramsgate Brewery in 2002.”

So more than twenty years since their first encounter, it would appear that Gadd and Dogbolter remain devoted to each other.

“Having been born and brought up in London, spent some time travelling around the UK and Europe, it has been taking it rather easy by the seaside ever since,” reflects Gadd of his old chum. “Beware though, it still bites.”

Brewing in Kent cover

Following the September publication of Brewing in Kent, this is the latest in series of blogs designed to highlight the county’s vibrant brewing scene and the rich variety of beer that it produces. More to follow if I don’t drink too much Dogbolter.

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The Thomas Tallis Alehouse, Northgate, Canterbury.

I spent quite a bit of 2015 wandering the highways and byways of Canterbury while researching my Canterbury Pubs book, which was published by Amberley in September 2015. As I discovered on a flying visit last week, while so much has remained the same there have been one or two notable changes.

My general conclusion, in the summer of 2015, about the general state of the pub scene in the cathedral city was that it had a decent and diverse selection of watering holes; from traditional and very old pubs such as the Parrot and the Unicorn through to the excellent Foundry brewpub and the contemporary Old Brewery Tavern. However what the city lacked, clearly, was a micropub.

That situation has, I am glad to report, changed, although the people behind the Thomas Tallis Alehouse in Northgate are keen to stress that they are not in actual fact a micropub at all, largely because alongside a selection of cask ales they also carry an extensive range of craft beer, in key-keg, bottle and even can.

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Scenes from a Canterbury alehouse.

Now we could quibble over terminology until closing time, but for me the spirit and execution of the Thomas Tallis Alehouse owes a huge debt to the micropub revolution that was started by Martyn Hillier at the groundbreaking Butcher’s Arms in Herne back in 2005. So you’ll find no piped muzak at the Thomas Tallis (not even piped Thomas Tallis), the use of mobile phones is discouraged and the gentle art of conversation is championed.

It comes as no surprise then to learn that the mover and shaker behind the enterprise is Mark Robson, who gave the world the Just Reproach in Deal back in 2011, which was among the first handful of Kent micropubs to open.

Most micropubs are housed in former shops, and indeed before the Thomas Tallis opened as a watering hole at 48 Northgate back in March this year the premises had enjoyed various uses, notably housing, in no particular order, a tattoo parlour, a florist, a hairdressers and a tea room. Interestingly, as recently as 1903 it was the White Swan public house.

What marks the Thomas Tallis from other micropubs – sorry alehouses – is the actual premises themselves, for this is a truly remarkable setting. The Thomas Tallis, you see, is housed in a 15thCentury half-timbered building attached to the gatehouse of the ancient Hospital of St John, now almshouses.

Forget mock-Tudor pub interiors, in places the Thomas Tallis is the real deal. To visit here on a solemn autumn afternoon is to step back in time just a little. Suddenly the alehouse epithet makes absolute sense. It also means it is highly likely that Thomas Tallis himself knew the building. Touch the walls and feel the history.

Tallis was one of the giants of early English choral music. His place and exact date of birth are a little hazy, although 1505 in or near Canterbury seems to be the generally accepted version of events. A more concrete connection between the city and the great man is that for a period he was a lay clerk at the Cathedral, although probably only for a couple of years (1541 through to 1543 according to some sources). He spent the last four decades of his life as both composer and organist to the Chapel Royal, a post he shared with William Byrd.

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“Don’t be a twat!”

The Thomas Tallis has three distinct bar areas. To the front is a small drinking den by the main entrance which leads to a larger, central room. A wood-burning stove is lit on cold days and features a “health and safety” note that warns unwary drinkers: “The fire may be hot. Don’t be a twat.” Wise words indeed.

The back room, which also features a window onto the aforementioned almhouses, is very Laura Ashley country cottage. One half expects to find Margaret Rutherford sitting in the corner knitting a pair of socks.

There were only two cask ales available when I visited, but my pint of Trigger from the Musket Brewery was tip-top. A blackboard listed 12 key-keg offerings while a beer menu, divided into four different beer styles, featured a thoughtful selection from brewers both English and international in bottle and can.

The Thomas Tallis is a welcome addition to Canterbury’s drinking landscape and yet another illustration that the great British pub, far from being terminally ill, is in fact reinventing itself.

And whatever you do, stay away from the fire.

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Canterbury Pubs is published by Amberley. It is available online and from all good bookshops. It is probably even available in some not so good bookshops.

 

 

 

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Spratwaffler is the session beer in Time and Tide’s extensive range.

While researching my forthcoming Brewing in Kent book, I discovered that there are around forty active breweries in the Garden of England. These vary in size from a substantial regional brewer such as Shepherd Neame through to microbreweries that put the emphasis on the micro, a few of them little more that kitchen sink operations.

Regardless of output and size, the one thing most of them have in common is that they tend to major on producing cask ale, in many cases exceptionally good cask ale. But the county is not a ‘craft’ beer wilderness, and leading the way in this particular area are Time and Tide, who now operate from a twenty barrel set-up housed in a converted barn in Eastry, situated between Sandwich and Deal.

Time and Tide started life in November, 2013, initially operating out of the Ripple Steam Brewery at Sutton-By-Dover, and among the core range of beers that they produce is Spratwaffler. In my previous Masterbrew blog I mentioned the concept of desert island beers. Well, at this moment in time Spratwaffler would certainly be accompanying me should I be cast adrift from civilisation. It is, simply, a sensational drop of stuff.

Time and Tide themselves describe Spratwaffler as a pale ale. It is a modest 3.7%, both in can and keykeg, and boasts an enticing 37 units of bitterness. It is a hazy golden orange in colour, verging on marmalade, and bitter citrus dominates on the nose.

Spratwaffler is brewed using Celeia, Cascade and Citra hops, although it’s the Cascade that just has the upper hand for me. But overall this is a wonderfully balanced beer, which is something that can’t be said of many so-called ‘craft’ beers. It’s a real session beer too. A previous version of Spratwaffler featured Centennial and Styrian Goldings alongside Cascade, rather than the aforementioned Celeia and Citra.

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A glass of Spratwaffler in the 12 Taps, Whitstable. It didn’t last long.

In the can Spratwaffler is widely available, and is also carried in some Wetherspoons pubs in Kent, but I tend to enjoy it more often than not on draught. Indeed I have been known to take the occasional glass at the 12 Taps in Whitstable, the town’s first dedicated craft beer bar. Time and Tide provide the ‘house’ beer for the 12 Taps, which opened its doors for the first time back in March and uses keykeg, a  relatively new method of dispense.

Head brewer Sam Weller, said: “With keykeg the beer comes through the draught line, this makes for a more refreshing, colder drop. And because none of our beers are fined, filtered, pasteurized or adulterated in any way you get a reassuring haze with the beer. This is down to the large amount of hop that we use and the natural re-carbonation process by the yeast, we don’t strip anything from our beer; You can literally see the flavour.

“The great thing about keykeg and cans, is that no gas or light comes into contact with the beer, meaning that the first and the last pint will be just as fresh as each other, as if you were drinking directly from the brewery’s fermenters. Finally, we naturally re-carbonate our beers, which means that we rely on yeast to carbonate the beer and we can set the carbonation level to what we think suits the beer perfectly. We love some fizz in our beers, it gives the flavours a bit of a lift giving them a chance to dance on the pallet.”

It is intriguing, then, to discover that Spratwaffler started life in a slightly different incarnation.

“It started out as a hop forward cask beer,” Weller told me. “But over a short period of time we developed our ideals and dropped cask entirely”.

Certainly Time and Tide believe beer should not be hanging about for too long. A copyline on the Spratwaffler can orders the customer to “Please drink fresh when the hops are at their hoppiest.”

According to the brewery website Time and Tide produce seven other beers, some of them considerably stronger than Spratwaffler and one or two of them perhaps a little gimmicky. They brew an IPA which comes in at 6.1% and a ‘Black India Pale Lager’ at 6.5%. There is also a ‘coffee stout’ at 7.4% and a ‘Hefe’ that is ‘brewed with freshly cooked Beetroot’ and packs a mighty punch at 8%. Not one for a night out with the lads methinks, although it will probably keep you regular.

I look forward to trying some of the other beers in Time and Tide’s portfolio, but for now want to share the joy of Spratwaffler with you all. It is a little gem of a glass of beer, fit for poets and dreamers and working men and women alike. And Spratwaffler, if you were wondering, is a colloquial term for someone who originates from the north end of Deal. According to Sam these “north enders” used to “scoop sprats out of the sea and gobble them up.”

Washed down with a glass of beer, obviously.

Brewing in Kent coverIn the run up to the September 15 publication of my book Brewing in Kent, this is the second in a series of blogs designed to highlight the county’s vibrant brewing scene and the rich variety of beer that it produces. More to follow. 

 

 

 

 

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AFC Croydon, in yellow, defend a Whitstable Town corner.

At the same time on Saturday afternoon that the ‘richest league in the world’ got under way in earnest with such pulsating and high-octane fixtures as Burnley versus Swansea and, er, Middlesbrough v Stoke City, Whitstable Town kicked-off their new league campaign at home to AFC Croydon.

The game itself, competitive and reasonably entertaining given the soaring temperature, ended in a convincing 3-0 victory for Town, thanks to a barnstorming second half that featured goals from Darren Marsden, youngster Harris Rodgers and the outstanding Aaron Quain, whose half-volley was the pick of the bunch.

Now to compare the Barclays Premier League and the Southern Counties East Football League is to compare different galaxies: The former is gigantic, global, all-conquering and the plaything of billionaires; The latter is provincial, sometimes parochial and more often than not hand to mouth.

But if you were to ask me – a lifelong fan who has become increasingly disillusioned with the circus that top flight professional football has become – which of the two represented the true essence of the beautiful game then it would be Whitstable Town and their ilk who would get my vote every time.

 

I should perhaps explain my own relationship with Whitstable Town FC. When I moved from London to Whitstable in March, 2003, I was determined to show allegiance to my local club and the first Town game I attended was towards the end of the 2002/03 Kent League season. It was, if memory serves me correctly, a 2-0 home win against Sporting Bengal.

The following season I attended home games regularly, and saw some away fixtures too. Soon, and I am still not entirely sure how, I found myself co-editing the match day programme while also becoming a member of the club committee.

Towards the end of 2006 I was appointed Sports Editor of the Times series of local weekly newspapers. As my remit included covering Canterbury City, Faversham Town and Herne Bay, in addition to Whitstable, there was clearly a conflict of interests so I stood down from the committee.

All of which meant that when Whitstable were crowned Kent League champions for the 2006/07 season I was there to witness it in a professional capacity.

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Whitstable Town attack during a second half that they dominated.

The club’s subsequent promotion to division one south of the Ryman League was to prove a challenging one. Exciting? Yes. Difficult? At times, certainly.

For me Whitstable just about held their own in step four football. They struggled at times, and relegation often loomed, but over the years they became an established Ryman League side, growing in confidence with each passing year.

Their best season was the 2014/15 campaign when under the stewardship of Jim Ward they finished a highly credible eighth.  Unfortunately Ward was lured back to his beloved Ramsgate for the start of the 2015/16 season and, to makes matters even worse for the Oystermen – to give Whitstable their most endearing nickname – he took several players with him, most notably prolific striker Ian Pulman.

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The Oysterboys in full flow. They still hate Herne Bay.

The following season would prove disastrous for Town. They finished second from bottom with just eight league victories from 46 games played.

As a result they now find themselves in the aforementioned Southern Counties East League, which is essentially a slightly pimped-up version of the Kent League.

Although relegation marked a return to step five football for the club for the first time in almost a decade, the overall mood among the majority of the 131 present at Saturday’s Croydon game (“Our biggest league crowd of the season,” joked the match announcer) was a positive one, if perhaps also a little stoical. Stoicism and non-league football have always gone hand in hand.

Certainly the early signs are that under manager Scott Porter Whitstable are more than capable of bouncing back to the Ryman League at the first time of asking.

When things started to go wrong last term a few people did depart the sinking ship, so to speak, including a couple of committee members who have since washed up at other Kent football clubs.

However I am pleased to report that at the core of the club are a band of diehard supporters who, one gets the impression, would follow Town no matter what level of football they play at.

These are people such as Joe Brownett, whose long association with the club has seen him return once again as chairman. Other committee members such as Doug Bubb and Dave Robinson have also shown they have staying power. No flouncing off to a rival club when the going gets tough for these chaps.

Then there are the supporters, including the ever-vocal Oysterboys. They remained in the Bruce Smith stand for the whole of Saturday’s game and sung their way through the full 90 minutes. They still hate Herne Bay.

And then there are the likes of Richard Tennant. Tennant, an unassuming and amiable chap, has been following Whitstable for many years and for Saturday’s game stepped in as master of ceremonies. He is the very essence of positivity at a time when Whitstable Town need it most.

“We have been relegated, and that hurt,” he told me after the game. “But with the current manager and team structure we are looking good this season. It’s good to have Joe back in charge and under him a lot of work has gone on in the background.

 

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Richard Tennant remains positive about the season ahead.

“Scott is an experienced manager and I think we can go a long way. There is still a great community feel about the club and once we get a few wins under our belts the fans will start returning.”

You will certainly struggle to find a friendlier club than Whitstable. With five minutes to play on Saturday Brownett, resplendent in club tie, prowled the Gasworks End terraces asking for man-of-the-match nominations from the Town fans scattered before him. You don’t get that at White Hart Lane.

So forget Pogba. Erase Costa and Ibrahimovic from your memory. And whatever you do pretend you’ve never even heard of Jose Mourinho. Because if it’s the real soul of football you are searching for, avoid the Emirates and Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Get yourself along to the Belmont instead. Forget executive boxes and prawn sandwiches, here you’ll find bench seating in the main stand and chips served in a polystyrene tray. This is football at the heart of the community, which is as it should be.

Oh, and the chips are delicious.

 

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Love it or loathe it, Masterbrew offers an authentic taste of Kent.

I like to think that I am as broad-minded as the next person when it comes to trying different styles of beer, but man cannot live by Citra and Centennial hops alone and sometimes after a surfeit of Saison or an abundance of American Pale Ale I find myself yearning for a classic pint of British bitter, something chestnut in hue perhaps and session of strength that puts the emphasis on hop balance rather than hop bombast. And, as I live and spend quite a lot of my time these days in east Kent, often it’s a pint of Masterbrew to which I turn.

Masterbrew is a traditional English session bitter brewed by Shepherd Neame of Faversham, Britain’s oldest brewer. At just 3.7% in the cask (4% in the bottle) it is the weakest beer in their portfolio, but in its own way it is also one of the more complexed. Referred to by some drinkers – affectionately I think – as ‘cooking’,  Shepherd Neame brand it as ‘the original Kentish ale.’ In the county of Kent it is their most popular cask ale, even outselling the nationally known Spitfire.

The company have been brewing Masterbrew for some time now, although exactly how long is hard to establish. If Frank Baillie’s 1974 Beer Drinker’s Companion is anything to go by ‘Sheps’ adopted the generic Masterbrew title around 1973 and it was a brand name that was also applied to several other styles of beer. A pint of Masterbrew Mild anyone?

It seems likely that the recipe for today’s Masterbrew  owes at least a passing nod to that of Abbey Ale, which for many years was one of Shepherd Neame’s best known beers.

Like several Shepherd Neame cask ales, Masterbrew sits on a bed of pale and some crystal malt, but it is the Kentish hops that really give the beer its character. When it comes to their ales Sheps source some 95 per cent of their hops from within 25 miles of their Court Street brewery and Masterbrew’s distinctive taste comes, according to head brewer Richard Frost, courtesy of Admiral added for bitterness early on with Goldings, perhaps the quintessential Kent hop, added late to the copper and also to the cask.

It has 37 units of bitterness, compared to 30 for Fuller’s London Pride, 33 for Adnam’s bitter and between 32 and 34 for Young’s ‘Ordinary.’

Rodger Protz is clearly a fan of Masterbrew and it features in his 2005 book 300 Beers To Try Before You Die! Of Masterbrew he writes that  it ‘draws the drinker in with a stunning aroma of hop resins, biscuity malt and tangy fruit’, although I suspect just how ‘stunning’ you’ll find that aroma will depend on where you choose to drink your Masterbrew. From personal experience this particular beer, as indeed is the case with most cask offerings, can vary tremendously from hostelry to hostelry.

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Masterbrew has been with us since the 1970s.

For my money you will struggle to find a more consistently drinkable pint of Masterbrew than that available at the Railway Hotel, which rather fittingly is located opposite Faversham railway station just a few minutes walk from Shepherd Neame itself.

Protz concludes by praising the beer’s ‘peppery and bitter hoppiness.’

Masterbrew is a regional beer, in so far as it enjoys immense popularity in its Kentish homeland but remains relatively unknown beyond. In a sense this is a shame, because as I’ve already said it is an extremely quaffable session pint when on form, but it is also strangely reassuring, illustrating as it does that certain types of beer can still define the place where they come from.

It is not, however, universally loved and in the general scheme of things it would be a strange world if it were. I am, however, of the opinion that some of the criticism levelled at is a little unfair. One micropub in east Kent, for instance, has an old style Masterbrew pump clip attached to a pipe in its toilet and as a beer it certainly doesn’t sit comfortably in the current clamour for all things craft.

Masterbrew is not the colour of sunset in Hawaii, or even Shoreditch for that matter. It doesn’t taste of grapefruit or lemons or passion fruit or lychee or pulled pork with jalapeno peppers! It is not, according to modern media mores,  even remotely sexy and hence does not perhaps enjoy a terribly high profile among people with tattoos and beards and Hoxton postcodes. But it does represent the type of traditional ale that people, working people in particular, have drunk in Kent for many, many years and that popularity endures to this day.

There are many, many beers that I would take with me to a desert island before Masterbrew –  several of which are widely regarded as craft – but as an authentic representation of traditional Kent brewing it has few equals.

Brewing in Kent cover

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In the run up to the September 15 publication of my book Brewing in Kent, this is the first in a series of blogs designed to highlight the county’s vibrant brewing scene and the rich variety of beer that it produces. More to follow very soon.