The Queens Head Micro pub, Chepstow

Queens Head micro pub
Lights back on at the Queens Head

 

On the face of it the last thing Chepstow needed a couple of years go in the high street economic climate of the day was another pub. Why then is Glen Ellis’ Queens Heads micropub on Moor Street in this quiet border town, still going strong?

In an age when reality TV delivers anything but reality, people have become jaundiced by tripe served as prime beef steak. This group of people, who are largely immune to advertising, are known by the red spectacle wearing advertising crowd, as the Millennial Generation. Traditional methods of advertising conjury don’t work on this group – a phenomenon so worrying to TV market traders that actual scientific research has been done into this disconcerting group. They are sometimes defined as “native digital” (Forbes magazine) and the first generation to have grown up with digital communication and social media rather than mainstream media. But, whatever age you are, you may be one of them.

People don’t change and they know genuine when they see it. And you could never accuse this great little pub tucked into the row just above the town gate and next to the Police Station of being anything other than good and honest! Walk into the single room bar and it feels like a pub. The wooden bar, tables and seats have the homely warm glow that only good old solid wood can offer, a rough timber post props up the roof while a ramshackle shelf, just about, holds thick tomes on craft beer. The timber floor leads to a decoratively carved bar and the bare stone walls are decorated in beer mats and other treatise to drink good beer. The pub strap line is the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote “Good people drink good beer” – I thank you.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micropub

There’s a good reason for all this architectural pub bonhomie. It’s in the building DNA.  It was The Queen’s Head for many years but was closed as a pub for about 20 years (it had a midlife crisis and became a hairdresser, clothes shop and an office in the intervening years). Glen found it on the property website Rightmove and fell in love with it and the town of Chepstow. Having secured the change of use back to a pub he has just sort of revived it in a way, brought it back to life with a real ale defibrillator in a craft beer paramedic kind of a way. The bar is actually an old church altar, Glen purchased before ever finding an actual venue for his dream micro pub.  The carving IHS in the middle stands for the first 3 letters of Jesus’ name in Greek. The Alpha symbol on the left stands for the first, and the Omega symbol on the right for the last. So, ladies and gentlemen, please step up to the altar of great Welsh beer.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micropub

In many ways what you see today is the manifestation of Glen’s lifelong dream. Now 34 years old and married to Catherine with a 9 month old daughter called Ivy, Glen has worked in pubs since university days. Back in the day when you could choose how you spent the student grant, Glen invested very wisely in an appreciation of good beer and he’s had – important word here – passion for Real Ale ever since.  After university Glen worked at his mum and dads (The Tower Hotel in Talgarth), running the public bar for them which is where all of that academic research became practical experience and customer service.

Don’t get the idea that this is some sort of beardy man cave though. This is a pub for all, young old, couples, workers – all are welcome and the common denominator is that they like a proper pub for proper people who like their beer to be interesting and taste of something. We chatted to Jon at the bar during “early doors” on Friday. He owns Toytastic the toyshop nearby and calls in for a pint after work. OK, he has got a beard, but otherwise he’s largely normal and very charming. Mike runs Trans Wales Trails, horseback trail riding based near Pengenffordd at the foot of the Black Mountains. He is a regular customer in my Mum and Dads pub at Talgarth where Glen learned his trade craft in working a bar. Mike always calls in on his occasional visits to Chepstow from the hills above Pengenffordd .There’s a northern saying that you can’t stand in a pub there for more than a minute without someone talking to you. At the Queens Head – make that a few seconds and after a few seconds more the regulars will also be congratulating you on your discerning choice of hostelry and telling you what a great pub this is.

Queens Head micropub
Queens Head micropub

Generally and not unreasonably being situated in Wales, Glen offers a wide and ever changing range of beers and ciders from the home nation. He’s a bit of an authority on small Welsh beers in fact and something of an almanac on the breweries they are made in. There’s a “when it’s gone, it’s changed” approach to stock and the result is a roving travelogue of Welsh craft beer, ably assisted and illustrated by a chalk board map of Wales hanging on the wall. It’s not all about Welsh beer though and when the context allows – like the Six Nations Rugby you’ll find suitably partisan guest beers from your own backyard.

There is of course good beer and cider, a warm and genuine welcome from a knowledgeable and enthusiastic landlord and great Welsh beers. But, there is something here that not all pubs have got. There was good conversation at the bar with nice and interesting people. You could hear what was being said because there’s no “musak” or escalating irritating digital pings or distracting light show from a Tardis in the corner offering Las Vegas style riches at the pull of a handle.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micro pub

There are difficult choices of where to start given the range of beers on offer. You could of course go the logical/analytical route and start on the left working your way across during the night or, more responsibly, you could opt for the Queens Head beer tapas. Tapas (sampling the beers in third of pint measures) will be familiar to anyone who has been to a big beer festival, like the upcoming CAMRA Gloucester event (article coming soon). It helps you sample several new beers, without turning the evening into a train wreck. We tried Grey Trees’ JPR, a very nice IPA beer from the Cynon Valley of South Wales (Cynon Valley lies between Rhondda and the Merthyr Valley).

In Italy all bars offer “Aperitvo” to the early evening crowd, often vying with neighbouring bars for the reputation of the best or tastiest. It’s just a complimentary selection of tasty nibbles to go with a few drinks after work. It suits the Italian psyche of food at every opportunity, enjoyment, talking and above all – welcome. The Queens Head does it Gwent style with short dated food on the “offers” shelf from Marks & Spencer’s across the road – plump and tasty sausage rolls the night we were in!

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micro pub

When the new M & S opened about a year ago, regulars from the pub started doing their bit to reduce the food waste mountain by bringing in reduced price bargains to share out amongst the other patrons. Thus, the Yellow Label Club was born. In the Queens, as all over Italy, competition has set in and the goal to find the item with the greatest reduction is now a grudge match. Currently in the lead is another Mike who found a Banquet Pie reduced from £25 to £2.50.

There is a movement to “Save our Pubs”, a fine cause and never a more relevant sentiment than now. You can do your bit too – by drinking in them! Occasional aperitivo is one other way the Queens rolls out the welcome carpet. Saving pubs is important because we are only just now realising that the plight of all those great pubs, now gone, was a litmus, a precursor to what’s now happening in our high streets.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micro pub

Going for a beer is many things. Going for a quick beer after work is a specific thing. It’s an opportunity to unwind and put the working day behind you before going home to family. Psychologists would say that it’s a chance for the brain to compartmentalise whatever has happened in the day as “work”, provide a clear separation between work and home and also to stop you boring the pants off the family with tales of the widget you made today that mysteriously appeared with the face of Jesus on it.

Queens Head micro pub
Queens Head micro pub

Perhaps though the Millennial Generation should be redefined? Perhaps they are in realty just a group of cross-generational discerning men and women who use their powers of research to seek out places like the Queens Head they heard about on the grapevine, who don’t need the hype but instead rely on their own ability to go there and use their eyes and quality of judgement to recognize the real deal when they see it.

Queens Head micropub
Queens Head micropub

We’ll be writing all of our Grand Tour Wye Valley postcards from here in the future…..

Head over to Glen’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/queensheadchepstow/ and hit the “Like” button to support the pub. If you are part of the Twitterati – you’ll need this  @QueensChepstow you know what to do.

12 Moor Street, Chepstow. Call 07793 889613

Wassailing Again

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,
Pete Symonds as The Butler

Forest of Dean legend Pete Symonds has finally hung up his wassailing top hat and waistcoat and handed the baton to his successor. For many years Pete has performed the role of Butler at wassailing’s all over the Forest of Dean and beyond. From Twelfth Night onwards his “master of ceremonies” confident baritone voice could be heard ringing around the counties orchards and apple barns. Wishing everyone “Wassail!!” and educating as many of us as possible in the process. But all great things change and Pete is moving on. There couldn’t have been a better bookend to our recent Wassailing piece at Apple County Cider’s Monmouthshire orchards.

In the foulest of weathers well and truly off the Beaufort scale, Pete’s bonhomie was sorely needed for the hardy bunch who had braved the winds and the stair-rod rain of storm Imogen. The resultant flooding which had turned the valley road into a lake and the inclined road to Ragmans Lane Farm into a mountain stream that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Iceland! But brave it the bunch did to see Pete on his Butler’s best form for his last ever wassailing.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,

Ragmans Lane Farm is a 60 acre site around a cluster of farmhouse and outbuildings. It is a beacon of permaculture farming training as well as offering a myriad of complimentary agricultural courses. Matt Dunwell, who has owned and run the farm since 1990 had (in the circumstances) set aside the Mushroom Shed for an indoor ceremony – much to everyone’s relief.  Once inside the Mushroom Shed, all the visitors began to overheat under the many layers they had assumed necessary and quickly started shedding outer layers of fleece and down jackets before hanging them on the rack by the door. From the other side of the room the sweet smell of mulled Ragmans apple juice wafted from stove top pots and there was a jug of Kingstone Black cider on hand to fuel the crowd and prime Ragmans own wassailing bowl. In the centre of the shed was an apple tree in a pot. The very healthy looking sapling was very nicely decorated by Matt’s team, who had also provided straw bale seating around the edge of the room, but it was nevertheless an anti-climax.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,
Ragmans apples

Don’t misunderstand; the crowd were in good spirits. Pete was imparting about 0.01% of his local knowledge to a couple sipping on Kingstone Black transfixed by his enthusiasm and .com-like access to anything anyone ever wanted to know about wassailing, apples, cider, orchards……Really, someone should record Pete Symonds!

The folk music track of The Life of Riley band of Morris and Penny (the latter being, Pete’s accomplished and now blooded successor) set the scene against the chatting crowd, waiting for proceedings to begin. Impatient for action, the kids had already started and were careering around the cider apple tree centrepiece in a dizzying blur. Matt suggested that we all brave the weather for the traditional orchard procession. Cue furtive glances out of the windows and door and he didn’t, let’s say, have the most enthusiastic take up. But with overwhelming enthusiasm, and his offer of wellingtons to anyone without, the crowd had nowhere to go but the orchard.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,

Just what it all needed really. Although now wet and windswept the assembled “good healthers” exhaled their collective sighs relief at being out of the storm and the rest of the ceremony continued in the welcome warm and dry.  Good music, lots of singing, party poppers (to represent the traditional shotgun noise), adorning the tree with toast, all handed out by the wassailing “fair maiden” and the blessing for the health and wealth of the orchard for the coming year and the ceremony was bought to a close so that the Ceilidh could begin.

Bringing the wassailing year to a close, and in a final personal and heartfelt thanks, Matt paid tribute to Pete Symonds’ contribution to the Ragmans harvest and ethos in the many wassails conducted at the farm. There were attempts to get him to commit to one last year, but to me he did not look like he was going to budge on retirement.

And the anti-climactic sapling – well that will takes its place in the orchard planted in Pete’s honour as a thank you.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,

Wassail!!

wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,

 

Lots of fun being invited to the very first Apple County Cider wassail ceremony at the cider orchards at Newcastle in Monmouthshire at the weekend. For this inaugural event, there was a modest but very enthusiastic crowd too on a cold, but stunningly beautiful, Monmouthshire day. Just a short walk from the roadside car parking and we were into the orchard proper. Stark and bare at this time of year the orchard was mid-winter prune but the mistletoe was on full power with bright white gelatinous berries glinting in the afternoon sun.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Penny Plowden. The Butler. Wassail with Apple County Cider

Wassailing is a one of those fabulous pagan ceremonies that date back thousands of years. The name Wassail is thought to originate either from the old Norse Scandinavian language “Ves heil” or the old English “Was hal” in either case a hearty toast to good health. Mix in a little bit of medieval German drinking tradition and, well anyway you get the picture…Fabulous English pagan tradition that Christianity (like so many of our other traditional ceremonies) put up with, adopted and adapted.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Dogs can Wassail too.

Wassailing is a ceremony to wake up the trees from their long winter snooze and to give them life and vigour just as spring is about to spring (very early as it happens this year). Actually, the history of it is far more complicated than that it would seem  with any number of geographical variations. Wassail, is more accurately, the name for hot mulled cider drink which accompanies the festivities and Ben & Steph Culpin had a large pot of their cider on the burner with their secret mulling recipe on a gentle simmer. The smell of the mulled cider on the breeze was just fantastic.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Wassail with Apple County Cider

No pagan tradition seems complete without a tipple or indeed music, singing and generally being pretty hopeful that, you, having a good time and paying respect to nature will pay off with a bumper harvest. You start to see the attraction of paganism….? On accordion the magnificently bearded Morris Wintle played some lovely traditional music and with him (as Life of Riley folk band partner), Penny Plowden, in her own very first act of, master of ceremony of the wassail, led the singing and read the traditional wassail texts. Dressed in her black school teachers gown and blazer with top hat decorated with ribbon and of course, the traditional black face (no-one seems sure why, but probably just a notional “disguise”).

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Wassail with Apple County Cider

And so, what could be nicer than a couple of hours outdoors in a fabulous orchard, drinking mulled cider, respecting tradition and having some exercise with a processional walk around the orchard behind the band. We wished everyone “good health” and drank a tipple to, hopefully, a great harvest and another great year for this young but fast becoming famous Welsh craft cider maker.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Wassail with Apple County Cider

The band and the crowd moved on to The Bell at Skenfrith where to the musical score provided by the Life of Reilly in Ceilidh music and dancing mode the pagan well-wishers dined on confit belly pork, mash and cider jus or roasted sweet potato, apple, chestnut and blue cheese pie followed by apple crumble or apple tarte tatin.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Cider maker Ben Culpin. Wassail with Apple County Cider

Exclusive – New Single Variety

Not everything that tastes fantastic looks fabulous.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote a great piece, intended to compliment another of his insightful food investigation programmes, for the BBC recently. It was unequivocally about food waste. The waste caused domestically was examined but one of the other main themes was about perfectly good vegetables that go straight from farm to skip! Why? They aren’t pretty enough for the supermarkets root vegetable fashion parade and ever present size and shape guidelines. Interestingly echoing the same point we made out in why the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley is a bit like Tuscany piece.

We spent a great morning, albeit an early start on a misty October dawn, in Monmouthshire with Apple County Cider inspecting and photographing the individual apples for their single variety Dabinett and Vilberie award winning ciders – and they have the Golden Fork Great Taste trophy to prove it!

Apple varieties. Apple County Cider
Apple varieties. Apple County Cider

If you have ever been to a craft cider producers you will know that any preconceived romantic notions of wooden barrels, rickety small outbuildings and ancient machinery are , well just romantic. More likely is a somewhat more workaday air – which incidentally, we here at WyeDean Deli Confidential are hopelessly romantic about anyway. The raw materials don’t get much better in the fashion stakes either. Cider making varieties, taste sharp and sometimes very dry (Dabinett has a dessert apple flavour at first with a very dry note on the back of the palate) and they look anything but appealing. They are small, perfectly formed – but small, and the cider maker doesn’t care much for how they look – scabby, with chunks missing is just fine. Piled up in the cider yard they look for all the world like a Waitrose sound stage back lot of the extras that didn’t quite get the Director’s nod. We watched them getting their first wash of the process from the elevated water contents of a large mechanical digger bucket from about ten feet high. It made them glisten but they still looked about as far away from a dessert apple as you can get.

But the skilled cider maker, as Ben Culpin has already proved himself (against stiff national competition) to be, can see the whole Act and Play and not just Scene 1. Ben is interested in the backstory and the bitter-sweet sub-plots, essential if you are intending to make a block-buster with appeal and longevity rather than a B movie. It’s the complex taste and personality, not the look, that is in demand. It’s a bit like, instead of casting Hale Berry in the female lead you choose ______________, sorry we bottled offending anyone – so insert your own suggestions in the space provided!

Ben Culpin. Apple County Cider
Ben Culpin. Apple County Cider

Tell you what Ben, don’t go for the easy option of using any apples you can get and then blending. Why not try and make stunning single variety ciders and a perry in a traditional method and then trying wowing the public and cider glitterati and winning national awards for your work? Oh, you did that already! Anyway, there is the crux of it. It’s all about the taste. In Ben’s and Steph Culpins’ case, the quality of the taste of the craft product they are happy to call Apple County Cider.

Apple varieties. Apple County Cider
Apple varieties. Apple County Cider

It is sometimes frustrating (identifying cider apples can be a very nuanced hobby!) but always very rewarding to see the varieties in the growers orchard. The difficulty of identification can be easily demonstrated by “Googling” images for any apple variety and trying to work which, of the half dozen different results, is the right one! WyeDean Deli Confidential always brings you the news and back story to makers, growers and suppliers. Although we can’t say too much, we think that there may be news in the not too distant future of a possible new variety from the Apple County Cider yard……Exclusive alert!! You didn’t hear it from us but we think that a single variety Yarlington Mill cider will soon be added to the Apple County stable. If you do, and we recommend you do, visit their cider shop you’ll find all the same great taste in farmyard chic but always remember it’s really about the taste. Stock up for the holidays.

Apple varieties. Apple County Cider
Steph Culpin. Apple County Cider

 

Hillside Brewery event: live music, food & drink next Sunday!

Sample some of the fantastic drinks at Hillside Brewery on February 1st 2015!

 

We have some exciting news! Hillside Brewery is holding an event on February 1st (2015), with live music, their own beers, locally sourced ciders and wines and fantastic local grub from Cameron’s Quality Butchers and the Forest Bakehouse at Longhope. So, what is all of this in aid of? Well, it’s the first of their monthly celebrations that are set to take place over 2015. Continue Reading This Article