Text: Mr Horse
NB. This article has been peer reviewed by a genuine Scot (kilt and no undies) with extensive experience in the liquor trade
My name is Mr Horse and I love beer. Back in 2009 I convened the first session of the Thirsty Boys at the Malthouse, a tasting hosted by Phil Cook at the Malthouse. We three friends from the museum, university and not for profit sectors (me, Malice and Karorifryup) who in turn brought along two other blokes each. Things have grown from there with Malice, the Jesuit and co. breaking into the web with the blog you are now reading.
Goaded into action by Gingerbeardyman in recent posts, I decided I better contribute to the literature on beer studies even though it won’t do my PBRF ranking much good. So next month I am curating a tasting of home brew and will post a feature about that, but for now I thought I should tell you about the beer I encountered on my overseas junk…er I mean trips abroad to attend learned academic conferences (thus missing several Thirsty Boys events).
In June 2012 I went to Scotland on a family holiday which gave me the chance to sample what has been going on in the beer world north of the border. I love Scotland. Don’t believe the stuff about deep fried mars bars and working class angst—remember the ‘worst toilet in Scotland’ scene from Trainspotting?Our overall impression was of great food, friendly people, beautiful scenery, fascinating history, terrible coffee and pretty good beer.
When you cross the border, you know you are in a different country cos people speak accented English, Scots or Gaelic. In many ways it is not dissimilar to New Zealand, and you constantly come across landscapes, and historical and family connections, that remind you of home. Many of the placenames would be familiar to New Zealanders, especially from Otago and Southland. While the people we met did not talk much about ‘perfidious Albion’ you just had to sit in a pub seeing locals cheer on whoever was playing England in the European cup to get a sense of their political loyalties. The 2014 referendum on independence will be interesting…
Our tour began in Glasgow which is a beautiful city on the river Clyde with a lively arts scene that has twice been European city of culture. With great Georgian and Victorian architecture, fantastic museums and terrific restaurants, there is lots to do—everyone should see the extraordinary Glasgow School of Art and visit the tea rooms designed by Charles Rennie McIntosh. The museums are most impressive: the Kelvingrove with its innovative interpretation of social history, the brand new Riverside museum of transport, and the Hunterian museum at the University of Glasgow (the fourth oldest seat of learning in the UK) which as you can see below has a magnificent campus.
What about the beer? Coming out of the Kelvingrove, there across the road was a Brew Dog bar—now that’s what I call having a beer culture. More on that brewery later, but down the road was a pub claiming to be ‘Glasgow’s finest ale house’, Tennent’s bar in Byrne Rd. It had a nice interior (see photo above) tempting me to try one of the 12 cask ales on tap. I don’t remember the beer, sorry, not particularly memorable except that it wasn’t Whatney’s Red Barell or Bass. Like England, Scotland has been laid waste by a few big breweries (McEwan and Caledonian) and most pubs have bog standard fare to offer apart from maybe one or two guest ales on handpull. I have to confess I didn’t really get into the real ale (sorry Greasyspoon) but I can see that CAMRA and their bearded anorak-wearing supporters have been waging a noble counter-offensive against a sea of sweet commercial lager .
Leaving Glasgow, we had a lovely drive up through the western Highlands, through Loch Lomond, Fort William under the snowy peak of Ben Morr, and Glencoe with views of heather-clad hills, and picturesque castles (see above). Finally we went ‘over the sea to Skye’ where we stayed in a little village in a B&B called ‘Dunedin’ with a family who knew my partner’s brother.
My partner doesn’t drink beer, and had to console herself with watery Pinot Grigio, but luckily Glen drinks beer so I had someone to sup with. Down the road we found to our surprise a tiny restaurant run by a local and his Spanish wife who served up dishes like paella washed down by local beer from The Isle of Skyle Brewery http://www.skyebrewery.co.uk/ Glen and I had a bottle each of the Red Cuillin (amber ale) and the Black Cuillen (dark ale), named after the two bare rocky peaks on the island.
This local brewery operates from a small building on the pier at Uig where you catch the ferry to the Western Isles. Waiting for the ferry I had a lunch of haggis, tatties and neeps (swede) with a pint of the Cuillen beast, a big malty ale (7%) which won the CAMRA champion beer of Scotland 2011. They have only been going since 1998, and boast the only female brewer in Scotland, and even have a Kiwi working with them. Their range includes beers with a distinctive local twist like the Hebridean Gold (see below) made with rolled oats, and the black beer mentioned above made with heather honey. They also have a beer with peat-smoked malt Tarasgeir (4%) made in collaboration with a distillery.
Now a visit to Scotland without trying whiskey would be criminal. I was previously not a big whiskey drinker but a visit to Scotland has changed that—there is no doubting the pre-eminence of this famous spirit with a wide range on offer in most pubs, bars and restaurants. In a secluded inlet on the Isle of Skyle we found the Tallisker distillery where the amber nectar is, as the brand intones, ‘made by the sea’: http://www.malts.com/taliskerwhisky/index.html
After an informative tour of the operation (I didn’t really understand how whiskey was made before, and I had never heard of the ‘angel’s share’) and a sample of the product I left with a bottle of 10year old Talisker and a hip flask. For the rest of the trip I had a nightly tipple of the sweet, smokey whikihi, a very nice winter habit (even in a Scottish summer). But I’m just a novice, so for more authoritative account of whiskey (and beer) see Gingerbeardyman’s blog at: Yeastieboys single malt dance card
From Skye we took a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, a starkly beautiful archipelago out in the Atlantic made up of several islands linked by causeways and boat: from the Butt of Lewis in the north, to Harris (home of the famous tweed), North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra. As you can tell from the bilingual signage the isles are Gaelic speaking, and we learned a few words: you make your porridge with a spurdle, the fortified village in a loch is a crannock, and a little loch is a lochan. The history here is long and bloody, with castles, standing stones and other sites dotting the treeless landscape, and, surprisingly, lots of white sandy beaches (but sadly its too cold to swim, even in summer).
During our week on the islands I mostly drank the ‘beer round here’ from The Hebridean Brewing Company, based at Stornaway the largest town, which has been going for 10 years. They have 4 beers: Clansman (light bitter), Islander (ruby malty Scotch ale), Celtic Black (caramelly porter), and Berskerker Export Pale Ale (featuring one of the Lewis chessman on the label): http://www.hebridean-brewery.co.uk/ They were ok. The Clansman was my pick. I found that the pale ale, said to be strongly flavoured with ‘intense hops’, was really mild to my New World palette. Hop zombie this was not.