Part two of Mr Horse’s account of his beer adventures in Scotalnd…go laddie!
TEXT: Mr Horse
One day I met a guy from the brewery delivering beer around the islands who was waiting at a ferry. He told me about the beer scene, which was obviously pretty young but growing quickly. There seemed to be problems getting real ale established in pubs and bars because staff didn’t necessarily know how to look after and serve cask-conditioned beer which is obviously quite tricky compared to kegs. The funny thing was he was really scathing about newcomers producing beer in a New World style like Brew Dog, claiming they were all PR. He even scoffed at the idea of ‘dry hopping’, adding whole hops into the wort in the final stages of the brewing, concluding that it ‘didn’t make any difference to the taste!’ Enough said.
There were two beer highlights in the Outer Hebrides. The first was a lunch to die for at the Café Kismul in Castlebay on the southernmost Island of Barra, a really good curry with something bitter from the An Teallach brewery. The second was a great private hotel where we had dinner one night. The Westford Inn is a restored 18th century house on North Uist run by a couple who live in a local blackhouse (crofters cottage). It’s on the west coast facing the Atlantic, and exposed to the fierce winter storms, so every night they bring the sign in just in case it blows away.
It’s a traditional free house, dog friendly with good food and no juke box or TV. The cosy interior has an open fire and stonework exposed. At the bar are three handpulls with Isle of Skye beers and a range of bottled beer, no crap on tap or in bottles.
With my cullen skink (kind of like a seafood chowder), I had a nice bottle of Red McGregor (ruby red ale with a nice balance of hops and malt) from the Orkney Island brewery.
From Stornaway we took the ferry to the mainland, the trip flying by after a game of cards and a bottle of Hebridean Islander Strong Ale. We stayed the night in the port town of Ullapool, and had a few beers with dinner at the busy Argyle Hotel (where we saw the locals cheer on Spain vs England). The next day we drove across the Highlands to the far north, stopping for a few days in Mey near the famous castle. Nothing to report apart from a nice night at the snug local and a meal at the truly awful hotel at John o Groats, the northernmost spot in the UK (see below). By this time we were a bit sick of haddock and chips, and hanging out for something spicy. I had given up drinking coffee, and was surviving on Scottish breakfast tea, which is what English breakfast tea used to be called before it was stolen (just like the stone of Scone).
A highlight was the trip to the Orkneys. These islands off the north coast of Scotland belonged to Norway till they were handed over as part of a dowry in the 15th century. We toured the neolithic sites, most notably the famous Skara Brae—a 5000 year old village which was uncovered in a sandstorm in the 1850s—and the capital of Kirkenwall with its medieval sandstone cathedral and bishop’s palace with the remains of a medieval brewery! This and other heritage sites we visited are managed by Historic Scotland: http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/
The beer highpoint on Orkney was lunch at a pub in Stromness, the little port where Cook’s ships returned after the third voyage to the Pacific. Here I had a glass of the magnificent Dark Island, the flagship beer of the The Orkney Brewery: http://www.sinclairbreweries.co.uk/index.php This beer was named the world’s best strong, dark ale. Aged in aged malt whiskey casks for 3 months, it is complex and rich with flavours of vanilla, spice and dates, maybe a hint of orange/chocolate too, better on tap than in the bottle but the best damn beer in Scotland as far as I am concerned.
After the long days and short nights of the north we made our way down the east coast through Inverness and Aberdeen to Edinburgh. Inverness seems to be one of the centres of the brewing revival in Scotland with a lot of pubs and brewers in this region eg Cairngorm Brewery and Loch Ness Brewery. The beer comeback has been going for a decade or more and there are now over 20 breweries which are trying to do something different—again the scene is very comparable to New Zealand and Australia.
We stayed in Nairn, near the battlefield of Culloden where Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion bit the dust, a very moving heritage site with an impressive new visitors centre. Our hostess recommended the pub down the road, a good tip as we found ourselves at the Bandstand Bar and Restaurant (below) a modest looking place opposite a seaside park (with a bandstand) that happened to be the CAMRA Highland pub of the year 2009-11. They had really good foody food, if you know what I mean, and no less than 50 real ales plus 10 ciders, 9 real ale handpumps and 62 single malt whiskies!
With my fish (no batter) I had a pint of the Houston Slainte (‘cheers’ in Scots and Irish Gaelic) which was a red ale with nutty malt character and ‘a finishing kick from cascade hops’ (4.3%). Sessionable but not what I would call a kick, more of a gentle dig in the ribs. Interesting that the beer list privileged the local by calculating the distance in miles from the brewery to the bar. The closest to home was only 9 miles away: the Cromarty Company which produced a pale ale (3.8%). Called ‘Hit the lip’ it made a feature of the New Zealand hops, described as ‘Fruity hoppy heaven – Summer session beer made using mountains of New Zealand hops!’
As you can see (below) it had a bright straw colour and smelt of a tropical fruitbowl. To me it was certainly the hoppiest thing I had tasted to that point but rather thin and lacking any body or malt balance. Obviously in the Old World, New Zealand beer is thought of in similar terms to sauvignon blanc, aromatic with jump out of the glass fruity flavours.
Our final stop was Edinburgh, one of the world’s great cities. I would go back here in a minute. Heres the view of the castle from our apartment in the Grassmarket.
In the Grassmarket is The White Hart Inn which claims to be the oldest pub in the city. The cellar is medieval but the building only dates from 1740 (that’s 100 years older than New Zealand). Robbie Burns was a regular (the poet enshrined in Dunedin’s Octagen). Since The TBs are becoming known for their poetry this is a good tome to remember Scotland’s famous bard;
My love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June
My love is like a melody
That’s sweetly sung in tune
It has a dark wooden interior with lots of atmosphere and friendly staff. We had drinks out on the footpath overlooking the square watching the motley and interesting world go by, including a rather sinister march by the Orange order commemorating the Protestant victory at the Battle of Boyne in the 17th century.
The castle and royal mile is a bit of a zoo and best avoided, but there are lots of other cultural and culinary delights in Edinburgh. The best café in Scotland, with milky coffees comparable to our incomparable flat whites, is the Kilamanjaro in Nicholson St near the art school where Gingerbeardyman was a student: http://www.cosycoffeeshops.co.uk/2008/10/kilimanjaro-coffee-edinburgh.html
The National Museum of Scotland is not to be missed: http://www.nms.ac.uk/our_museums/national_museum.aspx
Its 1998 wing is looking a bit tired, but the recently re-opened historical gallery is magnificent. Check out this carnival of the animals with elephants, dinosaurs and whales lumbering towards you in a dramatic evolutionary sweep. They have a good roof top restaurant as well, with great views.
The finale of my alcoholic experiences in bonnie Scotland was a visit to a Brew Dog bar in the grimy inner city lane called Cowgate. We happened to arrive on a Saturday night during a beer festival and the place was hopping, with a lot of young people listening to loud music and drinking hoppy beers. This was beer culture. I had the Punk IPA (5.6%), described as a ‘post modern trans-atlantic classic’ with lashings of ‘amazing’ hops from Aotearoa giving it ‘an explosion of tropical fruity flavours and a sharp bitter finish’. It was an intense, boozy, floral pale ale—the closest thing I tasted to our own emerging Pacific style of IPAs with their forward flavours and heady aromas.
Brew Dog is a phenomenon, no doubt about it: http://www.brewdog.com/ Started in Aberdeen in 2007 by James Watt and Martin Dickie, the company have grown like topsy, with bars now opening up in Birmingham and Manchester. Criticised for their heavy-handed marketing, they definitely have attitude, the kind of uncompromising approach you see with niche market craft beer here where people furiously distinguish themselves from the mainstream—French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called it ‘sub-cultural capital’ (sorry for the acababble). Brew Dog declare that they ‘hate the conventional, the bland and the boring’ and remind us they have campaigned outside parliament, driven a tank through London and served 28% beer from a deers head. Their AGMs are a riot, and their manifesto shouts:
- Make beer for punks
- Brew the beers that we want to drink
- Make people as passionate about craft beer as we are
- Brew f**king expensive beers
I don’t want to sound cynical though. The beer is good, the range impressive, the positive response to their beer startling—they’ve had 100% sales growth for 3 years in a row and have opened a new flash new multi-million dollar brewery. Note that they use the phrase ‘craft beer’ and do pressurised kegs not cask conditioned real ales. The scene is young people, with no sandals and anoraks in sight. When (not if) I go back to Edinburgh I will go straight there and order a pint. Long live the revolution.
So that was Scotland. I might blog about drinking beer on trips to other countries… For example that bottle of Westvleteren I polished off with my brother in Holland in July. This famous Belgian Trappist beer (8%) is not cheap (24 euros for a small bottle). It is sensational though, allegedly the best beer in the world, and topped the Man Points scale in our Trappist dance card tasting a couple of years ago.