This was to be my first visit to the Scottish Real Ale Festival (SRAF) for a number of years. I'd given it a miss in recent times because on the last occasion I attended when I got in at ~2pm on the Saturday (my normal visiting time), all the new and interesting Scottish beers had gone (although I did get a cool beer-geek T-shirt). Normally at Festivals such as Paisley or Troon this isn't a problem since there are always some of the more 'obscure' English or Foreign beers to be had, but at that particular SRAF this led to only Belhaven or Caledonian beers being available - not really my 'cup-of-tea'/beer, so I left after half an hour. However this year I'd been invited by Alan Lawson from Angus Ales to go along to the SRAF Trade Session on Wednesday evening and this seemed a good opportunity to (hopefully) try a few new beers, have a chat with some of the brewers & bloggers, and see how the SRAF had improved and grown (now to over 180 beers) at its new home in the Edinburgh Corn Exchange in the west of the city.
View SRAF in a larger map
Outward travel was as follows:-
Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Edinburgh Haymarket
At this current time when you leave Haymarket Station you basically enter a building site for the long awaited Edinburgh trams - this does seem to have been going on for a long, long time.
The most direct route to the Corn Exchange is to turn right out of Haymarket and then head down the A70 (Dalry Road continuing to Slateford Road) until Slateford Station and the New Market complex which includes the Corn Exchange. On the way there are a couple of great pubs, Athletic Arms (Diggers) and the Caley Sample Room, both of which I had visited fairly recently on the May Day holiday (see blog here). I thus decided on a slightly more circuitous route involving Fountainbridge and Colinton Road before heading back to the Caley Sample Room to meet Alan. This meant I headed past the Haymarket building site and towards the the City Centre for a couple of hundred yards to Thompson's Bar on Morrison Street.
It doesn't hint at it too much from the outside, but inside is an impressive traditional bar with decor based on Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's work including a fantastic bar gantry, decorative carvings in the bar top and numerous detailings in the pillars & beams. Dotted around the walls are Younger's, Muir's & Whitelaw's brewery mirrors and lots of beer & whisky prints all adding to the traditional feel, although there is a single TV for the news and the football - it's really all been very well designed and maintained.
There were 5 real ales on today, 4 from hand-pull, only 1 from those great tall fonts (a shame), with Deuchars IPA, Landlord, Pictish Brewers Gold, and Fyne Avalanche & Lismore Red available - a more than acceptable selection. I chose the Lismore Red and had a great chat with the barman about the whole Fyne Ales IPA Project before letting him return to his day job of serving drinks to the many walk-in customers and also prepare the great steak pies that are available here (toasties as well).
Next I headed along Grove Street until the junction with Fountainbridge. In the midst of the Fountainbridge leisure complex (part of the site of the long closed McEwans/S&N Brewery) is a pub/bar called McCowans Brewhouse. It's trying a bit too hard to be a faux American diner, but there's still a number of Caledonian, Inveralmond & Stewart beers to be had here. True to its 'Brewhouse' name there is a real gleaming micro-brewery here, visible from the long windows, with the equipment just begging to be used, but I don't think there's been a beer brewed here in the last 5 years. I believe that a number of Lothians-based brewers have tried to buy/lease the equipment over the last few years to no avail (for some inexplicable reason).
On the other side of the road the demolition of the reminder of the old Brewery site seems complete and *something* is being built in its place.
Fountainbridge marks the end of the Union Canal and as I headed down to the canal path I came to the Golden Rule, part of the same pub group (The Shilling Group) as Thomson's Bar.
This is another great traditional pub, quiet in the early afternoon and a fine place for a pint & some papers. It's split over 2 levels, with the main bar at the top and the lounge (almost a reading & games room, complete with Battleships to play) on the lower level. The decor is dark wood and subdued lighting, with brewery mirrors & canal prints on the walls and pump-clips above the bar. On hand-pull were Deuchars IPA, Thrappledouser, Killellan & Tempest Emanation - a great mellow, but still definitely bitter pale ale. I took a pint of this and a packet of Bacon Flavour Fries and relaxed (a bit) for the first time that day whilst watching the tennis on the TV.
I had a great time with barman discussing Cyprus towns & bars but finally I had to leave my deeply padded seat and head further west along Polwath Terrace, parallel to the canal. When I got to Colinton Road it wasn't far to the Kilted Pig situated in the midst of a number of local shops.
Inside it was bedecked with the flags of the Euro semi-final teams (and the Irish tricolour - I'm assuming due to the Irish bartender) with a huge TV on the side wall. I liked the exposed brickwork, with a number of interesting Guinness/beer prints on the walls, and someone obviously has a thing about piggy banks - there were rows of them along the shelves! Sadly the beer selection was fairly Glasgow 'standard' (in Edinburgh!) with Tennents x2, Stella, San Miguel, McEwans 80/-, Guinness x2 & Caledonian Best and no interesting bottles at all - not so good, but I certainly couldn't fault the friendly service.
From here it's only a 10 minute walk through the Meggetland Estate to the Corn Exchange, but I needed to back-track slightly to meet Alan at the Caley Sample Room. As normal there was a great choice of cask and keg beers here and after sampling a few of the interesting ones (albeit perhaps a tad warm ?) we headed out in the rain past the Caledonian Brewery in Slateford Road to the Corn Exchange. I have memories of seeing Spiritualised and Garbage (Shirley Manson et al) here, and I certainly didn't think the next time I'd be back would be for a beer festival, but initial impressions were that the venue seems an excellent fit for the Scottish Real Ale Festival.
We arrived just as the SIBA Scottish Awards were being handed out and it was really good to see Fyne Ales Jarl win as bottled champion and Highland Brewing Pale Ale as cask champion - both are great beers and up there with the best Scotland can produce.
The Trade Session is obviously a great meeting point for the industry and it was interesting to chat to publicans (Athletic Arms, Ericht Ale House), brewers (Alechemy, Loch Ness, Ayr, DemonBrew, Loch Lomond) and fellow bloggers (Richard & Paul from the Beercast). I think the general consensus is that it's a certainly a boom time for innovative Scottish brewing, but there's no doubt that there's still a definite worry for the livelihood of independent pubs outwith the main cities .
Since it was a school night I couldn't try too many beers but I liked the Tinpot Raspberry Pot (masses of slightly sour raspberries), but not the Prune Pot (too slight in body), thought the Alechemy Cockleroy Black IPA was great (almost like a bitter, soft stout), but that the extra Simcoe hops in the Cairnpapple XH gave it far too much of a medicinal taste. I also liked Broughton's new Willacade - light, bitter and full of soft fruit flavours for a 3.6% beer and Royston's Hoppy Handful from new brewery Spey Valley, but it perhaps needed to sit for a while longer in the cask. Unfortunately I missed Stewart Brewing make use a Hopinator on their Pentland IPA, but from what I could gather this gave an almost undrinkable bitterness to the beer.
The central/island location of the 'bar' is definitely a good idea, allowing easier access to all the required pythons & other cooling equipment and also allows more seating around the walls. It all seemed extremely well organised & staffed (plus there was even decent WiFi - hooray!) and hopefully the event will break all records showcasing Scottish brewing at its best (and still not sell out early on the Saturday).
Train: Slateford to Edinburgh Haymarket (~35 on the hour)
Edinburgh Haymarket to Glasgow Queen Street