I was based in the lovely Perthshire town of Pitlochry for a short break of a couple of days and (just for a change) this gave me the chance to visit the 2 local microbreweries - the long established Moulin Brewery and the more recently opened Strathbraan Brewery.
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It's a fairly easy walk up the hill from Pitlochry to the small village of Moulin. Directly behind the whitewashed Moulin Hotel and the adjoining Moulin Inn (and owned by the same people) is the Moulin Brewery, formerly a coachhouse & set of stables. It's one of the older microbreweries in Scotland, first brewing in 1995 when the owners of the Hotel & Inn decided to celebrate the establishment's 300th year anniversary by brewing their own beer.
I like the open house policy they have here - it's basically pop your head around the door, holler and brewer Mike Mudie will take pity on you, stop what he's doing to come around for a bit of a chat and a talk about the brewing process. Today wasn't a brew day (this currently happens 3 times a week) and so Mike was cleaning out casks and just performing some general maintenance. Near the brewery entrance there's a display with leaflets, gift packs of beers to buy, various types of malt & some fuggles hops. Mike explained that due to the vagaries of the 2012 hop harvest he might be switching to goldings hops with little difference in the taste or texture of the trial beers he's brewed.
The 4 different beers that are produced by the Moulin Brewery are brewed on a small 3bbl plant with mash tun & copper...
... and 4 fermenting/conditioning vessels.
They are only available in the Moulin Inn and also in the Bothy Bar of the Atholl Arms Hotel in Blair Atholl and they get through a serious amount of them, in winter as well as summer. For Beer Festivals casks are distributed through Inveralmond in Perth so Mike only gets feedback from festival events 2nd or even 3rd hand. Of course after meeting Mike and having had a look around the brewery I then had to try all 4 beers in the bar of the warm & cosy Moulin Inn.
The Ale of Atholl (4.5%) was very malty, with some licorice and a hint of of smoke, quite OK. The Braveheart (4%) I found be be a fairly sweet bitter, a bit thin, an astringent finish and not all that great. The Moulin Light (3.7%) had some citrus bitterness but was far too watery. The Old Remedial (5.2%, Ale of Atholl blended with honey) was malty, lots of sweet molasses, with some honey & blackcurrant, and quite boozy - this was by far the best beer I had. Taken as a whole they were a bit disappointing, very traditional and perhaps some needed a bit more conditioning, but as mentioned previously, they do go through a serious amount of all of them so I guess there's no need to change a winning formula. Only one beer, the Ale of Atholl, is bottled at the moment - with the help of the hotel staff it's all done in one go in a couple of hours, but Mike's been thinking about bottling the Old Remedial as well. He's also put out feelers about working with the nearby Edradour Distillery for both whisky barrel ageing and bottling but anything that happens between them would still seem to be fairly far into the future.
It was on the way home from Pitlochry that I planned to visit Strathbraan Brewery (it's named after the local area between Dunkeld and Amurlee). I'd first seen one of their beers at Greyfriars in Perth last year, the Head East, and as a first-off beer it seemed quite promising - a nice fruity bitter with a dry aftertaste, and it was in really good condition.
The brewery is located on Deanshaugh Farm, approx. 7 miles to the south west of Dunkeld on the A822 - if you come to the junction for the A826 to Aberfeldy you've gone too far. I arrived in the middle of what seemed to be a Force 6 gale and horizontal driving rain so I couldn't get a photo of the outside of the brewery. Thankfully brewer Mark Procter sent me this picture of the large pre-fabricated structure that houses the brewery a couple of days later (on a lovely sunny day!) - thanks Mark.
Mark's father, Martin, gave me shelter from the wind & rain and made me a seriously strong coffee whilst Mark came down and we then had a long chat about beer and brewing (as always - beer people are great). Strathbraan have only been commercially producing beers since March 2012 and have made a specific decision to focus on only 2 beers, the aforementioned Head East and a refreshing, bitter pale ale, Due South. Both had to be fairly easy drinking and sessionable (though the Due South has somewhat more bitterness than planned, but that seems to have gone down well) since that's what the Perthshire outlets really need (there is a lot of travel to/from pubs for Saturday or Sunday lunch). Mark's thinking about a 3rd beer this year but he is still not quite sure what that's going to be (I'm guessing 'something' West or North!). There are now quite a good number of outlets for Strathbraan beers in the local area, and most are on consistent re-delivery. Except when the weather is utterly atrocious there is easy access to the main A9 trunk road and then on to the rest of Perthshire and beyond. Mark's made his first direct deliveries to Edinburgh and its outskirts and has also been on Belhaven's guest list for the last few months, so a slow, but steady expansion is planned. There are no bottles produced at the moment but Mark definitely recognises that it's something that needs to happen to give the Strathbraan name some further exposure in local delicatessens, off-licenses, gift shops etc...
Mark then took me into the brewing premises. The first thing I noticed was the large cold water storage tank, used in the brewing process and as a cold liquor tank. Water comes from a borehole at front of farm and not from the water mains. This means they don't have to treat the water at all and the temperature & mineral content of the water stays consistent all year round - perfect for brewing.
As the brewery was constructed numerous problems had to be overcome. Some examples included the connection of a 3-phase AC mains electricity supply - this meant it made more sense to use electric heating for the brewing process rather than gas. The outflow from the brewery had to put in on the other side of the road from the farm & the main brewery building and had to done over one specific week when huge wind farm turbine blades were not being delivered to the nearby wind farm and also when the roads could close (as they had (on occasions) to stay open for the various local music festivals). There was also going to be a balcony area for malt & hop storage and to support the grain hopper but it was decided that this wasn't going to be worthwhile - the additional support structures would have been too expensive so instead this is all located on the main floor of the brewery - similar to system I saw at Abbeydale Brewery.
All the equipment (here mash tun, hot liquor tank and copper) was custom built by Johnson Brewing - it's a 10 barrel capacity plant, but probably only running at about 7bbl at the moment.
There are 3 Fermentation Vessels with both beers fermenting in approx. 3 days...
...and 3 Conditioning Tanks with the beers taking approx. 7 days to condition. These were put in slightly after the Fermentation Vessels and Mark is in no doubt that the beer quality has improved since they were put in. It all seemed fairly spacious when I was there but when Mark racks out the beer the conditioning room is packed full of casks.
Mark brews mostly only once a week (sometimes twice a week) but this is likely to increase as the long delayed good weather comes in (a good summer in 2013 would be soooo welcome). The Due South certainly proved very popular last year and would be a great pint to have in one of Perthshire's lovely beer gardens such as that at the Taybank Inn in Dunkeld where it or the Head East are permanently available.
Thanks indeed to Mark for the hospitality and for showing me around. As always I was amazed at the planning, perseverance and sheer hard work required to get a new microbrewery up-and-running nowadays and I certainly hope to see Strathbraan Brewery beers a lot more often down Glasgow-way.