Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A beer festival, a microbrewery and some art around Alloa: 19th October 2013

Normally when I go to the Alloa Octoberfest I take a walk around the picturesque Gartmorn Dam & Country Park, a man-made infill now teeming with wildlife just a couple of miles to the east of Alloa. This allows me to stop by the Mansfield Arms, home of Devon Ales in Sauchie on the way back to Alloa Town Hall - it's a more than acceptable afternoon out. However this week I'd chanced on a feature on the One Show regarding local artist/sculptor Andy Scott, whose amazing steel & brass public sculptures Arria (on the M80 at Cumbernauld) and the Heavy Horse (on the M8 at Ballieston) I'd passed numerous times in the last few years and who was about to head into another stratosphere with iconic structures that are The Kelpies. When I searched about this I'd seen that there were quite a lot of his works dotted around Clackmannanshire, so since it's always good to try something different, I thought I'd try to find a few more of these constructs in & around Alloa (OK, I was still going to stop at the Mansfield Arms - some things don't change).

View Alloa13 in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows :-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St to Alloa (18 on the hour)

It wasn't hard to find the first of Andy Scott's sculptures; immediately off the train at Alloa Station at the end of the platform I came across 'I can see for miles'.

There's an adult figure symbolising the working past (complete with flat cap!) and a child looking towards the town symbolising the future; it's a nice smallish piece made from intertwining thin steel rods & bars and makes the station approach a far more interesting place. Why then would there be a number of bottles deliberately placed in the shoes of the adult figure, it's not a rubbish bin! I headed out in the direction that the child was looking and then towards the large Shillinghill roundabout at the end of the ring road opposite the huge Asda. There's another of Andy Scott's works here - 'Lifeline'

This was designed as a tribute to the emergency services & armed forces with the hand symbolising support to the mother and child figures and there's also some text from poet Jim Carruth laser cut into the steel.

By now it was absolutely pouring down so I decided to hop on one of the frequent local buses to Sauchie, about a mile up the road. Thankfully the bus went past the Mansfield Arms located just off the busy main road on the extension of Sauchie Main Street - it's a traditional working man's pub with separate entrances on the right for the lounge and on the left for the larger bar.

I went into the lounge and attempted to dry myself off and also to wait for the pub & brewery's owner, Martin Gibson, who I'd arranged to meet (he'd had to pop out to the Beer Festival to deliver sandwiches, not beer). He arrived after about 5 minutes and was way more dreechit than I had been, but after he'd dried off he took me out to the Devon Ales brewery, situated in an outbuilding at the back of the pub.

They've been brewing since 1992 which by my reckoning makes them one of the oldest 'modern' micros in Scotland (Harviestoun, Broughton, Orkney & the Heather Ales incarnation of Williams Brothers are older, I probably wouldn't include Traquair House in those), building the brewery after a couple of years of selling other people's real ale in the Mansfield (and by 'they' I currently mean Martin and a young lad who is learning the trade). They brew once or twice a week with the beer going almost exclusively to the 2 pubs that they own - the Mansfield Arms and the Inn at Muckhart, a lovely coaching inn just out of Dollar on the road to Kinross/St Andrews (and well worth a visit). Some beer does go to beer festivals and also to a number of pubs in Edinburgh, but Martin says it's hardly worth his while (financially) doing this. They do their own malt milling on site...

... with the rest of the ~5BBL brewplant comprising a mash tun, hot-liquor-tank, copper and 4 fermenting vessels (for the 4 core beers), with some of the equipment coming from the old Maclays brewery in Alloa and some from Whitbread (these were originally tank vessels). Any expansion would happen upstairs but that depends on whether Martin thinks it would be worthwhile providing a kegged lager or not.

It was great to have a chat with Martin about the brewery, find out about his take on the current state of the Scottish pub & brewing scene and discuss some of the beers he enjoys (and hates), but I decided I'd better leave him alone to let him run his pub. I've only seen 4 core beers from Devon Ales for as long as I can remember (apart from the odd one-off special) so it was quite a surprise to see a new beer (Devon IPA) available in the lounge. I took a 1/2 pint of this (for the ridiculous price of £2.10 a pint, £2.00 in the bar) and Martin was kind enough to furnish me with 1/2s of the other beers (I did drop off a bottle of my own for him).

The lounge itself consists of a lovely decorated bar gantry, dark wood panelling, a number of tables both in front of the bar & at the back, with some old brewery signs and a real fire. The beers are all dispensed using air pumps (Martin thinks this gives them a more consistent temperature). The new Devon IPA was a decent citrus golden ale, with a nice 'traditional' old-world bitterness, and the Thick Black a good dark ale (although I'm sure when I've had it before it was a lot thicker & stout-like) but the others were perhaps a bit disappointing - hopefully the next time I'm in they'll all be a little better.

They do a whole range of pub food classics, a lot of grilled specials for carnivores, but also baked tatties & baguettes. This time I went for the Macaroni Cheese (great for all of £4.90) complete with piping hot chips.

By the time I'd finished it had just about stopped raining so I was able to head out of the Mansfield and up the hill towards Alva. The Collyland Road roundabout was the location for another of Andrew Scott's statues, 'River Spirit', facing the Ochil Hills and almost trying to halt their advance across the Devon valley to the River Forth.

The statue seems to be a mermaid holding a number of thin steel bars woven in the shape of the River Forth (as seen from above as the river meanders into the Firth of Forth). I'd probably have to say this was my favourite of all the statues.

I wanted to walk to another of Andrew Scott's statues, the associated 'Air Spirit' on the same road but about on another roundabout a mile or so to the west, but there was no pavement available for as far as I could see (possibly because of the nearby Glenochil Prison). Since I would have been completely soaked by passing cars if I'd tried to walk on the edge of the road I reluctantly decided that it made more sense to return to Alloa. This did give me time to head into the town centre where there have been a number of interesting super-shiny reflective outline figures positioned on the High Street - the Sentinels by Rob Mulholland.

These change all the time due to the weather, passing car lights, your own positioning etc... and are almost psychedelic due to fringing effects; at times when looking at these I felt like the precursor of a huge migraine headache was oncoming (and not that pleasant!). I therefore quickly made tracks to the Victorian splendour of Alloa Town Hall, located on the main road to Stirling.

The Forth Valley CAMRA guys running the Alloa Octoberfest had been running a nice teaser campaign on twitter & facebook, indicating every couple of days which brewery & which beers would be available, until the full list was provided a week or so before the festival. They run a really friendly festival and although it was still fairly quiet when I got in (having said that all the tables were taken), every hour or so there was a large influx of thirsty people from the Edinburgh/Glasgow train.

As seems to be the norm nowadays 1/3rd pints were available (this makes sense with all the high abv beers that are about) and I was able to choose some really interesting beers such as Oakham Twenty Years (a lovely tart, but tropical citrusy IPA), Alechemy Monumental (an 11.5% scotch ale aged Bruichladdich Octomore casks which was just way too peaty for more, probably as expected), Windswept Weizen (a lovely cloudy wheat beer full of sweet bananas) and Fallen Grapevine (brewed at Tryst, and so much better than the TSA version). However I think my beer of the Festival was Belleville Brewing Chestnut Porter, a great nutty 'broon ale' and the first time that I'd seen this London-based brewery in Scotland. I'll be down in London the following weekend so would hope to find a few more of these.

Outward travel was as follows :-
  Train: Alloa to Glasgow Queen St (~36 on the hour)

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