Saturday, 9 November 2013

Carlisle - Brewing Company, Beer Festival, and a pub closure: 2nd November 2013

It's far quicker to head down to Carlisle from Glasgow in comparison to reaching a lot of places in Scotland, so this weekend I decided to attend my first ever Carlisle Beer Festival. A quick check of the Solway CAMRA web-site indicated that a brewpub called the Carlisle Brewing Company had just setup on the outskirts of the town centre (new brewpubs are always great to see), so it was an easy decision to contact them and schedule a visit before attending the Beer Festival.

View Carlisle BF in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Carlisle (Virgin, TransPennine, very frequent)

When I came out of Carlisle train station the rain & wind had really started to squall; I seriously thought about just going into one of the JD Wetherspoons along Bochergate and drinking coffee until the Beer Festival started, but nah - that would have been way too boring. Instead I buttoned up the jacket, got the gloves & hood out and walked over the railway to the high-level bridge over the River Caldew. Here I found some steps down to the river bank and started to follow National Cycle Route 7 south-west along the river. There are quite a lot of flood defence barriers here installed after the major flooding in 2005 and also, slightly upriver, the sweeping Holme Head Weir - it's really quite noisy, but there are lots of converted mill apartments close by, I guess you get used to the constant noise.

The path then took me out onto some isolated scrub land for quite some distance from which I could see a further squall coming in - it was then a race between me and the squall to get to the shelter of some tree in time and thankfully I won. After sheltering/cowering below the trees for 15 minutes or so I was able to set off again and eventually diverged from the main path at a fairly large industrial plant before entering the small village of Cummersdale. In the centre of village, next to the Primary School, is The Spinners Arms, an ex-Carlisle Temperance Movement pub.

The main public entrance is the 'storm' door on the right hand side of the pub (not the more central double-doors) and when I arrived just after noon it was fairly (very) quiet inside (I later found out that most of the regulars had partaken of a few beers at the Beer Festival the night before). Those numbers included the current owners Alain & Alison, but they were kind enough to give me a warm welcome and let me dry out a bit at the bar with one of the 2 Carlisle Brewing Co. beers available (Spun Gold, a nice well-balanced fruity bitter, for all of £2.60/pint).

I soon dried out & warmed up, and after a few minutes I headed out to the brewery with Alain - it's situated in an extended outbuilding on the left side of the pub.

They've had the pub for seven years, but Alain decided a while ago that he wanted to give the village a good low cost option for a pint and so started to seriously think about an on-site microbrewery or brewpub. He hadn't really seriously home-brewed so it was a BrewLab course which gave him some of the necessary information, and then he was fortunate enough to get a good deal on some smallish custom-built kit from John Trew & team at Oban Ales in Lochaber. It's a 2.5BBL kit with Hot Liquor Tank and Mash Tun...

Shiny new Kettle...

and 2x Fermenting Vessels. He doesn't have any conditioning tanks, but instead there is a large chiller to get the room to the right temperature for fermentation, and afterwards these are chilled further to let all the solids settle and the beer clear before setting the temperature back to normal for racking.

Of course, as Alain was happy to admit, one BrewLab course doesn't let you make great beers from day one, so he's been iterating towards getting the beers right (he's a bit of a perfectionist - I think most brewers are); he's now pretty happy with the more bitter & hoppy Flaxen, but the others will possibly be tweaked (slightly). Although he likes some of the well-hopped modern craft beers he's decided to stick with some more traditional beer types at the moment, The Spinners is a small village pub and not a city centre bar. His next beer is likely to be another dark beer brewed with some brown malt, a good winter warmer for the last pint of the evening (or the first), although I did try to persuade him to brew a Scottish 70/- (since they're so close to the border). He brews once or twice a week, but hasn't been able to this week because he's been waiting for the salts to burtonise the water. They've only been selling the beers for a whole 1 month or so, but have pretty well decided not to sell any guest beers in the pub (except for Beer Festivals or Christmas etc...), it's not worth the cost & wastage. When operating at full capacity there will be casks available for other pubs but the market is quite saturated in Carlisle & North Lakes - there are a lot of microbreweries about and there's no doubt this transition to selling beer is going to be difficult to achieve. By this time I'd been chatting away to Alain & Alison for ages and found out that I had just missed the (hourly) bus back to Carlisle (this does seem to happen quite often in my life) so I decided I might well try the Flaxen (very nice & hoppy) and get some food. However Alison told me the kitchen was currently inoperative so a packet of Bacon Flavour fries it was, but this did at least give me a chance to have a good around the pub.

It's very much a community pub with a good part of the left side of the pub given over to the darts board (loads of guest arrows were available), pool table with lots of shields & trophies displayed throughout the pub and lots of fund raising events organised all during the year. There's also a couple of old fashioned fireplaces complete with slate surround and Blue Deflt-like tiles. We also had a really interesting conversation about the infamous Carlisle Temperance Movement which was in force during the majority of the 20th Century. A quick summary - the Government took over a number of breweries and most of pubs in the Carlisle/Gretna area in the main to regulate alcohol consumption for factory workers in the huge (and strategically important) munitions factories in the area. A number of new community pubs were also built including The Spinnners Arms and The Magpie Inn in Carlisle, some with bowling greens (to make these more family friendly) and this state-run control continued until the 1970's when the pubs were all privatised (i.e. mostly sold off to the PubCos). This talk got me thinking about what was happening to The Magpie and since I had a bit of time to spare (and it was fairly dry) my curiosity decided to push me into having a look at the place. I therefore bade Alain & Alison farewell, good luck (and to enjoy the bottle of beer that I had left) and headed back to the Roman city of Carlisle. I crossed the River Caldew at the first bridge after the Weir and then criss-crossed my way over a mass of parallel streets & red-bricked terraced houses until reaching Melbourne Park into the Botcherby area of Carlisle, a good mile or so from the town centre. I then walked into Victoria Road and down a slight dip where I came across the sad sight of The Magpie Inn.

I'd been to this fantastic community place less than 2 years ago (see here) but unfortunate circumstances has meant that it's been up for sale since June after the Oakwell Brewery financial implosion earlier in the year. Oakwell's trading company's (RBNB) mantra has been to sell as many of their 'locations' as possible (complete with the land that the pubs have been located on), with most going on to become housing developments (that's certainly been the case at the London Hotel in Southport). I'd always thought that Oakwell Barnsley Bitter was the definitive Yorkshire Bitter - flat, incredibly well balanced between malt sweetness & dry bitterness and thankfully it seems it this will still live on - some of the Oakwell Brewey kit has been sold (and will still produce Oakwell Barnsley Bitter) at the Stancill Brewery 100m down the road in Barnsley, with the same head brewer in charge. There's also been a petition for re-opening of The Magpie with some interest, but it may be that it's just too far out from the centre of Carlisle to be viable as an independent commercial enterprise - hopefully that won't be the case as it's a stunning pub, although the bowling green and hedges will certainly need a lot of care and attention - sigh...

I then headed back into the centre of Carlisle where the 23rd Carlisle Beer Festival was taking place in the Hallmark Hotel, literally a stone's throw from the train station.

After quite a few sets of stairs I came to a fairly large function room where the beer festival was taking place. There was only a £1 charge for entry, but interestingly enough no festival glass - it was simply a matter of taking a pint or 1/2 pint glass, drinking from it and then leaving it in the wash tray when you were leaving the festival; this seems to keep costs down (and fine by me since I have way, way too many beer festival glasses). There was also no food at the festival (that I could see anyway), this could be obtained from the bars of the Hallmark, or at the Subway across the road (which is what I did).

There were close on 60 beers available, but the most popular (and some of the highest abv) had started run out as the afternoon progressed. There seemed to be a nice mixture of both local beers (Eden, Geltsdale & Hawkshead) and others from further afield - Steel City Communications Breakdown and Five Town Guero were both great.

However these 2 were my favourite beers of the Festival - the wonderfully named Topsy and Turvy from the ever fabulous Offbeat Brewery.

Billed as slight departures from a standard IPA, Topsy was a Belgian-style IPA (sweet, spicy, then some real IPA bitterness) and Turvy a Black IPA (perhaps more of a coffee infused, bitter, silky smooth stout). Both were great but I think the Turvy just shaded it for me. More of these please Michelle !

Return travel:-
  Train: Carlisle to Glasgow Central


  1. Great review of both the Spinners and our festival, glad you enjoyed both. Turvy was my favourite too!

  2. Cheers! Great festival - definitely hope to return next year :-)