Monday, 23 December 2013

Strathaven Ales and some surrounding places: 20th December 2013

This was to be my last day off in 2013 so I hoped I might be able to repeat last year's trip to Penrith, but the impending rain & gale force winds meant that I thought somewhere closer to home was more sensible. Instead I decided on Strathaven, in deepest Lanarkshire, which would allow me to visit Strathaven Ales, possibly not the most 'fashionable' of breweries (I can't really see The Hanging Bat taking too many of their beers for instance) but they still manage to get a lot of their beers into a lot of Glasgow pubs.

View Strathaven in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Hamilton Central (every 15 minutes)
  Bus: Hamilton to Strathaven (50 on the hour, 13 Henderson Travel)

The bus from Hamilton took a bit longer than scheduled due to masses of standing water on the back roads to Strathaven; it's been a Wet-Wet-Wet week in more aspects than one. I got off at the bus stop in the bustling shopping area of the Common Green and then walked due south to Lesmahagow Road. This was a busy road out of town, and even though the footpath was set back slightly from the road there was still lots of spray from cars & lorries to avoid. I had hoped to get onto a path just out of town but this was totally waterlogged; it was a river not a path.

Instead I continued on down the main road and before too long sighted the Craigmill Brewery, home to Strathaven Ales, from the top of the hill before the River Avon.

I crossed the bridge over the River Avon, turned left and reached the 200-year old mill building, initially developed & used by Williams Brothers in their earlier Heather Ales incarnation before they moved to Alloa. Since 2005 it has been home to Strathaven Ales and they have extended the use of the building and developed a fairly large range of core beers and seasonal specials (their Aleberry made with Clyde Valley berries is one of the best cask fruit beers around).

Heading inside I came to a small office and shop/display area. On show were lots of bottles & minikegs and also lots of awards (the most recent being a SIBA Scotland Gold Award for Craigmill Mild, a much underrated 60/-).

Because of the 'unsettled' weather I had a complete change of clothes with me so that meant I could only carry a few bottles. Thankfully they had the one beer that I wanted, their Usquebae Ale (from the Gaelic Uisge Beatha, Water of Life). This is their strong, sweet 7% 500 beer (initially brewed as their 500th brew) and then matured in 1st-fill bourbon casks from Grant's distillery in Girvan. I took the bare bottle for the hardened drinker rather than the gift pack tube and also bottles of Lord Kelvin and one of the 500 (for the ridiculous prices of £1.25 since it had the wrong Best Before date printed in error). There was also the tempting sight of some real ale fudge (made with Craigmill Mild) available - an opportunity that I couldn't possibly resist.

Craig Buchanan (the owner) was then good enough to give me a quick look around the brewery. It's a 10bbl plant spread over 3 levels, with the Mash Tun set on high...

...and the Copper gravity fed below. This is stone-clad and unusual (to say the least). Craig mentioned that it does help with keeping the temperature constant but that it is mostly decorative (it definitely looks the part). The copper is gas-fired with a real flame going through the element inside which perhaps explains why there is a more burnt, roasted malt flavour to a lot of their beers.

The fermenters are back on the top level and are 3 old rectangular dairy vessels, double insulated with internal cooling elements.

And then back on ground level are the 10 conditioning tanks, 5bbl each. Beer can be conditioned here for 2 weeks or more depending on demand.

Down on the lower level of the building is the Tap Room which is reached by heading downstairs past the old mill wheel (a fairly impressive piece of mechanical engineering).

This is used for functions, CAMRA group visits, Strathaven Gala Day etc... and although it was pretty chilly down there today, in the summertime with the doors open to the picnic area beside the River Avon it must a lovely place for a beer or 2 or 3.

Whilst we were there I quizzed Craig about his possible plans for the next year. It seems they are thinking about a very hoppy golden beer (they don't really have one in their current range) and are also seriously thinking about kegged beer, which would go hand-in-hand with a bottling line. I was also intrigued about their branded JD Wetherspoon 'house ale' which Craig told me was Claverhouse Red with a slightly higher alcohol content, but it also seems most of their strong 500 beer also goes to the Wetherspoon pubs (I don't know if that's an indictment of the Wetherspoon drinking culture or not).

Craig then helpfully gave me the best directions to the nearby Spectacle E'e waterfalls (it's a great name, the (supposed) history behind it can be found here). I walked through the brewery yard, over a couple of stiles and found the path between the bank of the River Avon and the edge of a couple of wired off fields. Turning alongside the Kype Water I could have crossed the river over a handy wooden bridge/plank to get to the built-up viewing area, but I decided to clamber up a steep muddy slope to get my photo (probably not too sensible in hindsight). After all the rain of the past few days the Spectacle E'e falls were pretty (well) spectacular and incredibly noisy.

There is another nearby bridge over the River Avon but as it led to the waterlogged path I had passed previously I decided to retrace my steps back to the brewery and then back up the road to the centre of Strathaven. This did give me a good view of the long abandoned ruins of Strathaven Castle.

By now I was looking for somewhere to eat and decided to try The Waterside where I'd eaten before on my last (and only) visit to Strathaven. However on inspection this didn't look too promising with leaves piled up in front of the main door. A hairdresser across road out for a smoke took pity on me and said that it had closed down in early November but the rumour was that it had been bought over and could re-open in New Year - hopefully so.

My next possibility was The Star Inn just down the road. It's in a nice location just across from the burn and there was a single hand-pull with Greene King IPA available, but they weren't doing any food on 'Black Friday'.

However the helpful barmaid did direct me to the large Bucks Head Hotel and Restaurant on the main road out of Strathaven to Kilmarnock.

I went into the lounge, made sure they were serving non-festive food, and decided that I didn't really want any of the Fosters, Guinness or John Smith's available on tap. However the waitress was more than happy to direct me to the bar where I took a (slightly) more inviting pint of Kronenbourg 1664 Cold Premiere and was then shown the way back into the lounge (they really were a helpful bunch of people in Strathaven).

It's only a small lounge with 4 or 5 tables, a nice fire and stone walls so thick that I couldn't get a either a phone signal or the WiFi signal from the other section of the hotel. I ordered the soup & char-grilled chicken ciabatta (very good with loads of chicken breast on this), but it was more interesting to watch the waitresses dealing with the Christmas parties in the restaurant next door; they knew what they were doing and were really good.

Food done I was finally able to head to The Weavers pub, just down from the Bucks Head at the junction of the main road and the Common Green.

It's a classic single room pub with the bar at the far wall, a single large pillar in the centre and today the place absolutely sparkled with Christmas decorations. I don't think I've ever seen so many hanging baubles, they must have been one every 10cm or so arranged in a precise grid pattern over the bar.

In addition there were snowmen, reindeer, tinsel, candles, flashing lights and more baubles strewn around the rest of the room; it was certainly very Christmassy and I really quite liked it. This was in addition to the nice hanging glass/ceramic lamps, the fireplace at the right side of the room with the surrounding comfy seats and the mass of prints of movie stars hung on all the walls - Bruce Lee, Marilyn, Robert De Niro, Keanu Reeves etc... were all present and correct.

There were 4 hand-pulls on at the bar, with only 3 available today dispensing Strathaven Weavers Ale (complete with picture of the pub on the pump-clip), Fuller's ESB and Big Lamp Lamp Light, as well as Weihenstephan Hefeweissbier and Veltins Pils on draught.

I only had time for a couple of 1/2s so went with the Strathaven Weavers Ale (perhaps a bit astringently bitter) and the Big Lamp Lamp Light (far more balanced). However I did manage to chat with landlady regarding The Waterside and it seems it has been bought by the owners of The Tap Room in Hamilton, who specialise in food & cocktails, so I'm guessing that it's unlikely to have much in the way of real ale in the near future.

Return travel:-
  Bus: Strathaven to Hamilton (04 on the hour)
  Train: Hamilton to Glasgow Central (every 15 minutes)

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