Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Annan & Andrews Ales: 24th August 2013

I don't get down to the south-west of Scotland too often, it's not the easiest place to get to by public transport and, to-be-honest, there are some, but not that many interesting pubs selling 'good' beer. However this weekend one of the better ones, The Blue Bell Inn in Annan, was hosting its annual Beer Festival which meant I could visit a nearby microbrewery (Andrews Ales) and also drop into The Blue Bell for 1 or 2 (or more) festival beers on the way back.

View Annan in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Carlisle
            Carlisle to Annan

Annan is on the train line from Glasgow Central through Dumfries to Carlisle, but this journey from Glasgow somehow takes over 2 hours to complete. Instead it's far quicker to take the high-speed Virgin train to Carlisle and then head back to Annan via Gretna Green. Arriving at Annan train station I'd just missed the hourly bus to Dumfries so I decided to follow National Cycle Route 7 and walk to the village of Cummertrees where Andrews Ales is based. This took me across the River Annan via the new footbridge south of the town centre, well used today by a steady stream of runners out in the midday sun.

After this I followed the cycle path under the railway bridge when I should have turned right onto a minor road. I retraced my steps fairly quickly and although this B-road was eventually re-joined by the Cycle Route 7 there was no pavement for virtually all of the 2 mile walk (grrrr...) and I had to jump onto the the grass verge on a number of occasions. The pavement returned at Cummertrees primary school on the outskirts of the village and just along from the school I came across an astonishing row of houses at Queensberry Terrace.

These reminded me of holiday homes I had seen in Southport last year - they were all on 3 levels (with up to 7 bedrooms), had huge windows, large gardens (some with hanging lanterns), ornate balconies and all faced faced due south with (I assume) fantastic views over to the Solway Firth. I later found out that they were part of a development that was planned to stretch right up to the Solway foreshore (including a Blackpool style Esplanade), but the developers simply ran out of money. A couple are now B&Bs catering for sports activities (in particular fishing) and one was offering freshly caught salmon for sale (tempting, but it would never have lasted the journey back to Glasgow).

Andrews Ales is located at the residence of owner & brewer Andrew Emmerson, the give-away being the number of empty casks sitting outside on the driveway.

Andrew met me and was kind enough to spend quite a bit of time showing me around his setup - as always beer people are great. Having started brewing in 2010 the majority of the brewkit has been installed in Andrew's spacious garage - it's compact & bijou and has grown organically from his early homebrew days. The Mash Tun was bought from PBC but Andrew added the sparge arm himself.

The copper is/was part of an old metal chocolate container into which Andrew has installed the dual heating elements.

After the boil the wort is transferred through a heat exchanger to either a large Stainless Steel fermenter or one of the smaller plastic fermenters.

Andrew only uses hop flowers for all of his beers and for a couple of these he dry-hops at the end of the fermentation - interestingly he thinks this adds a fair amount to the bitterness (a bit of bite) as well as to the aroma.

After fermentation the beers are then left to condition for a week. He has experimented with longer conditioning times, and the beer is meant to taste better, but it's just too expensive and time consuming to do all the time. Bottling is done by hand (brown bottles only) and his recommendation is to leave any bottles in a dark cupboard for a month or so before drinking (difficult to do with any bottled beer).

A further shed (1 of 2) stores the casks and the bottles - with all the shiny insulation it's fairly easy to cool or heat this smaller space to the correct temperature.

Andrew explained that there are not many outlets (at all) in the local area so most of the casks and bottles go to Northern England, in particular the free-holds of Cumbria. At the moment it's all still part time, but in a few years Andrew thinks it might be feasible to go full time (but he's not sure if actually wants to do this). He produces 4 or 5 regular beers, he's been experimenting with fruit beers (these take a lot of real fruit) and this year he's collaborated with Waulkmill Cider to produce a couple of varieties of Snakebites. He's an interesting, knowledgeable guy (who has also been helping out at the Beer Festival at The Blue Bell Inn), and it was a pleasure to chat to him for such a length of time.

I then took my leave of Andrew, had a bit of a wander around Cummertrees and waited for the hourly bus back into Annan. I would really have liked to have had a walk down from Annan town centre to the River Solway estuary, but time pressure meant that I couldn't really afford it. Instead I had a look at the imposing Town Hall...

...where in 2010 a statue of Robert the Bruce was finally installed to watch over the town holding both Sword (representing the Soldier) and a Scroll of the Declaration of Arbroath (representing the Statesman).

Just along from the Town Hall and before the road bridge over the River Annan is The Blue Bell Inn, with the eponymous bell in distinctive contrast to the dark red sandstone building (I wonder if it still works ?).

I went in from the main road and found a large building with lots of interior wood panelling, a long central bar at the back wall with 4 hand-pulls, quite a number of shields & medals proudly displayed above the bar...

...seating areas at the front right with lots of photos & prints of old Annan...

...and a games area (with pool table & dartboards) at the front left.

It was pretty quiet in the bar itself so I took the steps down to the the large courtyard area at the rear of the building which had been setup for the Beer Festival over the weekend.

This was fairly busy even mid-afternoon (without both the Annan Athletic football supporters and the bands that would be playing later on), but it wasn't a problem to exchange cash for laminated beer tokens and then head to the 2 serving 'windows' which were separately dispensing both (a lot of) cider and a choice of about 20 casks of beer.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were allowing the beer to be purchased in 1/3rd pint taster glasses so that meant I could sample more than I thought before having to rush off for the train. There were a couple of local beers (Andrews Ales Sporran Lifter and Strathaven Ginger Jock), but most were from Lancashire or Yorkshire, with the Fyne Ales Feast Collaboration Black Ale also available. I certainly enjoyed the Worsthrone Old Trout (a slightly peaty red rye ale) and the biscuity, sherbety citrus of Arkwright's Tarquin Fin tim lin bin whin bim lim bus stop F’tang F’tang Ole Biscuitbarrel (crazy name (from Monty Python), not a bad beer).

I also managed to try an Elderberry Ale from the Glebe House Winery in Ecclefechan (between Lockerbie & Gretna). They normally only produce wines made from seasonal ingredients (and sell the bottles at the local South-West Farmers Markets in Dumfries and Moffat), but in addition have provided a beer for the Blue Bell Inn Beer Festival for the last few years. The Elderberry Ale was very sweet, almost completely flat, and had some definite red wine tones (not really my type of beer) but it certainly was interesting to try. I did manage a quick chat with the owner and it seems there will be a Nettle Beer available in the next few weeks so I took the opportunity to mention a couple of up-and-coming Beer Festivals (Paisley and Troon) to him. As a final act I purchased a couple of bottles (PET, not glass) of the aforementioned Andrews Ales/Waulkmill Cider collaborations for later consumption (both very nice indeed). As I walked back down to the train station I could tell the train hadn't arrived by the large throng still drinking outside the Station House pub, but since the choice was (extremely) limited I decided I could wait until Carlise for a beer.

Return transport:-
  Bus: Cummertrees to Annan (79 Stagecoach Cumberland, 40 on the hour)
  Train: Annan to Carlisle
            Carlisle to Glasgow Central

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Fairlie to Largs: 17th August 2013

As always I don't need much of an excuse head down to the coast. This weekend the Village Inn in Fairlie was holding its first Beer Festival so it was an easy decision to take the train and head on 'Doon the Watter' to visit Fairlie and the nearby bustling seaside town of Largs.

View Fairlie in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Fairlie (48 on the hour)

It was definitely a bit of blustery summer's day as I took the train to Fairlie from Glasgow Central. This route took me past the infamous stretch of coastline just outside Saltcoats where the wind & tide can whip the water up & over the breakwater & the railway line, and yes being hit repeatedly by waves in a metal box with (practically) no warning can be pretty exciting & unsettling at the same time! Thankfully the wind & rain had calmed down somewhat as I left Fairlie train station and walked through a footpath to the bottom of Castle Gardens hill. I then found a signposted footpath up the hill to Fairlie Castle and Fairlie Glen and when I took this it was only a matter of a couple of minutes until I came to the well preserved ruins of Fairlie Castle.

It's fairly high structure (on 4 levels) partially covered in ivy & moss, with lots of open gunloops and I assume great views over to Cumbrae, Arran & the Kintyre peninsula on a clear day. It's still an impressive structure to walk around even though it's (very) difficult to get into (the main entrance archway is completely cemented up). After taking a couple of photos I decided to give Fairlie Glen further up the hillside a miss on this dreich day and so headed down to the main street and along to The Village Inn, with entrances both on the main street (with car park)...

... and on lower Bay Street.

Inside there's a small bar area with a couple of TVs and 2 hand-pulls and there's a larger, bright restaurant area to the rear, however today I was really only interested in the marquee that had been setup in the beer garden towards at the back (just down from the car park). Inside I found a good selection of Scottish cask beers on gravity (Fyne, Alechemy, Kelburn, Harviestoun etc... with more to come on later in the weekend) and a number of boxed ciders. I wouldn't normally go for a cider when there's beer about but the Tempest/Thistly Cross Snakebite collaboration was there (and had almost been tanned on Friday night) so I thought I'd give it a go. And very nice it was indeed - a sort of apple/blackcurrant fruit shoot with a good amount of texture and a nice bitter hoppy aftertaste.

I got chatting to Ale Trail tweeter extraordinaire mr h (aka Henry) and also a couple of the Ayrshire CAMRA people who were helping out - all really nice, enthusiastic beer people. I'd been to the Village Inn a couple of times previously and been a bit disappointed with the beer choice (really only Deuchars IPA and some Belhaven beers) but one of the CAMRA guys told me the owner was now out of the Belhaven/GK tie so had decided on a first beer festival - very good to see and always worthwhile supporting. The food today was only fairly standard BBQ stuff, but the cheeseburger was pretty thick & juicy and certainly filled a spot.

After 4 or so 1/2's of beer there was still a bit of a lull in the weather so I decided to make tracks up the coast to Largs whilst I still could. The well signposted coastal path continues from the Village Inn almost to the headland at Fairlie Pier and there were some great views to be had along the curve of Fairlie Bay.

The path then turned slightly away from the coastline and took me along the main road for a bit until just about to the entrance of Kelburn Estate (the Glen walk here is stunning given decent conditions). The path then crossed the railway line and allowed me to continue straight on and past the large expanse of Largs Yacht Haven. It was difficult to get a picture of all the boats at anchor without trapsing through the marina area so instead I took this picture of a number of different types of anchors all in a row at the entrance to the Haven.

There is meant to be the occasional sighting of real ale in the clubhouse of Largs Sailing Club close to the water's edge in the Haven but I decided to continue on down the coastal path until the town of Largs came into view. The most prominent feature when approaching from the south is the long tapering shape of The Pencil, built in 1912 to commemorate the Battle of Largs in the 13th Century when the Scots defeated King Haco of Norway's troops on the shore at Largs, leading to the departure of Norwegian troops from Scottish shores. The battle is commemorated every October at The Pencil (I would suggest taking warm clothing).

There's a lovely green/raised beach/esplanade at Largs with flower gardens, a rare sighting of a putting green and a kids playground. There's also some great views over to the Cumbraes, but today the most prominent feature was definitely another squall coming in from the north of Great Cumbrae.

At the very end of this section of the esplanade and just before Largs Main Street I came to The Waterside, with the small frontage hiding a quite extensive drinking establishment going well back into the rear of the building.

There's a quite long bar here which also extends quite far into the main bar/lounge area with a lot of kegged beers available and 2 hand-pulls - today Deuchars IPA and Timothy Taylor Landlord. It was quite busy with people in watching the football results (one of the first weekends of the Scottish season) both at the bar and at the many tables opposite.

They do some pretty standard pub grub-type food throughout the day and there was a nice snug all done up for evening meals.

I decided I could try one more pub before heading back to Glasgow and decided on Charlie Smith's on the Main Street.

By now the squall had struck and I had to fight my way to the bar through the groups of people sheltering from the downpour. Thankfully they had a decent dark beer available to warm me up somewhat, Theakston's Shot in the Dark, a pretty good roasty Mild. Again the pub itself was somewhat long & narrow with the bar situated along most of the length of the building down the right side.

As I expected the rain only lasted 15 minutes or so and that left me enough time to head down to that Largs' institution, Nardini's at the Moorings.

This is one of those Ice Cream Parlours/Gelaterias/Cafés owned by an Italian dynasty (including the lovely Daniela Nardini) that has been around since visits to the Seaside started way, way back in Victorian times. The café was busy, but I was really only interested in the selection of fabulous ice creams. This time the Jaffa Cake flavour caught my eye (and my sweet tooth). And if I'm honest this was probably even better than the (pretty well outstanding) Jammie Dodger flavour that I had had at the Stewart Tower Dairy a couple of weeks ago. It was definitely just as well that I had an appointment at the Dentist's setup for the following week.

(That's my Ice Cream waiting for me in the metal hook)

Return transport:-
  Train: Largs to Glasgow Central (48 on the hour)

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Black Isle Brewery & Cromarty Brewing - Pictures: 15 August 2013

During my stay in Nairn I did manage to visit a couple of the breweries in the lovely Black Isle, just to the north of Inverness. Due to circumstances beyond my control I couldn't stay at either of these for any length of time, so instead of my normal 'somewhat-detailed-enthusiastic-amateur' (aka beer-geek) descriptions I'm mostly just going to add a few captions to the photos I took.

View Black Isle Sep13 in a larger map

There were great views of the far end of the Black Isle from the beach at Nairn, especially at sunset. There are a lot of possible origins of the Black Isle name but one could be how the peninsula looks from across the Moray Firth at sunset.

The Black Isle Brewery is well sign-posted from the A9 after the Kessock Bridge. It's part of a working organic farm, with the new purpose-built brewery building coming on-line in 2010 at a cost of over £1Million.

The shop is well stocked both with standard and more niche Black Isle beers and there's also non-alcohol related goods such as soaps, jars of honey and other organic produce.

The short brewery tour is done by the one of the staff members who helps out in the shop (Christine, I think) and by waiting 10 minutes or so I managed to get a 'personal' tour - hooray! The new brewkit is a 30BBL plant and can operate 7 days a week to produce 210BBL of conditioned beer (that's definitely a lot!). This is the Mash Tun.

The direct-fired Copper.

As expected there are a lot of Fermenters & Conditioning Tanks.

A lot of their beer is bottled for the supermarkets and as such they have installed an in-house 12-head Bottling Line.

The old 5BBL brew-kit is used in the kegging process (I think).

Most of the Black Isle beers are pretty good, with some (Porter, Goldeneye Pale) being excellent, but since I'd had all of their core beers before this was an golden opportunity to purchase the full set of their limited edition Back Run beers direct from the shop. The original Back Run was an Imperial Stout with a very piney, almost miso-like aftertaste, these limited edition Black Run beers were aged in various casks over a number of months. The Tomatin Sherry Butt Edition tasted of very sweet sherry trifle, lots of bitter chocolate but I could still pick up some slight miso. The Tomatin Whisky Cask Edition was more sweet chocolate & coffee, but this was balanced by masses of whisky and worked quite well. However I think I preferred the Tomatin Bourbon Cask Edition with lots of chocolate upfront, then masses of sweet bourbon - it was very smooth with a nice nice alcohol heat finish.

After a quick lunch in Fortrose I then headed up the road towards the town of Cromarty. Just off the main road at the small collection of houses/farms at Davidston is Cromarty Brewing. There's a recently opened brewery shop/reception at the front full of bottles, T-shirts etc... but there was nobody manning the place today (they must be a trusting bunch up here !).

I could see the brewer/owner Craig Middleton completely immersed in the brewing process in the rear of the building. A sign instructed me to shout, so I waited until Craig was almost off this ladder, did so, and I think almost gave him a heart-attack.

The brewery has only been operating since December 2011 but I think it's safe to say that Craig makes some of the best beers in Scotland (Cromarty AKA IPA was my Beer of 2012) - they are incredibly flavoursome (some can be quite intense), but they are all still amazingly well-balanced and just always in such great condition (they are consistently great, which makes such a difference). Craig was good enough to very quickly show me around the custom made American 16BBL brewplant, steam-fired copper, lots of fermenters & conditioning tanks and the more manually intensive bottling machine. It's maybe not quite on the same size as the Black Isle Brewery (yet!) but at a total cost of approx. £200K (£130K from a rural priority grant and a £70K loan) it's quite an investment for Craig and his family.

There was also a large maturation tank on the other side of the brewery. Maturing in there today was the latest variation of Craig's wheat beer, this time KiWheat. It wasn't quite 100% but Craig was good enough to give me a taste straight out of the tank and lovely stuff it was indeed, a great kiwi sourness and a good wheat texture. Craig cleaned the tap & the handle of the tank straight away, minimising the chance of any possible infection - it's maybe this attention to detail that helps make the beers so consistently good.

Almost all of the Cromarty KiWheat was kegged, with the majority of this going to the BrewDog pubs (he has a really good business relationship with them and only has to deliver along the A96 to Ellon). However I did manage to try an 'unmarked' bottle of this a month or so after my visit (many thanks to the AleselA people). The Kiwi aroma was certainly still there, with a lovely kiwi & gooseberry tart taste, a nice texture and a bitter kiwi after-taste. More of this please Craig !