Saturday, 26 October 2013

A hack around the London Borough of Hackney: 26th October 2013

It had been 2 years since I'd been in London and since then an incredible amount of new breweries had opened in and around the Capitol, reversing a trend of 20 years or more. Some of these breweries I'd managed to get the odd bottled (or even cask) beer from, others I hadn't heard about at all, it's just a great time to be a UK-based beer drinker. So when my NFL weekend in London came about again I was more than happy to let my London-based American friend lead me to one of hot-spots of the London brewing scene, Hackney and the surrounding area in in East London.

View Hackney in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Overground: Richmond to Highbury & Islington
  Bus: Highbury & Islington to Hackney Mare Street

First of all I had to get to Hackney Central to meet my friend. This proved to be a bit more complicated than I had hoped since the Overground train I was on decided to come to a grinding halt at Highbury & Islington for weekend-long Engineering Works. There was a replacement bus (somewhere) but damned if I could find it, so I decided that getting on a 'normal' bus heading east via Hackney Town Hall would probably get me somewhere close. Thankfully I was correct and I eventually found Hackney Central and my friend using the wonders of smartphone GPS technology. We decided first of all to head to The Cock Tavern, home of Howling Hops, but since it is a pub first-and-foremost (with a brewery in the cellar) licensing laws meant that it wasn't going to open until 12noon, so instead we backtracked to try to find Pressure Drop Brewing. I was pretty sure this was under a railway arch at Bohemia Place just opposite Hackney Central, but although I'm sure we went to the correct address it definitely wasn't open at that time of day - drats!

So Plan C was to head towards Hackney Downs to find Five Points Brewing Company. Halfway along the street we were obviously spied as non-locals and given the 'Have you ever had a time in your life when you didn't know what to do' routine. Errr... let me think... No, goodbye! Thankfully we were able to escape up Institute Place where Five Points is located, but unfortunately this was also closed - double drats!

When this happens all you can do is laugh, so batting 0/3 so we returned to Hackney Mare Street. The Cock Tavern was just about to open up but we decided to continue walking and try to find London Fields Brewery. We went past the amazing palms trees in front of Hackney Town Hall and then turned into Warburton Street just before the London Fields pub to find London Fields Brewery & Tap Room, perhaps not quite under the ubiquitous railway arch this time but definitely under a railway bridge!

And this was open - hooray! We went in, grabbed a table and ordered a couple of beers from the range of cask and kegged beers on offer. I had their Wheat Beer (lots of spice, nice texture) and my friend their seasonal Pumpkin Ale (and was most impressed). The London Fields Tap Room is very much thrown together 'brewing-chic' with lots of re-used parts of furniture, hanging-hop vines and I loved the use of the old fermenters as table & bench stands.

You can see (and smell) the brewery through a long window at the right hand side of the Tap Room (always a good sign) and we learnt that a Brewery Tour was happening at 2pm (so we signed ourselves in, well you have to do these things don't you?), though for £12 we were certainly expecting great things.

They have a range of really quite interesting food to enjoy - burgers, pulled pork etc... but I decided to go with the mushroom topped macaroni cheese. It may have taken a while but when it came there was all sorts types of cheese in that topping for the macaroni - lovely stuff (and look at those re-cycled knives & forks!).

We managed to time things pretty well and after another beer and a 'free' sample of Hackney Hopster 6 of us headed out on the tour with our knowledgeable guide. The first impression of the brewery is that it is really, well perhaps cramped is slightly over-the-top, but certainly the space is well used - there are tanks, vessels, hoses & casks all over the place.

Our guide gave us a brief history of London Fields and how some of their beers came about and then a run through of how the brew-kit works. Strangely enough they have a 10BBL copper but only a 5BBL mash tun, so a full brew length required 2 mashes - that's got to be a pain.

There are a lots of fermenters but what seemed to be an even larger number of of conditioning tanks, or these seemed more like vats.

We then made our way into the warehouse but had to make sure not to interrupt or disturb the large group of people who were on the homebrew class (which is overseen by one of the brewers on the last Saturday of every month, a nice idea indeed).

The warehouse was also choc-a-bloc with casks, key-kegs and bottles. There's no doubt they need a larger space but that's proving difficult to find in-and-around London Fields - it would be difficult to move elsewhere and still keep the same name.

Back in the Tap Room we had a few more samples, actually quite a few more samples, including some of the stronger brews. The First Born barley wine was very sweet & warming and the Black Forest Imperial Stout full of sour cherries & dark chocolate (a nice combination), but I actually preferred the more subtle Black Path Porter at only 4.2%. As always it was great having a chat & some beers with like minded people, this time a couple from Finland & few guys from Bristol on a London beer tour, but there's no doubt we certainly went through the samples at a fair rate so perhaps the £12 wasn't bad value at all.

After this we decided to join the guys from Bristol in walking down to Redchurch Brewery which was open from 4pm (we should have walked back to the Cock Inn, I don't know why we didn't). This was a bit of a stagger further south until the industrial units of Bethnal Green in amongst yet more railway arches.

The actual brewery is on the ground level (which makes sense from a loading/unloading point-of-view) with the brewery tap upstairs, so at almost dead on the 4pm opening time we grabbed a long bench table and went to order at the bar.

There was a more than decent selection of beers available on on tap including their signature brews (Shoreditch Blonde, Bethnal Pale & the magnificent Great Eastern IPA), and a also number of bottles, but there was no cask beer at all (there was also a Hoxton Stout IPA which confused me since I'd had a Brodies Hoxton IPA fairly recently). However after chugging down all those samples at London Fields I decided that a 2.9% Broadway Black Pale (an excellent Black IPA-lite) was a far more sensible idea.

I managed to persuade the guy who was serving at the bar to give us a short tour when the initial rush had calmed down and he wasn't too busy, many thanks for this. The kit is all super shiny-new with the brewlength being the same 10BBL as London Fields (both the mash tun & the copper), and the beer is almost always kegged straight from the fermenters (there are no conditioning tanks). Their beer is only rarely seen on cask (normally only for meet-the-brewer events) so they go through a lot of key-kegs and a lot of bottles. However their nationwide distribution network seems to be good, for Scotland and the North of England New Wave Distribution regularly get their beers into most of the 'craft beer' bars in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

By now I needed to head back to Richmond to meet another friend who had flown in that afternoon to also watch the NFL game on Sunday. So I had to bid farewell to East London, say thank-you to my American friend for showing me around, and I'll certainly hope to be back to this vibrant part of London-town soon.

Return travel:-
  Train: Cambridge Heath to London Blackfriars
  Train: Waterloo to Richmond

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)

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Medieval Times in Dunfermline revisited: 12th October 2013

This weekend was to be the Official Opening of the Abbot Brew House, setup by Fife brewing historian extrodinaire (and ex-Eden St Andrews brewer) John Reade to inform & teach the historic art and processes of brewing in the (also historic) surroundings of the Abbot House Heritage Centre in Dunfermline. I'd visited the Abbot House and chatted to John about this less than a year ago and in the intervening time he (and the good people from the Abbot House) had basically designed and built the brewery from scratch (not necessarily with their own hands) and then John has been brewing and bottling his historically inspired beers since the start of August. In these days of red tape that's really impressive going.

View Abbot in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Edinburgh Haymarket (every 15 minutes)
             Haymarket to North Queensferry (12, 23, 42, 52 on the hour)
             North Queensferry to Dunfermline Town (08, 38 on the hour)

The official opening of the Abbot Brew House wasn't going to be until 3pm so this meant I could stop off somewhere on the way to Dunfermline for lunch. I decided on North Queensferry for a number of reasons and left the train at the small station located literally a stone's throw after the northern end of the Forth Rail Bridge. There's a large mural on the platform here - it's an interesting mixture of man-made and natural images.

I descended the steep hill (well named as The Brae) until the narrow Main Street of North Queensferry. There are a number of places to eat in the village, the Ferrybridge Hotel, Rankins Cafe & Deli and The Wee Restaurant but I was more interested in The Albert Hotel, set at the Forth's edge and blessed with some great views of the iconic Forth Rail Bridge (sorry about the bright sun!).

Inside there's a bar at the front, a larger restaurant at the rear (possibly for the tourists from nearby Deep Sea World), as well as a number of rooms on the upper 2 floors, but I happy to blag the table at the side window of the bar which gave me the best view of the Bridge (it also had a wooden steering wheel - the Captain's Table ?). Even just after noon the bar was fairly busy with a mixture of regulars & tourists at either the half-dozen or so tables in the bar or the bar-stools, with the bar itself having lots of dark panelled wood, a large copper-plated telescope, numerous pictures & photographs of both Forth Bridges, an 'interesting' collection of brass taps and an old fashioned tiled fireplace. I liked the place and could see why it would have become the local for North Queensferry resident and author Iain Banks who tragically passed-away earlier in the year. I wasn't going to follow Mr Banks' lead and start on the whisky that early in the day but instead decided on a bottle of Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted (Deuchars IPA was the only other bottled choice, with kegged Best, Tennents, Stella & Magners also available).

Oh yes, and that view out of my window was pretty impressive.

Sandwiches & toasties were available on the menu, as well as normal classic pub fare and daily specials, but I was more than happy with my soup of the day (chunky tomato) and BLT sandwiches when they came (the roll with the soup was actually more like a scone, I would have been content to eat it with some strawberry jam).

When I'd finished my lunch I had just enough time before the next train to wander down to the small pier at the end of the road to take in the view of the two Forth Bridges, with the construction of the third in full flow (that's it - no more pictures of bridges, honest).

I climbed back up The Brae to the train station and got on the next train for the short journey to Dunfermline Town station. It was then perhaps 10 minutes or so before I reached the distinctive Abbot House Heritage Centre (or Pink Hoose) on Maygate where I noticed the fliers on the wall and the balloons on the gates, so I'd definitely come to the right place at the right time.

It was still a bit early for the official Opening, but John had mentioned that he would be in the Brew House pretty well all day, so I made my way through the main entrance (managing not to bang my head on the low beams) and was directed to the Brew House by the friendly volunteer staff. This is situated in an outbuilding at the far end of the Heritage Centre (the far right side from the Maygate entrance).

John was part way through his lunch when I arrived but had completed most of his setup for the Opening (there were a couple of hand-pulls, lots of bottles and some mini-casks available) and was kind enough to let have a look around the small Brew House. It's been almost completely financed by a grant from the Caledonia Best Seed Fund with everything coming in almost exactly on budget. The outhouse was gutted, a false ceiling put in and a conscious decision made to go with dark wood panelling to give a 'traditional' feel rather than a light shiny modern finish.

It's not a big Brew House at all, the brew plant is only 100L (since there were definite space (and cost) constraints), but as John remarked, they're not trying to be a commercial brewery. Having said that they can produce a 9 gallon cask (with some to spare) and have already supplied the recent Dunfermline Beer festival and the local JD Wetherspoons (kudos to them for allowing that). Everything is gravity fed with the mash tun being supplied from the hot liquor tank behind the partition upstairs (sparging is done manually in batches).

This then feeds the copper and I joked to John that I was almost expecting to see a coal or wood fired boiler (some slight Health & Safety implications there, I suspect) with both vessels able to be moved to ground floor for ease of cleaning and sterilisation.

Down on the ground floor there are 7 fermentation vessels so that John can brew almost every day. This allows him to brew gluten free beer from sorghum which takes a long time to ferment (quite a number of weeks), and also provide educational brewing days where people can come in and brew beer under John's watchful eyes. Bottling & labelling (with the labels designed in-house) is also done by hand.

John's also been acquiring lots of brewing equipment for display both in the Brew House and the front window on the street (see previous pic) and plans to have some informatively titled captions for both these and the brewing process put up in the very near future. I did like the 2 shovels on the front wall, one a malt shovel and the other a hop shovel (or scuppet) which would have been used in an oast house.

John was then good enough to let me try a number of the Abbot Brew House beers - Guild Ale was malty, a bit earthy & fairly bitter (heading towards an Olde Ale), the gluten-free Scottish Heather Honey had a lovely aroma, was very sweet indeed (deliberately almost no bitterness) with additional honey added to the fermenting vessels, but I think my favourite was the Dunfermline Nut Brown (supposedly an historically popular style around Dunfermline), brewed with brown malt, this had a lovely deep nutty after-taste, just as a 'broon ale' should taste - all really nice beers and damned impressive. I then decided I'd better stop monopolising John's time and left him to finish his preparations for the Opening. As always the Abbot House is a really interesting place to have a wander about (and they've scrapped the entrance fee since July), both in the numerous upstairs rooms and the gift shop, and in the gardens I also found the hop plant that John had cultivated and (I think) was using in one of his beers.

By then there was a steady stream of people coming in for the Opening and I headed back indoors where there were pins of 3 additional Abbot Brew House beers being dispensed in a section of the café by some of the members of staff (actually quite high-up staff, I believe).

They were providing a score-out card for further samples but I jumped straight in with the 'scottish schooner' (2/3 pint) for £2 a glass, not bad at all, and managed to try both the Adventuress (citrusy pale-and-hoppy) and the Pot Stirrer (a nice take on a red-fruit Scottish 70/-, with a bit of a coffee kick at the end). In the Gift Shop I also bought a couple of the beers which were only available in bottles (Benedictus Primeus & Ale Wand), and there should be a few more available before Christmas.

It all seemed to be going down very well (with a queue for the beer, busy in the Brew House, snacks available later on in the afternoon and a pub quiz planned), but I decided to say farewell to John and head back to the train station (I later found out that all the beer had run out by 5:30pm, well before plan). However my curiosity took me around the corner to the Wetherspoons on the High Street, The Guildhall and Linen Exchange, formerly the County Buildings including the Sheriff Courts & the Police Station (the 2 upper floors are still vacant).

It's another one of their recently opened pubs (from last year) as per the Prestwick Pioneer & the Henry Bell in Helensburgh and like these 2 there's been a lot of thought (and money) involved in the refurbishment of an historic building. The high tables with their associated upholstered chairs in front of the bar are great and provide a nice contrast to the dark panelling on the columns & the dark wooden floor, and the decorative pattern on the base of the bar-top is also interesting - it all looks very Blondie Parallel Lines late-70's (and it was really busy, not like the pic below).

(Pic from Andy Thornton, Furniture Specialists)

As John had mentioned they were about to put on one of the Abbot House beers (Adventuress) but I was happy enough to try one of the Wetherspoon Festival Ales that was on early, Elysian Brewing Avatar Jasmine IPA, a US beer brewed at Thwaites in Blackburn. This was very nice indeed, almost like alcoholic jasmine tea with added citrus bitterness and an extra kick. I also noticed that Greene King had a strong beer available, The Abbot’s Confession at 8.5%, hopefully both Abbots can co-exist peacefully!

And as a follow-up to my previous visit to Dunfermline I went past the building in Canmore Street where The BRuery (aka de Brus Bar & Brewery) (operated by the people who own Ruben's Wine Store) was being re-furbished and the microbrewery installed - I believe some of the brewing vessels had been delivered by Douglas Ross of Tinpot that week. This used to be a nursery called the Three Bears and from what I could gather the brewery will be installed in the basement with the ground floor being developed into a bar, which is planned to open before the end of the year (*UPDATE* - it actually opened on the 20th November). Two breweries in what is effectively the same street - I can definitely see another visit to Dunfermline happening in the near future.

Return travel:-
  Train: Dunfermline Town to Haymarket (04, 34 on the hour)
             Haymarket to Glasgow Queen Street (every 15 minutes + others)