Thursday, 21 August 2014

Festival Times in Edinburgh: 16th August 2014

Edinburgh throughout The Festival time and during almost all of the summer months is busy, just incredibly busy, but it's also great fun. I normally try to spend at least one weekend in The Capital to take in a Fringe show or two, walk around the centre for a bit of the street theatre and also drink some great beer. This year was going to be no different with a couple of newly opened 'craft beer' bars to visit and then a beer-related show to round the afternoon off.

>View Edinburgh Festival 2014 in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St. to Edinburgh Waverley (every 15 minutes)

I thought first of all that I'd nip along to the Royal Over-Seas League who were holding a small Beer Festival this weekend (casks from Stewart, Eden St Andrews, Knops, Barney's and Belhaven were available). It's a lovely building, slap-bang in the middle of Princes Street, with the views of Princes Street Gardens & Edinburgh Castle from the drawing-room bar, the restaurant and (I'm assuming) some of the hotel bedrooms rooms quite spectacular.

However their Beer Festival was being held at the back of the building in The Princes Suite with no real view out front at all, definitely quite disappointing (it may have been that you could wander throughout the building with your beer, I didn't ask). So instead I decided to take my leave without trying any of the beers on offer and headed back along Princes Street to somewhere where I could be sure of getting an even better view, The Scott Monument.

This is supposedly the largest monument to a writer on the planet, with 287 steps to the very top and the stairs between each level getting narrower & narrower. Faced with a large party of (exceedingly polite) Japanese tourists coming down from near the top as I was going up, it really was a matter of literally hanging onto the centre section of the staircase with both hands for dear life. However when I got to the very top (and managed to avoid being blown over by the strong winds) the views were definitely worth it, both towards Edinburgh Castle, the Scottish National Gallery and the West-End...

... and towards the east to Leith, North Bridge and Arthur's Seat.

Coming back down to earth I followed the tourist hoards (I include myself in those numbers) past the pick-up point for the Tour Buses and onto The Mound, with most of us heading up towards the Royal Mile. At the bottom I did pass this guy, decided I had better quickly deposit some loose change before I was assimilated, and walked on.

On the way I came to a fairly new bar/restaurant about half-way up North Bank Street, The Crafters Barn, specialising in Belgian/Scottish food and beers.

Even just around midday it was almost completely packed inside; I didn't really want to take up the last free table (or even part of it) and it was a bit blowy for the outside terrace, so I went past the long central bench table to sit at the high-up bar at the back (thankfully there were a few high stools here, phew). The staff were busy, but efficient, providing pots of mussels, pizzas and Belgian/Scottish tapas which seemed to be going down a treat. They have a nice selection of kegged beers (including Drygate Outaspace Apple Ale and one Belgian tap that changes frequently, sadly 'just' Hoegaarden today) and Eden St. Andrews seem to be providing the cask beer at the moment. There's also a descriptive & illustrated bottled beer menu with such Belgian delights as Gouden Carolus Classic, Tripel Karmeliet & St. Bernardus Prior, but I was pretty sensible and went for a Vedett Extra White - dry, lemony & cloudy and very tasty. And if you are feeling really, really flush it seems they can even provide the most famous Belgian beer of them all here, Westvleteren 12 (although there is hardly any change from £40 for this).

From talking to the barman they'd been really busy since opening for breakfast at 8am and would be open all the way through to 3am, an incredibly long time, but obviously worthwhile during The Festival. I liked the place and the excellent bottled beer choice, but I'll definitely only come back again when it's a bit quieter. Next I traversed the Royal Mile (as quickly as I could), and headed down George IV Bridge to the Edinburgh University area. There's a huge Fringe setup here in Bistro Square amongst the University campus buildings, including all the BBC at The Fringe broadcast pavilions.

On the other side from this is Potterrow and here I was happy to enter the relative oasis of calm & tranquillity that is The Potting Shed, a new 'Café Bar & Kitchen'.

There's no doubt that inside they've really gone to town on the rustic, stripped-back, ramshackle allotment-look but then why not go the whole hog? The front is all low throw-covered sofas & coffee tables with shelves of empty wine bottles, the lovely long bar has masses of stripped down wood panelling, large columns, light-shades made from old metal buckets & flower-pots and in front there's some standing tables, large whisky barrels and a huge long & wide banquet table...

...whereas at the back are lots of double seats & tables, some park-benches and almost anything you could imagine gardening wise hanging up on the walls.

The allotment look continues to its ultimate conclusion with herbs being grown on one of the walls (chives & basil in this case) complete with the odd watering can for proper hydration.

There are 14 keg beers on the shiny fonts and 3 cask ales behind the bar and it was great to see a couple of Kernel beers on draught (their Zeus hop-based beers seem to be the favourite of the barman at the moment), with local beers from Pilot, Carbon Smith and Alechemy available as well. I took a pint of the Alechemy Saison D'Etre (light, earthy & refreshing, but maybe missing a bit of spiciness), ordered some food and watched the place fill up as the morning shows across the road started to finish. My chilli & rice didn't take too long, had loads of sour cream (and some lovely crunchy deep-fried tortillas), perhaps need a bit more chilli heat, but was still very good indeed.

Well-fed I walked around the corner from The Potting Shed and onto the cobbles of West Nicholson Street, home to the great beer garden of The Pear Tree (with large stage setup in the garden), the Blind Poet and now (since July), right next door, Usher's of Edinburgh, named after the Edinburgh spirits & brewing dynasty.

It's definitely a bit surreal heading down the neon-lit staircase to the fairly dark basement bar, especially with the overhead portrait of Thomas Usher to greet you.

But then you are welcomed by the sight of a long bar with a serious amount of shiny keg fonts, 15 in total, with 5 cask beers also available.

They have a twitter beerbot (@UshersBeerBot) which indicates that there's normally a mixture of beer from local & further afield breweries, but today there was the surprise of a couple of beers from the Franciscan Well brewery in Cork, Friar Weisse and Shandon Stout, which I hadn't seen before in the UK. I took a pint of the Friar Weisse (lots of sweet bananas and a good texture in this) and had a look around the rest of the sprawling basement area. It's in 2 main parts, the upper with the bar, a few tables at the back and the wide-screen TVs, and further into the lower basement is a large seating area and also the space for a planned in-house microbrewery (behind the 'Usher's Ales and Stouts' signage). Hopefully this will go into operation later on in 2014 but there's always that local authority red-tape to get through.

It was certainly a bit quieter than the previous establishments that I'd visited but it too started to fill up a bit as I sampled the seriously aromatic ginger & lemongrass concoction of Outlaw Brewing's Eight Legged Groove Machine and then exited after examining all the ancient bottles and brewing paraphernalia displayed on the walls.

By now I was happy to take a walk amongst some greenery and headed towards The Meadows. There were a number of cricket matches on today and also a Fairtrade Tent setup close to one of the paths; it was good to see Thistly Cross cider giving out samples and selling bottles.

The area on the other side of Melville Drive looks like a continuation of the Meadows, but is actually a large pitch-and-putt golf course, or to give it its more formal name, Brunstfield Links short hole course. Golf has been played over this land since the 18th Century with, nowadays, 2 courses situated here - a 36-hole course in the summer and a 9-hole course in the winter; both are free if you have your own clubs (and balls), and both give great views of Edinburgh and Arthur's Seat.

I didn't want to interrupt anyone's game so I headed along the outside of the course to the pub that is associated with, and looks out on, the golf course, The Golf Tavern, resplendent in floral hanging baskets.

It was used as the clubhouse for the golf course (before clubhouses existed) and nowadays still hires out golf clubs for those who don't have their own (£3.50/person, photo ID required, I assume some of this is returned as a deposit). They also help run an annual Golf in the Park event on the course (this year August 23rd 2014).

Downstairs the main lounge was packed out today, possibly because it was the first day of the English Premier League football season with games on the large screen TVs and possibly because there was a function on upstairs. I was just about able to get to the long curved bar with it high wooden gantry to see that there were three hand-pulls, with only 2 being used today to dispense Deuchars IPA and Orkney Red MacGregor. I took a 1/2 of the Red MacGregor and found a space to take in all of the golf memorabilia, old mirrors, ornate lighting, musical instruments strewn about the walls & ceiling and occasional bookcase - it's a very busy place but still with a nice traditional feel. When I emerged blinking out of the Golf Tavern I needed to start walking back up Lothian Road and into the city centre but I did manage to stop off at Cloisters for a Pilot Tropical Blønd (matured with 'real' tropical fruit) and The Hanging Bat for a Thornbridge Cherry Brown (both of these were superb)...

...but I couldn't stay too long in either place as I had to get to St Andrews Square for a pre-booked Fringe show. Sometimes it's just pot-luck with the shows, but this time as I wanted something (vaguely) beer related I thought about Al Murray's latest Pub Landlord show (his face was splashed about a bit over town)...

...but this was scheduled for a bit later on in the day, so instead I had decided to go with Ben McFarland & Tom Sandham's The Thinking Drinkers' Guide to the Legends of Liquor (the guys have written a number of beery articles and also books such as the Good Beer Guide West Coast USA). They were holding their 2-man show in the Famous Spiegeltent in St Andrews Square, and the place seemed pretty busy with the good-natured queue snaking around the fencing at the outside of the Square.

When we were ushered into the Spiegeltent it had been transformed into a giant 'traditional' pub, complete with wooden fixtures & fittings, pseudo-stained glass windows and lots of booth seats at the back; quite nicely done. Up on the stage the guys arrived in a mass of billowing dry ice and proceeded to tell us about their top 10 historical (and sometimes admittedly bizarre) figures who were heavily involved in either discovering, or partaking in, their associated alcoholic beverages throughout the mists of time.

I won't spoil anyone's future enjoyment of the show, but suffice to say this involved various free alcoholic drinks (Blue Moon for beer, but it could have been worse), a number of dramatic audience participation interludes (over 18's only), trolley pushing, bad puns, some interesting sound effects, and, yes, I think did mention those drinks.

It really was funny most of the time (obviously the alcohol helped), quite educationally interesting in places, and well worth the price of admission, but I definitely shouldn't have had those additional vodka shots (I was at the end of the row where the drinks seemed to end up). Apologies to the guys in Vino Wines afterwards where I think I just about managed to buy some train beers. So all told just another great day out at the Edinburgh Festival - roll on the Festival 2015.

Return travel:-
  Train: Edinburgh Waverley to Glasgow Queen St (every 15 minutes)

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