Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Visiting Bute Brew Co. then Rothesay to Kingarth (& back again): 18th September 2014

Today was the Scottish Independence Referendum day, and voting done, I wanted to head out of the city and across the Firth of Clyde to the lovely island of Bute. As well as a cycle around the island I had high hopes of visiting the newly formed Bute Brew Co. in the main town of Rothesay, or if that wasn't possible, to at least manage a Bute Brew Co. beer or two.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Wemyss Bay (45/55 on the hour in the morning)
  Ferry: Wemyss Bay to Rothesay (see CalMac timetable)

Normally to be fair to any brewing people I try to organise a brewery visit some time in advance but I just hadn't been able to this with the very newly formed Bute Brew Co. Therefore as I got off the train at Wemyss Bay station with its magnificent round booking office I thought I'd try a (pretty late) phone call and see what might be possible.

Thankfully owner & brewer Aidan Canavan was about today, phoned me back, and was happy to let me come and visit as soon as I disembarked at the Rothesay ferry terminal, so I was able to get on the next CalMac ferry that was fast approaching the Wemyss Bay pier (as I think I've mentioned numerous times, brewing people are really great!)

It's only a 35 minute crossing from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay (CalMac do an excellent tea/coffee and local cake deal for £1.99) and so it wasn't long before I was approaching the large Rothesay pier complex, with the adjoining waterfront and its Victorian hotels, tenement blocks and painted houses lining the long esplanade.

Aidan's directions were pretty straightforward ("turn right out of the ferry terminal, left at the first roundabout and then go up the hill - you can't miss us") and spot-on, with the large Bute Brew Co. sign possibly visible from the ferry if I had known where to look (it was designed by a friend - the Bute Brew Co lettering is encircled by a stylised beer barrel, a nice touch).

I rang the bell to the building and after being welcomed his 'brewdog' Fergus, Aidan was good enough to spend a ridiculous amount of his valuable time chatting to me in the main room of the brewery, full of the main brewing kit, some benches, a long wooden bar and some shelves displaying the forthcoming Bute Brew Co. bottled beers. Formerly a teacher of biology at both Kilsyth and Greenock, a change in family circumstances meant that Aidan decided to take the plunge to start Bute Brew Co. at the start of 2014. With no real home-brewing experience he managed to get on a brewing course with PBC early in the year (BrewLab were booked up for months) and he also managed to purchase a brand-new brewing kit from PBC after a last-minute cancellation. This was important as Aidan really wanted to start the brewery up in the summertime to pick up at least some of the all-important seasonal tourist business. From talking to the pubs who were interested in taking local Bute beer it seems the summer trade is at least double that of the winter and so starting with the weather still warm would allow him to make an impact (and get the cash-flow going) this year. Aidan was therefore more than happy to help install the 6-BBL kit, with mash tun, hot-liquor-tank and copper, and then wait with baited breath for his first brew to complete.

Unfortunately when that brew happened he had no casks - he had been let down by his cask supplier and so almost the entire brew had to go down the drain. And in fact it wasn't until the 5th full brew that Aidan found that had a beer that he was happy with - a definite 'eureka' moment. This was the Bute Red - a sweet, burnt, malty Irish red ale with a bitter kick from loads of simcoe & cascade hops. This was launched in the Kingarth Hotel on Aug 14th and in the Black Bull in Rothesay on Aug 15th and literally sold out within hours - the Black Bull in particular was mobbed when Aidan went in that first weekend with both seasoned real ale drinkers and converted lager drinkers lauding his beer - that's got to be a great feeling as a brewer. Aidan's mostly managed to keep these two pubs stocked with Bute Brew Co. beer since that weekend and in the 2 fermenters at the moment were the Red and a citra-hopped blonde beer, now called Autumn Days.

Aidan's also brewed a bitter pale ale with all bravo hops, and although he wasn't too happy with it, he was persuaded to give it a go on cask. Christened Wickedly Hopped Bitter he was good enough to pour me a bottle of it and although it certainly had a slightly metallic, very grapefruity bitter finish, it wasn't over-the-top at all and I thought it would go down really well with a spicy curry. The bar in the main brewery room that Aidan uses for tasting purposes is actually a 'mobile' bar - he transported it en-masse in his transit van to the Bute Highland Games at the end of August and managed to shift loads of the Red and the Wickedly Hopped Bitter. And that is what Aidan would like to do lots of - participate in and sponsor events in Bute all year around, get the community engaged, and he has plans to organise a 'Bute Brew Co. + others' Beer Festival next year on the esplanade.

Aidan then let me have a look around the rest of the building. It's an old cheese factory so there are not 1, not 2, but 3 cold rooms - an incredibly fortuitous state-of-affairs for a proposed brewery, and probably about the only possible location on the island to fast-track a brewery (although I could definitely smell a trace of that cheese).

He's got empty bottles from Williams Brothers but plans to bottle the beer himself and there's no doubt that bottled beer will be needed during the long winter months. CalMac seem to be very interested in taking his bottles on their ferries, the closest they seem to come to a local beer in their on-board fridges is Tennent's Lager, so Bute Brew Co. beer would be a more than welcome alternative. Aidan's done most of the conversion work in the brewhouse himself and also has plans to setup a beer garden outside (it's quite a sun-trap) where there are already some bench-tables and space for some beer-and-music gigs (he has a license for late-night music 3 times in the year).

And to break-up and decorate the white-washed outside building walls he's even planed a couple of hop vines - they probably won't flower to any extent but they certainly look good.

Aidan definitely thinks there's an opportunity to grasp hold of in Bute - at the moment he's likely to stay with the pubs he's currently supplying, perhaps he'll try the Russian Tavern in Port Bannatyne and the Colintraive Hotel & the pubs in Tighnabruaich a short ferry crossing away, but he's very unlikely to try supplying the central belt of the Scottish mainland. With not that many 'craft beer' options in Bute, a winter beer recipe in his head, some interesting endeavour hops to try and the level of engagement with the local community that there has been so far I'm really hoping there's a bright future for the Bute Brew Co. After over an hour of beer (and rugby) related chat I bade Aidan many-thanks-and-goodbye and headed back down to Rothesay esplanade where I wanted to hire a bike. The best (possibly only) option for that on the island is The Bike Shed, just to the left (south) of the ferry terminal.

The whole block where the Bike Shed is located is currently covered by scaffolding and bright netting which I obviously mentioned in passing to the owner of The Bike Shed - that was a bad idea! It's all supposedly been up since March as part of the Rothesay Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) improvements, with the whole tenement block being upgraded, repaired & refurbished. However it now seems to have overrun by a considerable amount of time with The Bike Shed not being able to properly celebrate its 10th year of opening back in the end of August - he was not a happy man. I managed to escape after a bit and started to head south & east along the main road and the remainder of the esplanade; normally on a clear day there are some great views of both the mainland and the island of Cumbrae but it was just a bit too hazy today. After a few miles the road turned slightly inland and here there are a number of impressive mock-tudor houses comprising Kerrycroy village - complete with private beach it's a very nice setting indeed.

Just up from here is the extensive Mount Stuart estate, a huge neo-gothic private mansion (tours available to the public) with stunning gardens, tea-rooms and self-catering accommodation. I've still to have a good look around the place (it would probably take at least a day to do it even some justice), but even the modern Visitor Centre is impressive.

Afterwards there was a bit of an incline up to, and beyond, Mount Stuart, but then the road slowly descended down to the coast again, to Kingarth and Kilchattan Bay. At the crossing here is the Kingarth Hotel and Smiddy Bar, an extended collection of white-washed buildings.

Today the Kingarth was also being used as a Polling Station, with some of the fairly steady flow of people popping in for a beer after voting.

And to add to its function as a social hub, the Kingarth also contains a bowling green at its far side (although it was looking a bit worse-for-ware today, I don't know we're now out of the bowling season or it's just plain closed).

I entered the Kingarth through its car park entrance at the back door where there is a really nice outside terrace and beer garden. The only problem was that there were loads of late summer wasps and midges about - I think a lot of candles or a couple of Midg-E eaters would definitely be required in the evening.

There are a lot of rooms in the Kingarth - a more formal dining area at the front, a function room to the rear and the Smiddy Bar with a long wooden bar-top and lots of wood cladding sandwiched between them.

I managed to get a table across from the bar where there also a few sofa seats, and there is also a pool, darts and TV area further back.

They have 2 hand-pulls on in the summer and seem get through a lot of guest beers judging from the pump-clips - today there was Young's Bitter (it was fairly bizarre to see this on an island in Scotland) and the other had the Bute Brew Co. Wickedly Hopped Bitter that I'd tried in bottled format at the brewery - hooray! This was probably better on cask with the carbonation toned down slightly, just as bitter as before, with a bit more aroma added it would really be quite excellent.

From a food point-of-view the Kingarth does the standard pub-fare & burgers, but they also have a lot of specials (in particular seafood) so I decided on the Fish & Shellfish Pie with garden peas & salad. This took all of just over 20 minutes to be cooked from scratch from ordering, and was really superb - loads of white & smoked fish, full of prawns and when matched with the very bitter Bute Brew Co. beer to help cut through the creamy sauce, it was definitely a contender for food/beer pairing of the year so far.

There used to be a hotel down at the shoreline of Kilchattan Bay, St Blaine's Hotel, with amazing views over the bay from its front rooms and beer garden (and it just so happened to stock Fyne Ales bottled beers as well), but this is now closed and in the process being turned into flats, and so on leaving the Kingarth I didn't really have any justification to go further down to Kilchattan Bay and its beach and instead I headed back up the hill until I came to a signpost for the Moor Road, which leads onto a section of Bute West Island Way.

This was fine at first but then petered out to a bit of a very stony, gravelly path which would have been fine if I had hired a mountain bike with wide, thick tyres, but since I only had a hybrid with more narrow, thinner tyres I was a somewhat more wary of this (I didn't want another puncture as per my last cycle 'adventure'). I therefore wheeled the bike up & down a number of the steeper, more scree-like slopes until I was back onto some real tarmac, and this road led me into Rothesay from the hilly south-west, past some allotments and the large school/college campus block at the outskirts of the town.

It then wasn't long at all before I was back into the town centre, and I was able to drop the bike at the Bike Shed whilst the owner was having a football related conversation with a friend and sneak out onto the main esplanade. There's no doubt that Rothesay is a bit of an old-fashioned Victorian seaside town/resort with its cafés, ice-cream shops, flower-bed gardens and art-deco Pavilion theatre/conference venue, but everywhere seemed really well maintained and I'm a sucker for a well-mown seaside putting green, especially with all those surrounding palm trees waving in the breeze.

Some of the pubs reflect this a bit as well. I headed first of all to the first floor bar of the Esplanade Hotel, which has some great elevated views over the Firth of Clyde and the Cowal Peninsula of Argyll.

There's a lot of dark purple decor and dark wood in here, and it was very much setup for food even this late on a Thursday afternoon. Only one of the two hand-pulls was operational, with Fuller's Wild River available (a decent citrusy golden ale, but a bit tired today), promoted at the special price of £2.95/pint

My next stop slightly further along the esplanade was Ghillies Bistro, part of the upstairs Victoria Hotel.

It's a lighter, brighter & more modern place, with a 1/4 circle bar situated back right together with a few shiny-metal/leather bar-stools, some small tables scattered throughout the room, a couple of sofa seats and a nice view of that putting green. On the one hand-pull was Loch Ness WiderNESS, a dark amber malty brew (again for a promotional price of £2.95/pint) that would have gone well with some of the Rothesay Bay Langoustines that were being advertised on the wall.

My last port of call on Bute, almost opposite the pedestrian access to the ferry terminal, was the Black Bull.

It's a 2 room pub with a smallish, low-beamed lounge at the front and a bar (probably mostly for the locals) further on into the building. I was hoping that they might have put another Bute Brew Co. beer on, but the barmaid said that it was going to be put on after the Inveralmond beer had finished, and although I quite like it, I didn't really fancy trying to drink ~10 pints of Lia Fail in the 20 minutes before my ferry. Instead I went for a 1/2 of the Belhaven Easy Ryder (ouch!), sadly pretty indistinguishable from a lot of their Belhaven Best-inspired guest cask beers.

The Black Bull always feels like a real pub, even in the quiet front lounge with it's nautical bric-a-brac and maps, and it would be great to have seen it busy & full with lots of Bute Brew Co. beers being supped. With a final check out of the window that my ferry was about to dock (CalMac don't hang about with their turn-arounds) I headed back to the mainland, hoping to try some Bute Brew Co. beers again real soon.

Return travel:-
  Ferry: Rothesay to Wemyss Bay (again see CalMac timetable)
  Train: Weymss Bay to Glasgow Central (45/55 on the hour in the afternoon)

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