Friday, 9 January 2015

A pre-New Year amble around Aberdeen: 30th December 2014

I've not been to Aberdeen too often in the last, well, decade really - a quick visit in 2013 when in Stonehaven before feeling pretty unwell was all that I've managed, but with a number of interesting new bars as well as lots of traditional pubs to visit, I decided that this festive period was a good time to renew my acquaintance with the Granite City.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Dundee to Aberdeen (10:05, 2x Advance Singles is way cheaper than an Off-peak Day Return)

Aberdeen station is now an offshoot of the large Union Square complex full of shops, restaurants and a multi-screen cinema, but I eventually managed to find my way out of this and headed down to the docks area where I passed The Moorings rock-and-ale bar (not open until 5pm, drats!) before crossing some busy roads and reaching Beach Boulevard. There are a lot of high-rise condo-style apartments here with great views out to the North Sea and these lined the road until I reached the long length of Aberdeen Esplanade. The famous Beach Ballroom with its 'bouncy floor' has been here since 1929 and forms a great backdrop to the expanse of sandy beach and the more modern sight of numerous oil & gas support vessels stacked-up ready to enter Aberdeen Harbour.

I walked past the Ballroom and along the esplanade for a bit before deciding that I needed something hot & warming to combat the chill wind coming off the North Sea (which had probably originated in the depths of Norway). I therefore headed back towards the north-east side of the city centre, zig-zagged through some back streets until Littlejohn Street, and about half way up the slight hill I found the understated entrance to six°north (the name refers to the number of degrees that Aberdeen/Stonehaven are to the north of Brussels).

This is a Belgian & 'Craft' Beer orientated bar owned and operated by Robert Lindsay, who also owns the fantastic The Marine Hotel in Stonehaven and who brews Belgian-style beers in the nearby six°north Brewery, so I was expecting to see a lot of Belgian bottled beers and their own in-house draught brews. I entered the premises to find that the glass doorway opens out into a smallish bench-style seating area at the front complete with cabinet-style bookcases full of empty Belgian beer bottles...

...before a couple of almost Roman Villa-like granite pillars led me on to the expanded main downstairs bar area, with dark wooden bar and a couple of chunky chrome rails containing the wooden beer-tap handles, masses of sparkling glasses hung up above the bar counter, a number of huge, trailing hanging lights and lots more plain bench-style seats.

The beer tap-list is written on a blackboard high-up on a side wall over the pillared entrance, and consists of a number of six°north beers, lots of Belgian beer on draught (Dupont Moinette Blonde, anyone?), some UK keg beers and some UK (mostly Scottish) cask beers (the hand-pulls are set along the back of the bar counter) - it's a really impressive selection at some acceptable prices (especially for their own beers). I chose the six°north festive ale (Snowy, a malty spicy dark ale with a bit of warming alcohol heat) and went to sit in one of the downstairs corner seats.

The downstairs area is nice, if perhaps a bit minimalistic, but there's also an upstairs balcony area which overlooks the downstairs space on all four terraced sides with more bench seats, some mirrors, a lot of exposed brick-work and a ceiling that lets masses of daylight in. This really looks great and it all gives the impression of a far more open space (and also enhances that Roman Villa-like look again).

I was able to peruse the dedicated six°north newspaper-like menu for a bit (there's also an App-for-that) with the ridiculous range of Belgian-bottled beers before my lunch was delivered - I chose the beer soup with a side of chorizo, with the soup being delivered in a large bowl of bread. I really liked this idea, and the soup was creamy, filling and full of cheese (not much beer that I could taste), but boy was it messy (OK, even more than normal) as I continually broke up the crusty bread.

I could have spent a lot more time in six°north (and it would have been interesting to see it with more people inside), but I had to move on. Actually I didn't have to move on very far, literally only down to the bottom of Littlejohn Street where the Bottle Cap Bar and Brewery had opened only a few months ago.

On walking into the downstairs level my first impression was that this was a far larger place than six°north, with an almost a Beer-Halle type of look; it certainly had a more stripped-back, industrial feel with lots of soaring, black painted, bolted-strewn metal pillars, a gun-metal grey staircase, polished wooden benches and a high ceiling which curved back & down to a large blackboard and some tiled walls.

The long, wood-panel clad bar is a fair distance from the entrance and takes up a good part of the back right-hand corner, with the black-boarded tap list this time in the more standard position behind the bar and lit by a line of bright down-lighters. They have the possibility of 24 keg beers on tap (2 banks of 12, no cask at all that I could see) and I had hoped to find a good number of their own beers available, but sadly there was only 2 of these on. I had the choice of either the strong High Maltage (ouch!) scotch ale or the more sensible American Wheat (which I chose), an orangey-lemon, decently textured, bitter wheat beer - not too bad at all.

I sat down in one of the leather couches at the front (there were some nice 'coffee tables' showcasing empty beer-bottles here as well) and in-between drinking my American Wheat managed to nip upstairs. There's another, smaller bar on this level (beer cocktails seem to be big as do growler/container carry-oots) and occupying one side is the tiny Bottle Cap microbrewery (the 200-litre kit is all behind these windows although it's difficult to tell from the photo).

I thought the Bottle Cap Bar and Brewery was a decent enough place (again it would have helped by being busy), but the price for the beers did seem a tad high - with only a couple of lagers as an exception, everything was over £5/pint which is definitely getting somewhat steep, but if you factor in one their lunch deals then it becomes a different proposition. After finishing my American Wheat I headed to the very top of Littlejohn Street to find the last bar in this compact 'craft-beermuda triangle', the original BrewDog Bar (or #FlagShip as it seems to be known).

This has very much been the template for a lot of the later BrewDog bars - all exposed brickwork, long hanging lights and industrial/metal chic, but it's also a lot smaller than most/all of its brethren (unsurprising since it was the first and there was always going to be a risk involved in opening it), although that probably helped the atmosphere of the place in the mid-afternoon when it's generally still pretty quiet.

However I did like all of the artwork adorning the walls and as usual the staff were more than welcoming & friendly, but this time they had some bad news - apart from the BrewDog staples (which I'd had before) all of the low abv guests weren't being served due to a lack of CO2 pressure (plus the hopinator wasn't working) so that meant I had the choice of either some 11-14% guest beers (not really my thing at that time of the day) or (reluctantly, I don't like this in a bar) I was going to have to take a bottle. The fact that it was a spicy, floral Stone Saison helped somewhat, but it was still a bit disappointing for the #FlagShip.

I left BrewDog and headed out towards the main thoroughfare of Union Street. On my way I passed the entrance to the magnificent silver landmark of Marischal College, probably the best showcase of granite as a building material in the entire city.

I entered Union Street at its eastern end; this is the old Castlegate area comprising the Salvation Army Citadel buildings (on the site of the ancient castle), the Mercat Cross and a statue to the Gordon Highlanders (which this seagull just wouldn't leave).

Union Street is still Aberdeen's main shopping street and was incredibly busy in the post-Christmas sales today, but all the way down Union Street are some interesting granite-based buildings & structures - St Nicholas Kirk and graveyard, Union Bridge over Union Terrace Gardens and also Aberdeen Music Hall, which is as far as I decided to go in the crowds.

I headed north from here up towards Aberdeen's now sadly diminished trades and auction district and came across The Bon Accord (no, not that Bon Accord)...

...and also an adjacent traditional basement pub called Under The Hammer, which I really wanted to visit due to its interesting interior, but couldn't because they weren’t open until 5pm on weekdays (double drats!).

Instead I backtracked to Union Street where I found The Grill, conveniently located directly opposite the Music Hall.

I'm sure a lot of shoppers don't give the place a second glance as they hurry from shop-to-shop, but that would only be their misfortune. Actually that might not quite be true as the place was really very busy this afternoon (which stopped me from getting any good interior photos). Inside it's surprisingly long & narrow, opening up into a larger, windowed, circular space at the very far end, with wooden archways at both the front & back, and it's full of comfy red leather seats along the left side & at that far end with lots of small wooden tables dotted about. The long, long bar takes up almost all of the right-hand side with a high dark mahogany gantry, hundreds of whiskies categorised by region in the windowed cabinets, and three very nice hand-pulled beers set in amongst the macro keg fonts, today Deeside Rye competing with Fyne Ales Jarl & Maverick.

Forcing myself not to succumb to my near Jarl addiction, I instead went for the very local Deeside Rye (previously Red Rye I think, and extremely sweet with some rye spiciness and a slight fruit bitterness), and just stood for a while taking in the amazing long decorative oval plasterwork over the entire front section of the ceiling, the interesting G ('Grill'?) badges spaced out slightly below the counter and the mass of CAMRA and ScotlandWhisky certificates prominently displayed. This type of place is completely different to the 'Craft Beer' bars of Littlejohn Street but I liked it just as much (perhaps even more, it all depends on how I'm feeling). Next I had to re-join the masses on Union Street but managed to almost immediately head south, this time to a section of the city centre with lots of hotels and B&Bs, one of which on Crown Street is the Brewntood Hotel...

...where I found the dedicated entrance for Carriages basement bar hidden behind some railings and (unsurprising) set down a flight of stairs.

When I turned right from the entrance I came up to (another) lovely mahogany bar, this time semi-circular with an extension out to one side; everything here was polished up, with the brass fixtures gleaming and the glasses & bottles sparkling in the bright down-lighters. There are 8 hand-pulls distributed around one arc of bar (6 on today) with a number of local and UK beers available including Highland Scapa Special, Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Adnams Ghost Ship; the range would probably be considered 'safe' compared to six°north or Bottle Cap but then it's aimed at a slightly different clientèle.

A took a 1/2 of the Scapa Special (a lovely bitter, crisp pale ale) and got into a good-natured discussion with the barman about part of my payment - one of 10p coins was an Isle of Man piece, very shiny and with a lighthouse on the back - I had to google it to make sure it was still valid currency (and I then kept it, it was just a bit different). There were quite a few people chatting away at the chairs & tables in front of the bar, but there's also a separate large lounge area full of pictures of old Aberdeen and where books are available as well as today's papers - Carriages is just a classy, relaxing, basement bar.

There are a number of ways to get back to the train station & the Union Square area of Aberdeen from Carriages, but I chose the more direct route - the steps to South College Street - these are always fun after a few beers!

With The Moorings not open, I decided to end my day in Aberdeen at CASC, a welcoming sight (and distinctive entrance) amidst the warren of streets between Union Square and Union Street (CASC simply spells out their specialities - Cigars, Ale, Scotch & Coffee).

I walked in past some seats at the front of the single, largish room and found the wide-screen blackboarded tap-list directly in front of me on the far wall. As per six°north and The Bottle Cap there really is some choice available (24 keg lines), with the prices maybe a tad high in some cases but actually not too bad when I extrapolated them out.

I made my beer decision and then had to work out which side of the main bar to queue from since there's a wooden railing/lean-to directly in front of the centre of the lovely granite bar counter - it wasn't that obvious (and probably doesn't really matter at all). This is another gleaming bar with rows of (mostly) beer & wine glasses hanging in front of the counter, light wooden shelves behind the bar absolutely jam-packed with bottles of whisky and other spirits, some impressive coffee-making gadgetry & glassware on one side and a couple of large fridges full of interesting bottled beer on the other side - that left side of the room is a very busy place.

And as for the first item of their specialised product range, there is a walk-in humidor at the back-left of the room with what seemed like a more than comprehensive selection to my untrained eye (although I assume to smoke these on the premises requires a visit out into the fresh air).

The majority of the bench-style seating is at the front & along the right-hand side wall, and with a large beer & whisky menu to peruse, I was quite happy to sit and relax for a while and enjoy a Wiper and True Milk Shake Stout (milky coffee, brown sugar and a bitter chocolate finish), their Amarillo Amber Ale and also an Almasty Cherry Sour (I didn't really enjoy this as much as the others, it was just a bit too 'chemically' clean). However I did like the beer choice, the friendly staff and the layout of CASC (as did quite a number of people, it started fill up considerably as the afternoon wore on) and I'll certainly be back the next time I'm in the Granite City.

Return travel:-
  Train: Aberdeen to Dundee (16:35, Advance is way cheaper before 5:00pm)

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