Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Midsummer happenings around Stonehaven: 20th June 2015

Although I'm originally from the East Coast of Scotland there are still masses of tiny villages & harbours in that lovely part of the country that I've never been to before. This Father's Day weekend I was hoping to walk between a few of them, visit some pubs and then make it up to Stonehaven, where the relatively low key Stonehaven Real Ale Festival had transformed & upgraded itself into the first ever Midsummer Beer Happening.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Bus: Dundee to Johnshaven, X7 Stagecoach (15 Dundee, 28 Panmurefield, on the hour)
  Bus: Gourdon to Stonehaven, X7 Stagecoach (41 on the hour)

The way the bus/train timetables had worked out my best option to get up the East Coast was to take the Stagecoach X7 Coastrider service which picks up from the new-build Panmurefield Village site on the Arbroath Road between Brought Ferry and Monifieth. This meant that I was able to take a leisurely walk from my Dad's house and head to the associated Chef and Brewer pub, The Bell Tree, just to satisfy my curiosity and see what it was like.

It's a Spirit Pub Company (soon to be Greene King) 'classic country pub' similar in style to the Mitchells & Butler Vintage Inns with lots of panelled wood, dark beams, bright downlighters, exposed brickwork, open fires and some nice pictures of old Dundee. It's mostly food led with lots of tables in various parts of the building and on different levels, but there's also an area at the front-right for the discerning drinker. Here I was able to see that they were running a promotion for 3x taster glasses of beer/cider and a snack, so I went for the drinks that were available on hand-pull, Sharps Atlantic (a decent pale ale), Bombardier Burning Gold (a not great golden ale) and Old Rose Elderflower Cider (wow, very sweet) as well as a bowl of cashew nuts; more than OK for £4.99.

It's a nice enough place and good to see that they provide some cask beers, but I'd definitely suggest the nearby Milton Inn in Monifieth for far superior beer, food and just general atmosphere if ever in the area. Once finished I crossed the busy A92 and didn't have long to wait before my impressive Coastrider coach arrived. I bought an East Coast Explorer day ticket and settled back in my leather reclining seat, complete with air-conditioning, reliable WiFi and a charger point (ScotRail take note!). The service is limited stop through Arbroath and Montrose with some great views of the varied coastline and it wasn't too long before I was requesting my stop on the main road above the fishing village of Johnshaven. There's a narrow road down to the shore passing the single 'corner shop' and it also goes by the front of The Anchor Hotel.

There's a bit of a step down at the main door (and a low ceiling, ouch!) but this leads to a front bar with lots of light oak panelling & bright lights, tables set around the central bar, some snob screens between the tables, and models boats, photos & pictures on the walls. There's obviously a nautical/fishing theme in here and I liked this fishing-homage hanging on the far wall.

At just before the end of the lunchtime serving it was still really busy, full of day-trippers and locals both in the bar and the restaurant further into the back of the building, so I decided that ordering a large meal wasn't a good idea and instead went for the Tuna Mayo Toastie option. Beer wise there were 3 hand-pulls, 2 in use today, so I ordered a pint of Golden Sheep (Doom Bar was the other choice, but Burnside beers have been on before and bottles of the mighty Inveralmond Blackfriars were in the fridge) and used the WiFi since there was absolutely no 3G signal at all.

The toasties were great, service was quick and cheerfully done and it was good to see such a busy place doing things well. Also in Johnshaven I found a really interesting arts/craft shop just around the corner from The Anchor, Starfish Studio, selling all sorts of hand-made, locally derived jewellery and gifts...

...another pub/inn, The Ship, which didn't seem to be open (I rattled a lot of doors trying, but it could just have been a timing/opening-hours thing)...

...and of course the lovely harbour (complete with communal clothes drying-line). It's here that the annual Fish Festival is centred around in August and there's also meant to be a spectacular Fireworks display in January.

Nation Cycling Route 1 passes through Johnshaven and I picked this up and followed it north out of the village. Here there's a large caravan site, Wairds Park, which seemed to be a magnet for a small fleet of incoming VW Camper Vans.

I followed the path as it hugged the coastline, though a few swarms of midges which had appeared as the temperature crept up, and after 3 miles or so approached the larger village of Gourdon, set well below the A92 road.

The harbours here (there are 3 of them) have more of a working feel, with a couple of fishing boats coming in as I watched, and there are still a number of large filleting/smoking sheds on the harbourside as well as the adjacent and award-winning Hornblowers Restaurant (upstairs) and fish-and-chip shop takeaway (downstairs).

Located at the start of the western harbour breakwater is the Harbour Bar, blessed with great views over the entire harbour from its front beer garden (and the smoking shed), and the owners also run a small B&B along the street.

Inside is a conservatory/games room with a pool table & juke box, a large TV lounge (which was busy and where the locals seemed to congregate) and also a fantastic small dark wood panelled bar/snug with a number of bar stools.

They only have one hand-pull, normally with an Inveralmond beer, and today it was their light and refreshing Inkie Pinkie. The day's menu was written on a small black-board next to the hand-pull; I should really have tried a crab filled roll, I suspect it would have been incredibly fresh.

As well as the harbour, the main attraction in Gourdon is the small Maggie Law Maritime Museum which houses the eponymous inshore lifeboat that the fishermen of Gourdon bought (and manned) themselves in the late 19th and early 20th century and which helped to save dozens of lives (it was named after the daughter of a local fish curer, Tom Law). Unfortunately this was just closing as I went by so I'll have to re-visit it another day.

Instead I headed up the steep hill from Gourdon waterfront where there some great views of the harbour and also lots of new houses being built (I guess Aberdeen is commuterable from Gourdon), crossed the A92 (again) and waited for the next X7 coach to Stonehaven (dead on time). This went through Inverbervie (there's another great fish-and-chip shop here, The Bervie Chipper) before heading into Stonehaven town centre. The Stonehaven Real Ale Festival used to be held in Stonehaven Town Hall every November but I went to the last one in November 2013 and there was no doubt it had outgrown that venue. Instead the organisers, including Robert Lindsay owner of six°north (bar and brewery) and The Marine Hotel, had decided to relocate to the green expanses of Baird Park just a 5 minute walk away and put-up a large array of interlinked marquees.

There had been some entry issues earlier in the day when queues had snaked down to the entrance of the park, but when I arrived it probably took less than 5 minutes for me to get in and the marshals were more than polite, asking everyone how long they'd been in the queue. I took my nice six°north glass, bought some tokens, managed to meet up with the AleselA people, and then went to find some beer in the main marquee. That wasn't difficult. A huge 4-sided bar-area has been set-up in the centre of the marquee with a seriously impressive choice of both cask hand-pulled beers (about 50 of these)...

...and shiny keg dispense beers (about 50 UK and 20 Belgian), as well fridges full of more Belgian beers.

These were all, amazingly enough, on at the same time, with the organisers having procured up to 3 casks/kegs of the same beer, but even with this planning the most popular beers inevitably started to run out late on Saturday afternoon (no Fierce Beer was left, drats!). Stand-out beers for me were the new Marooned blackcurrant wheat beer from Windswept (seriously dense and fruity), and the Saison Dupont Biologique which I'd never had on draught before (bready, hazy and spicy). Service was fine & cheery (though why people persisted in going to the completely wrong corner of the bars I don't know) and the place never felt that busy (OK, the queuing system for the toilets probably needs a bit of thought for next year) but overall I think the organisers actually pulled off a minor miracle (as well as raising a significant amount of money for the Stonehaven Dialysis Unit and the Sea Cadets). In addition the live music was very good...

...and I liked the old Stonehaven tradition of broken-up slices of bread being set down on the bar as the evening wore on to soak up all (or at least some) of that beer.

All told a really good day out on the East Coast, and maybe even the chance to do it again next year around Midsummer if the dates all work out the same.

Return travel:-
  Bus: Stonehaven to Dundee, X7 Stagecoach (53 on the hour)

Thursday, 11 June 2015

On the outskirts of Glasgow, Eaglesham and Killearn Beer Festivals: 6th June 2015

By complete co-incidence (I'm pretty sure anyway, no conspiracies theories here) there were a lot of beery events happening in Scotland this weekend - up in the North-East Aberdeen CAMRA were holding their Great Grampian Beer Festival and in the same city, at the same time, there was the BrewDog #PunkAGM2015 'experience'. There were also local beer festivals in Crieff and Coldstream, and (nearer home) there further small beer festivals being held both Killearn (to the north-west of Glasgow) and Eaglesham (to the south-east). The latter of these was a first ever event being held in conjunction with the more established Eaglesham Fair so I decided to head along and show some support and if there was enough time, I thought I should also be able to make it all the way across and out of the city to end up at the Killearn event.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Muirend (05, 35 on the hours)
  Bus: Muirend to Eaglesham, 4A First Glasgow (25, 55 on the hour)

I don't think I'd ever stopped in Eaglesham before, only whizzed through on the way to East Kilbride before the town's bypass was built, so I was looking forward to having a look around, but that was before the heavens opened-up and curtailed any possible exploring. However Eaglesham seemed a nice enough place, there were 2 main thoroughfares connected by some lovely green parkland and a couple of noteworthy pubs/hotels, the Swan Inn and the Eglinton Arms (it was a bit too early to try either of these). When I arrived at the corner of the playing fields where the Eaglesham Beer Festival was being held it seemed that they had decided on a 'meet-the-brewer' approach using small stalls/gazebos rather than a line of casks/kegs in a marquee (I always like this approach, but it's a lot of work & time for the small breweries involved). Most of the guys/gals involved (Top Out, Drygate, Fyne, Sulwath, Fransciscan Well, Harviestoun, WEST) were still setting up their beer lines and other wares when I went past, so I decided against distracting them and took a bit of shelter from the weather in the lee of the Eglinton Arms.

At about 11:30am the main parade of the Eaglesham Fair came marching past - whooping fire engine, pipe band, a tractor pulling the (very young) King and Queen of the Fair, kids dressed as sheep, the Loch Ness Monster and other 'animals', the local scout troupe and lots of musicians & dancers - they looked great and there was a large turn-out, but it was such a shame to see everyone (and especially the kids) get really quite soaked in the (at that point) quite heavy, squally rain.

I headed back into the main partitioned-off area of the beer festival and decided that a coffee was a good idea, and this caffeine infusion was supplied by the It All Started Here people, who can also be found at the Partick Farmer's Market.

I took my coffee (with lid) inside the main marquee where Whole Foods from Giffnock had set-up a stall with some US & European bottled beers & associated beer munchies and where a group of musicians were already playing away.

By now it was now time for a beer and first off to try were definitely a couple of new beers from Edinburgh's Top Out Brewery. Michael and Moo had brought their new Copperheid ginger beer and also their new Altbier; both were excellent, especially the Copperheid with a huge herbal ginger aroma and masses of peppery ginger in the taste, an excellent low abv ginger beer. They also had a new amber beer with Aussie/NZ hops as backup for today (not used) and have already brewed a Loanhead Industrial Estate collaboration beer with Stewart Brewing and Black Metal Brewery for the Stewart Summer Beer & Food Festival on August 1st.

After a final stoating downpour the rain abated and things started to dry-out (except for Moo from Top Out, I don't think he'll dry out for at least a week). This meant I could leave the marquee for the Galloway Chillies stand where they were selling nachos made with a choice of different cheeses from Damn Fine Cheese (I went for the chili-cheese) and a further choice of chilli-pickle on the side (I went for the lemon). I then headed over to the Fransciscan Well stand where we (the stand's hosts and I) jointly decided that the Shandon Stout was probably the best accompaniment to the nachos. Smooth, chocolatey and with a dry bitter finish this is a more than decent stout (and a good choice) and it seems that we'll be seeing a lot more Franciscan Well outlets in the central belt of Scotland. If they keep the quality up then it's difficult to rail against the Molson Coors takeover of the relatively small Cork-based brewery, let's hope they do.

By now the winds had also died down so that the big wheel (aka the Eaglesham Eye) could be utilised and the Eaglesham Beer Festival twitter page has a couple of great photos of the site from high up on the wheel (there was no chance of getting me up there).

The beer festival was definitely starting to get a lot busier (and drier) as the afternoon wore on, great to see for the brewery people and for the organisers who'd done a fantastic job, but after a few more half-pints (the Fyne Ales Wee Milky Way was certainly back on form) I decided that I probably had to start heading back to Glasgow; I had a longish journey (certainly in terms of time, possibly not that much by miles) to negotiate by public transport.

Further travel was as follows:-
  Bus: Eaglesham to Clarkston Toll, 4A First Glasgow (41, 11 on the hour)
  Train: Clarkston to Glasgow Central (08, 38 on the hour)
  Train: Glasgow Central to Milngavie (28, 58 on the hour)
  Bus: Milngavie to Killearn, B10 First Scotland (40 on the hour)

Two trains and two buses (for reasons of connections, with a pit-stop in-between at The Drum and Monkey in Glasgow) eventually deposited me at Balfron Street in Killearn. It's a fairly easy location to judge when to get off, the obelisk-like Buchanan Monument just along from the bus stop is easy to spot from miles around.

The Killearn Beer Festival was taking place in the courtyard/car park of The Old Mill. This is a really lovely country pub which used to be an old weaving mill, but the place had closed down for a bit at the end of 2014 before being bought and re-opened in the spring of this year by the people who have the excellent Inn at Kippen - hopefully The Old Mill will work out just as well.

It was £4 to get in (for a branded glass & tasting notes, and the glasses were checked!), but the beer was set at a fixed price of £3/pint or £1.50/half, so all told it works out at about the same as a standard CAMRA-type Beer Festival. The guys doing the organising have been doing this successfully for 4 years now and were happy to chat away about the state of the pub scene in & around Killearn, how they might go to cask sponsorship by local businesses next year, and that perhaps moving the Killearn 10K run closer to the start of the beer festival next year might be a good idea (especially if the weather repeats itself).

There were a number a large marquees set-up in the courtyard with the larger one holding the casks of beer on stillage. This was dispensed in the more traditional manner by the mass of friendly volunteers and it was good to see beers from local and more far-flung Scottish breweries including Cromarty, Windswept, Fallen, Drygate and Jaw. Stand-outs here were Jaw Wave (an excellent Glasgow-brewed Weißbier full of sweet bananas, cloves and a great wheat texture) and the quite outstanding Fallen Chew-Chew salted caramel milk stout, with a slightly different, more chocolatey recipe than previously (Mr Fallen was on hand to quality control).

Most interesting, however, was a cask of beer from the Fintry Brewing Company, located at the eponymous Fintry Inn, in a small village about 7 miles or so away from Killearn nestled along the north side of the Campsie Hills. I hadn't known anything about this supposedly co-operatively run microbrewery until earlier in the week, but from asking the Killearn guys they seem to have been brewing for almost a year, have produced quite a few different beers (7 or so was the estimate) and this was the first time one of their beers had been available outside the Fintry Inn. The Meikle Bin (named after a nearby hill) was dark red, malty-sweet and with a bitter-fruit finish; a more than acceptable 70/- beer. Hopefully I'll have the chance to try a few more of their beers, but with absolutely no public transport available to Fintry it's going to be a bit of a challenge.

Even when I first arrived at The Old Mill (only an hour or so after the start time) the place was busy, but then as the live music started it got seriously busy; there wasn't that much free space to shelter from the slight drizzle under the marquees.

Instead a lot of people had decamped into the quite cosy surroundings of the bar of The Old Mill (which then also got seriously busy). However it was worth braving the good-natured queues at the bar for the An Teallach beer that was available on hand-pull, Bealach Na Ba (Gaelic for Pass of the Cattle). This was decent crisp, zesty, golden ale which was certainly to my tastes, and there's no doubt the quality of the An Teallach beers in general has been improving.

So all told an excellent, if fairly hectic day out, with some great beer and some interesting, friendly people who all like beer. However I think if I plan to attend 2 Beer Festivals in one day again I might take a bit more of an interest in the long range weather forecast or find/hire myself a designated driver!

Return travel:-
  Bus: Killearn to Milngavie, B10 First Scotland (51 on the hour)
  Train: Milngavie to Glasgow (12, 42 on the hour after 6:00pm)