Friday, 27 November 2015

Social times in North Ayrshire: 21st November 2015

For a first longish walk in ages I had decided to head down to the Renfrewshire/North Ayrshire border, where I could visit a couple of decent pubs before ending up at a real ale 'event' being organised in a local Community Social Club by a number of Ayrshire CAMRA members.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Lochwinnoch (04, 34 on the hour, the slow train to Ayr)

Lochwinnoch is located (unsurprisingly) on a couple of fresh-water Lochs (Castle Semple Loch and Barr Loch) and the surrounding low-lying wetlands are a haven for both wildlife and waterfowl. Just down from the train station is the Lochwinnoch RSPB Reserve and on a crisp, clear Saturday morning in Autumn the car park was pretty full and I could see the frequent glint of binoculars from the ornithologists high-up on the viewing platform.

A well-signposted path led me to the large visitor centre at the eastern end of Castle Semple Loch which was still busy today with cyclists, dog-walkers, rowers and people simply out for a walk in the bright sunshine (the Kenmure Hill Folly can just about be seen at the far end of the Loch).

I had timed my arrival so that after a short walk along the loch-side paths, I was able to continue on to the main street of Lochwinnoch. There are a couple of pubs, cafés & restaurants here but I headed to the opposite site to Castle Semple where the welcoming, stone-clad hostelry of The Brown Bull was waiting for me (and it was good to see a French Tricolour flying between the Saltires).

I've been here quite a few times and this is a lovely, family run pub, with a downstairs area full of hidden away nooks & crannies, an upstairs more formal restaurant, a fantastic, somewhat idiosyncratic beer garden and a low-beamed dark wooden bar area (with bar gantry bedecked with a mass of different bank notes) at the very front. As luck would have it, the real fire in the bar had just been lit as I came in (and additional wood was being brought in by one of the owner's kids) which meant I could peruse the 4 interesting cask beers on hand-pull in a lovely smoky, warming and kindle crackling atmosphere.

Today local beers from Kelburn (Red Smiddy and Ca' Canny) were available as well as Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Brass Castle Northern Blonde, so I took a pint of Northern Blonde (sweetish orange, toffee, quite resiny, bitter orange finish - nice) and sat down opposite the bar. For lunch (note the 12:30pm opening of the kitchen) they do pub classics, fish specials and also burgers, sandwiches & omelettes so, for a change, I ordered the chicken burger and waited with Cate Blanchett as my table companion (ha, if only!) for this to arrive.

This didn't take too long and the thick creamy sauce with the chicken seemed to contrast well with the Kelburn Ca' Canny winter ale that I'd ordered as a follow-up to the Northern Blonde (loads of dark red fruits, slight coffee and almost some warming bourbon sweetness in the finish). Food finished I left the pub and started off on my walk for the afternoon, but it wasn't too long before I had to take care and negotiate my first possible set of obstacles (thankfully none of these furry creatures were about).

It is possible to take the old railway line, which is now National Cycle Route 7, from Lochwinnoch almost all of the way to my final destination today of Kilbirnie/Glengarnock, but I wanted to be somewhat more indirect and go via the town of Beith and so I headed back to Lochwinnoch train station until I reached a turning just past The Loch House restaurant. This took me on a narrow single-track road through the Ayrshire countryside where I encountered no cars at all during the entire 3 mile or so walk to Beith; only the green fields, bare hedges & sparsely snow-speckled hills (and wind turbines) kept me company.

After crossing a fast flowing burn the road forked and I followed the left hand turn up a gradual incline and into the outskirts of Beith. Since my last visit the Masonic Arms on the High Street had stopped selling real ale and been put up for sale by auction, but the nearby Sarcaen's Head Hotel on the road south out of town had started selling Scottish real ale and had even become Ayrshire CAMRA's Pub of the Year in 2015.

This is a fairly large 2-room pub, quite brightly & modernly decorated, with separate sections on either side of the rectangular central bar, a games/pool room further back and some outdoor seating/smoking areas at the very rear. Today the right-side was quite busy with people in for the football results and the racing on the many TVs, and the bar staff were attentive & helpful when I came in. They've had beer from Isle of Skye and Jaw Brewing on the bar, but today a couple of Kelburn ales were present on the 2 hand-pulls, Jaguar and Ca' Canny. I had a 1/2 of Kelburn Jaguar, recently named as Champion Golden Ale of Britain, a lovely, resiny, well-balanced beer, but I would have said it's lost a bit of its quite bitter bite since being first brewed in 2012 (or my tastes have changed, either is possible). Food in the Saracen's Head comes in the form of rolls, paninis and baked potatoes but there is also the option of ordering meals at the bar which come from the next door chippy, Fryer Tuck's Chip Shop (ouch), including a number of daily specials (pizzas, fish on Friday's etc...).

Almost opposite the Saracen's Head it's impossible to miss a very brightly decorated building, the B-Listed Beith Town House. Originally housing a number of shops (as well as a temporary cell for the upstairs Sheriff's Court) it is now used as a local museum and occasional concert venue.

Heading south out of Beith I was able to take a path through a housing estate to get to the main road to Glengarnock and then continued on this road to the junction for the Glengarnock Business Park at Caledonian Road. For some reason the pavement on the main road stops here (but does go into the Business Park) so that I then had to scrabble on the grass verge for a few hundred metres before reaching the outskirts of Glengarnock. Just into the residential area is a large construction project, the £40-Million Garnock Campus, which will host local secondary & primary schools as well as community facilities, and I'm assuming/hoping the pavement will continue all the way along the main road when this is completed in 2016.

There's not too much in Glengarnock, but just after the railway station is an interesting sandstone building - with a faded Kilbirnie Co-operative Society and Drapery signs, as well as a large front facing clock at the top of the building (albeit not working too well), there is an obvious link to the Co-operative Societies and their associated shops of the late 19th/early 20th Century. It seems the ground level of the building had recently been the location of a Jehovah Witness' meeting hall, but most of this level was now in the process of being redeveloped, possibly into a café/takeaway.

I took a footbridge over the River Garnock and then walked past & through the bollarded off road which marks the boundary between Glengarnock and Kilbirnie. At the very end of this road was my final destination, the Garnock Community Social Club (this is fairly obviously the back of the club, too many people were milling about at the front for me to get a decent pic).

From the entrance at the front I made the classic mistake of choosing the wrong room; this was totally empty and I had the fleeting thought I had come to completely the wrong place...

...but eventually by following the music that had started up I managed to find my way to the large function room of the club. After signing in as a guest I bought a number of 1/2 pint tokens (4 for £5, certainly can't complain) and gravitated to the small stillage area at the back of the room.

This was being marshalled by organiser Ian Martin, one of the Ayrshire CAMRA member helping out at the club (Ian normally wears a giraffe hat at beer festivals, today it was a Morris Dancer's, I think there is an endless supply of these). Ian has spent a fair amount of time & effort in making real ale available at the Social Club at weekends and this event was the culmination of all this effort. The beers available were a mixture of local beers (Ayr, Kelburn, Five Kingdoms), other Scottish beers (Jaw, Alechemy), quite a few from further afield and a number of Waulkmill ciders. In particular Ian had managed to obtain a couple of beers from his native London, Hackney Calypso Eldorado and East London Nightwatchman with the latter being quite superb - lots of red fruit bitterness, very smooth and a long dry bitter-fruit finish - an excellent Extra-Special Bitter. In addition, Ian had been able to 'procure' a 'quantity' of 2015 Great British Beer Festival pint glasses for the event, a nice touch (and I didn't want to how he had managed this).

I was only able to stay for about an hour but in that time all the beers that I had were in excellent nick, the place was busy, there were lots of kids milling about, everyone I spoke to was friendly & seemed to be having fun and the music from the local ensemble was great. It's a shame that there are so few social clubs providing decent beer in Scotland, hopefully the Garnock Community Social club can continue to do so for some time.

Return travel:-
  Train: Glengarnock to Glasgow Central (08, 38 on the hour)

Thursday, 19 November 2015

A food (and beer) stop at Born in the Borders: 4th November 2015

I'd managed to wangle a few days out of Glasgow, on a short break in the beautiful Borders, and since I had the car decided to take the opportunity to visit one of the area's breweries which is located in a fairly rural setting, the newly re-branded Born in the Borders Brewery just outside Jedburgh.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Car to Lanton Mill, TD8 6ST: Take the A68 to 2 miles north of Jedburgh, turn onto A698 west and then follow signs.

From the A698 connecting road there's a narrow single track road leading down to the Born in the Borders visitor centre, set almost on the River Teviot. Part of this collection of buildings used to be a working farm for the Chesters Country Retreat estate, but in 2011 local businessman and Chesters owner, John Henderson, set-up the Scottish Borders Brewery here in a small farm outbuilding, dedicated to the ethos of making beer from 'Plough to Pint', and in particular utilising in-house grown & locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. After operating successfully and establishing their beers over a number of years, John decided that 'just' an expansion to an off-sales shop or even a dedicated brewery tap wasn't a feasible commercial proposition in such a relatively rural setting, and so brought in significant funds to develop the more ambitious Born in the Borders concept. This would provide the best in all types of Borders food & drink, as well as adding arts, crafts & the famous Borders textiles on a single site, making it a one-stop tourist destination for the whole of the Borders area. After the successful opening of the Born in the Borders visitor centre in June 2014, it made sense that a re-branding of Scottish Borders Brewery to use the Born in the Borders name and all the associated positive publicity and media coverage should happen, and this change has been rolling out during 2015. As we approached the Born in the Borders visitors centre on a fairly dreich Autumn day, the low-slung, stone-clad buildings definitely seemed welcoming, modern but with traditional features, and they all seemed to blend in well with the surrounding countryside.

The brewery (of more later) and gift shop are on the left side of the main courtyard, whilst on the right are the food hall and the café/restaurant and there's a handy large-scale map in the centre of the site depicting what they each provide.

From our base at Peebles it had taken almost an hour along the A- & B-Roads to get to the Born in the Borders centre so first port of call was definitely the café/restaurant. There's a small bar area at the entrance here with no seating (that I could see), but there are plenty of wooden tables & chairs towards the back of the room as well as a lot of seating outside within the walled-off terrace area which would be great on a sunny (and preferably warm) day. Even though there was still a lot of bright, natural, light in the room there was very much a deliberate autumnal look & feel about the place with yellow/orange leaves on the small decorative trees and I liked the flowers & acorns on the tables which I assume change with the season.

Food in the café/restaurant can be anything from coffee & scones, brunch specials, some interesting sandwiches, a small selection of main meals and a lot of seriously impressive looking cakes & home baking (displayed temptingly in glass stands near the main entrance). We went for a couple of the sandwiches and they were quite stunning; mine being ham-hock off the bone with creamy farmhouse cheddar and a spicy vegetable pickle, all on thick, slightly toasted sour-dough bread. The intensity of fresh flavours from the local produce probably made this the tastiest sandwich I've had for a long time.

And yes, that is a cup of tea that I had with the sandwich. I was driving and it's simply not worth taking the risk of any beer at all whilst driving. As far as I could tell the café/restaurant does provide some cask beer in the summertime, but at present, only bottles of Born in the Borders beers and Waulkmill ciders were available in the fridge behind the bar. Service was also great and happily fed, we walked across to the main food & drink hall which includes a long deli-style food counter, lots of well-stocked display shelves and a scattering of empty casks being used as promotional stands. Amongst the produce in here (that I can remember) were a range of soft & alcoholic drinks, crisps, biscuits, sweets, honey & condiments, butter & cheese, charcuterie and bread - it's an impressive local selection at pretty decent prices. Unsurprisingly there was also a back wall full of beer with the Born in the Borders bottles & gift sets prominent, but also bottles available from Broughton Ales, Tempest Brew Co., Traquair House and the close-to-the-Borders Top Out Brewery. I purchased a couple of the Born in the Borders beers, a Traquair House 50th Year special and a Waulkmill cider that I had been looking for for a while, the infamous Clan MacFannie, an Irn Bru (!) flavoured cider. When I tried this later on in the day this concoction turned out to have a striking Irn Bru aroma, with the initial bubblegum sweet taste thankfully tailing off somewhat into some flat, sweetish cider - it was certainly different!

The majority of the display fittings & shelf units in the food hall are on casters so they can be easily moved about when promotions are being run and the same methodology is used in the adjacent building. This houses a gift shop specialising in Borders textiles & all sorts of soft furnishings, but there are also candles, jewellery, local artwork, toys, beauty products and pretty well anything non-food & drink related. I liked the fact that the supplier of the goods has a description and also that it is labelled with the number of miles away from The Born in the Borders centre that it was made.

Occupying the final building across the courtyard is the Born in the Borders Brewery, although I did note that the outside sign & logo still depicts the Scottish Borders Brewery (which is probably still the legal name). There's a bit of a lack of other brewing paraphernalia around the outside of the building but there is the all-important basketball hoop; perfect for those sunny Borders days when you're waiting for the boil to finish.

Upstairs is a well presented self-paced guide to brewing and the history & development of the Born in the Borders Brewery. There are samples of different malts and hops to try (and smell) and also a home-brew kit which helps to bring across the general brewing process (I wonder if this was John's original kit !?).

There is also a showcase of all the Scottish Borders/Born in the Borders beers, including one-off specials that had been brewed for local events and the awards that the beers have won. Comparing the old and new bottle labels side-by-side there's no doubt that the new label design is way more modern, but it seems they have lost the approximate colour of the beer on the front, maybe not such a good thing for the relatively novice beer drinker (although to-be-honest their beer names are pretty self-explanatory). As well as going through the brewery name/label change they've decided to reduce the number of core beers, instead producing more seasonal beers and continuing with their foraged beers (nettles, measdowsweet and sea buckthorn have been recent interesting ingredients). For me Foxy Blonde is still their best beer, having significantly improved in quality and earthy-citrus intensity recently and there are not too many beers with those interesting Green Bullet hops in them.

The next room upstairs is the malt store with the malt chute at the far end feeding the mash tun...

...and there's also a view downstairs into the main brewery floor where one of the Born in The Borders guys was hard at work digging out said mash tun.

I went downstairs, stuck my head into the gap in the sliding door and tried to get the guy's attention away from the digging-out process by jumping up-and-down a bit (OK, a lot). Once he had decided that I was (relatively) harmless we chatted away about the brewery set-up (they were brewing Foxy Blonde, their mainstay, today with the first bittering hops having just been added). As well as the 10-barrel mash tun & copper, there are also 5 fermenters in the temperature controlled room behind the partition and also more conditioning tanks. They brew 2-3 times a week with the latest foraged beer having just been brewed in the past week. This was the 2015 variant of Hop Scotch whereby the majority of the hops used were grown in John's garden at Chesters Country Retreat (hops from Scotland are a definite rarity). There were only enough hops for 1 brew of Hop Scotch, and so it'll be a lucky establishment indeed to see this, with one of the most likely being John's pub in nearby Ancrum, The Cross Keys. Other local pubs taking Born in the Borders beers include Burt's Hotel in Melrose, Rutherfords (the new scottish Micropub) in Kelso and also many, many pubs in Edinburgh and the north of England.

As well as eating, drinking & retail therapy (and beer), Born in the Borders also caters for kids activities in the form of this wooden pirate-themed play area...

...and there are also a number of 4x4 driving packages that can be booked. We decided on the somewhat cheaper, if perhaps less adrenaline pounding, proposition of one of the walks beside the picturesque River Teviot, only a minute or so from the Born in the Borders site.

It was definitely worth a visit out to the Born in the Borders visitors centre; I liked the way the centre has been set out, the food was outstanding and it's always great to have a chat about beer and the local brewing & pub scene.