Friday, 8 January 2016

Into the Lion's Lair... Brewery: Hogmanay 2015

It's always great to see a new brewery in my original home county/region/council area of Angus, and since I was heading back that way for some Hogmanay celebrations I hoped I would be able to pay the interestingly named Lion's Lair Brewery a quick visit before heading back to the west-coast.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Car: A92 to Muirdrum, B9128 north towards Forfar, ignore Greystone turning from SatNav directions, then 2nd cottage after Lochlair Farm.

I'd e-mailed Lion's Lair beforehand and received directions from brewer & owner Stepan Rychtar, so I was able to head up to the cottage/farm-holding where Lion's Lair Brewery is located and park on the longish (but sodden) driveway without too much of a problem. I headed to the side of the cottage, past a few clucking chickens, and found Stepan milling about in the converted chalet-style prefab cabin which houses all the brewing kit.

Stepan's a really nice guy - he's originally from the Czech Republic but came to the Angus area 10 or so years ago for the summer berry picking season for which the surrounding farms are justly famous (I remember this so well from my own childhood). He obviously stayed on (I assume meeting his prospective wife had something to do with this), still has a day job as a machinist, but got into home wine-making and home-brewing a few years ago. First of all, I obviously asked about the name of the Brewery - Lion's Lair - and it seems this comes from an amalgamation of Lochlair farm cottages where Stepan lives with Stepan's star-sign of Leo, and there are lots of leonine and Africa-related pictures and arts & craft pieces dotted about the place.

After deciding that there could be a market for locally brewed beer, Stepan took a formal brewing course at PBC and then had his 2.5BBL kit made and installed by them in the newly purchased (and somewhat modified) cabin. After the normal amount of red tape and Customs & Excise inspections, Stepan eventually started brewing in early October of this year. Despite a slight issue with the first brew (he wasn't able to use pellet hops in the boil and so had to brew a slightly less hoppy 'special') Stepan has concentrated on 2 beers - Sonny Blonde a 4.2% golden ale named after his son, and Black Mamba, a 5.2% hoppy Black IPA, with the latter quite an unusual choice for a first-out beer, but one of Stepan's favourites.

As well as the hot liquor tank, mash-tun & copper, Stepan has 2 polyethylene fermenting vessels (one in front and the other out the back) and a number of plastic casks, both 9-gallon and 4.5-gallon pin-sized, and Stepan is currently dry-hopping in the casks. The colouring on the casks is certainly pretty distinctive (shades of the South African flag) so here's hoping he doesn't lose any.

Inside the rest of the brewery/cabin space is a small office, a kitchen & sink and also a 2-tap home kegerator. Stepan did offer me a sample of the Black Mamba (a very small sample since I was driving), but to-be-honest I was just about able to pick-up some dark chocolate and piney bitterness but this was all very muted simply because it was so cold due to the outside conditions.

Stepan has been able to get his beers into quite a lot of the local cask beer outlets in Angus & western Perthshire including establishments in nearby Letham, Arbroath, Brechin and Dundee (for a full list see here). Surprisingly enough the local JD Wetherspoon pubs have been very supportive, with Stepan able to provide beer for almost all of these in Dundee & surroundings. It seems Lion's Lair is currently thought of as the 'local area' brewery, a nice position to be in, and which has meant that Stepan sold out of beer over the Christmas and New Year period after a number of 'emergency' call-outs. He plans to provide beers for as many Beer Festivals as possible in 2016 and will also brew a number of other beers, possibly including a bitter-maybe-70/- and a lager-style beer (although not a true Czech-style pils, he doesn't have that sort of capability at the moment). Thanks indeed to Stephan for giving me an hour or so of his precious time just before the New Year, and from what I could see, he is certainly enthusiastic, knowledgeable and driven enough to make a success of Lion's Lair as a full-time job. Before leaving we swapped some beers (my Craft Beer Kitchen for his Sunny Blonde) and Stephan was also kind enough to give me a bottle of this fruit wine which he had produced. I'm not a big wine drinker so this would go on to make a great First-Foot present (and tasted quite OK from the small sample I tried).

After leaving Stepan I really wanted to try both of the Lion's Lair beers on cask. I had popped into my Monifieth local (The Milton Inn) the night before and knew that the Black Mamba was 'Coming Soon' there, but it seemed as if the other most likely place to find these beers would be Jolly's Hotel in Broughty Ferry. I therefore left my car at my Dad's and walked alongside the 'Silvery Tay' until reaching Jolly's, a large JD Wetherspoon establishment in the heart of The Ferry. And there on the bar were the 2 Lion's Lair beers; everything else (apart from Deuchars IPA and Ruddles County) was 'Available Soon' and so they were both doing a brisk trade on Hogmanay afternoon. The Lion's Lair beers definitely stood out on the bar with their distinctive artwork (by Stepan's wife) and the hand-folded metal borders of the pump-clips.

The staff indicated that the beers had been selling well, although the comment 'a bit of a distinctive taste' (well maybe to Deuchars drinkers) was made, and that doing business with Stepan was great. First of all I went for the Sonny Blonde; this was full of oranges & lemons, sweetish, a bit hazy & resiny, with a bitter orange-apricot finish - a very decent golden ale. As a complete contrast the Black Mamba poured as dark as coal, with a taste of dark red fruits, dark chocolate, a fairly thin body, and finished with loads of piney grapefruit bitterness and also a burnt after-taste which almost seemed to coat my tongue - a very interesting & delicious Black IPA, though I really liked both beers. I couldn't stay in Jolly's for more than a pint of each, but as I walked to The Milton Inn in the evening for a few beers before The Bells, I hoped that the Black Mamba would have gone from 'Coming Soon' to actually being on.

I needn't have worried. Manager Mark Barton and his staff had this available and in great condition, as befits the new CAMRA Pub-of-the-Year for Tayside - many congrats! In the company of some family and friends I was more than happy to quaff a few more pints of Black Mamaba to welcome in 2016.