Saturday, 19 March 2016

Rhythm and Brews in Montrose: 5th March 2016

There were a quite a few beery events around this weekend in Scotland, always great to see, but I'd decided to take advantage of a very cheap return fare to Montrose to head to the 1st Rhythm and Brews Festival, organised jointly by Burnside Brewery and the MoFest people.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St. to Montrose (41 on the hour)

The journey to Montrose started off in bright sunshine but as I reached the Dundee, the haar typical of the area came down and restricted visibility along this lovely section of Scotland's coastline (OK, I know I'm biased). Location-wise Montrose is a slightly strange place - the town centre is not quite on the coast and the large expanse of Montrose Basin upriver from the train station has filled up over a number of years to become a huge tidal flood plain - great for all sorts of wildlife and wild fauna.

After a short stroll along the gently lapping shore of the Basin I headed back into the town centre, consisting of Murray Street, Castle Street and the High Street. This Saturday the Angus Farmers Market were in residence on the paved section of the High Street and although I was disappointed not to see an appearance from Kirrie Ales (Forfar only it seems, not Montrose), I did manage to pick up some great zesty lemonade scones (with the lemonade replacing milk) from Storm Cakes of Aberlemno.

Located almost almost immediately behind the marketplace (makes sense) is the Market Arms, and it was here that I encamped for some high-carb sustenance before the beer festival.

At just past noon the place was packed; more specifically the majority of people were in for food and I could definitely see why. They really only do soup and various types of sandwiches/filled rolls but for only £3.50 for a soup-and-sandwich deal it really is excellent value. All the centre of room & side booth tables were taken and so I sat at the bar, ordered a pint of Inveralmond Ossian (Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted was the other hand-pull choice) and fairly quickly made my soup-and-sandwich choice. At that point I was interrupted by a hissing noise and an elderly couple pointed me in the direction of a table at the back of the room which had just become vacant - really good of them as it would probably only have lasted a minute or so further. This meant I could eat my minestrone soup and tuna mayo sandwich (sans sweetcorn) in relative quiet at the back of the room - and quite excellent it was.

Food done I headed out from the Market Arms and went east towards the beach area at Montrose. As mentioned this is a bit out from the town centre, maybe a 15 minute or so walk, and in my case, this involved walking across a couple of holes of the golf course (completely deserted today) to get to the high dunes in front of the beach. In contrast to the gentle waters of Montrose Basin that I'd walked along earlier in the day, the wind and sea haar were whipping up the sea spray fairly impressively, although I could just about see the tall lighthouse across the bay at Scurdie Ness.

I followed the curving road of Trail Drive back towards the town centre and then over a disused railway line before reaching 'old' district of Montrose. Here Montrose Museum, the old Montrose Academy buildings and the town's remembrance gardens and are all located, and this was also the location of Montrose Town Hall where the Rhythm & Brews Festival was being held.

I'd paid the £12.50 entrance fee in advance and, although this was a bit steep, there were at least 4 tokens for a pint of beer available with the festival glass (and thereafter £10 for 11 tokens, an interesting exchange rate!). Actually there were 2 festival glasses, a plastic one for drinking at the festival and a glass one for taking away (this bizarre situation was purely a local licensing 'issue'). The large hall space had the bar setup on the right, a gin & prosecco bar at the far corner, loads of tables on the left and the high stage front & centre (with more than adequate dancing space). There weren't too many people at the bar when I came in - it wasn't really being used as a meeting or lean-to space but that didn't really stop me from baggsying a space at the far left side beside the on-loan keg units from six°north.

Music is just as important as beer in this festival, early Saturday Kith and Kin were performing some traditional and more modern Scottish songs to loads of applause, and I was told the music the night before was excellent (with some serious dancing as well, supposedly).

Holding fort at the bar were the guys from Burnside Brewery (and of course loads of other volunteers) and I chatted to both Gary & Dave over the the course of an hour or two. They had managed to get a great selection of beers (Cromarty, Windswept, Deeside & Eden Mill were all present), but this also included pins from Lion's Lair, some of their own MoFest beers (golden & dark (with real chocolate - yumm!)) and bottles from very new Park Brew (I was able to procure a bottle of this for the train journey with a little persuasion). It was also great to see Kriek beer on draught (OK, keg), you don't see that too often (maybe at the newly opened six°north Glasgow) and glass washing was taking place after any attempt at drinking a glass of this (thanks to the staff for this!)

This was just a great chilled out festival but I unfortunately had to head to back to the train station before the 2nd band of the afternoon had finished their warm-up - hopefully I'll manage an evening session next year at the 2016 Rhythm and Brews Festival.

Return travel:-
  Train: Montrose to Glasgow Queen St. (~15 on the hour)

Monday, 7 March 2016

Top Pubs & Top of the Hops down Ayrshire way: 27th February 2016

With the 6 Nations rugby, some family matters to attend to and the generally seriously wet winter weather, I don't get about too much in February. However, with a bright, crisp and clear day promised (and an early start), I thought I would be able head down to Ayrshire for a walk along the coast, find some food & some beer and also visit a new beer/homebrew shop in Kilmarnock before watching the Scotland rugby game from the Italian capitol.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Irvine (00, 05, 30, 35 on the hour)

Irvine on the Ayrshire coast is a place I know quite well, having worked there for a good number of years, although I'd have to qualify that in that I know the industrial estates and the shopping centre, but not the harbourside area. So instead of joining the majority of people who headed off the train and into the sprawling Rivergate Centre and nearby retail outlets I headed in the opposite direction towards Irvine's historic harbourside area. This is where the rivers Garnock & Irvine come together to empty into the Firth of Clyde and where ships have landed cargo and supplies for hundreds of years. The port declined rapidly in the 20th Century when the upper Clyde ports came into prominence and now there are only a few older vessels moored upstream from the smaller leisure vessels in the newer marina.

I'd seen a strange bridge over the river quite a few times from the train and had always thought it was some sort of unfinished or storm damaged grain/aggregate conveyor bridge but as I came closer something started to click in my memory. This was the sliding Bridge of Scottish Invention walk/cycleway which linked across to now closed The Big Idea science centre on the Ardeer Peninsula. The sides of the bridge are festooned with the names & inventions of various Scottish scientists down the ages and it also had an intriguing slide-in/slide-out docking mechanism to allow access for tall ships to/from Irvine harbour. With the closure of The Big Idea in 2003 the bridge is always open nowadays with the entrance to the bridge completely boarded up but Ayrshire Creative Corridor have plans to turn the sand dune-like structure of The Big Idea into a hub for high-tech ventures although this is still in the very early planning stages.

The walk along the river to the coast isn't too long and really is quite a lovely stroll on a bright, sunny day and as I came to the end of it I found another intriguing structure, the multi-level Pilot House. This is by no means the most architecturally stunning building about, but it had a life-saving practical use to automatically signal the depth and state of the tide in the river to ships, both during the day (by use of a selection of large black balls) and at night (by using a sequence of lights). There aren't too many structures like still standing in the UK and it's great to come across them.

Ayrshire has a lot of great breaches, Troon, West Kilbride and the long sands of Ayr itself, but I hadn't realised the beach at Irvine was so spectacular, with miles of silver sands and high dunes in front of the raised beach; today these were sparely populated with walkers, scampering dogs and even a couple of horses & riders.

I could have quite happily walked for ages along the beach but the winter sun had just about reached high-noon and so I back-tracked towards the town centre. There are a number of pubs, coffee shops and the Harbour Arts Centre opposite the river walkway but today The Ship Inn was my intended destination although I wasn't quite sure about which entrance to use - either through the sunken conservatory at the front left or what seemed to be as separate-ish pub at the right-hand side (the Wee Catch).

Since I was looking for some food I went for the central front door and was rewarded by the sight a dark wooden panelled rectangular bar with a number of shiny keg fonts but also 2 hand-pulls. There wasn't anything on the first but the 2nd had something I wasn't expecting, a house beer called Auld Ship 1567.

I obviously asked which brewery provided this and was told it was told it was a Caledonian beer. This was a bit surprising since I didn't think Caley did that type of thing but when I tried it I could well believe it - very malty sweet, some red berries, and not a lot of hoppy bitterness - it was OK but could have been a lot better. I sat down at one of the tables in the many nooks of the sunken conservatory area and although this new part probably doesn't date back to 1567 it's very nicely decked out - the sloping roof has charcoal drawings of the old riverside of Irvine and there lots of Burns quotes dotted around the walls - I'm a sucker for this type of stuff.

Food-wise they do all sorts of stuff in here, from breakfast (10-12am only), to sandwiches, their famous fish-and-chips and other pub mains & specials. I was going to plump for the soup-and-sandwich deal (quelle surprise) but found out that the soup-of-the-day contained sweetcorn (arghhh...) and so on the advice of the waitress I went for the pasta special instead. This was spicy Italian sausage & rocket in a cream sauce & quite, quite outstanding. The thick creamy, slightly herby sauce in particular was superb and I really had to force myself not to lick the plate clean.

After that full-on carbohydrate intake I needed a bit of a walk and so headed back towards the centre of Irvine. Just before the train station I came across a small shop that had been boarded up when I went past earlier, Vanilla Joe's. This bills itself as 'The Best Gelateria in Scotland', a lofty & ambitious title, and although the cold-tray of ice creams seemed impreasive, I was way too full of creamy pasta sauce to attempt one of their confections - I will definitely have to come back.

As I walked past the sprawling Rivergate Centre I did think about popping into the relatively new Wetherspoons, The Auld Brig, but decided that my rugby-based schedule didn't really allow me this liberty and so skirted this complex and found the footpath along the River Irvine just to the north & east of the centre.

I didn't stay on this too long but instead followed another path through the mass of industrial units, roundabouts and swooping seagulls that make up the central part of Irvine. This merges into the smaller community of Dreghorn with a large TA Barracks on the outskirts and an ultra-modern glass, concrete & steel Primary School. As I continued through Dreghorn Main Street I came across the old Primary School building, alma mater of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, which has been bought by Arran Brewery.

The plan for this Victorian building (and the whole site) is to become Scotland's first Sake brewery, a visitor centre and the bottling & distribution centre for all of Arran's beers - definitely an ambitious undertaking. This has been hampered by a number of break-ins in the last 18 months, and when I went past there wasn't too much in the way of outward progress, but anything that brings jobs (and beer/Sake) into the area has got to be welcomed.
I think it is possible to walk all of the way into Kilmarnock from Irvine but I wasn't going to try that today. Instead I got on one of the frequent Ardrossan-Kilmarnock buses and stayed on until the terminus at Kilmarnock bus station. From here it was only a few minutes to the Foregate area of Kilmarnock where Top of the Hops is located.

This is a fairly new venture, having been opened in September of last year by local man John Mullen. Inside is a great array of bottled beer both Scottish (Ayr, Arran, Black Metal, Alechemy, Fallen and others), UK wide (Wiper and True, Kernel, Weird, Wild, Wold Top) as well as a diverse Belgian & German selection. As befits modern tastes there is also an craft can collection on the shelves with Beaverton, Four Pure, Adnams & Magic Rock all present and correct.

The other side of the shop is given over to homebrew supplies with a choice from basic kits up to all grain and a eclectic selection of yeast types.

From talking to the engaging owner it seems he took inspiration from Hippo Beers in Glasgow, and after a bit of a shaky time after the Christmas & New Year period, sales are heading in the right direction again. He plans to introduce a growler station, hopefully in the next few months, with key-kegs from both a local brewery (possibly Ethical Ales) and one from further afield, and also has further plans for a sit-down and drink-in-the-shop section, although that would seem to require a lot more in the way of planning permission.

It's great to see such a shop (in Kilmarnock as well, quite amazing) and I'm hoping he does really well. I bought a good number of bottles (bubble-wrapped against the world) and headed off to find somewhere to watch the rugby. As far as I know the place in Kilmarnock for this (and decent beer) is Fanny By Gaslight, a traditional Victorian Saloon Bar that I've been to a number of times in recent visits down this way and which has evolved into a great pub.

The place has been recently awarded CAMRA East Ayrshire Pub of the Year and I'm not that surprised. The full island bar is fantastic, there was a mini beer festival on today (a fairly safe, but good range of local Scottish beers from Harviestoun, Drygate, Orkney and some new bottled beer from Keith Brewery), and the staff are great, chatty & helpful (I was offered a high-backed chair to watch the rugby simply because I'm tall, a complete first for me). Scotland even won their 6-Nations game against Italy which I watched to the end in Fanny's with some more than decent beer - a welcome end to an afternoon out in Ayrshire.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Kilmarnock to Glasgow Central (27, 57 on the hour)

Friday, 5 February 2016

Heading back along the Union Canal at Linlithgow: 16th January 2016

During a seriously cold and possibly snowy winter's weekend, it doesn't make too much sense to head out on any long walks out-with the beaten path, so instead I decided that a walk along the canal path from Linlithgow was a good way of expending some calories, especially with a number of newish pubs around Linlithgow, Polmont and Falkirk to visit.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Linlithgow (15, 45 on the hour)

When in Linlithgow a walk around the small, but perfectly formed, Linlithgow Loch is always worthwhile, especially on days like today when the loch was partially frozen and looking somewhat ethereal in the still conditions. A few birds were happy to perch on the thin ice but there was no chance that this was thick enough for a fully formed human being.

Also worthwhile is a visit to Ellie's Cellar, one of a chain of great local (& independent) beer and wine shops (in Linlithgow the classy sit-down area at the front allows some great High Street people watching). On the large number of shelves allocated to bottled beer I found a good choice of more established and local brews, with a neatly arranged display of newly-formed Edinbrew bottles and they also stock a selection from the nearby Kinneil Brew Hoose. New to me was their Espré Bean, a coffee infused Scottish Ale, but I'm not quite sure why brewer Stuart had put this into clear bottles (admittedly the small batch wouldn't have taken long to sell out and it does mean that you can see the coffee bean at the bottom of the clear glass).

I then walked past the West Port area of Linlithgow (complete with a couple of decent pubs, the Black Bitch and the West Port Bar) before negotiating the traffic lights at the large retail park in Linlithgow Bridge. Apart from the retail park Linlithgow Bridge seemed to have only a few small shops and so it wasn't long before I came to the outskirts of Linlithgow borough, marked by the impressive high-level bridge over the River Avon, complete with olde-style passing places. On the far side of this is The Bridge Inn, a hostelry which was also used to help take the toll for the bridge crossing from the 17th to 19th centuries. Since this was the only crossing over the Avon for miles around it was obviously very successful and so when the railway appeared in the late 19th century the Royal Borough of Linlithgow tried to secure a similar toll from the railway company, but after a protracted battle the court action fell through. Even with the toll removed The Bridge Inn continued as a eating & drinking establishment and also plays a key part in the annual Linlithgow Marches event.

The opening hours are writ large on the outside (always useful), so at just past High Noon I headed into the main bar as the outside declaration suggested it had been open since 11am. Once inside I did, however, have to negotiate my way around some vacuum cleaners but the lack of people meant that I had my choice of table in the bar (rather than the restaurant), and so I chose the far left side of the long bar area. The section here is more relaxed & comfy than the opposite site of the bar and is furnished with lots of brewery mirrors, a large black chess set displayed on-high (I couldn't see the white set anywhere, strange) and an (unlit) fire, and there were also a number of sofa chairs in which I was able to peruse the extensive lunch-time menu.

There was a single hand-pull at the bar, but there was nothing on it, sigh... I hate it when that happens! This meant a choice of either Belhaven Best or Younger's (now Wells) Tartan Special, and since I hadn't had the latter in a good many years I went for a pint of that and although it was certainly malty sweet & fruity, it still had that pasteurised, almost chalky blandness. As a counterpoint to this there was a very good menu, with everything from normal pub mains to a great selection of lunch-time lite-bites & snacks (wraps, sandwiches & jacket potatoes). On a cold, sleety day the soup was certainly a good choice, a herby, smooth, tomato & basil, but I decided against the chips to go with the coronation chicken wrap (hey, it was still January after all).

All of this didn't take long (the soup was excellent) and warmed-up against the elements I headed out into the ever greying afternoon. I crossed back over the Avon, followed some signs for the Avon Heritage Trail though a housing estate, and came to the start of the trail (right under one of the arches of the railway bridge).

This walking trail followed the River Avon for quite a few miles before steadily rising up towards the 240-foot contour level of the Union Canal. Literally only 100 metres away from this intersection I found the impressive sight of the Avon Aqueduct.

This is pretty high and somewhat vertigo inducing, and it doesn't help that it is also really quite long (supposedly the 2nd longest in the UK).

There are a number of passing places which offer great views up and down the Avon, the best of these I found to be close to the western end of the aqueduct.

The Avon Heritage Trails continues on the other side of the aqueduct, but I stayed on the towpath of the Union Canal. Not too far along is Bridge 49, which seemed pleasant enough & quite inviting, but by now it was starting to snow/sleet fairly heavily and so I decided to press on westwards along the canal and towards Polmont.

There's not too much to see along this stretch of the canal but a mile or so along I came across the sight of a deserted castle, Almond or Haining Castle, and it seems there used to be a brick works in the surrounding scrub ground.

It was a nice walk along the canal for another couple of more miles in the light, fluffy snow flurries before I headed up the ramp from the canal and into Polmont's Station Road. From here I walked past the station and down to the main shopping precinct in Polmont, where the Claremont Inn takes up the front section of the precinct (and was looking very festive in the snow).

Inside is a large single roomed building with a raised platform restaurant area mostly setup for diners, a right-angled bar at the back and a largish section at the front for the more hardened drinkers with lots of seating at the bar and some additional contemporary tables & chairs. There was only a single hand-pull in amongst the keg beer fonts, but thankfully there was something on it this time - hooray! - Inveralmond's Santa's Swallie (even though it was served in a Harviestoun glass). It may perhaps have been getting a bit late in the season for a Santa beer, but I took a pint of this and retired to a table near the side windows.

By now the snow was really starting to lie and so instead of continuing on the canal to Falkirk I decided the sensible decision was to get on the train at Polmont and travel to Falkirk's Grahamston Station, only 5 minutes away by fast train. From here it was only a few minutes to cross the increasingly grid-locked inner ring-road to reach Behind The Wall, where the rear alleyway 'secret' entrance to the Eglesbrech Ale and Whisky Bar was still in operation.

After a bit of a blip a few years ago the beer in here has improved a lot in terms of quality & selection and today was no exception - a couple of excellent (as per normal) Tryst beers but the Harviestoun Old Manor was new to me and seemed worth a try, but I got less than a 1/2 pint of this before it went off - drats! Instead I went for a pint from the rarely seen Cotswold Spring brewery - their Stunner was full of marmalade orange citrus, a decent body with a bitter burnt orange finish and really quite nice if perhaps (picky, here) not 100% stunning.

The front bar is a relaxing place to sit and have a few beers, there is a more function/music orientated back room (where Barney's Beers used to be) and they have a lot of diverse beer & brewing related paraphernalia around - I don't think I'd noticed this interesting display of beer bottles before.

I ascertained that the Old Manor wasn't coming back on and so, once finished, I headed back outside and walked up towards Falkirk's main shopping thoroughfare. On the street before this and extending into one of the many traditional Falkirk alleyways I couldn't miss the newly opened Artisan Tap, advertising craft beer, gourmet coffee & cask ales (as well as light & warmth in the snowy gloaming), part of a growing 'craft' chain from Hawthorn Leisure.

I'd been in an Artisan Tap before (in Paisley, this was unfortunately only short lived being located relatively far out of the main Paisley shopping drag) and wasn't expecting too much, but inside was quite a nice surprise. There was lots of light wood, sanded floors, bright downlighters, wrought iron features, a raised area for food and a long bar in front of a large open kitchen hatch. Peppering the bar were a lot of shiny keg fonts, some chilled wine dispensers and 3 hand-pulls - I'm pretty sure they have some sort of distribution deal with Belhaven/Greene King, and although I hadn't tried the Hardys & Hansons (Greene King) Rocked Out I didn't really fancy that or the other cask beers (Landlord or Old Golden Hen).

However as well as the hand-pulls they have a couple of large beer fridges. Normally beer fridges are behind the bar (or there sometimes is a bottled beer menu), necessitating a sometimes hasty & ill-informed selection, but these were to the side of the bar, with self-service for the bottled beer and (more surprisingly) for the chilled glass of your choice. OK, it's not quite the 'Magic' beer fridge of the Allison Arms in Glasgow or the Hemelvaart Bier Café in Ayton but for a chain it's not bad at all. Choice-wise they could possibly do with more Scottish beers, but there was a lot of Harviestoun, WEST, Brewdog, Meantime, Adnams, Flying Dog, Westmalle, Chimay, Duvel, and even Point Brewing lurking in said fridges.

I took a bottle of the Meantime Chocolate Porter (sweet dark chocolate, very thin, cold, it had a nice bitter-cocoa finish, but needed a bit more intensity) and managed to catch a few words with the staff whilst they kept up with the busy trade in beer (it seems they had managed to sweep up some of the stack from the closed Paisley branch), coffee and food. Deciding that it would be better not to have another chilled beer from the fridge, I set forth for Falkirk High station (I even, reluctantly, gave The Wheatsheaf a miss). I slip-slided around the inner ring-road to the bottom of the steep High Station Road, but a quick look at my ScotRail App (and a few delayed trains) meant that I could pop into the Woodside Inn for a beer (I'd never been in before, I think I'd always been too focused in getting to the High station).

This is about as polar opposite to the Artisan Tap as possible - a traditional centre horseshoe island bar, very narrow corridor areas left and right opening out to some small tables hugging the walls and lots of painted glass windows and partitions. There are 2 hand-pulls on the bar located almost immediately in front of the door, today with the fantastic Tryst Brockville Pale (which I could have drunk for the rest of the afternoon) as well as Marston's Pedigree available.

There were also a number of large brewery mirrors set at eye-level on the walls, including this impressive George Younger one which reminded me of my pint of (William) Younger's Tartan Special at The Bridge Inn - if nothing else at least there are still a few reminders of the past of Scottish brewing.

Return travel:-
  Train: Falkirk High to Glasgow Queen Street (every 15 minutes)

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.