Friday, 29 June 2012

Haymarket to the Scottish Real Ale Festival: 27th June 2012

This was to be my first visit to the Scottish Real Ale Festival (SRAF) for a number of years. I'd given it a miss in recent times because on the last occasion I attended when I got in at ~2pm on the Saturday (my normal visiting time), all the new and interesting Scottish beers had gone (although I did get a cool beer-geek T-shirt). Normally at Festivals such as Paisley or Troon this isn't a problem since there are always some of the more 'obscure' English or Foreign beers to be had, but at that particular SRAF this led to only Belhaven or Caledonian beers being available - not really my 'cup-of-tea'/beer, so I left after half an hour. However this year I'd been invited by Alan Lawson from Angus Ales to go along to the SRAF Trade Session on Wednesday evening and this seemed a good opportunity to (hopefully) try a few new beers, have a chat with some of the brewers & bloggers, and see how the SRAF had improved and grown (now to over 180 beers) at its new home in the Edinburgh Corn Exchange in the west of the city.

View SRAF in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Edinburgh Haymarket

At this current time when you leave Haymarket Station you basically enter a building site for the long awaited Edinburgh trams - this does seem to have been going on for a long, long time.

The most direct route to the Corn Exchange is to turn right out of Haymarket and then head down the A70 (Dalry Road continuing to Slateford Road) until Slateford Station and the New Market complex which includes the Corn Exchange. On the way there are a couple of great pubs, Athletic Arms (Diggers) and the Caley Sample Room, both of which I had visited fairly recently on the May Day holiday (see blog here). I thus decided on a slightly more circuitous route involving Fountainbridge and Colinton Road before heading back to the Caley Sample Room to meet Alan. This meant I headed past the Haymarket building site and towards the the City Centre for a couple of hundred yards to Thompson's Bar on Morrison Street.

It doesn't hint at it too much from the outside, but inside is an impressive traditional bar with decor based on Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's work including a fantastic bar gantry, decorative carvings in the bar top and numerous detailings in the pillars & beams. Dotted around the walls are Younger's, Muir's & Whitelaw's brewery mirrors and lots of beer & whisky prints all adding to the traditional feel, although there is a single TV for the news and the football - it's really all been very well designed and maintained.

There were 5 real ales on today, 4 from hand-pull, only 1 from those great tall fonts (a shame), with Deuchars IPA, Landlord, Pictish Brewers Gold, and Fyne Avalanche & Lismore Red available - a more than acceptable selection. I chose the Lismore Red and had a great chat with the barman about the whole Fyne Ales IPA Project before letting him return to his day job of serving drinks to the many walk-in customers and also prepare the great steak pies that are available here (toasties as well).

Next I headed along Grove Street until the junction with Fountainbridge. In the midst of the Fountainbridge leisure complex (part of the site of the long closed McEwans/S&N Brewery) is a pub/bar called McCowans Brewhouse. It's trying a bit too hard to be a faux American diner, but there's still a number of Caledonian, Inveralmond & Stewart beers to be had here. True to its 'Brewhouse' name there is a real gleaming micro-brewery here, visible from the long windows, with the equipment just begging to be used, but I don't think there's been a beer brewed here in the last 5 years. I believe that a number of Lothians-based brewers have tried to buy/lease the equipment over the last few years to no avail (for some inexplicable reason).

On the other side of the road the demolition of the reminder of the old Brewery site seems complete and *something* is being built in its place.

Fountainbridge marks the end of the Union Canal and as I headed down to the canal path I came to the Golden Rule, part of the same pub group (The Shilling Group) as Thomson's Bar.

This is another great traditional pub, quiet in the early afternoon and a fine place for a pint & some papers. It's split over 2 levels, with the main bar at the top and the lounge (almost a reading & games room, complete with Battleships to play) on the lower level. The decor is dark wood and subdued lighting, with brewery mirrors & canal prints on the walls and pump-clips above the bar. On hand-pull were Deuchars IPA, Thrappledouser, Killellan & Tempest Emanation - a great mellow, but still definitely bitter pale ale. I took a pint of this and a packet of Bacon Flavour Fries and relaxed (a bit) for the first time that day whilst watching the tennis on the TV.

I had a great time with barman discussing Cyprus towns & bars but finally I had to leave my deeply padded seat and head further west along Polwath Terrace, parallel to the canal. When I got to Colinton Road it wasn't far to the Kilted Pig situated in the midst of a number of local shops.

Inside it was bedecked with the flags of the Euro semi-final teams (and the Irish tricolour - I'm assuming due to the Irish bartender) with a huge TV on the side wall. I liked the exposed brickwork, with a number of interesting Guinness/beer prints on the walls, and someone obviously has a thing about piggy banks - there were rows of them along the shelves! Sadly the beer selection was fairly Glasgow 'standard' (in Edinburgh!) with Tennents x2, Stella, San Miguel, McEwans 80/-, Guinness x2 & Caledonian Best and no interesting bottles at all - not so good, but I certainly couldn't fault the friendly service.

From here it's only a 10 minute walk through the Meggetland Estate to the Corn Exchange, but I needed to back-track slightly to meet Alan at the Caley Sample Room. As normal there was a great choice of cask and keg beers here and after sampling a few of the interesting ones (albeit perhaps a tad warm ?) we headed out in the rain past the Caledonian Brewery in Slateford Road to the Corn Exchange. I have memories of seeing Spiritualised and Garbage (Shirley Manson et al) here, and I certainly didn't think the next time I'd be back would be for a beer festival, but initial impressions were that the venue seems an excellent fit for the Scottish Real Ale Festival.

We arrived just as the SIBA Scottish Awards were being handed out and it was really good to see Fyne Ales Jarl win as bottled champion and Highland Brewing Pale Ale as cask champion - both are great beers and up there with the best Scotland can produce.

The Trade Session is obviously a great meeting point for the industry and it was interesting to chat to publicans (Athletic Arms, Ericht Ale House), brewers (Alechemy, Loch Ness, Ayr, DemonBrew, Loch Lomond) and fellow bloggers (Richard & Paul from the Beercast). I think the general consensus is that it's a certainly a boom time for innovative Scottish brewing, but there's no doubt that there's still a definite worry for the livelihood of independent pubs outwith the main cities .

Since it was a school night I couldn't try too many beers but I liked the Tinpot Raspberry Pot (masses of slightly sour raspberries), but not the Prune Pot (too slight in body), thought the Alechemy Cockleroy Black IPA was great (almost like a bitter, soft stout), but that the extra Simcoe hops in the Cairnpapple XH gave it far too much of a medicinal taste. I also liked Broughton's new Willacade - light, bitter and full of soft fruit flavours for a 3.6% beer and Royston's Hoppy Handful from new brewery Spey Valley, but it perhaps needed to sit for a while longer in the cask. Unfortunately I missed Stewart Brewing make use a Hopinator on their Pentland IPA, but from what I could gather this gave an almost undrinkable bitterness to the beer.

The central/island location of the 'bar' is definitely a good idea, allowing easier access to all the required pythons & other cooling equipment and also allows more seating around the walls. It all seemed extremely well organised & staffed (plus there was even decent WiFi - hooray!) and hopefully the event will break all records showcasing Scottish brewing at its best (and still not sell out early on the Saturday).

Return travel:-
  Train: Slateford to Edinburgh Haymarket (~35 on the hour)
            Edinburgh Haymarket to Glasgow Queen Street

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Bowling Basin to the Auchentoshan Festival: 16th June 2012

This Saturday heralded the welcome return after a 2 year absence of the Auchentoshan Whisky Festival, see my blog earlier in the year regarding some beer related aspects of this from the last time it was held, and of my 'association' whisky in general. Instead of going directly to the Festival this year I decided to walk along the start of the Forth-Clyde canal from Bowling until Old Kilpatrick and then head up to enjoy the Festival in the Auchentoshan Distillery site situated just before the Erskine Bridge.

View Auchentoshan in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Westerton to Bowling

I left the train at Bowling station and immediately came across an interesting view down the Clyde to the old Bowling Harbour and the Erskine Bridge. Truth to be told the harbour is a bit of a mess, muddy with some rusting, derelict ships - I think there are plans ongoing to regenerate this but nothing seems to be happening at the moment.

Within a stone's throw of the station is a pub, The Railway Inn, but I'd been in fairly recently and although it's a decent enough place for something to eat (the conservatory is pretty good) this time I didn't really have time to stop.

I therefore turned into Dumbarton Road and after a couple of hundred yards came across an establishment I hadn't been in before, the Bay Inn - with the distinctive pub sign indicating that it had been around since 1790.

I hadn't found any recent reviews about the place so I was expecting a fairly dark, old fashioned place, but it was nothing like that all. Instead it was bright, modern & welcoming and full of flags for the Euro2012 football and the Jubilee (and the Bowling Gala Day) as well as lots of pictures of ships and other nautical memorabilia.

The beer choice was pretty well as I'd expected - lots of Tennents, Stella and Guinness so I went for a 1/2 of the Caledonian Best since I hadn't tried it before (cold & fizzy, not tasting of much), but I managed to overlook the fact that bottles of Spitfire were available. The owner indicated that he sells a lot of them (served cold and at room temperature), but not enough to justify a cask of real ale - a definite shame. As I chatted away with the owner and one of the locals I noticed that on one of the columns at the bar a Ship's Figurehead looks down over the rest of the pub - I don't know if this is meant to ward away evil spirits but it's certainly very distinctive (and honest - it's not an apparition in the photo!)

It's always good to find a place which exceeds your expectations so I left this really friendly local with a bit a spring in my step and headed further along Dumbarton Road to the entrance of Bowling Basin and the start of the Forth-Clyde canal. There are quite a few moorings available both at the entrance of the River Clyde and slightly further up the canal.

There's also a cycle hire ship here under the arches of the old railway bridge, Magic Cycles, which I always seem to forget about on the (very) infrequent times when I need to hire a bike - I normally use the cycle hire at Loch Lomond Shores. At the first lock gate there's a huge old canal house which is now a private house (or 3) and I remember it well from being used in an episode of Taggart.

I walked along the canal path for a while passing the entrance to the Saltings - an inland water nature reserve for birds and other wildlife, before heading back onto Dumbarton Road for The Ettrick, a large detached building with what seemed to be very separate bar and lounge areas.

I went into the large bar and found an eerily similar selection of draught beer - Tennents (x2), Stella, Guinness etc..., but also a tap for McEwans Export which I hadn't tried for some time (I did spy a couple of hand-pulls (and I'm sure I'd had a Deuchars IPA here before), but they were only being used to hang charity collection boxes from!). The Export was OK (and certainly a lot more interesting than the Best) but still had that almost artificial smoothness which was one of my reasons for starting to drink real ale in the first place. Whilst I was drinking this a lot of the 'older' gentlemen were ordering their 1/2 and 1/2's - so there's definitely still a market for this.

The place has more of an old fashioned look to it than the Bay Inn with some great dark orange lanterns hanging from the ceiling, nautical prints on the walls and (strangely) a cuckoo clock above the door into the Gents. There were also a couple of impressive mirrors - a huge Johnnie Walker one (no pic - too many people sitting below it), and the other a great Bass 'Our Finest Ale' one (although possibly a reproduction).

It was then time to find my final pub before heading up to the Distillery. Still further along Dumbarton Road (which eventually leads almost all the way into the centre of Glasgow) is The Glen Lusset.

It really is situated in the shadow of the Erskine Bridge and I don't think I'd realised what a height the road platform actually is at - it definitely is a bit disconcerting.

The Glen Lusset also has 2 separate sections - a bar/lounge and a Steak House restaurant. The large bar is setup almost like an American diner with long benches, lots of neon and a pool table area with a great view over the canal. I didn't find any real ale but there were bottles of Furstenburg and Erdinger which were a significant improvement on anything I'd had so far this afternoon.

Somewhat to my surprise there was the occasional screeching noise coming from near the entrance. This was the house parrot Jakey, who, it was explained to me, actually has a Twitter page and *tweets* - double ouch!

Immediately opposite the Glen Lusset is a short expanse of woodland called Lussett Glen which follows the path of a burn coming off the Kilpatrick Hills - it was really quite tranquil and unexpected after the noise of Dumbarton Road.

The Lusset Glen path led me to the main A82 and Erskine Bridge intersection and I then followed this past Dunottar Cemetery to the Auchentoshan Distillery

By now it had started to rain (a lot), so it became a necessity to get my entrance ticket and then leg it to the Ale Bar as quickly as possible.

On at the bar was Williams Brothers Draught from keg and also bottles of the Auchentoshan Festival Ale 2012 - hooray! This was the new batch of Williams Brothers pine/spruce-based Christmas ale Nollaig matured in Burbon Casks at Auchenoshan for 3 months with the alcohol going from 7.1% to over 9% and then being pared down to 4.5% for bottling. Quite surprisingly the pine taste from the Nollaig had almost completely disappeared - what was left was a slightly sweet vanilla and rye malt taste - very nice, with a slight bitter aftertaste, but quite light bodied and very drinkable - although I really would love to have tried the pre-bottled version(s).

By now I needed some food and went in search of something non-burger related at the Farmer's Market. I managed to get a quite fantastic pot of spicy beef chilli from one of the vendors and ate this under the cover of one of the spare market stalls as the rain poured down.

I then had a quick look around the rest of the festival site - there were a number of marquees with cooking/drink mixing demonstrations and talks, a band playing, someone with a chainsaw 'sculpting' from wood and you could 'fill' your own bottle of whisky from a couple of special casks, but the weather was really putting on downer on things - a real shame given all the time and effort involved in setting things up. Thankfully I'd manage to time things fairly well and didn't have long to wait for the only Whisky & Ale Masterclass of the day in one of the many warehouses. This was really well attended (I ended up chatting away to Frank Murphy from The Pot Still) and was being taken by Jeremy Stephens, formerly of Fuller's Brewery, and now Head Blender at Auchentoshan.

Just about managing to give a talk and presentation above the noise of the rain on the warehouse roof, Jeremy went through the different processes for brewing and distillation in a brief but very informative way. He also had various examples of light & dark malted barley to sample and hops (Bramling Cross) to rub & inhale. He ended up with leading us through a couple of whisky and beer matchings. The first being Auchentoshan Classic with the Auchentoshan Festival Ale that I'd just tried - both very light and they seemed to enhance the vanilla tones in each other. The second was Auchentoshan 3 Wood with Williams Brothers March of the Penguins - this time both were heavier and the smoky sweetness from the 3 Wood seemed to bring out more of the dark malt and chocolate flavours of the beer - or so it seemed anyway. It was certainly very interesting to try but I think my own personal preferences lean to only beer or only whisky (with the latter only on very special occasions).

I managed to get a few words with Jeremy before he had to shoot off to another part of the Festival but he indicated that the proposed in-house Auchentoshan brewery was still 'On the 5-year Plan' so hopefully there still the possibility of another (almost) Glasgow-based brewery in the next few years.

Return travel:-
  Train: Kilpatrick to Partick (for the Three Judges and some Ilkley beers!)

Friday, 8 June 2012

Monifieth to the Fisherman's Tavern, Broughty Ferry: 5th June 2012

Like a lot of people my early drinking experiences were with mass produced fizzy lager and (I'm sad to say) the occasional alcopop - Hooper's Hooch anyone !? Having lived in Monifieth on the outskirts of Dundee and gone to The University of Dundee, I belatedly discovered the Fisherman's Tavern (aka The Fish) in Broughty Ferry (aka The Ferry), almost on my doorstep. I think I initially went in with a group of friends on one their father's recommendation (we must have been growing up ever so slightly to even think about taking the advice), chose an Orkney Dark Island almost at random from the blackboard and was *completely* amazed. How could there be such aroma, and such incredible taste from a beer ?! And that was it - we were regulars every weekend for over 5 years, I return there whenever I'm back in the area and even now, it's probably the pub I feel most comfortable in on the entire planet. This time I was back for a couple of days during the Jubilee holidays and so decided to go for a gentle walk from Monifieth to The Ferry, with the (very slight!) possible chance of ending up in The Fish.

View Broughty Ferry in a larger map

Nowadays (after probably decades of absence) there is a more than decent real ale establishment in Monifieth and fortuitously it is literally only 'down the road' from the family home - this is The Milton Inn.

It's gone through quite a few iterations in recent years but is now run by Mark Barton who used to own the Taycreggan Hotel in The Ferry. It's a large stone-built building with the non-hotel area comprising a bar area with comfy seats, papers to read and a lot nice exposed brickwork, a somewhat 'sunken' snug/lounge and a partially screened off dining area - with the food being excellent and very popular. You can tell that Mark is an ex-service man - he and his manager Ash run the bar and dining service with a firm, but friendly hand - no ordering or serving screw-ups are allowed here! Mark's introduced real ale (as well as holding a charity-led Beer Festival last September) and it seems to really be going down really well judging by the turnover they have. On today were Deuchars IPA, Cale 80/-, Old Speckled Hen and Gowfer's Gold from Angus Ales - this is their golden hoppy ale (with some citra hops in there to enhance the bitter-fruit aroma) and is probably my favourite Angus Ale along with the Driver Dark stout. Mark and the staff really ensure they serve the beers in great condition and the choice is also pretty good - in previous weeks the Milton has featured beers from Fyne Ales, Kelburn and the new MòR Brewing in Kellas, just outside Dundee (which I unfortunately missed - damn!).

Outside at the back there's a really nice long decking area and a fabulous beer garden at the bottom of some steps which almost stretches down to the Dighty burn - it's great place to be when the sun shines.

I then headed down to the coast road between Monifieth and Dundee. After having started on this road you have a couple of choices. The most direct option is to continue along the main road straight into The Ferry - in this case you can stop at The Cambustay (previously The Kittiwake), now a Mitchells & Butlers Vintage Inn.
It's a large building with a central bar, multiple dining areas and a small 'lounge' in front of the bar for the drop-in drinker. There's also a great secluded beer garden to the back.

It's very much a family food orientated place (a sign with 'Please wait to be seated' greeted me 2 foot from the doorway), but with Deuchars IPA and Bitter & Twisted available it may be that they are more amenable to 'casual' drinking at the bar during the evening.

The other option for the walk is to choose the more picturesque route and cross the main East Coast railway line at the Monifieth/Broughty Ferry border at Balmossie. This allowed me to walk along the raised beach area (common to many Scottish east coast towns & villages) to the Esplanade at Broughty Ferry (note there is also an option to walk from The Cambustay to the Esplanade over a footbridge, so you don't miss out too much of the coastline). All along one side of the east end of the Esplanade is the Barnhill Rock Garden, an impressive (and free) public 'park' with many varieties of plants, trees and shrubbery (also great for playing those long games of hide-and-seek!).

Further along the Esplanade I passed a development of new luxury flats where The Sands disco/nightclub used to be (later incarnations were called Buddies and Jacques, I think). This was the place to go as an older teenager in the 80's and 90's - there are far, far too many stories that could be told about this place!
Before as The Sands (c. 1985, image © DC Thomson)

Today (amost got the lamppost in the same position!)

Almost adjacent to the flats is another relatively new development, a very popular dining establishment called The Glass Pavilion, today bedecked in Union Flags and bunting for The Jubilee - good to see.

I remember when this was a olde-fashioned bathing shelter and refreshment kiosk, selling drinks & ice-cream in the summertime, but it became a somewhat sad, derelict building for quite a few years. Now the same red-brick art-deco facade has been kept, but both the glass frontage of the bar/restaurant and the outdoor seating offer spectacular views across the 'silvery' Tay to Tentsmuir and further to St Andrews to enjoy your ice-cold beer or coffee.

Heading out from The Glass Pavillion the end of the Esplanade gave me great views along the beach to Broughty Ferry Castle, now a museum (again with free entry) with a great outlook from both the Castle Tower and the surrounding Green across the narrowest stretch of the Tay to Tayport.

Entering The Ferry proper from the Castle I passed a small harbour area (mostly unused nowadays, except by a colony/flock of swans) until coming to the mooring point for the RNLI Lifeboat, still one of the busiest in the UK.

Directly opposite this facing the shore is the Ship Inn (once featured as the homecoming local for a fishing boat crew in a Tennents advert). Thankfully the Ship now does real ale and I went in for a quick look around.

It's pretty narrow, and filled with all sorts of interesting nautical bric-a-brac, but there are still a decent number of seats and tables downstairs and through the back. The friendly barmaid allowed me to try a couple of the beers (Deuchars IPA, Orkney Red McGregor and Taylor Landlord - all in decent condition) and then wasn't at all perturbed when I ordered a coffee (a long Macchiato, ooh-err), since I had to be driving later in the day. It's a nice friendly place with the brewery mirrors and mermaids keeping (my eyes) entertained whilst I finished my coffee. Food downstairs is pretty basic & filling (fish-n-chips, burgers, baked tatties etc...), but upstairs is an absolutely excellent restaurant specialising in seafood - it's a great place to have a function or a romantic meal.

It was now a short walk around the corner of Fort Street to the Fisherman's Tavern (tip - there is entrance from the right side of the Ship Inn through an alley-way which can be very useful if the main bar is packed). The Fish is the only Scottish pub to have been in every edition of The Good Beer Guide (it wasn't in the first edition which was limited to English pubs) and won the National Pub of the Year award in 1993. Back then it was really only a 2 roomed pub with a low ceilinged bar (now thankfully not smoke-tar brown) and a lounge/snug with a separate serving area - both areas are still pretty much the same today. With the addition of the next door building another large lounge has been added as well as a dining room to make a fairly large pub.

Beers originally came from local Scottish micros (I remember having my first Harviestoun beer here, a Ptarmigan, which tasted of grapefruit (in a beer - wow!) and also from all over the UK - there was never a problem in getting an interesting, tasty beer. A number of years ago the owner (Jonathan Stewart - a legend in the Dundee pub trade) obviously had 'an offer he couldn't refuse' and sold The Fish to Belhaven/Greene King. Thankfully they haven't really done anything too drastic to the place, perhaps added some decorative touches, increased the food range (lunches are really good), so it's still really comfortable, full of nautical memorabilia, and the staff are great at serving a mass of clamouring, thirsty folk. They've also kept the Thursday night acoustic/fiddle music session and the Beer Festival on the late May Day holiday weekend in the outside walled garden with all proceeds going to the RNLI - lots of kudos for this.

It's still a great pub and a great place to have a drink in, but after all this gushing praise there are a few qualms (which I don't normally like to air - I always try to be as positive as possible). What I have seen over the last few years is a few more Belhaven/GK beers coming on (not at all surprising, this is a business at the end-of-the-day), and this seems to have come with a more conservative choice in the guest beers. Today there was GK IPA, Houston Challenger, SN Spitfire, Wells Bombardier, Angus Driver Dark and Williams Fraoch. It's an OK selection but I'm guessing they all come the Belhaven/GK guest list (even the Angus Ale) - again from a business point-of-view you can see why and that's quite acceptable (thankfully at the RNLI Beer Festival there is a more diverse selection). What I have also noticed in my last couple of visits, which is somewhat more disappointing, is that the quality of the beer has dipped somewhat. The Fraoch I had today was almost completely flat, not really fresh at all (even though it was fairly new on), and had none of the sweet, floral, heather aroma & taste that it should have. It was OK, but for a such a great pub, it should be far better than OK. My friends who are still in the area have noted this as well and have started to leave The Fish before the evening is up (almost unheard of in years gone by), and instead head out to either the Royal Arch in The Ferry (which seems to have a better selection of guest beers) or go to Monifieth where the Milton Inn definitely has better kept beers. It's a bit of a worry and I therefore left the place from the doorway in the back bar & snug nursing a slight tinge of disappointment, but still in the hope that their standards will soon be as good as ever. I'll certainly send Belhaven/GK a link to this blog and see if any response is forthcoming.

Return Transport:-
  Bus: Broughty Ferry Library to Monifieth (Strathtay 73C or 73D)