Monday, 19 November 2012

Edinburgh on a batty Autumn International day: 17th November 2012

I wasn't planning on attempting another rugby-and-beer themed blog for a while after my last one during the Six Nations tournament in February, but as well as the Scotland v South Africa Autumn International I'd come up with a few interesting things to do in Edinburgh this weekend, so well - why not?

View Batty in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Partick to Edinburgh Haymarket (Airdie/Bathgate line)

As luck would have it this Saturday coincided with the possible opening of the newest and probably most talked-about 'Craft Beer' bar in Edinburgh for quite some time, The Hanging Bat. I say possible, since the official opening wasn't until Monday 19th November, but there had been rumours of a 'soft opening' a couple of days in advance. In any case after getting off the train at Haymarket (and negotiating the still on-going tram works) I was heading off to Cloisters (only a couple of hundred meters along the road) and so decided to give it a go. The sign outside seemed promising so with the door half-open I headed inside.

The staff were there (which was good) and I recognised a few of them including the lovely Aidy and the somewhat harassed looking co-owner Mr Chris Mair. However there were still lots of preparations to be made and after a bit of chat (& making sure they would be open later on in the day) I got out of their hair (at least for a while) and headed out past the end of Lothian Road & into Brougham Street to the sanctuary of Cloisters Bar. I had hopes of finding an Elixir beer in Cloisters (since the manager Barry is half of Elixir Brewing) but he confirmed what I had suspected, that there really wasn't any left in any Edinburgh pub - big sigh... However the Tyne Bank Cherry Stout was lovely (with a nicely understated dark cherry fizziness which I think might have become more prominent by the end of the cask) and I also learnt that Cloisters have obtained some of the first casks of Abbeydale Brewery beers that I've seen in Scotland outwith a Beer Festival or two - another visit to Edinburgh might be required in the near future.

A couple of halves later I took the zig-zag route through the Sheraton Hotel complex back down to William Street to meet up with some friends for a few beers before the rugby match. As usual we'd planned to meet up in The Melville but that was going to prove quite difficult today.

According to this article in the SLTN The Melville had been closed since July (I don't know the reason(s) why), but at least there seems to have been some 'significant interest' in the premises and I certainly hope the place re-opens for the next round of 6 Nations games in February/March 2013. This reduction of capacity for thirsty drinkers meant that the other 2 pubs in William Street, Bert's Bar & Teuchters, were completely mobbed so after deciding that movement towards the bar in Bert's was impossible we headed into Teuchters.

This had a pretty decent selection of Fyne Jarl, Highland Dark Munro & Deuchars IPA on cask with Black Isle Blonde on keg, perfect lowish abv quaffing beers. The staff were really excellent & efficient, but it was the getting to the bar that was the problem (thankfully lip-reading 'Jarl' and 'Diet Coke' seems to be part of the job description for the staff). The TVs in here were showing both the rugby and the early football game, so it's definitely a sports fan's place.

We left in plenty of time to allow for possible diversions along Haymarket Terrace and actually managed to get into the ground without too much of a delay. In the (very) unlikely hope that there might be something interesting to drink I did have a quick look at the queues for the in-ground bars, but with only Carling, Caffreys or Guinness available I headed instead in search of some warming Bovril. This also proved fruitless, so we had to make do with coffee (which seemed almost Turkish in origin, it was so strong).

The game itself was another disappointing one, with one good patch for Scotland in the 2nd half, but it just seemed to be very difficult to break down the South African defence. A win next week against Tonga really is a necessity.

After the game & the brisk walk back in the chilly air to William Street, I left my friends to watch the Ireland game in Teuchters whilst I headed up to try the Hanging Bat again. This time after tapping on the window, co-owner Chris informed me that they were going through their final staff training and would be open real-soon-now (and I was beginning to feel like a stalker). I therefore decided to implement my last desperate plan to obtain an Elixir beer and walked all the way cross-town towards the Broughton Road area and one of the newer beer shops in Edinburgh, The Beerhive, where I hoped a bottle of Elixir's latest beer had been reserved for me.

After drip-drying in the entrance of the shop for a few minutes I confirmed that there was indeed a bottle of Elixir's Tea Total left for me (hooray!), an oatmeal stout with smoked malt and lapsang souchong tea brewed in part for a certain Craig Garvie's 10,000th beer rating. There was also a really excellent selection of UK and foreign beer on the many shelves - I was tempted by a couple of the Brasserie Fantôme beers but decided I could only take the Tea Total, a Wild Beer Modus Operandi (fermented with some wild yeast, which I might leave in a dark cupboard for a while) and a De Dolle Extra Export Stout - any more and the likelihood of my leaving them all in a pub in Edinburgh was too high (I've done that once before and don't want to do it again!).

They also have a keggerator (see this Beercast article) for supplying take-away fresh beer, and give the current offering out for sampling in the shop. Sipping some Magic Rock High Wire whilst chatting away to the friendly guys in the shop is certainly a nice way to buy some beer.

The number 8 Lothian Bus stops almost outside the shop so I decided to take this up to North Bridge and then walk though the seething mass of people in the Grass Market to try the The Hanging Bat again, and hooray, 3rd time lucky, it was open (and busy!). Walking in, it was interesting to take in the different levels to the place, in particular the long bar with lots of stools (but also lots of standing space), the 6 cask hand-pulls, the 14 shiny keg taps, the bottles of spirits (especially gin) behind the bar, all alongside a great full-on view of the casks.

There's also an almost 'basement'-like area down a few steps with comfy sofas where I think they plan to hold the 'meet-the-brewer' evenings and a raised area at the front with views out to Lothian Road.

There's certainly a lot of exposed brickwork & wood panelling and I liked the collection of old bottles, scattering of soft toys and the large amount of fabulous carved wood, especially the handles for the cask beers (although not seeing any pump-clips will take some getting used to).

As as for the beer selection, it really is quite outstanding. 6 cask beers (one of which will be from the excellent Luckie Ales), 14 keg lines from some great (mostly UK) breweries and more UK & Foreign bottled beer in a nicely bound beer menu booklet that I could photograph without running out of space in my camera-phone. And they were saving some of the more exclusive beer for the Monday night official opening!

I had the Kernel Table Beer and for a 3% abv beer it was lovely - a slight sweet sherbetyness up front and then lots of light citrus bitterness. Note also the 2/3 pint glass - there will be no pint measures served in The Hanging Bat at all (the reasoning here being that 'the last quarter of a pint, by the time you get to it, is warm and flat'), but I suspect the staff will be explaining that to customers for months to come.

Further towards the rear of the bar is another seriously interesting feature - the in-house nano-brewery, a SABCO Brew-Magic pilot kit (a snip at $7K+ when new). The license for this is still forthcoming, but when available it will be used for special brews from visiting commercial brewers and also for customer use so that the beer brewed by your own fair hands can go on sale in a real pub - a great idea.

And even the Gents has a nice feature (yet another photograph in a toilet - gads!). The water taps are beer keg taps - fantastic!

I must say that I think The Hanging Bat is really set to make an impact on the Scottish beer and bar scene - great beer, friendly staff and definitely something different to keep you interested and occupied for the most part of an evening (or afternoon) out.

Return transport:-
  Train: Edinburgh Haymarket to Glasgow Queen St

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Searching for beer on the Costa del Sol: November 2012

This November it was to be a sun-searching end-of-year holiday on the Costa del Sol. I'd never been to mainland Spain before and I was hoping for some decent weather, but perhaps not expecting too much in the decent beer stakes. However a trawl of the area on the internet had produced a couple of intriguing possibilities, so the following is my (by no means at all encompassing) guide to searching for interesting beer on the Costa del Sol.

View Spain - Costa del Sol in a larger map

We were staying on the east side of Nerja, a comparatively small town about 40km to the east of Malaga and the apartment we were renting was only a few hundred metres from the sand, bars & restaurants of Burriana Beach - although quite a few of those metres were vertical!

Nerja is most famous for the Cuevas de Nerja, a set of spectacular caves discovered in 1959 by a group of local boys searching for bats. It's difficult to convey the sheer size of these caves and the lengths of some of the stalactites/stalagmites - I've been to a number of cave sites in the UK and Europe and these are certainly some of the most impressive I've seen.

On the local road from Nerja town centre to the Caves is the Acueducto del Águila (Eagle Aqueduct) - restored after two years work and still used for local communal irrigation.

And so to the beer...

The nearest large Supermarket to us on the east side of town was a SuperSol - as well the standard set of Spanish beers (Alhambra-San Miguel-Mahou, Cruzcampo, Damm), there were a number of German beers and also (quite bizzarely) Fullers London Porter. The best Spanish mass market beer that I had all week was from here, a Mahou Negra - a sort of Swartzbier, but with a very sweet, almost treacle-toffee like flavour which I found quite pleasant.

On the road out from Nerja to the A-7 motorway was a fairly large Lidl, unsurprising similar to the stores in the UK. Immediately at the front entrance were the stocks of speciality beers, in this case a couple of different Damm beers - A.K. DAMM (brewed using the original Alsacian Method of which I didn't pick-up anything special at all) and WEISS DAMM, an acceptable Weissbier with not too much of an aroma but a nice spicy flavour. There was also a number of other Hefe-Weissbiers available, from the sublime (Franziskaner) to the ridiculous (Grafenwalder in a can!).

On the coast road from Nerja to Torrox was an Aldi, which had an extremely poor beer selection in contrast to the current situation in Scotland (I didn't buy anything from there), but just off the main A-7 motorway at Velez-Malaga was an Eroski hypermarket in the midst of the El Ingenio shopping complex. This had probably the best selection of foreign (mostly German and Belgian) beer that I found, with lots of Paulaner bottles available as well as Belgian strong ales and Dubbels (Judas, Affligem Blonde & Bruin).

The other place to buy Belgian beer was at a couple of specialised Delis and shops. I found Deli-Antwerpen just across from the Parador Hotel in Nerja with a good selection of bottles (Belle-Vue Kriek, Leffe, Lindemans, Duvel etc...) as well as lovely cheese, waffles & crisps - really *lethal* stuff (lots of visits to the gym will be required when back home).

I also tracked down an outlet of the La Maison Belge chain, which seemed to have a shop in Fuengirola, to the south-west of Malaga, but we didn't manage to get there during this visit.

There are a huge number of bars in Nerja, both on the beach-front and also in the winding streets of the old town. My favourites were probably Cochrans Irish Bar (thankfully just far enough away from the bustling Balcón de Europa to be fairly quiet during the day) with a great elevated view over the Mediterranean and serving a decent large Guinness, and also La Ferreteria, again just down from the Parador Hotel, which had probably the best selection of draught & bottled local & foreign beer in town, and also really friendly staff - definitely recommended.

We decided to drive to Gibraltar on possibly the wettest day of the entire year - it's just over a 2 hour drive & the conditions were terrible, 30mph winds and 45 degree rain for virtually the entire journey, there and back - not fun at all. Coming into Gibraltar we could see the vague outline of the Rock, but when through Customs (only a 20 minute wait @11:30am) we couldn't see any of it at all due to the low cloud - a real disappointment! The cable car to the top of the Rock also wasn't running in this weather so we consoled ourselves in the Gibraltar Arms on Main Street.

This had nice pub-style grub and also Old Speckled Hen on keg as well as on a few mirrors.

Gibraltar is full of British-style pubs, both on Main Steet & in the newer marina area and there's even a Morrisons superstore (which we didn't try). It's also full of tax-free shops, mostly selling electronic products, tobacco and bottles of spirits but I did find Bushy's Gibraltar Barbary Beer in bottles. This is made with hops grown in the Botanical Gardens in Gibraltar, brewed at Bushy's in the Isle of Man and then shipped all the way back to Gibraltar - lots of air/sea miles there. As a beer it was OK, a pretty standard bitter with just a hint of light citrus hoppiness, but nothing too special.

When I was looking around for information on recent microbreweries in southern Spain I came across 2 possibilities. One was Saxon Brewery located in the small village of Velez Rubio, Almeria, about 275km to the north-east of Nerja. They brew actual 'real ale' and ship it to various Cask Marque approved pubs/bars mostly on the Costa Blanca but also on the Costa del Sol. There are quite happy to have people visit, but when I e-mailed the owner Ian, it eventually turned out he'd be in the UK during the time I would be in the Costa del Sol - bad timing to say the least. In addition the nearest pubs to Nerja that he supplies to are on the other side of Malaga, and I didn't really want to make a fairly long journey just for a very small beer (since I would be driving) at another bar - although the Garden Bar in the Rocas Del Mar complex at Miraflores would have seemed very enticing on a sunny day.
Instead I decided to make use of the poor weather at Gibraltar and set sail (almost literally) on a slight detour further west along the A-7 to the Fabrica de Cerveza Kettal brewpub, located in the midst of a shopping complex at Palmones, Los Barrios.

The outside looked promising (give or take the tarnishing of the first couple of letters of the signage), but my first glimpse of the inside of the bar was far more than that - this was a classic US West Coast brewpub look with long bar, bottles and taps on the counter, hops hanging everywhere, copper clad brewing paraphernalia and shiny brewkit at the centre.

The bar had a blackboard-based set of tasting, colour & abv notes for all the different beers, bottles to take away, taps dispensing only their own beers and lots of bottled spirits.

Downstairs had a number of beer-barrel type seats and quite a few more comfy sofas and there was also an upstairs balcony area to enjoy the Tex-Mex food and function rooms available for hire (I think Christmas & other festivals are big for them).

I couldn't see too much of the 7.5 BBL brewing kit but it was spotless and I don't think there had been any brewing that day.

Since I had to drive all the way back to Nerja I couldn't really have a drink from one of the taps so it was a matter of trying to buy some of their bottled beer for take-away purposes. However with the barman not speaking English and as my Spanish is almost non-existant this proved a fairly lengthy process, but eventually after much gesturing I ended up with a bottle of each of the 6 core beers they produce - hooray!

Just for completeness these are El Trillo - a golden summer ale, La Espiga - a fairly low abv wheat beer with some esters in the aroma and a nice lemon & wheat taste, El Alambique - a malty dry red ale, La Fanega - a sweet, malty almost 70/- ale, El Almiar - a fairly bitter IPA and El Yunque - a pretty decent chocolatey porter. All were a bit too fizzy when poured straight from the bottle (I learnt to leave them for 10 minutes or so), but all were pretty decent and had so much more taste than anything from the large Spanish macro-breweries. If you're on the Costa del Sol it is a bit far to go to specifically get these beers from the brewpub, but you can also get them from a local distributor - ex-pat Ken Walker who writes in this local blog. I bought some more of these beers from Ken later on in the week and they did actually come out to be quite a bit cheaper (€1.50 a bottle compared to €2.30 at the brewpub!).

So in general I was probably somewhat disappointed in the weather during my week on the Costa del Sol (although it did brighten up later on), but contrary to my expectations, I did enjoy searching for, and finding some pretty decent beer.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Inverkip to Greenock along the Clyde Coast: 3rd November 2012

I'd wanted to go for a walk along the Clyde coast all summer but never found the time to do it for various reasons. Instead I decided that an autumn day that started off bright & breezy was too good an opportunity to miss and so headed off to Inverkip with the intention to walk up the coast (as much as possible) to Greenock.

View Inverkip in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Glasgow Central to Inverkip (50 on the hour)

It's only about a 45 minute journey from Glasgow to Inverkip and if you sit on the on right hand side of the train there are some great views of the Clyde, especially across to Dumbarton Rock and its historic military garrison. There's also the huge IBM complex a couple of miles outside Greenock, so extensive that a train stop was built just for it.
After getting off at Inverkip station I took the road down the hill and onto the main street to the Inverkip Hotel

The hotel restaurant looked a bit too formal so I headed into the quaintly named Elbow Room bar. Quite a few regulars were propping up the bar, but I managed to spy Arran Red Squirrel & Houston Peters Well pumpclips on view, although the actual handpulls are in the lounge bar. I took a pint of the malty, liquoricy Red Squirrel (there are only Red Squirrels on Arran and I think a percentage of the price goes to a Red Squirrel trust) and went to sit at the far side of the bar. The bar gantry is really bright, enhanced by the full length mirrors, twinkling whisky bottles & a shiny new WEST 4 font, whilst the back of the bar has a flashing puggie and lots of black-and-white photos of old Inverkip.

There were 2 soups available - chicken broth or curried carrot(!), so I had to try the latter and when it came (after approx. 3 minutes - wow!) it was very good indeed, thick & really quite spicy with all that curry heat. Kudos to the chef for making that work.

I now had to find the Coastal Path and so followed a helpful signpost towards the main road flyover at the entrance of Kip Marina

I decided to head towards the coast rather than follow an inland path and so walked further into the marina and a brand new housing development. This was a bad move since I couldn't find a way out of the estate, but I did manage to get a nice shot of the huge number of berths in the Kip Marina complex.

Instead I had to backtrack to an unmarked path (and also now a contractor's road) before the housing estate. This was very, very muddy in places (welly boots would have been the better choice of footwear) and I even managed to slip once and get only one leg of my jeans completely covered in mud - a nice look. However I eventually connected into the real Coastal Path and found my way up to the car park and picnic area at Lunderston Bay

From here I had to follow the pavement of the main road and came across a number of 'unusual' sea shore shacks (perhaps old fisherman's huts) on the beach - some were boarded up, but quite a few were inhabited (surely not full-time, the sea can get incredibly rough out here at times).

At the very point where the land and sea make a right-angled turn into the Firth of Clyde is the Cloch Lighthouse, which is now someone's home (and mightily impressive too) with the date of 1796 on the lighthouse tower.

The path now continued parallel to the northern bank of the Clyde past the Western Ferries McInroy's Point ferry service, now the only car & vehicle ferry to Dunoon (don't worry these two didn't hit each other).

From this point the views across Clyde are spectacular - up the length of Loch Long and the snow-capped Arrochar Alps.

The esplanade into Gourock is fairly long with large houses and developments of flats (mostly retirement homes) facing north over the Clyde. One of the smaller buildings contains the Spinnaker Hotel

In here are 2 main rooms - a more formal restaurant on the left and a bar lounge on the right. There was only a limited choice of either Belhaven IPA or Greene King IPA available in the bar (though the barman was cleaning the 3rd handpull, but only cleaning, sigh...) so I went for a pint of the Scottish beer. Also available were Belhaven Black, Peroni, Stella & (surprisingly) Tartan Special. It's a nice homely bar at the back of the room with chatty, friendly staff, a few seats (& today's papers) for those sitting at the bar, colourful stained glass of a Spinnaker-type ship and other nautical objects and a lot of comfy seats to take in those views over the esplanade & the Clyde. I liked the place & just hope they do have some decent guest ales in from time to time.

Further on into Gourock High Street past Gourock Outdoor Pool (closed for the wintertime) is Cafe Continental with a welcoming Erdinger Weissbier sign in the window.

It was really quite bustling inside - tables full of families, shoppers & quite a few dogs and a further number of regulars propping up the superb 1/4 oval marble bar. There are no handpulls, but Erdinger, Black Isle Blonde, St Mungo, Estrella Damm & Budvar are available on draught but for some reason I went for a bottle of Blue Moon, complete with slice of orange (I think I must have wanted a bottle after the fizzy Belhaven IPA). As I squeezed myself into the corner of the bar I noted the huge bar gantry with backing mirrors & large large clock and also all of the great wall tiling, in Glasgow close green & white.

The place narrows towards the centre (next to the toilets) and then opens out again further back to a packed-out conservatory dining area with really quite fabulous views across the Clyde.

I then went searching for Greenock Esplanade, but just before reaching this I went through Battery Park which was being set up for the evening's Firework Display with fairground rides, fast food stalls, sparklers, flashing lights etc... all about be fully set-up & manned.

It's a lovely long Esplanade, up there with those at Brought Ferry, Portobello and Troon, perhaps the only thing which slightly spoils it are the cranes of the Clydeport shipping complex at the end of the Esplanade.

My final stop of the day was going to be the JD Wetherspoon pub The James Watt (note that this is not at all close to the James Watt College buildings), a conversion of a large elegant Victorian Post Office and named after the famous Scientist/Engineer born in Greenock.

It really is a large building (it must be up there in size with the Counting House in Glasgow) and fairly open plan with lots of tables around the windows, a large family area in the centre and a dedicated section for worshipping the TV (the football results were on when I was there). It perhaps doesn't have the reputation for real ale that some of the other Wetherspoons pubs have, but since their Real Ale Festival was still on I went for the 3 1/3rd pint tasters option irregardless. From the 6 handpulls I chose Shepherd Neame Red Sails, Greene King IPA Reserve & Woodforde Norfolk Hawker (a nice appley flavour in that) but it probably took longer to find the glasses (not too much demand I guess) than drink the beer. I sat down at the rear of the TV section and next to one of a number of pieces of old technology in the building - a really nice touch. I think this was a Lister diesel engine in its traditional Brunswick Green livery displayed under a number of shelves of old books.

I like pubs that are close to stations & which also have free WiFi to allow the Scotrail App to track trains in real-time, so with The James Watt only a 2 minute stroll to Greenock Central it was nice-and-easy to judge the train back to Glasgow after a good Saturday afternoon walk.

Return transport:-
  Greenock Central to Glasgow Central 15, 32 (express), 45 on the hour)