Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Summerhall Beer Festival and some surrounding places: 25th May 2013

As if I really needed another excuse to walk around some interesting places (and, of course, pubs) in the capital city of Edinburgh, there was to be a first Beer Festival in the Summerhall buildings (a re-vamped former School of Veterinary Studies), now home to all sorts of arts, crafts, drama & creative activities all-year-round. Helping to organise the Beer Festival was Barney's Beer, having de-camped from Behind The Wall in Falkirk in the middle of last year to take up the position of brewer-in-residence at Summerhall. So with the sun making a more than welcome appearance, it was set fair to be a lovely Summer(hall) holiday weekend.

View Summerhall in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St to Edinburgh Waverley
  Bus: Waverley Bridge to King's Buildings (Lothian Buses 41)

Arthur's Seat is the most well-known of the many 'hills' set inside the Edinburgh boundary, but this time I decided to head somewhat further south of the City Centre. The bus dropped me off just before the King's Buildings of the University of Edinburgh and from there it was just a short walk to the outskirts of Blackford Hill. It's here that the Royal Observatory Edinburgh is located, a fairly large conglomeration of new and more historic buildings used for both research and teaching purposes.

The magnificent East and West copper-clad domes hold (or used to hold) the main instruments, although one is non-operation and the other has been moved to the Museum of Scotland. Copper was used since when performing visual observations the air temperature inside the observatory must be as close as possible to the outside air temperature to minimise any refractive effects (heat hazes), and copper has the property of being a very good heat conductor. I remember that both the domes used to be completely green with copper oxide but after the refurbishment in 2010 it's great to see that these now again gleam in the sunlight. The visitor centre in the Observatory is only open to the public for pre-booked visits & lectures so after managing to dodge a couple of swarms of flying ants, I continued up a fairly gentle slope to the summit of Blackford Hill. The view north from here towards Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh Castle and further out to the Firth of Firth is fantastic.

I had hoped to find a way down the west side of Blackford Hill but found the paths blocked a mass of flowering, prickly gorse but I did get far enough along to get a good view of the large number of allotments at the base of the hill.

Instead I scrambled somewhat down the north side of the hill and after a slight diversion amongst the wildlife of Blackford Pond I found myself in the middle of the well-heeled Morningside area of Edinburgh. The Morningside Clock is in a prominent position here at a busy junction - it was previously in the middle of the roadway, but it's now in a far more sensible position (and does tell the correct time).

Heading north back into the centre of Edinburgh I came across the welcome sight of Bennets of Morningside, with the south facing beer garden already starting to fill up.

It's a perfect spot for people-watching, but I went inside to find some shade and recover from my clamber down the hill. The wood panelled bar is set towards the back at the left-hand side, with a seating area at the front windows and also some nice bench seats opposite the bar. The service here is great - polite, unfussy, and very laid back. There are lots of large mirrors, beer signs and old photos along the walls - it's just a really nice place to wander into for a beer.

On at the bar were a number of north-east England beers - Jarrow Caulker, Westoe IPA & Isis, as well as Knops Premier Bru and the ubiquitous Deuchers IPA. They also have their own Bennets Ale, brewed by Hadrian & Border and available for £2.70, pretty good for Edinburgh prices. It was really only snacks at lunchtime (soup, toasties, pies etc...), so I ordered some stovies along with my malty, spicy Knops Premier Bru and went to cool down for a bit out of the sun.

The stovies certainly filled a spot so I headed back out to Morningside Road and to my next port-of-call. Slightly up and across the road from Bennets is somewhere I'd been planning to visit for some time, the Canny Man's. This seems to have an almost 'marmite' reputation - you either love the place or hate it with a passion. From the outside there's not too much in the way of advertising to classify it as a drinking establishment (OK, apart from the 'Bar' lettering above the doorway), but the brass plaque on the wall is somewhat intimidating - 'No Smoking, No Credit Cards, No Mobile Phones, No Cameras, No Backpackers'. Given that I had a rucksack, was wanting to take a photograph or two, had a mobile phone and was wearing (longish) shorts & walking boots, I wasn't quite sure if I was going to get to sit down, let alone served, but I thought I'd give it a go.

And it was absolutely fine. The staff were polite (if not exactly engaging, but then I obviously wasn't a regular), I was served an excellent pint of Taylor's Landlord (London Pride and Caley Deuchars IPA & 80/- were the other cask choices) and even proffered a small bowl of complimentary nuts. I took a seat in the main bar on the left-hand side of the building (I could see part of an even smaller 'corridor'-type snug that seemed to wind its way behind the bar), and there was a steady flow of people heading into the main restaurant areas on the right-hand side of the building. What strikes you is the mass of bric-a-brac in the place - old pictures, empty bottles, brass fireplace & farming tools, musical instruments, model planes, stuffed animals, car parts - the list is almost endless, but it all seemed to go well in creating the old fashioned, almost eccentric atmosphere that I assume the place is looking to achieve. They seem to specialise in whisky, gin, champagne & Danish open sandwiches but I wasn't really going to stay long enough to try any of that. With my curiosity about the place somewhat satisfied, I don't know if I'd go back there again (at least on my own, I'd rather go to Bennets), but it certainly was a more than acceptable place for a quiet beer and a read of the papers.

I then wanted to head to Summerhall to be able soak up the atmosphere a fair bit before the 4pm afternoon session ended. I walked through Morningside, into Strathearn Road & Grange Road and past a lot of impressive houses & churches before reaching the Summerhall complex. My one detour was to the excellent Great Grog on Dalkeith Road where the guys were good enough to open a few of the fairly new 'craft' Salopian beers to sample, Automaton (a very dry, bitter normal IPA) and Vertigo (a thin bitter, Black IPA), before I managed to get my trusty growler filled with lovely Camden Town Pale Ale from the Kegerator.

The Summerhall building and complex were certainly a lot larger than I'd expected, and as I walked into the main entrance I found out that it was just as well I'd booked a ticket - the afternoon session was officially 'Sold-Out' (as were all sessions) and they were turning people away.

Destination reached in good time I was then directed upstairs to obtain a 'souvenir' glass & a wrist-band from the more than helpful staff, and then all that was necessary was to queue up at the bar for a beer (the queues were never too long). Available were new beers from Barney's Beer (an antipodean-hopped version of his Volcano IPA, Volcano NZ, and decent porter, Black Gold of the Sun), as well as guest beers from Inveralmond (their Frisco Steamie was a nice surprise as it wasn't on the backboards), Tryst, Dark Star and a number of German and US kegged beers - all told 10-15 beers seemed to be on at any one time. Interestingly enough the glass was a 2/3 pint glass and that was the only measure they were selling the beer in (for about £2.75), which actually worked out quite well (once I had got my head around it).

Then it was just a matter of chilling out in the sun drenched courtyard, although the size of that chimney stack always made me nervous. There was music, food was available and people to chat to - you can read Beercast Rich's account here.

I managed to get on the last brewery tour of the session - Andrew/Barney had been kept busy with a number of technical problems so he couldn't manage too many, but it was good to see the small brewery, the 4 fermenting vessels and the cold room. He brews once or twice a week, with bottling and distribution outwith Summerhall handled by Inveralmond in Perth.

On the other side of the courtyard is the Summerhall 'pub', The Royal Dick. I didn't really need to buy a drink from their bar but they obviously sell Barney's Beers (with fairly minimal beer miles), look to have an interesting selection of food, and have an eclectic mix of world-wide art and old fittings from the vet school distributed around the pub.

There wasn't any real mass exodus on the stroke of 4 o'clock but I decided to head away fairly sharpish to try another couple of (fairly) local pubs. Just slightly further towards the City Centre on the east side of The Meadows is the Dagda Bar.

This is a classic one roomed boozer with the bar at the back, a number of bar stools, tables & chairs on either side of the room and a large barrel in the centre with newspapers. And look at all those pump-clips near the ceiling - always a good sign of rotating guest ales and great to see.

And there certainly were a nice selection of real ales available - their own Dagda Ale (from Broughton), Kelburn Cart Noir, Oakham JHB and Tryst Brockville Pale, but hang-on, that wasn't Brockville Pale on pump #1 but instead Alechemy Centennial Burst, the latest in Alechemy's single hop series. This was an extremely nice surprise, giving a lovely deep orangey citrus bitterness which seems to be prevalent in a lot of the newer single-hopped IPAs.

It was really quiet in the Dagda (even the barmaid and the 1 other customer stepped out for a while leaving me all alone in a pub, dangerous), but as I crossed the road afterwards into The Meadows I found out why - it seemed as if most of the City had decamped there and everyone was in the process of cremating their BBQ food (and you could also take a 2-pint carry-oot from the Dagda Bar - evening sorted!).

I managed to pick my way around the sun-worshippers to find my final stop of the day on the western side of The Meadows, Bennets Bar, not to be confused with (the confusingly similar) Bennets of Morningside, where I'd been earlier in the afternoon.

This was a welcome oasis of cool, dark panelled wood & intricate tiles, with some great stained/coloured glass windows, huge hanging chandeliers, a magnificent bar canopy and some fantastic large brewery mirrors in its long, narrow single room. The bar runs almost the long length of the wall with a number of quite small circular tables at the opposite wall in front of yet more mirrors - it's really quite stunning. The choice of cask ales on offer perhaps wasn't quite as impressive with Caley Deuchars IPA & 80/-, Harviestoun Schiehallion & Bitter & Twisted, but it was good to try Inveralmond's biscuity Duncan's IPA again, although I do wish there was some (OK, a lot) more bitterness to be found in there.

Return transport:-
 &anspTrain: Edinburgh Haymarket to Glasgow Queen St

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Forth Inn, Aberfoyle, goes 'forth' again: 11th May 2013

There's no doubt that it can be pretty tough running a pub, especially outwith the main cities & towns when you are very dependant on an uncertain mixture of seasonal, tourist, and weekend trade. Offering food is pretty well a necessity nowadays and if you want to provide some great real ales or even the odd 'craft keg' then it can be difficult to get deliveries and difficult to turn over beer during weekdays. The Forth Inn at Aberfoyle in the centre of the beautiful Trossachs always struck me as one of those 'country' pubs that was trying to do as much as possible right - friendly welcoming staff, good food for walkers & for restaurant dining, a number of local hand-pulled local beers, a good sized function room, regular events (karaoke, live music, food & beer festivals), big football matches live on the TV, inventive & regular use of social media etc... The last time I had been at The Forth Inn was in late September 2012 and I had really enjoyed my visit, but then last November they got hit by a 'once in a 100 years' flooding of the nearby River Forth. Thankfully I don't think they were ever close to packing-it-all-in, but re-decorating and re-opening must have been an incredibly difficult time for everyone concerned. So when The Forth Inn opened its doors again this week I thought the least I could was make the effort to go to Aberfoyle and see how they had got on.

View Aberfoyle in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Car: A81/A821 from Glasgow

It was on the 19th November last year after days of torrential rain that the normally quiet and meandering River Forth flooded - I don't think I'd realised how close the river and the flood plain are to Aberfoyle Main Street, the public car parks and the car park for The Forth Inn.

The river broke its banks just to the west of the town centre, flooded Aberfoyle Primary School and then continued all the way into Aberfoyle Main Street. This meant that that a large proportion of Aberfoyle was under up to 5 feet of water. Sand-bags were used, boats were required, people had to be rescued and when you see pictures such as those below with the car park of the Forth Inn full of dirty water you realise how serious this was.
(Pic from the Forth Inn Facebook pages)

After the waters had receded The Forth Inn put up a regular pictorial diary of what was happening and the progress they were making on their Facebook page. Obviously all the carpets throughout the building had to be replaced...
(Pic from the Forth Inn Facebook pages) had all the majority of the tables & chairs. This was the main Wallace Bar during the drying-out phase.
(Pic from the Forth Inn Facebook pages)

They'd planned to re-open for Easter, then May 4th, then eventually opened again (for drinks only) on Tuesday May 7th. After a bit of a hiccup in re-connecting the gas supply, foods was then available from all menus on May 9th and the weekend of May 11th/12th was to be their first weekend of 2013. When I arrived just after midday on Saturday it seemed as if almost nothing had changed from my last visit (although after some overnight rain there did still seem to be a small amount of water pooling in the car park!).

The Forth Inn is a large two storey building with a slightly sloping roof and takes up most of a whole 'block' of Aberfoyle Main Street. They have a number of rooms available and some of these will have impressive views of Craigmore hill which stands guard over Aberfoyle from the north-west.

Also on the outside of the same block are a couple of interesting antique & curio shops.

The Wallace Bar occupies most of the front facing section of The Forth Inn. It's a bright, rustic bar with exposed brickwork walls, solid stone floors, lots of tables set around the outside (and a couple based on whisky barrels in the centre of the floor), an arched dividing doorway, old pictures dotted around the walls, pump-clips on the wooden beams and 2 separate serving arched serving areas for the bar. Quite a few of the tables today were being occupied by an Anglo-Danish wedding party about to depart for the magnificent Duchray Castle and they were certainly in high spirits, but there was also a steady stream of locals, tourists & walkers (& their dogs) - really good to see.

The last time I had been at the Forth Inn it was to seek out the first appearance of Loch Lomond Brewery's lovely Silkie Stout and I'd chatted a bit with landlord Phil Crowder about it and his other beers.

Phil was behind the bar again today and he mentioned a few things about the re-refurbishment, in particular how Belhaven had helped them by supplying new hand-pulls, fonts and new cask & keg beer lines to the cellar so he's keeping to Belhaven beers and those on the Belhaven guest list for the moment. Today there was Harviestoun Schiehallion, Belhaven 80/-, Cairngorm Wildcat & Inveralmond Indepedence available on the 7 hand-pulls, but they did lose 1 or 2 more as the afternoon wore on.

However Phil did mention that he'll certainly be holding another Forth Inn Beer Festival in the near future when there's time to plan this. There are now 7 hand-pull behind the bar and with plans to install another one, Phil thought a Beer Festival based on the 'Gallon-Drunk' principle would probably be a good idea. He's still keeping to his Scottish-only draught beer list so provides Belhaven Black in place of Guinness - it's another good way to interest/engage with the customers. There were also bottles of Thistly Cross Cider and probably the only non-Scottish beer I could spy were bottles of Budweiser Budvar & Corona.

The lunchtime bar food menu is more than acceptable with lots of pub standards, fresh fish and burgers as well baked tatties & paninis. I chose the 'famous' Forth Inn Steak Pie with meat supplied from the local Aberfoyle butcher's and both the steak & the gravy were certainly some of the tastiest I'd had for some time.

As I left I had a quick look at some of the other rooms. The other side of the front of the building splits into another fairly large restaurant area which was also full of hungry diners (service is really good considering the amount of people they must serve) and further into the centre of the Inn is a large room called 'The Gathering' - a seriously impressive function room which can hold 120 people in some style.

I left The Forth Inn thinking that everyone involved in its re-opening deserved a great Saturday night (there was some (probably messy) karaoke planned that evening) and here's hoping for a long, sunny summer for not only for The Forth Inn but all pubs & hotels in the Scottish countryside.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Kettlebridge, Freuchie and the Kingdom of Fife Beer Festival: 4th May 2013

This weekend I decided to head to the centre of Fife to visit the 15th Kingdom of Fife Beer Festival in Glenrothes and in addition I wanted to visit the nearby village of Freuchie where there were a couple of decent pubs/hotels. The Fife CAMRA people have a nice, friendly Facebook group from which I have gleaned quite a lot of useful information in the past and it would also be good to put a few faces to names.

View Glenrothes in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St. to Edinburgh Haymarket
            Edinburgh Haymarket to Ladybank (04, 44 on hour)
  Bus: Freuchie to Glenrothes (00 on the hour, 66 Stagecoach Fife)

Ladybank is right at the junction for northbound trains from Edinburgh going to Perth (and Inverness) and those going to Dundee. The village was originally called Ladybog (as in Our Lady's Bog or Moor), but I think the decision by the railway planners to rename it Ladybank was probably a good one.

I headed out of Ladybank towards the village of Kettle following a clearly signposted minor road & cycle route. This part of Fife is well known for its fruit & vegetable crops and I came across what seemed to be rivers of polythene in the fields used to bring forward the planting dates for the crops.

About half-way to Kettle I crossed a very small bridge over the the River Eden. The river here is very narrow (almost a stream) in contrast to the wide river estuary that comes out at Guardbridge and the Eden St Andrews Brewery.

I detoured from the main round to enter the small village of Kingskettle. Here, in complete contrast to the fairly drab surrounding buildings, is the brightly painted (and noisy) shop for the children's folk music group The Singing Kettle. Judging by a quick look inside there are all sorts of toys, clothes, DVDs etc... available to buy and there also seemed to be a well equipped playroom/crèche at the side. The numbers involved with The Singing Kettle (2million+ DVDs/videos, 5million+ at the live shows) indicate that this is an incredible Scottish success story.

Slightly further in towards the centre of Kingskettle is (or was) the Crown Hotel which had earned a number of glowing reviews at and other websites for its great food.

However it had closed at the beginning of April and there wasn't any sign of it re-opening - a definite shame.

I instead decided to head out along a narrow path to intersect the main A914 St Andrews road and try out the Muddy Boots Farm Shop and Café. And whilst it was a nice enough place with a lot of tame farm animals and outside play areas, and the shop stocked a decent amount of fruit & veg and organic produce, the café at lunchtime was chock-full of hungry kids, so I decided to quickly move-on-out of there.

This meant I had to walk along the A914 for a mile or so (in the teeth of a gusting wind) to just after the Kettlebridge Inn. I'd phoned beforehand so I knew the place wasn't going to be open at lunchtime (they open at 4pm on Saturdays), but I could certainly have done with a plate of their speciality Mexican food (I suspect one of the reasons they don't open at lunchtime is the Fast'n'Fresh sandwich shop next door; this was really busy with passing traffic, but unfortunately had no sit-down tables).

With my stomach beginning to rumble somewhat noisily I then turned off the main road, headed under a railway bridge and onto a minor road towards Freuchie. I assume this railway bridge is the actual 'bridge' in Kettlebridge - I couldn't find any others.

I continued on this fairly quiet minor road for just over a mile until the outskirts of Freuchie. The views of the Lomond Hills in the distance were quite impressive as the weather started to clear-up from the west.

Freuchie certainly seems to be a fairly affluent village with a number of large houses & shiny new cars in driveways. In the centre of the village, just past the church & the primary school, is Freuchie Cricket Club complete with clubhouse and well maintained cricket pitch, and the well wrapped-up cricket team were going through some practice drills this afternoon. I think the first time I'd ever heard of the village of Freuchie was when they won the UK Village Cricket Competition in 1985 at the home of cricket, Lords - the first (and I believe only) time that a Scottish team had ever won it. There's no doubt that that must have been some weekend!

Almost overlooking the cricket ground is the white-washed Lomond Hills Hotel, with the village cross in a prominent position outside the front entrance.

It's a deceptively large set of buildings with function rooms & formal restaurant, conservatory and a swimming pool & leisure club, but the public bar on the right side is quite small & welcoming. There are a small number of tables around the edge of the room, quite a few seats at the bar and the bar itself has a decent number of malt whiskys and 2 hand-pulls - today Scottish Borders Gold Bust and Cairngorm Caillie. Around the walls I could see lots of signed photos of various footballers, including Jimmy Johnstone, Denis Law and Archie Gemmill scoring *that* goal against Holland.

They were quite happy to serve the full menu in the bar, but since I was a bit pushed for time I decided to just go with the soup-of-the-day (again!) and it must have come in less than 5 minutes flat since I hardly had time to drink more than a few mouthfuls of the Caillie (an interesting initially sweet, then quite hoppy bitter). And the soup was extremely good - roasted carrot with herb crème fraîche, but that slab of butter for the bread was almost frozen solid - arghh...

Next it was a short walk back down to the start of the village to find the well remembered sight of the Albert Tavern, complete with a bench with its own name writ large outside the front door. It's a multi-award winning pub and the last time I was here was when it had just won CAMRA's Scottish Pub of the Year back in 2002.

In the main bar bar on the left hand side of the building it was fairly quiet with a just couple of locals and the barmaid & her boyfriend. They normally have a great selection of cask ales and today was no exception - on hand-pull were Cairngorm Trade Winds, Green Jack Albion Mild, Inveralmond Independence, Salopian Shropshire Gold and Wylam Gold Tankard, so I decided to have a few halves of the non-Scottish beers whilst waiting for my bus. What struck me most in the fairly dark bar is the incredible amount of pump-clips on the wooden beams and behind the bar - there are *a lot* of these as well as numerous bank notes and collages of old coins dotted about.

Lots of brewery mirrors help enhance the somewhat meagre daylight from the windows - the Ushers Pale Ales mirror hung directly opposite the main bar is one of the larger mirrors I've seen and I like all those coat hooks scattered all around the bar.

The lounge seemed a nice place for a sit down (though it was deserted this afternoon) with an old fashioned juke-box, but the last time I was here I also remember going upstairs for a meal (because the lounge was so busy). However from chatting to the barmaid it seems that the upstairs room(s) have been closed since the new owners took over, so this time I had to make do with a packet of Spicy Bagels.

I then needed to get the bus to Glenrothes which thankfully stops almost outside the Albert Tavern. This transported me in leather seated, air-conditioned luxury to Glenrothes Bus Station and from there it was just a short walk through the Kingdom Shopping Centre to the glass fronted Rothes Halls, the location of the Kingdom of Fife Real Ale Festival.

It's a nice, relaxed Beer Festival with a good selection of ~40 Scottish & English beers (as well as cider) and on Saturday afternoon there isn't any problem at all getting served from the friendly volunteers behind the bar. A couple of the most popular beers had gone (including those from the local Beeches Brewery) and both the lovely the Elland Brewery beers, but mostly everything else was available. I met John Reade (now semi-retired from Eden St Andrews) who told me that planning permission at the Abbot House in Dunfermline had finally been forthcoming and he also let me try one of 2 trial beers for Abbot House - a 3.0% nicely hoppy 'Small Ale' based on a 1730's Bruce Family recipe (there will also be an 8.2% 'Strong Ale'). I also had a great chat with Paul McAllister, one of the festival organises, who told me about the Champion Beer of Fife tasting (won by St Andrews Crail Ale, though with no Luckie Ales beer in the competition) and a bit about the forthcoming Forth Bridge Brewery. As per normal I enjoyed pretty well all the beers I had there, but especially the Loch Leven Unleaded Petrel (with almost a hint of diesel at the back of the throat) and also the floral Hard Knott Lux Borealis. As the end of my time at the festival approached I took the (perhaps unwise) decision to Carry-Oot a growler full of the lovely, but lethal 10% Loch Ness Brewery Prince of Darkness home with me and I managed to transport this safely to savour slowly over the course of Saturday & Sunday evenings.

For the start of my journey back to Glasgow I needed to get the south-bound train from Markinch Station so just caught the express Leven bus to the Laurel Bank Hotel in the centre of Markinch. I did pop my head into the Laurel Bank's bar, but since there was no real ale I decided that food was a more sensible alternative at that point. Thankfully help was on hand almost over the road at the Carlton Coffee House, and I was quite happy to get a sausage roll and some fantastic pieces of caramel shortcake with different sweet toppings (mint sprinkles & marshmallow).

I'd always wanted to do an Untappd check-in on the Forth Railway Bridge and to be able to do this with Loch Ness Prince of Darkness was a great way to end the day-out.

Return transport:-
  Bus: Glenrothes to Markinch (50 on the hour, 46 Stagecoach Fife)
  Train: Markinch to Edinburgh Haymarket (10, 29 on the hour)
            Edinburgh Haymarket to Glasgow Queen St