Saturday, 29 June 2013

Walking up from Leith: 29th June 2013

I seem to be spending a lot of time in Edinburgh at the moment; for the last couple of weeks I've been watching the British Lions tour of Australia with friends in Teuchters in the morning (the atmosphere in the pub & the games themselves have just been fantastic) and then it'll soon be time both the Scottish Real Ale Festival and the Edinburgh Independent Beer Festival in mid July. After the crushing disappointment of watching the Lions lose the 2nd Test this morning I thought I'd cheer myself up by walking/crawling up from Leith to get the train back to Glasgow at Waverley.

View Lions 2 in a larger map

Outward transport was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St to Edinburgh Haymarket
  Bus: Caledonian Hotel to the Shore (16 or 22, Lothian Buses)

I first of all had to get down to Leith and made the classic tourist mistake of getting on a bus at the west-end of Princes Street at the height of a busy shopping Saturday. This took a long, long time to traverse the traffic lights, congestion and mass of suicidal pedestrians out in force for the length of Princes Street; next time I'll definitely walk to past North Bridge. However once onto Leith Walk the traffic flowed well and I alighted near the end of The Shore almost outside the Malt and Hops. Forcing myself not to go in here or the nearby The Vintage for a quick half (it probably wouldn't have been just one, that would have been the problem) I crossed the road to find myself at the low-key entrance of Carriers Quarters, supposedly the oldest pub in Leith in continuous use as a drinking establishment.

The front room was pretty busy, but I managed to snag a corner table, take a Tyrst Brockville Pale (I was a bit disappointed that Deuchers IPA was the only real ale alternative, with WEST St Mungo, Black Isle Blond, Hoegaarden & Fruli also available on keg) and order a plate of Chilli Nachos. The front room is definitely a lot brighter than I remembered with light cream walls and spotlights adding to the light from the 3 arch windows. There are still a number of old pictures of Leith, mirrors, miscellaneous signs and I liked the pleasing curve to the shelves and gantry behind the bar holding the mass of spirits, bottles and measures.

Before ending up as Carriers Quarters the place was The Merman (I think), and before that I had first encountered it as Todd's Tap, the personal fiefdom of legendary Edinburgh publican Peter Todd. I certainly remember being part of a Stag Doo taking over the back room in here a good few years ago and when one of my friends tried to order a lager from a certain large Glasgow brewery an incandescent Mr Todd was ready to throw all us out one-by-one (it really was Caley Deuchars IPA, 80/- or nothing at all back then). The back room is still a great place to hide away with a group of friends with lots of beer & whisky signs & memorabilia, and it's quiet, comfy and there's a definite lack of mobile phone signal as a (possible) added bonus.

It didn't take too long for my nachos to come (nachos are the new 'soup & sandwich' for me from a meal point-of-view) and they were pretty damn good, masses of chilli with the odd green chilli thrown in for good measure but in hindsight I think they were really a sharing sized portion.

On leaving Carriers Quarters I decided to have a look at some of the buildings on this side of Leith (note that Carriers Quarters actually do a hosted Leith Walking Tour during the summer). Heading south towards the docks at the very, very end of The Shore is a small square and now the site of a 5-Star Malmaison Hotel - previously it was a Sailor's Home providing temporary accommodation and facilities for sailors whose ships were in port.

The docks are still an important part of Leith but you have to go a fair bit out beyond all the food & shopping complexes and the myriad of housing developments to find them.

As I headed back to Leith Walk I went past the impressive Corn Exchange building, now home to a Digital Media company called Storm Ideas. Robert Burns strides out on the other side of the street with his statue commemorating the number of visits he made to Edinburgh to have his poems published and the walks he made around the city.

The majority of Constitution Road heading up to Leith Walk was cordoned off for some roadworks but there was still pedestrian access to the various shops and bars, so I stopped off at Nobles Bar (on the right hand side) which like a lot of the places around here has an decorative Victorian frontage.

I don't think I'd ever been in before so I was mightily impressed as I walked in - a large bar on the right, comfy low seats & tables on the left, a slightly raised area with more tables at the front windows and further space at the back as it sweeps right. There's most definitely a nautical theme running throughout with a number of panes of brightly coloured glass showing ships galleons, the sea & the port of Leith, large model ships on top of the bar and a wide border of more pictures of ships between the top of the high walls and the ceiling. There are also candles on all the tables, a couple of large chandeliers and lots of (real) plants - I've always liked greenery in pubs (so long as they are not used as handy 'sinks'). Alechemey Citra Burst was available at the bar and Black Isle brew the Nobles Pale Ale - a more than acceptable nicely-balanced but still bitter pale ale. There was just a nice relaxed atmosphere in the place, heightened by the rustle of newspapers, the murmur of conversation and the smell of eggs & bacon cooked in a number of different ways (brunch is definitely big in here).

Continuing up Constitution Road I dodged all the barriers and went past the entrance to South Leith Parish Church, dating back to the 15th Century with some impressive murals on the outside walls.

I was now at the start (or foot) of Leith Walk. There's a large Wetherspoons here (unsurprisingly The Foot of the Walk), but I instead popped into The Central Bar on the other side of the road (there's a strict Over-25's rule here, an issue I haven't had for quite some time).

It's a old fashioned traditional boozer with a great island bar, lots of tiles & mirrors and impressive mosaic flooring but there weren't any hand-pulls that I could see so I (reluctantly) decided to head elsewhere (you can read a far more eloquent appraisal of The Central Bar here). I still have the issue sometimes of whether or not to stop at what seems to be an interesting pub but which doesn't sell any decent or interesting beer - it's very subjective and changes depending on what pubs are in the vicinity, how much time is available and how I feel in general. With quite a few pubs beckoning I gave a couple of other pubs at the lower end of Leith Walk a miss as well, the Volunteer Arms...

... and the Harp and Castle (very much a Hibs pub).

Instead I decided to stop off at Boda Bar, a corner bar about a quarter of the way up (or along) Leith Walk with a distinct Swedish flavour.

It has somewhat of a quaint IKEA kitchen/living room look about it - lots of whites, creams & pastel colours; the homely bric-a-brac and comfortable bench seats just add to the effect. The most striking decorative object is the huge paper shark suspended over the bar - it was made by an ex-member of staff (there's also a smaller rhino) and it's a great talking point.

As well as kegged Black Isle Blond there were bottles of Paulaner Hefeweissen in the fridge, and although I did think about trying one of the Idun's Ciders from Sweden (there were a few flavours of these) I went instead for a bottle of Mariestads Export, a Swedish Dortmund Lager. It was certainly very malty, bready & sweet, perhaps a bit too sweet for my liking, but it was definitely worth a try.

As I headed further up Leith Walk it was great to see the diversity of smaller shops. OK - there's always going to be an influx of various takeaways and 24-hour convenience shops, but there aren't too many places where you can still find hardware or vacuum repair shops (there were at least 3 of these in almost the same block).

On another corner location slightly further up I found Robbie's - this was busy in the afternoon with groups of guys probably on a similar crawl as myself after the rugby, and others in to watch the tennis or the horse racing.

The Leith Walk side is quite light with a huge old brewery mirror & some old pictures and although the bar was really busy, the staff were very efficient and I got served almost straight away. However the Hadrian & Border Secret Kingdom was very poor - malty, almost chewy in texture, and not at all in good condition; disappointing to say the least.

Just around the corner from Robbie's and thus slightly off Leith Walk is The Tourmalet (named after the highest road in the Pyrénées), a cycling themed pub, and since this was the 1st day of the Tour-de-France, I assumed this would be a perfect place to watch the conclusion of Le Grand Départ.

There's certainly a fair amount of cycling paraphernalia in the place - posters, hats, wheels, even some bike saddles, but it's not too over-the-top at all, and it's all interspersed with movie posters, books and the odd statue of Budda in the corner.

What there is in the place though is probably one of the best selections of bottled Weissbier in Edinburgh; there is an ever changing selection of about 25 of them in the fridge, the majority of which I had never seen before.

The friendly Irish barmaid told me that they have a sales contact who tours Germany sourcing them and there was also an on-going hand-written book full of German beer bottle labels and tasting notes to peruse (why didn't I take a photo of this?). I was 'persuaded' to take a bottle of Huber Weisses Original from Hofbrauhaus Freising and it was lovely - spicy, a definite aroma of cloves, a nice wheat texture, and really, really smooth - very good indeed.

What I couldn't see in the front room was a TV showing the Tour, but the barmaid beckoned me into the back room where there were a number of comfy seats and a huge projection screen TV. Here we caught the denouement of the 1st Stage, and we watched increasingly slack-jawed as a team bus got caught under the finish line, the signal then went out to some of the riders that the finish would be changed to the 3KM mark, then the bus was hauled back to a safe distance meaning that the finish could take place as normal, then a really nasty crash took place which wiped out a good percentage of the pelaton, and finally the exciting sprint for the line from the remainder of the riders. It was a quite crazy last 20 minutes.

(Pic from @NealKarlinsky, ABC News)

On leaving The Tourmalet I decided to head away from Leith Walk for a bit and made my way towards Easter Road. Just after the bridge over the disused Edinburgh, Leith & Newhaven Railway line I came to The Mash Tun, which has been open for just under a year.

It's a nice bright, classy place - the square island bar is really impressive as are the mirrors, brewing signs and I liked the old Black & White TV being used as a condiments cabinet. There are lots of tables along all the walls and also some chairs/stools at the windows (always a good sign). The beer on the hand-pulls was quite OK today (Orkney Corncrake, Stewart Edinburgh Gold and Caley Flying Scotsman with 1 about to be changed), but wasn't as impressive as I'd hoped from some of their tweets. The barman indicated that he has to take 2 beers from the Punch Taverns guest list, and with the Alechemy Brewing tap-takeover last week he was having to get through more of these than usual. So instead of a real ale I had a Stewart Hefeweizen from the fridge, a more acceptable UK-brewed Weissbier, but it just didn't have the same kick as that Hefe from The Tourmalet.

After leaving The Mash Tun I couldn't help but drop into the fabulous Cornelius, at the very top of Easter Road, even though I'd been there last week to fill up with a good selection of bottled beer.

As usual there were a couple more interesting beers to be had from the huge range, in particular a To Øl Black IPA (Black Maria) that I'd been trying to get for a while.

From here I needed to walk along the leafy foothills of the Royal Terrace Gardens to rejoin Leith Walk. Due to time pressure I couldn't make the Windsor Buffet, but instead made a final stop at the Theatre Royal Bar, resplendent in outside murals, trumpeters and a number of hanging baskets in full bloom.

As old fashioned bar/restaurants go they don't come too much grander than this. A huge central, wooden, square bar with overhead gantry, tables & chairs at the front overlooking Leith Walk, more tables & chairs on one side, with bar stools & papers on the other side, and then a large dining area at the back with views across to Calton Hill. And all around there are loads of mirrors, large chandeliers and masses & masses of posters, prints & programmes from various plays and musicals.

Again as far as the beer choice was concerned it was more than OK (if a bit safe), but to be honest I wasn't that bothered when I had all that theatre history to keep me occupied.

Once outside it was only a matter of a minute or so to the gleaming glass & steel complex that is the Omni Centre; this marks the top of Leith Walk as far as I'm concerned. However I'd have to have consumed a lot more alcohol that I had on this Saturday afternoon for anyone to get me into the Frankie & Benny's, Slug and Lettuce or even the Loyds No. 1 establishments which are located inside.

And on leaving Edinburgh I managed to think like a local for once (or at least a regular visitor and not a tourist) by entering Waverley Station from the Calton Road entrance - this saves a lot of time and effort by bypassing North Bridge and the Waverley Steps. It even made time for a very swift half of lovely Alechemy Summit Burst at the Half Way House.

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

Update November 2013
Open on Elm Row near the top of Leith Walk since August is Jeremiah's Taproom.

Inside is a nice centre island bar with a large exposed brick column festooned with cocktail names and lots of hanging lights. On one wall there's even a 'freeze' with hop names (Liberty, Galaxy, Challenger etc...) writ large, I don't think I've ever seen that before. They have a good selection of cask & keg beer, today SWB Rouge, Knops Musselborough Broke, Harviestoun Schiehallion, Brooklyn Lager, Williams Blackball Stout, Camden Gentleman's Wit, Tiny Rebel Hadouken - a well balanced, strong Double IPA.

At the front windows are a number of bar stools and a long bench, perfect for people watching over Leith Walk and the the painted glass is a nice feature.

There's a large Robin McMillan Pale Ale gilded mirror at the back and you can see (and smell) into the kitchen.

For food there's a sheet full of pizza, hotdops, pulled-pork, burgers etc... so I had the sliders, 3 different types of small burgers. They were very good indeed and way more fun than a single large burger.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A fine hike about FyneFest: 15th June 2013

I've been to the wonderful FyneFest for the last couple of years; the Fyne Ales people organise a great celebration of beer, food and music in quite fantastic surroundings. However I hadn't actually blogged about it, with the main reason being that there was effectively no walking to be done, and I try to keep the blog 'fairly' strictly to this criteria (although there are always exceptions for some brewery visits and the occasional special beer). This year though, as well as the ever expanding range of fantastic cask & kegged beer available at FyneFest, there was also the possibility of a walk to a (licensed!) Bothy/fishing hut on the Saturday up through the wilds of Glen Fyne, about 3 miles out of the main FyneFest site. This was far too good an opportunity to miss!

View FyneFest in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Glasgow to (just before) Loch Fyne Oyster Bar (Citylink 926)

The 09:41 bus from the outskirts of Glasgow to Campbelltown was pretty busy with a mixture of tourists, walkers & some likely looking FyneFest attendees. It's a stunning journey along the western bank of Loch Lomond, through the narrow isthmus between Tarbet & Arrochar, a climb through the Argyll Forest to reach Rest and Be Thankful, a long straight 'twixt the hills at Glen Kinglas and then finally a drop towards Cairndow and the very head of Loch Fyne. Only 2 things spoiled the journey - a couple of Italian tourists chattering incessantly at the back of the bus (thankfully I found my headphones - phew!), and there were (literally) some dark clouds on the horizon. It has rained overnight and was just about starting up again this morning with a thick mizzle interspersed with the occasional short, sharp shower - disappointing for the organisers and those who had camped overnight but then this is Scotland in June.

The official bus stop is at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar complex, a couple of hundred yards from the roadway entrance to Fyne Ales, but the Citylink driver was good enough to stop almost opposite the entrance - this really helped out the people who were bringing their tents & camping equipment for Saturday night. From here it was only 5 minutes or so to the welcoming sight of the newish Fyne Ales Visitor Centre & Brewery Tap.

This opened just in time for last year's FyneFest and is a great classy place - modern but some nice tradition touches and a distinctive wooden roof. Available inside are a number of Fyne Ales cask ales & guest kegs, loads of bottled beer & merchandise, great food and (most importantly for some people) WiFi! Just after 11:00am this morning it was packed with people chilling out, having breakfast, ordering the odd hair-of-the-dog and also streaming the British Lions game from Australia.

The rear exit of the Brewery Tap opens out to an outdoor seating area (the showers were also here since this is where the main water supply comes in) and also to the brewery yard. Milling around the brewery this morning was the combined brains trust of a good number of brewers who were up for FyneFest - I noted T-shirts from Elixir, Alechemy, Buxton, Hawkshead, Thornbridge, Magic Rock, Siren and, of course, Fyne Ales (apologies if I missed anyone). A collaboration brew had been ongoing for a while and Robbie was on hand to blog about it here.

By now it was time to head off to the main FyneFest site situated in a large field near the River Fyne. The food stalls were doing a pretty decent trade, but inside the marquee it was (unsurprisingly) fairly quiet at just after 11:15am; this was probably the last time the main bar would be so deserted for some time.

FyneFest glass obtained I took a half of one of Fyne Ales' latest IPA Project offerings, Bell Rock (which I preferred to the more bitter Bell Rock 'n' Hop) and sat down to peruse the program. The bothy/fisherman's hut had now been officially designated the Walker's Bar and was only going to open for a relatively small time window (12noon to 2:45pm), so it made sense to start off straight away. To help quench my thirst on the way I first of all filled my trusty growler with the Fyne Ales/Wild Beers collaboration brew made for FyneFest, Cool as a Cucumber; really refreshing with a distinctive cucumber & mint taste and some light saison spiciness (although I had hoped it would be green, drats!), and then I set off with a fellow beer & walking enthusiast to find the Walker's Bar.

To be honest it was a fairly straightforward trek along a mostly tarmac'd path through the stunning surroundings of Glen Fyne. On our way up the glen we passed a good few people heading for the same destination, a number of 4x4s just managed to scrape past and we encountered a group of magnificent beasts sheltering from (or enduring) the rain just off the path itself (if they had wanted to be on the path we would have left them there and found a way around them!).

The path to the Walker's Bar then diverged from the main tarmac'd path (which leads to a dam and reservoir further up the hillside) and took us over a narrow bridge to our destination; all told perhaps a walk of just over an hour. There were quite a few people already there - the hum of conservation and the aroma of BBQ food could be made out from half way down the glen (OK - a slight exaggeration there).

The hut was a perfect size for a number of casks of beer (Rune, Avalanche and one other were available) and we found out that since being roofed as part of a student project, the place has been used for fishing trips, New Year celebrations and the occasional party. We devoured a burger or 2 outside in the fresh air and just generally enjoyed being away from the main festival site for an hour or so. I have to say I thought the Walker's Bar was a great idea and I certainly hope that they can do the same (or similar) next year. Thanks to head-honcho Jamie from Fyne Ales and everyone else who helped out (apologies for the shaky photo).

Whilst Jamie was there I thought I'd take the the opportunity to quiz him about one of the beers that had caused quite a stir back at the main FyneFest site, De Molen Raad & Daad. I'd had a taster of this before setting out on the walk and I really thought it was so sour that I pronounced it as 'virtually undrinkable' to Jamie. Jamie neatly side-stepped this and said that I should take it up with the co-owner of De Molen brewery, John Brus, who was (as it happened) standing right next to him. This was one those 'why couldn't a micro black-hole open up below me and transport me to another point in time & space' moments, but after laughing this off John did mention that he thought the Raad & Daad was probably more sour on keg than it would normally be in the bottle. John & his wife were on a bit of a whistle stop tour of Scotland taking in breweries at Balmaha, Loch Lomond, Oban and River Leven and it was great to chat to him and learn about the philosophy of De Molen and some of their beers - FyneFest is great for these chance encounters.

After promising John that we'd try some other De Molen beers we headed back to the main FyneFest site where the rain had actually stopped - hooray! We'd timed it so that we just had enough time to get a beer at the Brewery Tap and then join the short Brewery Tour that is put on hourly during the day at the Festival. We were just about to select the sessionable Fyne Ales Rune when we noticed a sign indicating that De Molen Amarillo was available on keg (the co-incidences were getting quite spooky!), and after taking a half of this lovely orangey citrus beer with a definite alcohol kick ('seriously drinkable'), we headed into the brewery.

The tour was being taken by one of the Fyne Ales brewers, Jake, and he gave a short but thorough overview of the brewing process in main brew-room going over the mash tun & copper, took us through to the fermenting room & we eventually ended up in the cold store. Jake won 2nd prize in the Institute of Brewing and Distilling Scottish Homebrew competition last year for the magnificent Zombier, and is now working for Fyne Ales full time, a fantastic life-changing opportunity. My American friend couldn't believe that the relatively small size of the brewery (10bbl) could produce the sheer number, quantity (and quality) of beers that Fyne Ales produce - with 7 fermenting vessels they now brew up to 9 times a week. Thankfully plans have been made to turn one of the large cowsheds at the front of the farm into a brand new brewhouse with a 40bbl capacity; this is going to be some change and some investment.

But this was foremost a beer festival and it was definitely time to head back down to the main festival site. In the intervening 3-4 hours this had become very busy (really great to see) and I recognised quite a few CAMRA groups and the unmistakable sight of ratebeer supremo Craig Garvie out with his hyper-active family - see Craig's blog post here.

Some the beers were superb - in particular Siren's Limoncello was a full-on lemon-lime treat which mellowed into orangey bitterness and if I had to pick out one of the many pale-'n'-hoppy beers I did enjoy the bitternes & balance in Oakham's Eugene's Lair. Having to leave fairly early meant that I unfortunately missed a lot of the music, but the covers bands I heard were pretty good and I just caught the Welsh Borders Morris Dancers, complete with backed out faces - interesting & different to say the least.

I really didn't want to leave FyneFest - I'd had some fantastic beers, met some interesting, passionate people and had a good walk in stunning surroundings; not much can really beat that. However the time came when I had to head back to the main road to get the bus back to Glasgow at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar.

I had a few minutes to spare so it's always fun to have a wander through the Loch Fyne Deli. As you would expect the seafood here is quite outstanding, but it's also great to see other local produce such as meat, preserves & biscuits. You can even buy bottles of Fyne Ales beer here but I'd only recommend it if the Fyne Ales Brewery Tap is closed.

And I don't think I've ever actually had a meal at the famous Oyster Bar. Maybe next year, but (more likely) maybe not, if FyneFest captures & holds the attention as much as this year.

Return travel:-
  Loch Fyne Oyster Bar to Glasgow (Citylink 926)