Friday, 27 September 2013

Doon the Clyde to the Paisley Beer Festival: 14th September 2013

Last year I'd walked to the Paisley Beer Festival via a few pubs to the south of the town centre so this year I thought I'd try approaching it from the north. This meant it would have to be from Renfrew, a place with lots of pubs, but none of them really that interesting (from a beer point-of-view anyway). However I had noticed that Marston's Inns had recently opened one of the first of their Scottish 'pub restaurants' in Braehead (a mega shopping complex that I would normally avoid like the plague) just outside Renfrew so that seemed like a more promising development. Having decided on a starting point I then had to get there; a bus from Glasgow would be easiest choice, but I chanced on the fact that today would be the last day of season for the Clyde River Taxi which had been operating during the (hot!) summer months between the City Centre and Braehead. This would also let make a bit of an homage to my amazing adopted city of Glasgow as seen from the Clyde.

View Renfrew to Paisley in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  River Taxi: Glasgow City Centre to Braehead (Clyde Clippers)
  Bus: Braehead to Renfrew town centre (21/23, McGills)
  Bus: Renfrew to Paisley bus station (21/23/26/101, McGills)

From my vantage point on the King George V Bridge I could see my transport approaching from downriver and I was somewhat taken aback at its size; it was a bit (OK, quite a bit) on the small size, but I'd reserved my ticket, there was no going back now. Thankfully it had turned out to be a lovely day, with minimal wind (and therefore swell), so I was happy enough to entrust myself to the Clyde Clippers MV Rover.

The River Taxi docks at the Broomielaw Quay Pontoon, almost under the Caledonian Railway Bridge which feeds Central Station; it makes good use of some of the piers from the old Caledonian Bridge for structural support. As the boat approached I could see that I was the only passenger - this really was going to be a personal Taxi.

I got on-board, paid my fee and decided that the front of the boat (OK, the bow) had the best vantage point (seats were available both at the stern and in the cabin). Once we were underway one of the first bridges we came to was the modern Tradeston Bridge (or Squiggly Bridge as it is more popularly known as it encompasses an 'S' shape crossing the Clyde), a pedestrian bridge built in 2006. One of the dangerous escapades for this bridge is rumoured to be to try to walk over and on top of it (i.e. not use the footpath), but I've never actually seen anyone have a go at this.

After passing the constant traffic noise from the Kingston Bridge taking the M8 over the Clyde we came to a section of the riverside that was undergoing some serious repair work. One of the crew told me that the path had collapsed into the river one night earlier in the year, thankfully with no injuries to passers-by.

Now we came to probably my favourite bridge over the Clyde, the Clyde Arc (or Squinty Bridge as it is known, since it crosses the Clyde at an angle of about 30 degrees from the perpindicular). This was the first road bridge across the Clyde in over 40 years, and the steel arch and support cables look spectacular, especially when lit up at night.

The waterfront just up from the Clyde Arc has gone through a lot of changes in recent years and it was interesting to see it all from a slightly different perspective. The Finnieston Crane has been there for years, but it's been joined by a number of hotels, lots of apartments complexes and also the SECC (and in particular the Clyde Auditorium) and now the retro/futuristic Hydro Arena - this is almost like a spaceship from another planet (or perhaps the late 1950's) and is due to open on Monday 30th September with a concert from a certain Rod Stewart.

At the Clyde Auditorium (or Armadillo) the pedestrian-only Bells Bridge across the Clyde is being refurbished - it doesn't look as if it'll be completed any time soon.

On the other side of the Clyde are the BBC & STV Studios and also the Glasgow Science Centre complex comprising the main building housing the exhibits, the IMAX cinema and the sail-like Glasgow Tower. I made it up the Tower (which rotates to face into the wind) just after it was completed and I'm glad I made the effort. Since it opened in 2001 it's only been open for less than 50% of the time it could have been due to 'technical reasons with the original design' and has been closed to the public since 2010.

One of the newest buildings on the Clyde is the Riverside Museum, now home of most of the exhibits from the Transport Museum previously at the Kelvin Hall. It's a great modern structure which creates an effect of long tunnels between the city-side and the huge glass zig-zag frontage to the Clyde, and the addition of the Tall Ship Glenlee has only added to its attraction.

We docked here (a number of other people got on as well, good to see) and got a good look at the other (much larger) vessel operated by Clyde Clippers for (mostly) evening cruises. Supposedly these are fairly quiet when they start off, but then fairly raucous when they return a couple of hours later after a cruise 'doon the watter'.

Overlooking the Clyde on a prominent position on the south bank is Govan Parish Church, site of the oldest place of worship in Glasgow (though the new church was built in 1888). Inside the church are The Govan Stones, a collection of 31 highly decorated early Christian carved stones which, I'm ashamed to say, I've never seen but plan to do so at-some-point in the near future.

It was only when we reached this stretch of the Clyde that I started to comprehend how many shipyards there had been on the Clyde, especially between Govan and Clydebank. Most are now derelict land, but there are still some very poignant reminders of the huge yards such as this crane and works at Barclay Curle's former North British Engine Works at Whiteinch.

Thankfully there is still some shipbuilding on the Clyde and at Govan we came to BAE Systems, currently building huge sections of the Royal Navy's new Aircraft Carriers for further assembly at Rosyth.

And Clydeport is still operating in Glasgow from the King George V dock at Shieldhall.

After this the Braehead shopping-eating-recreational complex came into view, but we still managed to get some final great views down the length of the river to the Titan Crane at Clydebank (you can get to the top of this, well worth visiting), the Erskine Bridge and the occasional aircraft coming into land at Glasgow Airport (bit of fluke this one).

Having docked at the Braehead pontoon I went past the now closed Clydebuilt museum but I decided to give the shopping centre a miss (although there is a decent enough JD Wetherspoon in there, The Lord of the Isles and a German Bar, Bar Varia, in the XScape indoor snow centre). I headed back along the riverside path for a bit until the rear of a large Sainsburys and from there I was forced onto the main road and past IKEA (a place I think I've only braved twice since it's been open) until The Steam Wheeler came into view. From the road junction this looked more like a large showhouse for a housing development...

... but it looked far more pub-like from the front. There is a decent beer garden and there were a lot of people sitting out there today, most of them resting from their cycling endeavours.

They do run a very slick and efficient front-of-house here, with the staff directing people to the bar or to the many tables and then explaining the ordering system, the carvery or directing kids to the small play-area. I headed to the bar where I was happy to see that they were giving out 1/3rd pint flights of the 3 beers available (Pedigree, Boon Doggle & Hobgoblin - all Marston's beers, but some guest beers have been seen before).

The place serves fairly standard pub grub with the added attraction of the carvery, but there are some pretty decent deals available, so I ordered the soup/sandwich deal and sat down at the window. They knew I'd ordered straight-away (a member of staff came with the correct cutlery, so kudos for that) and when it came the Tomato & Basil soup-in-a-mug and the BBQ Chicken sandwiches were quite OK. Apart from the impressive service two things did stand out - the dessert selection (especially the gateaux on display) is seriously good (and they allow take-away/doggy-bags) and the Pedigree I had was just fantastic. Having spent some time in the Midlands quaffing lots of Pedigree a good few years back, I thought it had lost a bit of its lustre in recent times, but this was superb - slightly sweet with a decent sulphur snatch, incredibly smooth & well conditioned and a nice dry bitter aftertaste - it really transported me back to some of those pubs in & around Coventry.

I decided that I didn't want to risk the Saturday afternoon traffic by walking back to Braehead (or Renfrew) so I got on a bus outside IKEA until Renfrew town centre came into view. There I got off and walked down to the Gothic/Scottish splendour of Renfrew Town Hall.

They were open today because of Renfrewshire Doors Open Day and I spent a bit of time wandering through the small museum, a couple of rooms setup for functions and also (on the 1st Floor) the larger main hall.

It's a fairly long walk down busy Renfrew Road to Paisley so I decided to take another bus and this dropped my off at Paisley bus station. From here it was only a few minutes to the gardens in the centre of Paisley encompassing both Paisley Town Hall and the magnificent Paisley Abbey.

Paisley Abbey was also open to visitors for Doors Open Day so I decided to go in for a few minutes (I'd never been in before). It's a seriously impressive building and after I negotiated the mass of kids engaged in a treasure hunt the views of the stained glass in the Great East Window were quite spectacular.

Paisley Town Hall is on the opposite side to the Abbey. It's been given a bit of a make-over in the last 12 months or so to be ready for The Mod this October and this was the main reason that the 2013 Paisley Beer Festival had to be postponed from its usual end-of-April slot.

I'd been in a couple of times previously in the week so I was able to head in without having to wait in the queue (it was pretty busy for a Saturday afternoon). As per the last couple of years the Scottish Beers were in the Main Hall with Foreign & English (this year from Yorkshire) Beers in the smaller side hall. I settled down to try some of the English beers that I'd never had before (almost all the Abbeydale, Kirkstall and Revolutions beers were lovely) and if I couldn't see the beer I wanted on the racks of stillage in most cases I could check their availability and their price by using the QR codes that had been helpfully printed out on the bartop (and protected by plastic sheeting) - this was probably the best use of QR codes that I'd ever seen!

There was even an option to check the beer into untappd or tweet a comment about the beer - it was all very nicely implemented indeed.

By this time last year the Foreign Bar had almost completely run out, but this year there was still a decent selection available with advice being given and beers being dispensed by a certain beer blogger and a popular local barman. I didn't try too many from the Foreign Bar over the course of the Festival but the Weihenstephaner White Hoplosion was stunning, a lovely orangey-bitter Hefeweissen.

On the main bar I managed to get the last of the Tryst Double IPA (one of the strongest beers that Tryst have done, hopefully they'll do some more) and I also noticed some of the AleselA people taking a busman's holiday from their main job of, well, selling beer. As always all the volunteers did an incredible job.

All told again a great Beer Festival (still probably the best in Scotland) and the 2014 one is back at its normal time of the year in late April, so there's less than 7 months to go.

Return travel:-
  Train: Paisley Gilmour Street to Glasgow Central (every 10 minutes)

Friday, 20 September 2013

A tour of Robinsons Unicorn Brewery & Visitor Centre, Stockport: 7th September 2013

I was down in Manchester to watch the England v Australia ODI at Old Trafford this weekend and decided that I really couldn't subject my Dad to another lengthy pub crawl as per our exploits in Durham last year. Instead I thought that a brewery tour would be a more sensible (and sedate) alternative and since Robinsons in Stockport had just opened their Visitor Centre earlier in the year this seemed like a good opportunity to see how a larger 'regional' brewery operates and possibly try a few of their newer beers.

View Robinsons in a larger map

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Manchester Picadilly to Stockport (every 10 minutes, Virgin Trains off-peak is cheaper)

The walk from Stockport train station to Robinsons Unicorn brewery, situated pretty well in the middle of Stockport town centre, took about 10 minutes. It's a fantastic red-bricked Victorian building which has a prominent position on the Stockport skyline.

The trade entrance is on Lower Hillgate...

...but the Visitor Centre entrance is on the complete opposite side on Apsley Street (there is a car park immediately opposite).

We checked in at the main desk and then took a bit of time to look around the large, bright, modern room housing a mixture of modern audio-visual displays and old fashioned brewery memorabilia. Pride of place in the centre of the room is one of the huge original Coppers, still gleaming but somewhat dented by (supposedly) the brewers throwing in lumps of sugar down the years.

However... in front of the Copper was a display of Iron Maiden's Trooper beer, brewed by Robinsons and an incredible commercial success story (currently their best selling beer). I can see why they would want to do this but it just seemed a bit too (I don't know) out-of-place perhaps (and it didn't help that I didn't really like the beer (at all) when I tried it in bottled format earlier in the year). Having said all that there's no doubt it's a striking artwork and makes for a great label and pump-clip.

In other parts of the room was a dray cart (no shire horses unfortunately) and...

...a map of Robinsons pubs (currently 360 of them) and most of Robinsons current range of beer.

There were also a few Rum & Port bottles on display with names such as Ye Olde Times, Bimbo & Old Ruby. It seems Robinsons imported and bottled these spirits quite a few years ago (I couldn't find out when).

By now the place was filling up with the attendees for the final tour of the day (including a group of 4 in full Iron Maiden attire, so you simply can't knock Robinsons' marketing savvy). Our tour guide Graham arrived (I remembered his name, probably a first for me) and warned us that we would have to clamber the 56 steel mesh steps up to the top of the building. The reason for this is the the brewery is (or at least was) gravity fed - brewing operations start at the very top of the building and are then distributed down through the various levels to the bottom floor. That means that the water is stored on the top level and this comes from a pair of boreholes into the Manchester Aquifer, a source of fairly soft water which is tested every day for mineral content and then 'Burtonised' as required. It was here that we saw the first of the new pieces of Steinecker brewing equipment that been installed in the brewery between 2010 & 2012 by German conglomerate Krones at a cost of approximately £5million (there was no British company which could provide the same service).

Graham explained that the Robinson family made a couple (probably a lot more than a couple) of key decisions about the new brewhouse. Firstly that the new brewing equipment would be installed in the same building as the current equipment (requiring a large build-up of stockpiled beer and also the removal of the main roof of the Unicorn Brewery during installation). Secondly that (when possible) some of the old brewing equipment would be left behind for, well, for people like us playing at beer tourists, and (of course) for celebrating their brewing history. Both decisions cost the Company a lot of extra money over & above what would have been necessary in comparison to a totally new build at an out-of-town Industrial Estate, but were deemed to be necessary as part of the company's local and historical responsibility, a really impressive stance. They weren't brewing today (Saturday is cleaning day, double drats!), but even during the week the wonderful old brewery aroma of sweet malt & citrusy hops isn't really present as it was in years gone by as everything is captured at the top of the building and the waste heat re-cycled in the Vapour Condenser. This has supposedly helped reduce energy consumption in the brewery by 30%.

Graham then started to describe the flow of the brewing process and first of all explained how & why malting happens, passing around various samples of malt to try. Most of this is British-grown malt but there was also Lager Malt & Munich Malt from the continent.

The new Variomill is used to both wet the malt and crush it and is a gleaming piece of functional equipment...

...whereas the original Seck Mill is a fantastic piece of old-style heavy engineering which probably needed ear defenders to be up-close to.

There were also hops to try, again mostly British but with some Perle & Saaz continental hops and lots of orangey citrus goodness from US Amarillo hops. Almost all the bittering hops are pellet based, it's only the aroma hops which are primarily whole flowers - it's purely a cost driven exercise with regards to the huge brewlength they operate with.

We then all traipsed down to next level where water is added to the malt to produce the sweet wort. This is where you actually start to see the size of the brewing operation - the brewlength can be up to 17,000 pints which by my reckoning equates to close to 60 barrels, and they can do this up to 4 times a day! Here there were lots more seriously huge shiny pieces of kit, the Mash Vessel (I remarked that it was obviously too modern to be called a Tun) and...

...the Lauter Tun (I retracted the previous smartarse comment in front of everyone, and then shut-up)...

...and the Cereal Cooker, used to cook wheat, rice, corn or other grains that might also be used in a specific beer.

Compare all this to the old wooden Mash Tun which used to be dug out by hand in sweltering conditions (the workers had their own beer allowance for this). Since the new Mash Vessel (and everything else) is cleaned automatically these guys now mostly work at the bottling plant in Bredbury.

The Control Room is on the same scale as the rest of the brewery but in complete reverse, it was tiny, with only 1 desk and 2 PCs (although I believe there is some additional monitoring performed by the German manufacturer).

The brewer sets out the hops required for the beer at the start of the brewing process and these are then realised in the Hop Preparation room. The first 3 'chutes' are used for the bittering hops (hop pellets), the final one is for the whole hops (which I think goes down to the Hopnick).

Again the new Copper is a shiny piece of kit...

...but the old Copper is really well, made out of copper.

Down a further level is the Hopnick (or Hopback), used to maximise aroma from whole hops and also when other adjuncts are used such as berries (for winter's Tom and Berry) or ginger (Ginger Tom). Robinsons' Hopnick was supposedly the largest in the world when it was first installed.

After going through a whirlpool (to filter & remove a lot of the protein based solids) and then the mother of all heat exchangers, the cool hoppy wort is sent to the Fermenting Vessels where yeast is added. There were a lot of these (I think I saw up to FV15) and they are all open (in comparison to the closed ones I saw at Thornbridge's Riverside Brewery). There were also a couple of partially closed vessels holding Fentiman's Ginger Beer.

Some of the patterns of krausen on the top of the fermenting beer were incredibly intricate and there was also the occasional massive belch of CO2, one of which almost knocked me off my feet. Robinsons use so much yeast that they share a portion of it with a number of the local microbreweries.

As far as I could see there aren't any new style Conditioning Tanks on-site so any conditioning and the adding of finings for cask beer, as well as further chilling, maturing & filtering for bottled & kegged beer, must be performed at the Bredbury plant, some 3 miles away. And that was it; after pretty close to an hour we all headed (in a fairly orderly stampede) to the bar of the Visitor Centre - all light wood, hand-pulls, shiny key fonts and masses of old & new bottles. Here I managed to take this pic of our friendly tour guide (Graham's laughing because one of the barstaff (not in shot) had just commented that it's the first time she had ever seen Graham without accompanying pint glass in hand).

The Visitor Centre is setup to provide beer (and food) for a good number of people and they have already hosted a large number of corporate events, beer launches and beer & food matchings (for example the Simon Rimmer beers). As per the brewery itself it's a mixture of bright new furnishings...

...but still with a nod to Robinsons' past (the use of the old conditioning tanks is great).

As part of the tour you get a choice of either a pint (or a bottle) of beer or three 1/3 pint tasters with most people opting for the three 1/3rds (I actually got 5 since my Dad only wanted 1). The Dizzy's Dark Side was new to me (and a pretty decent mild), and I tried the Trooper (twice) on cask, but still thought it was very mediocre (I wanted a lot more overall intensity in an ESB), but the best beer I had was the kegged Frederic's 175 - bumped up to 6.5% (from 4.3% on cask) with some dark fruit bitterness, a decent bitter finish, maybe a tad fizzy, but pretty good.

As always it was great to have a look around a working brewery, many thanks to Graham for the very informative tour. Even though the Unicorn Brewery is huge in size you can still feel the passion these people have for their beer, and the fact that the brewhouse redevelopment has stayed in the same building with no loss in jobs speaks volumes for the commitment of the Robinson family to the local area.

Return travel:-
  Train: Stockport to Manchester Picadilly (every 10 minutes)