Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A short stay in Stonehaven: 6/7th November 2013

I'd always wanted to go to the Stonehaven Beer Festival so when presented with the chance of a few days in Stonehaven (which happened to coincide with the Beer Festival, ha!) I jumped at the opportunity. This would also allow me to re-acquaint myself with one the best pubs in Scotland, The Marine Hotel, and in addition have a look around the ruins of Dunnottar Castle on the outskirts of the town.

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We had rented a ground-floor apartment at the very end of Stonehaven High Street, almost on the entrance of the harbour with greats views of the waterfront. And yes, that is someone playing with their dog down on the sands of the harbour; it was a very low tide early in the morning.

Just along the waterfront are 2 great pubs, The Ship Inn (this week serving Highland Island Hopping & Inveralmond Ossian) with the large adjoining Captain's Table restaurant...

...and slightly further along the fabulous Marine Hotel.

Inside The Marine there's a large comfy lounge area to the right-side downstairs and a more formal restaurant upstairs, but I don't think I ever managed to get further than the welcoming bar of The Marine, and over the course of a number of days spent quite a bit of time chatting away to the bar-staff, some of the regulars and also the owner Robert Lindsay (when he was relaxing at the end of a busy day).

The have a selection of 6 casks beers (mostly Scottish), 6 keg beers (local, UK & Belgian) and a quite amazing number of Belgian bottles (200+) presented in a well bound, lovingly described beer menu/folder. And who says keg beers have to be expensive - I was able to have a 1/2 of the spicy rye, seriously murky (in a good way) 6.3% Buxton High Tor for all of £1.70.

As of March this year their associated on-site microbrewery Six° North (tag line 'The Belgian Brewers of Scotland') has been operating from just behind The Marine Hotel. From one particular aspect I'd not chosen a good time to visit; Robert and his staff were so busy organising the Beer Festival that there was no way I could even have a quick look around the brewery - hopefully I'll manage this next time. In The Marine they were selling 1 cask beer (Old School), 2 keg beers (Wanderlust Wheat & Four Saisons) and 4 of their bottled beers, with the only one I hadn't had before being the Jang Shi (or Zombie) - completely dead flat, spicy with an almost ginger after-taste and very nice indeed. I wasn't 100% sure that Belgian-inspired beers would work properly or even sell in Scotland, but based on the beers I've had so far from Six° North I'm more than happy to have been proved wrong.

From The Marine and the harbour area it's a lovely walk along the North Sea beach-front, across the bridge over the Carron Water and further along the esplanade to a series of shops just before the indoor swimming pool (closed for the winter, it would definitely have been frozen solid this week) & the caravan park. Here are Aunty Betty's Ice Cream/Sweet/Coffee Shop and also The Bay Fish & Chip shop, winner of the National Fish and Chip Award 2013 (OK, this picture was taken the morning after as I jogged past).

The non potato-based parts of your takeaway supper are cooked to order here and once ready it was a matter of adding the various mushy peas, tartre sauce etc... and then legging it back to the apartment as fast as possible. The chips in my Haddock Supper were good (I've probably had better from, for instance, the Anstruther Fish Bar), but the batter on my haddock was absolutely superb - light, tasty, slightly spicy; I definitely can see how they win so many awards.

Whilst we were in Stonehaven we wanted to visit the sprawling ruins of Dunnottar Castle (used as a location when filming Hamlet starring Mel Gibson). A slight worry was that their web-site had indicated that the castle was closed for cliff-side repairs but would re-open on the Friday of our visit, however on Thursday they posted a further update indicating that the repairs were going to be more extensive than previously expected and that they wouldn't now open until the 18th November. This was somewhat disappointing, but it certainly didn't put me off having a walk to the castle one sunny afternoon. The signposted path took me past The Marine and through a short alleyway to the cliff-side path. This climbed pretty steeply but did give me great views of Stonehaven harbour, the sweep of the beach and further out to the ness beyond.

On the top of the cliff face, slightly inland is Stonehaven War Memorial, fairly unique, I think, in that it's not in the centre of the town and also that there are some iron seats in the centre of the memorial.

At the end of the afternoon the shadows from the memorial almost reach into the sea; I assume it was all planned that way.

By now I was able to get glimpses of Dunnottar Castle and it certainly is well positioned to repel any possible attack from land or from sea with sets of rocks ready to engulf any ships blown by the wind or waves.

And as I got closer to the castle I could see both the almost vertical cliffs on the sea-ward sides of the castle and also the huge dip in front of the only land-ward entrance; obviously a very difficult stretch of ground to cross without being seen. I could see why the Scottish Crown Jewels were moved here in the times of Oliver Cromwell (and then smuggled out undetected one stormy night). Although the castle was closed it was definitely still a worthwhile visit to take in the remoteness and inaccessibility of the fortess site.

Obviously a number of Stonehaven-based places & businesses make use of the well-known Dunnottar name with one of these being the excellent Dunnottar Wines which sells and actively promotes a great choice of interesting beer (there's also a sister shop, Deeside Drinks Emporium, 10 miles or so inland in Banchory). Here I managed to snag a Deeside Brewery Imperial Stout (some of the first batch of these were bottled in swing-top bottles and became infected, this 500ml batch seems fine and I'm really looking forward to it) and also a couple of bottles from the new Lerwick Brewing Company based in the Shetlands. The lager (not shown) happens to be called 60 Degrees North, an (interesting!) play on Six° North perhaps (especially when one of the owners lives in Stonehaven!). I'll have to honest and say that both of the Lerwick beers didn't really live up to expectations (especially the lager which was way too sweet IMHO), but then I assume this was one of the first batches to hit the mainland - hopefully they'll improve as time goes on.

And now onto the main event. The Stonehaven Beer Festival was due to open in Stonehaven Town Hall at 5:00pm on Thursday; this was the queue at ~4:45pm when I joined it and then a lot of people seemed to come out of the back-streets of Stonehaven to join the queue after me.

Last year they had tried (and I think succeeded) to get a cask of beer from every brewery in Scotland that was brewing commercially (that included dry-hopping a cask of Tennent's and pouring countless bottles of Innis & Gunn into a pin), but this year they had changed the format somewhat. There would still be a majority of cask beers from Scotland (this section of the bar was dubbed Due North), but there would also be a number of cask beers from the rest of the UK, and also a number of kegged beers from Scotland (mostly from Six° North) & the rest of the UK (dubbed Due South).

In addition there was still a Belgian Bar upstairs with a number of draught taps but mostly an incredible number of Belgian bottled beers. Don't worry after about an hour or so this place was packed but the volunteer staff were great, there was never a problem getting served.

Some of the kegged beers was being driven from compressor/coolers, this included Alechemy Rye O'Rye and the festival special A Song for the Dying (a high-abv spicy Saison), brewed by Six° North and named after a book by local author Stuart MacBride, who officially open the Festival at approx. 6pm on the Thursday.

There were *a lot* of very good beers here, kudos to Robert Lindsay for gathering such a impressive selection, however my favourite was probably this American IPA, Valentina, from Out There Brewing of Newcastle. A lovely incredibly well-balanced IPA from a brewery that's been going for less than a year, we certainly live in interesting times.

And as a night-cap the choice between these 2 was pretty difficult. Either a dark-chocolate/coffee Imperial Stout or a 4-year old plum-sweet viscous Barley Wine (I'm wondering if this was the aged Thornbridge/Dark Star Coalition). It won't be a complete surprise that I tried both, with the Thornbridge Barley Wine just shading it and I must admit I certainly slept well that night.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Carlisle - Brewing Company, Beer Festival, and a pub closure: 2nd November 2013

It's far quicker to head down to Carlisle from Glasgow in comparison to reaching a lot of places in Scotland, so this weekend I decided to attend my first ever Carlisle Beer Festival. A quick check of the Solway CAMRA web-site indicated that a brewpub called the Carlisle Brewing Company had just setup on the outskirts of the town centre (new brewpubs are always great to see), so it was an easy decision to contact them and schedule a visit before attending the Beer Festival.

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Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Carlisle (Virgin, TransPennine, very frequent)

When I came out of Carlisle train station the rain & wind had really started to squall; I seriously thought about just going into one of the JD Wetherspoons along Bochergate and drinking coffee until the Beer Festival started, but nah - that would have been way too boring. Instead I buttoned up the jacket, got the gloves & hood out and walked over the railway to the high-level bridge over the River Caldew. Here I found some steps down to the river bank and started to follow National Cycle Route 7 south-west along the river. There are quite a lot of flood defence barriers here installed after the major flooding in 2005 and also, slightly upriver, the sweeping Holme Head Weir - it's really quite noisy, but there are lots of converted mill apartments close by, I guess you get used to the constant noise.

The path then took me out onto some isolated scrub land for quite some distance from which I could see a further squall coming in - it was then a race between me and the squall to get to the shelter of some tree in time and thankfully I won. After sheltering/cowering below the trees for 15 minutes or so I was able to set off again and eventually diverged from the main path at a fairly large industrial plant before entering the small village of Cummersdale. In the centre of village, next to the Primary School, is The Spinners Arms, an ex-Carlisle Temperance Movement pub.

The main public entrance is the 'storm' door on the right hand side of the pub (not the more central double-doors) and when I arrived just after noon it was fairly (very) quiet inside (I later found out that most of the regulars had partaken of a few beers at the Beer Festival the night before). Those numbers included the current owners Alain & Alison, but they were kind enough to give me a warm welcome and let me dry out a bit at the bar with one of the 2 Carlisle Brewing Co. beers available (Spun Gold, a nice well-balanced fruity bitter, for all of £2.60/pint).

I soon dried out & warmed up, and after a few minutes I headed out to the brewery with Alain - it's situated in an extended outbuilding on the left side of the pub.

They've had the pub for seven years, but Alain decided a while ago that he wanted to give the village a good low cost option for a pint and so started to seriously think about an on-site microbrewery or brewpub. He hadn't really seriously home-brewed so it was a BrewLab course which gave him some of the necessary information, and then he was fortunate enough to get a good deal on some smallish custom-built kit from John Trew & team at Oban Ales in Lochaber. It's a 2.5BBL kit with Hot Liquor Tank and Mash Tun...

Shiny new Kettle...

and 2x Fermenting Vessels. He doesn't have any conditioning tanks, but instead there is a large chiller to get the room to the right temperature for fermentation, and afterwards these are chilled further to let all the solids settle and the beer clear before setting the temperature back to normal for racking.

Of course, as Alain was happy to admit, one BrewLab course doesn't let you make great beers from day one, so he's been iterating towards getting the beers right (he's a bit of a perfectionist - I think most brewers are); he's now pretty happy with the more bitter & hoppy Flaxen, but the others will possibly be tweaked (slightly). Although he likes some of the well-hopped modern craft beers he's decided to stick with some more traditional beer types at the moment, The Spinners is a small village pub and not a city centre bar. His next beer is likely to be another dark beer brewed with some brown malt, a good winter warmer for the last pint of the evening (or the first), although I did try to persuade him to brew a Scottish 70/- (since they're so close to the border). He brews once or twice a week, but hasn't been able to this week because he's been waiting for the salts to burtonise the water. They've only been selling the beers for a whole 1 month or so, but have pretty well decided not to sell any guest beers in the pub (except for Beer Festivals or Christmas etc...), it's not worth the cost & wastage. When operating at full capacity there will be casks available for other pubs but the market is quite saturated in Carlisle & North Lakes - there are a lot of microbreweries about and there's no doubt this transition to selling beer is going to be difficult to achieve. By this time I'd been chatting away to Alain & Alison for ages and found out that I had just missed the (hourly) bus back to Carlisle (this does seem to happen quite often in my life) so I decided I might well try the Flaxen (very nice & hoppy) and get some food. However Alison told me the kitchen was currently inoperative so a packet of Bacon Flavour fries it was, but this did at least give me a chance to have a good around the pub.

It's very much a community pub with a good part of the left side of the pub given over to the darts board (loads of guest arrows were available), pool table with lots of shields & trophies displayed throughout the pub and lots of fund raising events organised all during the year. There's also a couple of old fashioned fireplaces complete with slate surround and Blue Deflt-like tiles. We also had a really interesting conversation about the infamous Carlisle Temperance Movement which was in force during the majority of the 20th Century. A quick summary - the Government took over a number of breweries and most of pubs in the Carlisle/Gretna area in the main to regulate alcohol consumption for factory workers in the huge (and strategically important) munitions factories in the area. A number of new community pubs were also built including The Spinnners Arms and The Magpie Inn in Carlisle, some with bowling greens (to make these more family friendly) and this state-run control continued until the 1970's when the pubs were all privatised (i.e. mostly sold off to the PubCos). This talk got me thinking about what was happening to The Magpie and since I had a bit of time to spare (and it was fairly dry) my curiosity decided to push me into having a look at the place. I therefore bade Alain & Alison farewell, good luck (and to enjoy the bottle of beer that I had left) and headed back to the Roman city of Carlisle. I crossed the River Caldew at the first bridge after the Weir and then criss-crossed my way over a mass of parallel streets & red-bricked terraced houses until reaching Melbourne Park into the Botcherby area of Carlisle, a good mile or so from the town centre. I then walked into Victoria Road and down a slight dip where I came across the sad sight of The Magpie Inn.

I'd been to this fantastic community place less than 2 years ago (see here) but unfortunate circumstances has meant that it's been up for sale since June after the Oakwell Brewery financial implosion earlier in the year. Oakwell's trading company's (RBNB) mantra has been to sell as many of their 'locations' as possible (complete with the land that the pubs have been located on), with most going on to become housing developments (that's certainly been the case at the London Hotel in Southport). I'd always thought that Oakwell Barnsley Bitter was the definitive Yorkshire Bitter - flat, incredibly well balanced between malt sweetness & dry bitterness and thankfully it seems it this will still live on - some of the Oakwell Brewey kit has been sold (and will still produce Oakwell Barnsley Bitter) at the Stancill Brewery 100m down the road in Barnsley, with the same head brewer in charge. There's also been a petition for re-opening of The Magpie with some interest, but it may be that it's just too far out from the centre of Carlisle to be viable as an independent commercial enterprise - hopefully that won't be the case as it's a stunning pub, although the bowling green and hedges will certainly need a lot of care and attention - sigh...

I then headed back into the centre of Carlisle where the 23rd Carlisle Beer Festival was taking place in the Hallmark Hotel, literally a stone's throw from the train station.

After quite a few sets of stairs I came to a fairly large function room where the beer festival was taking place. There was only a £1 charge for entry, but interestingly enough no festival glass - it was simply a matter of taking a pint or 1/2 pint glass, drinking from it and then leaving it in the wash tray when you were leaving the festival; this seems to keep costs down (and fine by me since I have way, way too many beer festival glasses). There was also no food at the festival (that I could see anyway), this could be obtained from the bars of the Hallmark, or at the Subway across the road (which is what I did).

There were close on 60 beers available, but the most popular (and some of the highest abv) had started run out as the afternoon progressed. There seemed to be a nice mixture of both local beers (Eden, Geltsdale & Hawkshead) and others from further afield - Steel City Communications Breakdown and Five Town Guero were both great.

However these 2 were my favourite beers of the Festival - the wonderfully named Topsy and Turvy from the ever fabulous Offbeat Brewery.

Billed as slight departures from a standard IPA, Topsy was a Belgian-style IPA (sweet, spicy, then some real IPA bitterness) and Turvy a Black IPA (perhaps more of a coffee infused, bitter, silky smooth stout). Both were great but I think the Turvy just shaded it for me. More of these please Michelle !

Return travel:-
  Train: Carlisle to Glasgow Central