Monday, 28 December 2015

Golden Pints 2015

These are my Golden Pint 'Awards' for the beers I've drunk and the pubs, bars & beer festivals I've been to in 2015 with links to various blog posts & untappd check-ins. There seems to be a far more local/Scottish flavour to these this year, perhaps reflecting the great choice of Scottish beers in 2015 and my somewhat dearth of journeys south of the border (or at least past Carlisle) during the last 12 months - most probably it's a bit of both.

Best UK Cask Beer:
Inveralmond Rascal London Porter - The Green Room, Perth. Dark chocolate, dark fruit and some slight charcoal bitterness but add the cask conditioned smoothness and it just tapers away fantastically to a lovely burnt bitter-sweet finish.

Best UK Keg Beer:
Fallen (with BrewDog Glasgow) Big Raspberry Dog Chew - DogHouse Merchant City, Glasgow. Aero chocolate, quite smooth, definite alcohol hit, sharp raspberries, more dark chocolate & a slight saltiness in the finish.

Best UK Bottled Beer:
Elixir Aji Bhaji, bottle from Cloisters. Indian spices, blood oranges, really smooth, lovely orangey-pepper bitterness, and then those chills really bite back (still not sure about picking up any onions tho).

Best UK Canned Beer:
Magic Rock High Wire Grapefruit, can from Drygate bottle shop. Great grapefruit aroma, sweet grapefruit taste, light, nicely fizzy, lovely bitter-sweet finish. Best canned beer around

Best Overseas Draught Beer:
Crux Fermentation Project 2015 [BANISHED] Better Off Red - Crux Fermentation Project Tap. Red fruits, some weird/amazing esters, oak sweetness, sour but still biting finish. Pretty impressive & probably the best beer I had during my Pacific North-West trip

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer:
Birrificio Italiano Nigredo, bottle from AleselA. Loads of dark choc, cocoa, bit of alc, piney bitterness, and it's sooooo smooth - v nice.

Best collaboration brew:
Hawkshead and Crooked Stave Key Lime Tau (2π) - The Hanging Bat, Edinburgh. Lime, sour milk, bit of body, dry bitter-lime finish - preferred this to the Crooked Stave brewed variant.

Best Overall Beer:
Over a range of dispense methods (cask, keg & bottle) I'd have to say my overall favourite beer in 2015 was the superb Fallen Chew Chew - dark chocolate salted peanuts, molasses, decent body, coffee & cream finish - lovely stuff indeed.

Best Branding, Pumpclip, Label or Beer Name:
Tempest Brew Co (with BrewDog Edinburgh) Honey, Jamaican Me Ginger. Name, bottle label (and beer itself) all excellent.

Best UK Brewery:
Fallen Brewing Co. Not only has Paul brewed 2 of my beers of the year, but every new beer he's brewed (including a lot of collabs this year) has been outstanding - take your pick from Gose, Black IPA, Brown Ale, Pear/Honey Beer, American Wheat. Well done indeed (and keep those names coming)!

Best Overseas Brewery:
Crux Fermentation Project. I was seriously impressed by the flight tray I had at their brewery tap in Bend, Oregon, and then I went back for more to sit and contemplate the view of the amazing sunset.

Best New Brewery Opening 2015:
Five Kingdoms Brewery, Isle of Whithorn. I've had a number of their beers at various Ayrshire festivals/socials and they've all been excellent so far.

Pub/Bar of the Year: (note - this is for pubs that I've visited for the first time in 2015)
Large scale - The John Fairweather, Cambuslang. OK, I know this is a JD Wetherspoon establishment, but the conversion is stunning. Originally an old Savoy cinema, there are a number of seating levels, masses of bright, twinkling lights, loads of original art deco features, and the amazing balcony is still there.
Small scale pub - Hemelvaart Bier Café, Ayton. Loads of decent beer, Scottish and Belgian bottles and they do some great music at the weekends.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2015:
OX184, Cowgate Edinburgh. I love all the smoke aromas which swirl around in this place, the smoked food is great and it is the closest thing to a Tempest Brew Co. tap in Edinburgh.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year:
Fried & Smoked Chicken Waffle Sandwich, Savoury Fries with Tempest Easy Livin' Pils - OX184, Edinburgh.

Beer Festival of the Year:
The Great Scottish Beer Celebration at the Barras Art & Design Centre, Glasgow. I really like these Festivals/Meet and Talk to the Brewer events and this first ever GSBC at the Barras was excellent - thanks to Hippo Beers for organising this.

Supermarket of the Year:
Aldi (Scotland) Ltd. Their 2x Scottish Beer Festivals each year are still great and really useful to newer and more established Scottish micros.

Independent Retailer of the Year:
Drygate bottle shop just edges it in Glasgow for me this year.

Online Retailer of the Year:
AleselA - beer choice, flexibility and local service you can't beat.

Best Beer Book or Magazine:
Original Gravity magazine is well worth a read.

Best Beer Blog or Website:
I've found Stuart's Scottish Breweries Map (with updates) really useful, and the best beer-related blog piece I've read this year was about the planning & execution of a crawl from Morecambe to Wise.

Best Beer App:
Untappd is pretty well the only one I use.

Best Brewery Website/Social media:
Pilot Beer. Star Wars, awards & some anti-untappdisms!

Happy New Year to everyone!

Monday, 21 December 2015

A brief day out to Perth and Inveralmond Brewery: 12th December 2015

Quite a few breweries have Open Days or Winter Fairs in the run-up before Christmas, it’s great way to help maximise the lucrative carry-out trade during the long Christmas & New Year festive period. One of these, Inveralmond Brewery in Perth, were having their Open Day this Saturday, and as an added bonus, were officially heralding the launch of their new (and actually first-ever) barrel-aged beer, so I decided that this was a good time to pay them a visit after far too long an absence (certainly pre-blog and pre-twitter days).

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen Street to Perth (41 on the hour + some others)

Inveralmond Brewery is located in an Industrial Estate on the outskirts of Perth, a good 3 miles or so north-west of the city centre. It's possible to get a bus most of the way up Dunkeld Road pretty close to the estate, but on a crisp, clear winter's day I decided that a brisk walk out was going to be far more fun (and it would get me there at a sensible time in the late morning). I therefore walked north out of the train station and around the inner ring-road until reaching the narrow water-way before the sign-posted main road turning to Crieff & Inverness. This man-made channel is called The Lade and was used to provide water from the River Almond to the various mills and bleaching fields built during the Industrial Revolution, as well as providing a useful defensive moat around the northern side of Perth old town. Nowadays there is a decent foot/cyclepath along most of The Lade and numerous residential developments line its narrow banks.

Apart from a somewhat confusingly closed section near to the Crieff Road/Dunkeld Road junction, the footpath along The Lade took me away from the hustle & bustle of the main road until close to the Holiday Inn Express at Inveralmond Roundabout. The is the main junction for the A9 north to Inverness & south to Edinburgh/Glasgow and it most definitely isn't a road to be trifled with. I therefore chose to stand and wait patiently at the 5 pedestrian crossings required to get to the Highland Gateway retail development on the other side of the roundabout. This has a cavernous Tiso Outdoor Experience store with all sorts of walking, skiing and cycling gear (including indoor climbing walls) but after a quick look around I was more inclined to walk slightly further into the large expanse of Inveralmond Industrial Estate where Inveralmond Brewery has been located since 1997.

At the front of the unit are some offices on the left, a tasting room & shop on the right, with the actual brewery set back further into the main industrial unit (the pick-up for the spent grain can just be seen in the pic above). I headed into the shop where quite a few people were already present (with a number starting to hold court at the bar), but pride of place in front of the shelves full of bottled beer was an impressive display of their first ever barrel-aged beer, the intriguingly-named Ooskabeer.

There were a number of helpful Inveralmond folk in attendance (with Christmas jumpers to the fore) and so I naturally asked about how Ooskabeer had been produced and the reasoning behind the beer's name. It seems the base beer was Inveralmond's mighty scotch ale Blackfriar (or something very close to it) and this was then aged in 3 first-fill whisky casks from Glenturret Distillery over a total period of 6 months. The aged beer came out differently from the 3 different casks (and also had an abv of over 8%) and so it was blended together, filtered to remove particulate matter from the casks and then bottled at Cairngorm Brewery to produce 1775 bottles. 1775 just happens to be when the Glenturret Distillery was founded and half of this amount will be sold by Glenturret at the Famous Grouse Experience in Crieff with the other half being sold by Inveralmond. The beer's name was going to be a full-on Gaelic conjunction of Whisky and Beer (Uisge Beatha and Beoir) but they eventually decided that this was a bit a handful/mouthful and went for the more phonetic pronunciation of Ooskabeer, probably a wise decision. After all of this talking & explanation the obvious follow-up was to try a sample of said Ooskabeer and this was decanted from a minicask specially filled for today's enjoyment, with both the Inveralmond crest, the Glenturret logo and the signature of Head Brewer & the Distillery Manager on this and all of the bottles. After all of the build-up the Ooskabeer was thankfully very good indeed - it still had the dark red fruits & Christmas Pudding base flavours from Blackfriar, but it was definitely lighter & crisper, with a hint of vanilla and then a subtle whisky, almost bourbon warmth in the finish. This is Batch 1 of Ooskabeer so hopefully Inveralmond will make this a fairly frequent, if not annual, event.

The last time I'd been at Inveralmond there was just a (relatively) small 10BBL brewing kit with a few fermenting vessels and so I was hoping for a look around to see what had been happening in the subsequent years. I couldn't see any official time for a possible tour of the brewery so I obviously asked, and was then shown into the more than capable hands of Kieran, one of the young Inveralmond brewers. We headed off into the brewery floor and, from high-up on the mezzanine level, there's no doubt that brewing capacity has expanded considerably to fill almost all the available space in the unit.

The mash tun & copper are both Bavarian Brewery Technologies 30BBL units which were originally used by Skipton-based Copper Dragon Brewery (before they branched out/over-extended somewhat with a humongous 120BBL system)...

...with the whole brewery being powered by a steam generation system to optimise heating costs and maximise controllability. Kieran indicated that hops (in pellet form only) are still added manually to the copper and someone (normally Kieran or one of the other 'junior' brewers) still has to dig out the mash tun (albeit that the spent grain is loosened by internal rakes and that there is no need to actually get into the tun). We had a look around all of the fermenting vessels & conditioning tanks on the right-hand side of the brewery space and there are a lot of 30BBL tanks, a couple of 60BBL tanks and also one huge 120BBL vessel which is used for when Ossian or Lia Fail needs to be bottled - after the multiple brewing shifts required to fill this tank and the subsequent fermentation, the bottling tanker is filled directly from the vessel and then driven away to Williams Brothers for bottling.

As Kieran and I were chatting away, Inveralmond Head Brewer Ken Duncan came into the brewery floor and was happy to add some further detail regarding the Ooskabeer development and also answer a question that been annoying me for some time. Last year Inveralmond had brewed a blue beer for St Johnstone Football Club who were playing in (and won) their 1st ever Scottish Cup Final. This Saints 130 Ale was an impressive luminous blue colour and I had always wondered how this had been achieved. It seems Ken had used a harmless food colourant obtained from seaweed/algae called Spirulina blue which is also used in the new recipe for blue Smarties. This is so concentrated that very little was actually used in the batch of beer, and Ken probably has enough left in the highly unlikely case (ha, to say the least!) that St Johnstone win the Scottish Cup every year for the next 50 years. Interestingly enough the Spirulina added no taste to the beer at all so the blueberry taste I thought I perceived was just totally in my head.
(Pic from the Inveralmond Brewery Facebook pages)

Following this Kieran took me into the temperature controlled stock-room where cask conditioned beer is stored and the bags of hops are kept. Although Inveralmond only use pellet hops (and only in the copper, they don't dry-hop any of their beers)...

...there was a bag of hop flowers present from a local Carse of Gowrie farmer (amazingly another crop of hops from Scotland, to go with those from Born in the Borders and St Andrews Brewing Co.). Kieran plans a home-brew with these over the festive period as the crop is way too small for one of Inveralmond's core range of beers.

Inveralmond are perhaps thought of a fairly 'traditional' brewery but they've been producing kegged beers for some time and have a relatively new 'Inspiration Series' of interesting non-core beers. The first of these, Sunburst, their authentic Czech-style pilsner (with a yeast strain acquired from one of Ken's Czech acquaintances), is a kegged & bottled beer only and a lot of their other beers are produced in kegged form. Filtration of a fermented beer is performed using this large manual press plate filter, carbonated & pressurised afterwards, and then transferred to a bright-beer tank.

Many thanks to Kieran for the great informative look-around the brewery; it was very clear that he really enjoys his job and talking about beer. We returned to the shop where I bought a couple of bottles of Ooskabeer and also a London Rascal Porter from Inveralmond MD Fergus Clark. Fergus mentioned that they were in advanced discussions to add an external storeroom/cellar-room from the adjoining unit which would help in the ebb & flow of seasonal demand and would also be somewhere to store their barrel-aged beers, no bad thing. By now it was definitely a more than acceptable time for a beer and I decided on the Inveralmond seasonal, Santa's Swallie. I can sometimes find these festive beers just a bit OTT spicy/gimmicky but this one was quite restrained; a light, crisp beer with some slight festive spices rather than a mixed spice beer.

The shop/tasting room is great place to spend some time, and as well as the beer there are obviously a lot of Inveralmond awards adorning the walls, but in particular I liked this display of pump-clips/beer mats of Inveralmond beers, both past and present (there were a lot here I didn't recognise).

Shopping, brewery tour and beer drinking done (in about 2 hours, pretty impressive) I then walked back to the city centre, through all those pedestrian crossings again, past a snaking chain of Santa Claus's (both young and old) before reaching Canal Crescent, the location of The Green Room (with a fair amount of bright green paint-work).

Inside it all looked very inviting, with a real fire and 4 hand-pulled beers on the bar (2x Alechemy, 1x Strathbraan and the superb Inveralmond Rascal London Porter), but when I inquired about food I was told they don't do any (at any time), although the friendly barman indicated that I was welcome to bring in a take-away.

That's pretty unusual nowadays and meant that I had a bit of a dilemma - either head to another place for some standard pub fare and almost definitely a not-too interesting beer selection or, find a take-away that was open and return to The Green Room. Unsurprisingly I decided on the latter and Google Maps led me to Holdgates Fish Bar and Takeaway just around the corner in South Street. 15 minutes or so later I was therefore back in The Green Room with my smoked sausage supper and a great pint of cask Inveralmond Rascal London Porter (actually it was a pint and a 1/2 by the time the barman had managed to get me a pint with a head on it - I wasn't going to complain).

I'd had a couple of bottles of the Inveralmond Rascal London Porter before and it was pretty good at the time, but on cask it was just sublime - dark chocolate, dark fruit and some slight charcoal bitterness but the cask conditioned smoothness just tapered away fantastically to a lovely burnt bitter-sweet finish - I hesitate to even mention comparisons with The Kernel but it really was that good. As I made my way through my take-away supper and porter combo I was able to have a look around The Green Room. It bills itself as Perth's premier live music venue (complete with downstairs beer bar where I was ensconced) and there's no doubt it's a more than interesting place, complete with loads of antique wooden tables, pump-clips on the dark wooden beams and there's even a piano (and a bike, strangely enough).

The toilets for the place (including the bar) are upstairs where there is more of a cocktail bar/lounge, today brightly & festively decorated, and there is also space for the larger gigs which happen at the weekends.

The downstairs beer bar has up to 6 cask beers available (only 4 today, but the friendly, chatty barman did manage to get me a sample of the forthcoming MòR Brewing Bar Humbug, a lovely Chocolate Orange stout) but they also have an outstanding bottled beer selection (~70 beers). When you try a selection of beers you get a Beer Passport which gets stamped when one of the beers (cask or bottle) is sampled (prizes, acclaim and possibly hospital treatment are probably available if all of these are managed within a short enough timespan). I had a fairly sweet Monteith's Southern Pale Ale before leaving for the train station, but I'll definitely be back to try a few more at Perth's leading beer bar (OK, The Cherrybank Inn is probably just as good, but it's a fair bit out of the city centre).

Return travel:-
  Train: Perth to Glasgow Queen Street (15 on the hour + some others)

Friday, 27 November 2015

Social times in North Ayrshire: 21st November 2015

For a first longish walk in ages I had decided to head down to the Renfrewshire/North Ayrshire border, where I could visit a couple of decent pubs before ending up at a real ale 'event' being organised in a local Community Social Club by a number of Ayrshire CAMRA members.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Lochwinnoch (04, 34 on the hour, the slow train to Ayr)

Lochwinnoch is located (unsurprisingly) on a couple of fresh-water Lochs (Castle Semple Loch and Barr Loch) and the surrounding low-lying wetlands are a haven for both wildlife and waterfowl. Just down from the train station is the Lochwinnoch RSPB Reserve and on a crisp, clear Saturday morning in Autumn the car park was pretty full and I could see the frequent glint of binoculars from the ornithologists high-up on the viewing platform.

A well-signposted path led me to the large visitor centre at the eastern end of Castle Semple Loch which was still busy today with cyclists, dog-walkers, rowers and people simply out for a walk in the bright sunshine (the Kenmure Hill Folly can just about be seen at the far end of the Loch).

I had timed my arrival so that after a short walk along the loch-side paths, I was able to continue on to the main street of Lochwinnoch. There are a couple of pubs, cafés & restaurants here but I headed to the opposite site to Castle Semple where the welcoming, stone-clad hostelry of The Brown Bull was waiting for me (and it was good to see a French Tricolour flying between the Saltires).

I've been here quite a few times and this is a lovely, family run pub, with a downstairs area full of hidden away nooks & crannies, an upstairs more formal restaurant, a fantastic, somewhat idiosyncratic beer garden and a low-beamed dark wooden bar area (with bar gantry bedecked with a mass of different bank notes) at the very front. As luck would have it, the real fire in the bar had just been lit as I came in (and additional wood was being brought in by one of the owner's kids) which meant I could peruse the 4 interesting cask beers on hand-pull in a lovely smoky, warming and kindle crackling atmosphere.

Today local beers from Kelburn (Red Smiddy and Ca' Canny) were available as well as Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Brass Castle Northern Blonde, so I took a pint of Northern Blonde (sweetish orange, toffee, quite resiny, bitter orange finish - nice) and sat down opposite the bar. For lunch (note the 12:30pm opening of the kitchen) they do pub classics, fish specials and also burgers, sandwiches & omelettes so, for a change, I ordered the chicken burger and waited with Cate Blanchett as my table companion (ha, if only!) for this to arrive.

This didn't take too long and the thick creamy sauce with the chicken seemed to contrast well with the Kelburn Ca' Canny winter ale that I'd ordered as a follow-up to the Northern Blonde (loads of dark red fruits, slight coffee and almost some warming bourbon sweetness in the finish). Food finished I left the pub and started off on my walk for the afternoon, but it wasn't too long before I had to take care and negotiate my first possible set of obstacles (thankfully none of these furry creatures were about).

It is possible to take the old railway line, which is now National Cycle Route 7, from Lochwinnoch almost all of the way to my final destination today of Kilbirnie/Glengarnock, but I wanted to be somewhat more indirect and go via the town of Beith and so I headed back to Lochwinnoch train station until I reached a turning just past The Loch House restaurant. This took me on a narrow single-track road through the Ayrshire countryside where I encountered no cars at all during the entire 3 mile or so walk to Beith; only the green fields, bare hedges & sparsely snow-speckled hills (and wind turbines) kept me company.

After crossing a fast flowing burn the road forked and I followed the left hand turn up a gradual incline and into the outskirts of Beith. Since my last visit the Masonic Arms on the High Street had stopped selling real ale and been put up for sale by auction, but the nearby Sarcaen's Head Hotel on the road south out of town had started selling Scottish real ale and had even become Ayrshire CAMRA's Pub of the Year in 2015.

This is a fairly large 2-room pub, quite brightly & modernly decorated, with separate sections on either side of the rectangular central bar, a games/pool room further back and some outdoor seating/smoking areas at the very rear. Today the right-side was quite busy with people in for the football results and the racing on the many TVs, and the bar staff were attentive & helpful when I came in. They've had beer from Isle of Skye and Jaw Brewing on the bar, but today a couple of Kelburn ales were present on the 2 hand-pulls, Jaguar and Ca' Canny. I had a 1/2 of Kelburn Jaguar, recently named as Champion Golden Ale of Britain, a lovely, resiny, well-balanced beer, but I would have said it's lost a bit of its quite bitter bite since being first brewed in 2012 (or my tastes have changed, either is possible). Food in the Saracen's Head comes in the form of rolls, paninis and baked potatoes but there is also the option of ordering meals at the bar which come from the next door chippy, Fryer Tuck's Chip Shop (ouch), including a number of daily specials (pizzas, fish on Friday's etc...).

Almost opposite the Saracen's Head it's impossible to miss a very brightly decorated building, the B-Listed Beith Town House. Originally housing a number of shops (as well as a temporary cell for the upstairs Sheriff's Court) it is now used as a local museum and occasional concert venue.

Heading south out of Beith I was able to take a path through a housing estate to get to the main road to Glengarnock and then continued on this road to the junction for the Glengarnock Business Park at Caledonian Road. For some reason the pavement on the main road stops here (but does go into the Business Park) so that I then had to scrabble on the grass verge for a few hundred metres before reaching the outskirts of Glengarnock. Just into the residential area is a large construction project, the £40-Million Garnock Campus, which will host local secondary & primary schools as well as community facilities, and I'm assuming/hoping the pavement will continue all the way along the main road when this is completed in 2016.

There's not too much in Glengarnock, but just after the railway station is an interesting sandstone building - with a faded Kilbirnie Co-operative Society and Drapery signs, as well as a large front facing clock at the top of the building (albeit not working too well), there is an obvious link to the Co-operative Societies and their associated shops of the late 19th/early 20th Century. It seems the ground level of the building had recently been the location of a Jehovah Witness' meeting hall, but most of this level was now in the process of being redeveloped, possibly into a café/takeaway.

I took a footbridge over the River Garnock and then walked past & through the bollarded off road which marks the boundary between Glengarnock and Kilbirnie. At the very end of this road was my final destination, the Garnock Community Social Club (this is fairly obviously the back of the club, too many people were milling about at the front for me to get a decent pic).

From the entrance at the front I made the classic mistake of choosing the wrong room; this was totally empty and I had the fleeting thought I had come to completely the wrong place...

...but eventually by following the music that had started up I managed to find my way to the large function room of the club. After signing in as a guest I bought a number of 1/2 pint tokens (4 for £5, certainly can't complain) and gravitated to the small stillage area at the back of the room.

This was being marshalled by organiser Ian Martin, one of the Ayrshire CAMRA member helping out at the club (Ian normally wears a giraffe hat at beer festivals, today it was a Morris Dancer's, I think there is an endless supply of these). Ian has spent a fair amount of time & effort in making real ale available at the Social Club at weekends and this event was the culmination of all this effort. The beers available were a mixture of local beers (Ayr, Kelburn, Five Kingdoms), other Scottish beers (Jaw, Alechemy), quite a few from further afield and a number of Waulkmill ciders. In particular Ian had managed to obtain a couple of beers from his native London, Hackney Calypso Eldorado and East London Nightwatchman with the latter being quite superb - lots of red fruit bitterness, very smooth and a long dry bitter-fruit finish - an excellent Extra-Special Bitter. In addition, Ian had been able to 'procure' a 'quantity' of 2015 Great British Beer Festival pint glasses for the event, a nice touch (and I didn't want to how he had managed this).

I was only able to stay for about an hour but in that time all the beers that I had were in excellent nick, the place was busy, there were lots of kids milling about, everyone I spoke to was friendly & seemed to be having fun and the music from the local ensemble was great. It's a shame that there are so few social clubs providing decent beer in Scotland, hopefully the Garnock Community Social club can continue to do so for some time.

Return travel:-
  Train: Glengarnock to Glasgow Central (08, 38 on the hour)

Thursday, 19 November 2015

A food (and beer) stop at Born in the Borders: 4th November 2015

I'd managed to wangle a few days out of Glasgow, on a short break in the beautiful Borders, and since I had the car decided to take the opportunity to visit one of the area's breweries which is located in a fairly rural setting, the newly re-branded Born in the Borders Brewery just outside Jedburgh.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Car to Lanton Mill, TD8 6ST: Take the A68 to 2 miles north of Jedburgh, turn onto A698 west and then follow signs.

From the A698 connecting road there's a narrow single track road leading down to the Born in the Borders visitor centre, set almost on the River Teviot. Part of this collection of buildings used to be a working farm for the Chesters Country Retreat estate, but in 2011 local businessman and Chesters owner, John Henderson, set-up the Scottish Borders Brewery here in a small farm outbuilding, dedicated to the ethos of making beer from 'Plough to Pint', and in particular utilising in-house grown & locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. After operating successfully and establishing their beers over a number of years, John decided that 'just' an expansion to an off-sales shop or even a dedicated brewery tap wasn't a feasible commercial proposition in such a relatively rural setting, and so brought in significant funds to develop the more ambitious Born in the Borders concept. This would provide the best in all types of Borders food & drink, as well as adding arts, crafts & the famous Borders textiles on a single site, making it a one-stop tourist destination for the whole of the Borders area. After the successful opening of the Born in the Borders visitor centre in June 2014, it made sense that a re-branding of Scottish Borders Brewery to use the Born in the Borders name and all the associated positive publicity and media coverage should happen, and this change has been rolling out during 2015. As we approached the Born in the Borders visitors centre on a fairly dreich Autumn day, the low-slung, stone-clad buildings definitely seemed welcoming, modern but with traditional features, and they all seemed to blend in well with the surrounding countryside.

The brewery (of more later) and gift shop are on the left side of the main courtyard, whilst on the right are the food hall and the café/restaurant and there's a handy large-scale map in the centre of the site depicting what they each provide.

From our base at Peebles it had taken almost an hour along the A- & B-Roads to get to the Born in the Borders centre so first port of call was definitely the café/restaurant. There's a small bar area at the entrance here with no seating (that I could see), but there are plenty of wooden tables & chairs towards the back of the room as well as a lot of seating outside within the walled-off terrace area which would be great on a sunny (and preferably warm) day. Even though there was still a lot of bright, natural, light in the room there was very much a deliberate autumnal look & feel about the place with yellow/orange leaves on the small decorative trees and I liked the flowers & acorns on the tables which I assume change with the season.

Food in the café/restaurant can be anything from coffee & scones, brunch specials, some interesting sandwiches, a small selection of main meals and a lot of seriously impressive looking cakes & home baking (displayed temptingly in glass stands near the main entrance). We went for a couple of the sandwiches and they were quite stunning; mine being ham-hock off the bone with creamy farmhouse cheddar and a spicy vegetable pickle, all on thick, slightly toasted sour-dough bread. The intensity of fresh flavours from the local produce probably made this the tastiest sandwich I've had for a long time.

And yes, that is a cup of tea that I had with the sandwich. I was driving and it's simply not worth taking the risk of any beer at all whilst driving. As far as I could tell the café/restaurant does provide some cask beer in the summertime, but at present, only bottles of Born in the Borders beers and Waulkmill ciders were available in the fridge behind the bar. Service was also great and happily fed, we walked across to the main food & drink hall which includes a long deli-style food counter, lots of well-stocked display shelves and a scattering of empty casks being used as promotional stands. Amongst the produce in here (that I can remember) were a range of soft & alcoholic drinks, crisps, biscuits, sweets, honey & condiments, butter & cheese, charcuterie and bread - it's an impressive local selection at pretty decent prices. Unsurprisingly there was also a back wall full of beer with the Born in the Borders bottles & gift sets prominent, but also bottles available from Broughton Ales, Tempest Brew Co., Traquair House and the close-to-the-Borders Top Out Brewery. I purchased a couple of the Born in the Borders beers, a Traquair House 50th Year special and a Waulkmill cider that I had been looking for for a while, the infamous Clan MacFannie, an Irn Bru (!) flavoured cider. When I tried this later on in the day this concoction turned out to have a striking Irn Bru aroma, with the initial bubblegum sweet taste thankfully tailing off somewhat into some flat, sweetish cider - it was certainly different!

The majority of the display fittings & shelf units in the food hall are on casters so they can be easily moved about when promotions are being run and the same methodology is used in the adjacent building. This houses a gift shop specialising in Borders textiles & all sorts of soft furnishings, but there are also candles, jewellery, local artwork, toys, beauty products and pretty well anything non-food & drink related. I liked the fact that the supplier of the goods has a description and also that it is labelled with the number of miles away from The Born in the Borders centre that it was made.

Occupying the final building across the courtyard is the Born in the Borders Brewery, although I did note that the outside sign & logo still depicts the Scottish Borders Brewery (which is probably still the legal name). There's a bit of a lack of other brewing paraphernalia around the outside of the building but there is the all-important basketball hoop; perfect for those sunny Borders days when you're waiting for the boil to finish.

Upstairs is a well presented self-paced guide to brewing and the history & development of the Born in the Borders Brewery. There are samples of different malts and hops to try (and smell) and also a home-brew kit which helps to bring across the general brewing process (I wonder if this was John's original kit !?).

There is also a showcase of all the Scottish Borders/Born in the Borders beers, including one-off specials that had been brewed for local events and the awards that the beers have won. Comparing the old and new bottle labels side-by-side there's no doubt that the new label design is way more modern, but it seems they have lost the approximate colour of the beer on the front, maybe not such a good thing for the relatively novice beer drinker (although to-be-honest their beer names are pretty self-explanatory). As well as going through the brewery name/label change they've decided to reduce the number of core beers, instead producing more seasonal beers and continuing with their foraged beers (nettles, measdowsweet and sea buckthorn have been recent interesting ingredients). For me Foxy Blonde is still their best beer, having significantly improved in quality and earthy-citrus intensity recently and there are not too many beers with those interesting Green Bullet hops in them.

The next room upstairs is the malt store with the malt chute at the far end feeding the mash tun...

...and there's also a view downstairs into the main brewery floor where one of the Born in The Borders guys was hard at work digging out said mash tun.

I went downstairs, stuck my head into the gap in the sliding door and tried to get the guy's attention away from the digging-out process by jumping up-and-down a bit (OK, a lot). Once he had decided that I was (relatively) harmless we chatted away about the brewery set-up (they were brewing Foxy Blonde, their mainstay, today with the first bittering hops having just been added). As well as the 10-barrel mash tun & copper, there are also 5 fermenters in the temperature controlled room behind the partition and also more conditioning tanks. They brew 2-3 times a week with the latest foraged beer having just been brewed in the past week. This was the 2015 variant of Hop Scotch whereby the majority of the hops used were grown in John's garden at Chesters Country Retreat (hops from Scotland are a definite rarity). There were only enough hops for 1 brew of Hop Scotch, and so it'll be a lucky establishment indeed to see this, with one of the most likely being John's pub in nearby Ancrum, The Cross Keys. Other local pubs taking Born in the Borders beers include Burt's Hotel in Melrose, Rutherfords (the new scottish Micropub) in Kelso and also many, many pubs in Edinburgh and the north of England.

As well as eating, drinking & retail therapy (and beer), Born in the Borders also caters for kids activities in the form of this wooden pirate-themed play area...

...and there are also a number of 4x4 driving packages that can be booked. We decided on the somewhat cheaper, if perhaps less adrenaline pounding, proposition of one of the walks beside the picturesque River Teviot, only a minute or so from the Born in the Borders site.

It was definitely worth a visit out to the Born in the Borders visitors centre; I liked the way the centre has been set out, the food was outstanding and it's always great to have a chat about beer and the local brewing & pub scene.