Monday, 16 March 2015

A couple of NE Scotland Breweries - Kirrie Ales & Burnside Brewery: 12th March 2015

Ask people with even a vague passing interest in beer to name a 'Craft Beer' brewery located in the North-East of Scotland and the majority (who answer) are likely to come up with the all-conquering, almost ubiquitous (but still interesting & innovative) BrewDog, now based just outside Ellon. However there are also a number of established and more recent microbreweries located in this lovely part of the country. Deeside Brewery in Banchory have gone through a few changes in the last couple of years but seem to now be doing OK, the nearby Quiet Brewery beers are only available at the Buchanan Bistro, six°north (the Belgian Brewers of Scotland) in Stonehaven also have a fantastic pub of the same name in Aberdeen, and as well as the Bottle Cap brewpub in Aberdeen there are also (at least) 2 more - Burnside Brewery, established in 2010 in Laurencekirk, and perhaps the most recent of these, Kirrie Ales, having just started brewing commercially in 2014. I was able to find out a bit more about these latter 2 on a recent visit to the area - no walking this time, just driving (and definitely no drinking).

I first came across Kirrie Ales when a friend went to the BonFest 2014 gigs in Kirriemuir last year (Bon Scott from AC/DC came from the town and there are moves for a commemorative Bon Scott statue). He mentioned that he'd had a couple (probably more than a couple) of BonFest badged beers from a new local brewery, Kirrie Ales (and he hadn't even brought me any back, arghhhh!). I eventually found out that these were brewed by Kirriemuir resident (and AC/DC fan) Colin McIlraith who started brewing in July 2014 after a couple of years of recipe development and a Brewlab course. He still has his day job, but brews in 100-150 litre batches at weekends in his 8' by 9' shed.
(photo from Kirrie Ales Facebook page)

After selling out of the BonFest beers he now provides a small number of casks into various pubs & hotels around Kirriemuir & Brechin (the Caledonian Hotel in Brechin, Roods Bar in Kirriemuir, the Drovers Inn and the Glen Isla Hotel all *can* have his beers on) and also sells bottles at the Angus Farmers Market in Forfar on the 2nd Saturday of every month, as well as the occasional tasting at the nearby Peel Farm and Coffee Shop.

I had these bottles picked up for me from the Angus Farmers Market (thanks Dad!) and they're not bad at all (note the Thrums reference after local writer JM Barrie, who set some of novels in Thrums, a fictional Kirriemuir). Thrums Lager is a decent bitter-smooth lager, Hoppy Daze a really well-balanced but fairly low-abv IPA, and Thrums Best a cracking red-fruit, but nicely bitter, modern 70/- ale (good to see the latter). After a couple of e-mails with Colin, it seems he has a number of new beers coming out (an Oatmeal Stout and an 80/-) and I assume he will provide (more) beer for this year's (completely sold-out) BonFest in May, so it's definitely looking like he's gonna need a bigger boat shed.

Burnside Brewery is located in Laurencekirk, about 30 minutes or so up the busy and extensively speed-camera'd A90 from Kirriemuir (the Balmakewan Farm Shop is on the way and also worth a visit for some local beers). The brewery is situated in the midst of a small industrial estate with the eponymous burn just to the back of the brewery unit. I'd been here once before (when the brewery was closed, damn!) but this time I'd checked that both the brewery and the shop were going to be open, and so it all was (hooray!) with a number of colourful roadside signs indicating the way to the industrial estate and then a runway of casks providing the entrance into the premises.

Burnside Brewery is owned and run by brothers Gary & Dave Metcalfe (who have also owned and run the larger and adjacent fire materials business for the past 20-odd years), but who had wanted to 'have fun' and run a brewery for a long time. They eventually achieved this in 2010 with a small 2.5BBL plant which they subsequently upgraded to 10BBL (with a few teething problems) in the spring of 2012. Inside the portacabin to the right of the main brewery unit is some office space and also a small, but well-stocked shop and it was good to see not only a lot of Burnside bottles & minicasks but also beers from a lot of North-East Scotland breweries on the groaning shelves - six°north, Windswept, Cromarty, Lerwick and Deeside were all present that I could see (but no BrewDog beers!).

And this co-operation runs through to the 'It's Beer Time' Charity Beer Festival that was held in Stonehaven recently, with profits going to 3 charities close to Gary's heart (Cot Death Scotland, Meningitis UK and The Thursday Group). It was Gary who met me this afternoon and was kind enough to spend some time chatting away and giving me a quick look around the brewery. He explained that the shop was only open on an occasional license at the moment but that come the summertime he expects it to be open permanently, especially since it has proved to be so popular with local residents and surrounding businesses (for such diverse activities such as poker nights). Burnside have a customer base of local area pubs for cask beer, mostly in Aberdeenshire and Angus, but still put some beer into Edinburgh & Glasgow pubs (though are perhaps not delivering as often as in previous years) and to beer festivals, but don't supply to any of the JD Wetherspoon chain outlets. They have a settled core range of beers ranging from Pale Ales & Blondes to classic & strong Bitters and also some interesting dark beers (After Dark and Stealth), but they're not trying to target the (exact) same market as BrewDog. The Aldi twice yearly Scottish bottled beer festival has also been helpful - it may not be especially profitable, but it certainly is good publicity, and they will normally brew extra of that particular beer and sell more casks on the back of that exposure. In addition they have produced an intriguing whisky blend beer called Auld Lang Syne (with an exclusive Fettercairn single malt, and a Macallan variant to come later this year) which has done really well; so long as the whisky adds less than 1% to the overall abv it's quite acceptable, but there were no bottles of this left to try, double drats!

Gary then led me into the brewery which takes up the main part of the industrial unit. It's now a 10BBL brew-kit with the hot liquor tank, mash tun and copper all designed and then hand-built by Dave.

The stainless steel for the 3 Fermenting Vessels was fabricated by SSP in Germany and then tweaked by Dave who added the insulation required when the fermenters are operating. They've tried contract bottling, but (as a lot of people have found out) the beers seemed to lose a lot of flavour & body so everything is currently bottled by hand (and bottle conditioned), and nowadays left for a couple of weeks in the warm store out by the burn (a tip from their consultant, who used to be the head brewer at Tetley). They're not brewing masses of beer, Gary calculated that they brewed an average of ~1.1 times a week in 2014 (with slightly more so far in 2015) but with an Aldi brew forthcoming there will soon be 2 and-a-half fermenters full of Wild Rhino pale ale in the brewery.

As well as getting the shop open full-time, it seems Burnside have some other plans forthcoming, possibly including running the bar at the Montrose Music Festival (where Madness are due to perform) and Gary is also toying with the idea of a beer enthusiast's brew day, possibly in conjunction with staying at a local hotel - after my Stewart Brewing Craft Beer Kitchen brewday that definitely sounds interesting. After thanking Gary for his time (brewing people are great!) I left with a number of new beers to try from the shop, and so far, the L K (Laurencekirk) Special has turned out to be a lovely, well-balanced, traditional low abv bitter, and the After Dark a velvety smooth, intense dark chocolate oatmeal stout - both very nice indeed.