Thursday, 23 April 2015

Breweries and Bridges on the Forth: 18th April 2015

As well as beer, I have a bit of a fascination with bridges, and with the new Queensferry Crossing spanning the Forth well under way I thought it would be a good idea to walk across the 'old' Forth Road Bridge to see how construction was developing on the new crossing. Since I was therefore 'in the area' I then contacted Dave Robertson, who has been attempting to get the Forth Bridge Brewery off the ground for a good couple of years, to chat about what progress he's made, what his plans for the brewery involve and (more importantly) when the £50 that I'd invested for 'Beer for Life' was going to provide me with some actual beer.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St to Edinburgh Haymarket (every 15 minutes)
  Train: Edinburgh Haymarket to Dalmeny (12, 23, 44, 53 on the hour)
  Train: North Queensferry to Dunfermline Town (08, 38 on the hour)

There's a decent, sign-posted path from Dalmeny station (which is really just part of South Queensferry) down to the shoreline of the Forth, although this does involve quite a lot of steep steps (and the frequent rumbling of trains on the railway bridge approach, high above).

It was a lovely sunny morning today, so the Maid of the Forth and other smaller ships were doing a good trade from the pier opposite the Hawes Inn in the shadow of the magnificent Forth Railway Bridge.

As well as the Hawes Inn there are a number of eating & drinking establishments on the shore facing the panoramic vista of the bridges, and since I was last here it was good to see that The 2 Bridges had re-opened, been refurbished, and renamed The 3 Bridges in anticipation of the completion of the Queensferry Crossing in 2016.

After taking a few photos, I headed along to the small shops of South Queensferry High Street, where I was due to meet Dave at 12noon in the convivial surroundings of The Ferry Tap, a place I'd frequented many, many times when I had friends who lived just up the road.

Normally they have 4 or 5 hand-pulled beers available at the bar, but it seems these 'got trashed' (the barman's words) the evening before, with only Hadrian & Border Fly Half Bitter and Deuchars IPA available at that time, sigh... Dave then walked in, I recognised him straight away from his video pitches on the web-site, and we sat down for a chat over pints of the malty, earthy Fly Half Bitter (actually not too bad). We first of all started off going over a bit of the history of the Forth Bridge Brewery - initial plans for an ~10BBL biomass-powered brewery in Inverkeithing which were unveiled in early 2013, a crowdfunding campaign with 'Beer for Life' rewards and a partial equity campaign which have run for most of 2013 and 2014 (I took out my £50 'Beer for Life' in August 2013, which provides me with a bottle of every 'standard' Forth Bridge Brewery beer for as long as they are in production), a switch to a South Queensferry location in late 2013, and then scaled-up plans for a larger brewery/distillery/visitor centre funded by some corporate/environmental/equity investment, further crowdfunding and a mini-bond, which then appeared in 2014. There's no doubt the new plans are very ambitious (see their Facebook page and the Edinburgh News item) - situated at Port Edgar in the shadow of the Queensferry Crossing, it's now a scalable 30BBL brewery, has space for up to 44 fermenting vessels or conditioning tanks, is still biomass powered, provides function suites & a visitor centre, has the possibility of its own spring-based water supply, and now also includes diversification into on-site gin, vodka & whisky distilling (the spirits diversification allows for a possible better profit margin than the brewing operation, and could also provide a toe-hold into tied-pubs and bars).
(mock-up pic from Forth Bridge Brewery Facebook page)

Dave's great company, passionate about the whole project and speaks eloquently about it, and after a bit of discussion about all this we then took a walk down to the proposed site of the Forth Bridge Brewery just to be able to look at something a bit more tangible. It's located just past the expanding Port Edgar Marina between the Forth Road Bridge and the Queensferry Crossing but the access road isn't great in places, with the possibility of boats from the marina blocking the route, so Dave wants to use the continuation of the old railway line which tracks above Shore Road as a separate access road to the site. This is pretty overgrown at the moment and, even with a grant from local/national government, is going to take a fair amount of time, money and lots of co-ordination to put in place.

The site itself used to be a navy barracks, with 5 large 2-storey barrack buildings, an infirmary, air raid shelter and boilerhouse (for more information see here), before latterly becoming a naval mine-sweeping centre and a museum storage facility. It's completely fenced off at the moment, but walking around the outside did give an idea of how large the site is (this is just a section of one of the barracks), and how close it is to the construction of the Queensferry Crossing.

The boilerhouse is on the marina side of the site and will also stay in place, providing an impressive brewhouse-like chimney feature.

There will also be planned access to the River Forth, although a lot of the shoreline is protected mudflats (and did I mention that view of the Queensferry Crossing!?).

Looking around at all of this on a sunny day in April 2015 it was pretty clear that this was not going to happen in 2015, and knowing a few friends in both the large-scale construction industry and in local government, even 2016 must be looking doubtful for the fully completed site at Port Edgar. Dave knows this and has made the decision to start-up both the distilling and brewing operations at a temporary site (an ex-Bonded Warehouse) just outside South Queensferry 'as-soon-as-possible' (this should translate to late summer 2015), with the aim to provide Forth Bridge & other branded gin and vodka first, with beer following-on just after (hooray!), so now there's a bit more of a definite marker down in the sand. And the beers themselves? Dave has trialled some beers at a friend's large-scale home-brewery (and also home-distilled a number of varieties of gin), but there’s no doubt that tastings and further tweaking would only be a good thing (hopefully he'll use Krafty Brew or Stewart's Craft Beer Kitchen for this), so I simply can't comment on how good they are likely to be. The portfolio of beers planned still includes a traditional range, some Scottish fruit beers, more contemporary/'craft' beers and a number of RNLI-associated beers.
(mock-up pic from Forth Bridge Brewery Facebook page)

I think that with the investment Dave has at the moment, and if he keeps the drinks-industry people that he currently has on-board, that this is still definitely going to happen, however it's certainly more ambitious and longer term than anyone could have imagined (especially Dave himself). I'm still happy enough that I invested my £50 for 'Beer for Life', but I'd probably struggle to justify any more than that at this particular point-in-time and due to my own personal circumstances. It certainly was a couple of interesting, informative hours in Dave's company, but I eventually bade him 'good luck' and headed back to the approach of the Forth Road Bridge. The pedestrian and cycle paths over the bridge are reached from the underpass at Bo'ness Road; I ignored the (I assume old) sign which pointed me over the east side of the bridge and instead headed onto the west side path where I could a decent view of the Queensferry Crossing (note that 50mph limit on the sign is to be reduced to 40mph in the next few months).

It's really quite fascinating to watch such a complex and large-scale construction project happen over the weeks, months and years (their twitter account gives the latest updates for this, @NewForthBridge). After starting in 2011 the 3 main bridge towers are now in place in the Forth; these are above the main bridge deck level but still have a bit to go before reaching their final heights for the suspension cables.

Looking at the southern (Port Edgar) side, a number of V-shaped column supports for the main bridge deck have been constructed out into the Forth, but (although it may seem like it) the actual road deck isn't there yet, only the side walls. The v-columns will continue out into the river almost until the first tower.

From my high-up vantage point I was able to see a bit more of the Port Edgar barracks where I'd just been with Dave (the boilerhouse chimney is quite prominent); they really are quite extensive.

The larger central tower was constructed on a small islet called Beamer Rock which had previous housed a lighthouse (now demolished), and even the islet itself is not visible over the cofferdam at the base of the tower.

I believe there are going to be only a couple of V-shaped column supports on the north side approach, these will be completed later in 2015 when all the southern ones have been finished off. Unsurprisingly a lot of material needs to get transferred to/from the towers and so there is a fairly constant flow of small ships between them and both shores.

As I reached the end of the Road bridge I could see that a lot of construction work had already taken place on the approach roads at the M90 Ferrytoll junction to accommodate the Queensferry Crossing, so it definitely looks as if it is all set to open in late 2016 (and possibly under budget). It probably took about 45 minutes to walk across the Road Bridge (with lots of stops for photo taking) and I then had to work out how to get along to North Queensferry train station. I headed down some steps at the end of the bridge, under the road deck and then down even more steps to Hope View road. This led me down to the shoreline at North Queensferry (with some great views of the Forth Rail Bridge), before I (reluctantly) gave the Albert Hotel a miss and climbed the steep incline of The Brae at Ferryhill Road, reaching North Queensferry station somewhat out-of-breath.

I didn't have long to wait for the north-bound train and this dropped me off at Dunfermline Town station after a journey of only 15 minutes or so. From here it was less than 10 minutes’ walk, past the elegant Alhambra Theatre to the Pink House, or more correctly, the Abbot House Heritage Centre, where they were throwing a party to celebrate the Abbot House's 20th Birthday.

They have a fantastic sun-trap of a garden at the rear (facing the imposing Dunfermline Abbey) and today this was full of people listening to the live music, eating from the BBQ, chatting & relaxing in the sun, and, of course, drinking beer brewed in the adjacent (and tiny) Abbot BrewHouse by brewer (& historian), John Reade. A selection of 6 beers had been setup in the centre of the garden (partially shaded from the sun by the sprawling latticework of bushes & shrubs as well as some painted tarpaulins), with both some newly brewed birthday beers and others which are brewed more frequently. A couple of these did head into, perhaps boring-brown-bitter territory (sorry, John), but the Heritage Mild in particular was lovely - a dark liquoricey, coffee treat of a beer.

I spent far less time than I could have done talking to John about beers & brewing in general, having one of the well-done (and well-priced) BBQ burgers (no food photo for the blog today) and chilling out in the sun, but I did manage to visit the small Abbot House gift-shop before I left. Here I noticed an intriguing range of special edition honey beers available to buy over and above their normal Scottish Heather Honey beer - Orange Blossom, Chestnut, Leatherwood and Lavender - perfect for someone with as sweet a tooth as mine!

Return travel:-
  Train: Dunfermline Town to Edinburgh Haymarket (04, 32 on the hour)
  Train: Edinburgh Haymarket to Glasgow Queen St (every 15 minutes)

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Houston, we've had some problems: 28th March 2015

It had been quite a while since I'd visited some fairly local country pubs in Renfrewshire, and with a couple of new outlets appearing recently, as well as rumours of strange things going on at the Houston-based Fox and Hounds pub and the associated Houston Brewing Company, I decided that it was worth braving the weekend's squally showers for a walk out amongst the rural B-roads before crossing the Erskine Bridge (OK, I admit it - I've also wanted to use a variation on that title for ages now!).

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Central to Paisley Gilmour Street (every ~10 minutes)
  Bus: Paisley Smithhills Street to Crosslee (19 McGill's, 00 on the hour)

I had a couple of things I wanted to do in Paisley before getting the bus out to Houston and the first of these was a visit to The Brewer's Tap, a newly opened bar promoting Craft Beer on Moss Street (this was previously Langs, a favourite of the St Mirren Park faithful).

Inside there's a long, narrow island bar with a dark wooden gantry running down the centre which, when lit and full of sparking glasses, gives the impression of a mirrored partition, but it's not, it's just very symmetrical (and confusing). There are also comfy seating areas at the very front at the windows and also a larger space at the back, and TVs, lots & lots of TVs, continuously tuned to the sports channels.

They were definitely pushing the Craft Beer connection with lots of bottles, mini-casks, beer/whisky barrels and advertising signage dotted about, but apart from a couple of new-style Guinness bottles these all seemed to be Houston beers (so I was guessing this was a Houston Brewery Brewer's Tap). There were 5 hand-pulls in total spread over both sides of the bar, today serving 4 beers, 3 from Houston (The Brewer's Tap Ale, Killellan & The Brute) and also Sharp's Doom Bar. I went for a 1/2 of The Brewer's Tap Ale, which judging by the abv and the colour/taste, is likely to be a re-badged Houston Peters Well) and although it was certainly drinkable enough for £2.50/pint, it did seem to be a bit sweeter and a bit thinner then I remembered from years gone by.

As I headed out of The Brewer's Tap I noticed a couple of temporary tarpaulin stands flapping in the breeze on Paisley High Street and when I got closer I could see Anthony Valenti from Ayr Brewing Company gamely braving the cold & wind as part of Ayrshire Farmers Market. I mentioned how much I'd enjoyed the Ayr Brewing Spiced Chocolate Dr Blacklock Stout and Anthony told me about a couple of new Ayr beers that he hadn't bottled as yet (I can see a trip down Ayrshire-way in the near future), but I was more than happy to take a bottle of the lovely Hiphopopotamus pale ale away with me.

The final place I wanted to visit in Paisley was located in Fountain Gardens in Love Street (on the way to Glasgow Airport) and was, unsurprisingly, a fountain. However the 19th Century Grand Central Fountain is one of only 3 Category-A listed fountains in Scotland and having been restored over the last few years was re-opened on Doors Open Day last September. With all its spouting walruses, dolphins, crocodiles, cherubs and storks it's like a magical mystery tour of a fountain - really quite impressive and stunningly well restored.

Next I needed to get a bus to Crosslee, just south of Houston. It's not that far and can be walked (on a nice day), but today I took the bus from the centre of Paisley through Inchinnan Industrial Estate to Crosslee, where The River Inn was waiting for me just a few yards from the bus stop.

I'd been past a number of times before but I don't think I'd clocked how extensive the place actually is - a large formal restaurant downstairs with an additional garden room as well as a riverside terrace, and then a function suite and a bar/bistro (the Brierie Village Bar) upstairs. I headed upstairs to the Brierie to find the local football club AGM in full (and passionate) flow, but there was more than enough space to find a quiet corner. It's a nice modern space with lots of exposed brick-work, bright downlighters, dark wooden tables & chairs, thin wooden pillars and a couple of Auchentoshan whisky-barrel tables. Dotted about on the walls they also had a number of fliers promoting their in-house, pre-booked-only, taxi service, which operates on Friday & Saturday evenings and which is another good idea to allow people to come to the pub/restaurant and have a drink or two without 'risking' the reduced Scottish drink drive limit. On at the front facing bar, with its shiny mirrored backdrop, were a large number of macro keg beers, but also 4 hand-pulls, today dispensing Alechemy 5 Sisters & Rhapsody, Houston Killellan and Kelburn Jaguar - a very acceptable selection indeed.

I took a pint of the Kelburn Jaguar since I hadn't tried it in a while (perhaps slightly sweeter than last time, but still with a nice, bitter hop bite) and ordered some lunch. As well as some up-market pub meals the Brierie provides a good 'lite-bite' selection at lunchtime and so it was time for me to try out the soup-and-sandwich deal (again!) - this time a dense, smoky flavoured Cream of Mushroom soup (excellent), Tuna Mayo sandwiches, tortillas & a salad/coleslaw.

I finished the food off with a 1/2 of Alechemy 5 Sisters, which seemed to have a bitterer, earthy finish than I remembered (lovely stuff) and headed downstairs to start my walk. Crosslee and Houston almost merge into each other so it was only a 10 minutes or so journey past Houston Primary School and then though an underpass to reach Houston's Main Street. Here I caught sight of the once welcoming & well-maintained Fox and Hounds pub looking a bit worse-for-wear since my last visit in 2011 when the Wengel family were still operating it, with a fairly foreboding 'For Sale' sign attached...

...but at least the Houston Brewery van was parked outside, somewhat more promising. The company on the sign, CDLH, are a Glasgow-based specialist surveyors/analyst firm for the leisure & hospitality industry and searching for the Fox and Hounds on their web-site brought up this (note that the Brewery Lease seems to already be in place and is worth a rental of £15K/year).

So what in the world had happened to both the Fox and Hounds and the Houston Brewing Company since my last visit in 2011 when the Fox and Hounds was CAMRA Scotland pub-of-the-year and Houston Peters Well won CAMRA Champion Best Bitter at the Great British Beer Festival? The most obvious answer seems to be that the Wengel family decided that after having owned the Fox and Hounds since 1978 it was time for a change, and so everything was eventually sold in 2013 to a local business partnership - the sale included the Houston Brewing Company but founder/brewer Carl Wengel was kept on in a purely brewing capacity. From reports in the Paisley Daily Express this started a slow decline in the way the pub was run which included "an inadequate CCTV system", "violent assaults and anti-social behaviour", and that the "pub's electricity supply had been reconnected in a manner which would 'strongly indicate this had not happened legitimately!'". This culminated in Renfrewshire Licensing Board revoking its license in December 2014, by which time the parent business partnership was already in Administration - a real shame for such a once lovely pub. Also during this time brewer Carl Wengel had left the Houston Brewing Company in acrimonious circumstances (the beer quality had dropped drastically), with brewing even stopping altogether for a short period of time, before starting up again and (thankfully) operating independently of the Fox and Hounds. Houston Brewing Company are still operating from some out-houses of the Fox and Hounds and as I walked around the building their new signage was prominently displayed on high.

I met the current brewer, Chris, coming out of one of the out-houses, bought a few bottles of Houston beer from him, and had a quick chat about what was happening. They're still mostly brewing beers to Carl's original/tweaked recipes, but have tried a stronger beer called The Brute which has gone down fairly well (although I must admit I didn't like the metallic bitterness of it), brewed a more malty beer named Thistle-Dhu for the 2014 Commonwealth Games (although they've now gone back to their original Barochan) and are also going through a label/pump-clip re-branding exercise. I had a look inside the out-houses and the brewing setup hasn't changed too much from my last visit, it's still very cramped in there, and although they can brew 40 barrels a week they're currently only operating at ~20 barrels. Chris mentioned that situation on the lease is still worrying - they currently lease this from the Administrators but it may be that the new owners of the Fox and Hounds could revoke the lease after a period of time, at which point they would have to look for new premises (hopefully in/near Houston), but on the other hand that could give them the impetus to expand over-and-above what is physically possible at the moment. Here's hoping this all gets sorted out in the near future, which I'm guessing it has to if the closing date for the sale of the Fox and Hounds is adhered to.

As well as The River Inn, Chris indicated that the Houston Inn just up the road takes a couple of their beers so I headed up Main Street to pay the place a visit.

The main bar of the Houston Inn was really quite busy early in the afternoon (I guess a lot of the Fox and Hounds' customers head there) and although it was good to see the old-style Killellan and Barochan metallic pump-clips present at the bar, the 1/2 pint of Barochan that I had was a tad warm & tired and didn't really make me want to stay for another. Instead I headed north out of Houston, past the War Memorial and into the Renfrewshire countryside. There wasn't really a defined footpath on this minor road out to Langbank, but at least there were a couple of white lines on the edges of the road, and the fairly sparse traffic was good enough to give me a wide berth. It was a walk of ~3 miles before I came to a junction in the road which heralded the impressive Formakin Estate (and the name of an 80/- style Houston beer in times-gone-by).

Originally designed as an estate to house a large art collection, this is now instead a collection of large houses but there are some nice/esoteric touches still visible including the large entrance gateway on which a couple of stone monkeys perch high-up on either side (with more monkeys supposedly scattered about liberally inside the estate to point the way around the buildings).

As I got to one of the highest points of the road there were some great views along the Clyde coast and I could also see the barbed wire fencing surrounding what used to be the massive site of the Royal Ordnance Factory Bishopton, heavily used in World War II and still in operation until 2002. BAE Systems now own the land and are turning at least part of this into the new housing estate of Dargavel Village (signs of large scale construction and 'decontamination' were definitely visible).

Also located at the highest point of the road is Bishopton Weather Station, complete with Stevenson screen, barometer and other meteorological instruments.

From here I was able to walk downhill for a bit until reaching the Old Greenock Road junction just outside Bishopton. I turned left and, after passing a large private house and some luxury lodges, came to the elegant entrance to Ingliston Country Club and Equestrian Centre, with the well-renowned Equestrian Centre located at the rear of the complex.

As well as the Equestrian Centre there's a separate building for the hotel, and another housing function suites, a beauty salon and (thankfully) a restaurant & cocktail bar call Palomino's, located just inside the main entrance.

The first thing I noticed when entering the bar was a fantastic cake & dessert counter - I'm not quite sure if beer and a cream-cake actually work together but I was almost persuaded to try (either that or take a cup of tea instead).

The centre island bar is full of sparking glasses, shiny coffee gadgets, champagne buckets, polished marble, bright white down-lighters and green & blue strip-lighting - it's a very classy centre-piece indeed. There are lots of tables set all about for food, but also a few high tables set aside for drinks and a small number of stools at the bar. It's all keg beers that are available, but today there was the choice of Fallen Brewing's lovely Sleeper Pils (which just went off as I ordered, drats!), or Isle of Skye's Eilean-Òr, so I had to go for a 1/2 of the latter (a bit too sweet from the porridge oats for me, but pretty good). They also have a decent selection of bottled beers from Alechemy (Alechemy keg beers have also made an appearance here), Windswept and Houston which make up a not bad selection at all (perhaps just a tad pricy, but then it is an 'up-market' place and the service was superb).

But the most interesting/unusual feature about the bar is that it looks out onto the indoor dressage area of the Equestrian Centre - it definitely takes a bit of getting used to when you catch the occasional horse (and rider) out of the corner of your eye as they prance past the large display windows!

There's a bit of a confusing new road system outside the Ingliston but, as a walker, I was able to take the bollarded-off Old Greenock Road straight into Bishopton. In the centre of the town (although a bit away from the train station) I found the Bishopton Inn, bedecked by a number of colourful, special meal-deal offers.

The Bishopton Inn is part of the Sizzling Pubs chain (another one of Mitchells & Butlers brands) and although it was good to see a couple of hand-pulls on the bar (admittedly with only Deuchars IPA available), they also promote a couple of Craft Beers. I asked the barmaid which were available, got a bit of a blank look, but spotted the distinctive green Sierra Nevada Pale Ale bottles in one of the fridges (I think Innis & Gunn was the other craft choice). If at all possible I'd normally drink an interesting local cask/keg beer, but when that's not possible it is good to have an alternative choice.

I was now on the final leg of my walk and headed north out of Bishopton toward the River Clyde. Not too far out of the town I came across an interesting Egyptian-style obelisk standing alone in the middle of a field, the 80-foot high Blantyre Monument, built to commemorate the bravery of Lord Blantyre in the Napoleonic Wars - it's quite an impressive legacy to have built for you.

The road then continued past the HP Erskine campus, Mar Hall resort and Caulders Erskine Garden Centre before reaching the large dual 'spectacles' roundabout at the Erskine Bridge flyover. With all the Erskine Bridge roadworks finally complete I was able to choose which side of the bridge I wanted to walk across and I went for the eastern side so that I could get views downriver of Clydebank and Glasgow. There's a bit of an incline before reaching the bridge level but it wasn't long before I was on the bridge approach and walking past the old toll buildings and one of the classic red phone boxes.

Because the Erskine Bridge is such a high level bridge, even on a calm day there are some serious gusts of wind, but it's definitely worthwhile for the great panoramic views when approaching the centre of the bridge.

When I reached the end of the bridge I took the path under the carriageway and then continued across the railway bridge at Kilpatrick Station until I came to the shops & businesses of Old Kilpatrick. Just along from the junction of Station Road with Dumbarton Road are a couple of pubs, the more established The Ettrick, and the recently opened Twisted Thistle, all twinkling lights, high glass windows & dark wood, and looking a lot more welcoming than its previous incarnation as the Telstar Italian restaurant.

Inside there's also been a modern makeover with lots of bright lighting, cream walls, laminate flooring, a large number of tables for food at the front of the building, a pleasingly curved dark wood semi-circular bar and a number of high tables at the back for having a drink and a chat (which a lot of people were).

There's also another modern-style seating area at the very rear of the building - I'm assuming it can be used for functions or as a spill-over when they're really busy.

On at the bar were the usual macro keg beers, but also an Italian keg lager called Menabrea in a seriously fancy font (which I'll maybe try some other time when nothing else is available) and also 3 hand-pulls, with Houston Peters Well & Barochan and Kelburn Misty Law available. I took a pint of the Misty Law and it was nice to relax with a decent, well-balanced beer after a good afternoon out in the Renfrewshire countryside and having walked the length of the Erskine Bridge - something I'd wanted to do for some time.

Return travel:-
  Train: Kilpatrick to Glasgow Queen St. (12, 42 on the hour)