Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Sunshine on Morecambe: 14th May 2015

Short breaks in the last few years seem to have been taken me on a magical mystery tour of some of the UK's Victorian seaside resorts - Southport, Alnmouth, Stonehaven, Bridlington and Lytham to name but a few, and now the latest of these was going be a number of days in the North-Western Lancashire town of Morecambe (home town of the late, great Eric Morecambe, né Eric Bartholomew). The town possibly has a bit more of a run-down reputation than some of the others mentioned above, but there's been a bit of development in the last decade or so, there seemed to be some decent pubs along the front and last (but definitely not least) there is also an excellent local brewery, Cross Bay Brewery, which I was scheduled to visit late one morning.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Northern Line to Bare Halt

It's not too far a walk from the small station at Bare to the industrial estate where Cross Bay Brewery is located, but there is a mass of road & construction work happening around the nearby Sunnyfield Retail Park. I managed to miss most of this by zig-zagging through the car showrooms of Northgate Industrial Estate and I eventually ended up in Newgate Street where Google Maps had indicated Cross Bay Brewery should have been found. After a few minutes of fruitless searching I couldn't see any unit which resembled a brewery, but that changed when I turned the corner to find the large premises of Morecambe Bay Wines (or MBW) and hooray, there were a lot of casks out there in the yard which meant that a brewery had to be pretty close by.

Not too far into the yard I found head brewer Nick Taylor out shifting casks & pallets, and he was good enough to chat about the brewery and the beers they've been working on lately. The brewery started off as Brysons Brewery in the early 2000's but was sold to Morecambe Bay Wines when the original owner/brewer decided to retire and then changed its name to Cross Bay Brewery (after MBW owner Peter Cross) when they started brewing in 2011. This was done on a larger 28 barrel kit which came from Moorhouses, and Nick actually came up from Moorhouses with this kit and stayed on to eventually become head brewer (he worked at Moorhouses under Rob Hill, who would leave to found the Highland Brewing Co. in Orkney, not a bad teacher to have at all). Cross Bay (and Nick) then won a number of awards for their beers and seemed to be going from strength-to-strength, but parent company MBW almost went into administration in 2012 and were bought/merged into the large Bradford-based food-and-drinks conglomerate, Narang Group. This has led to improved distribution channels for Cross Bay, but there has also been a degree of tension between the original MBW people and the new Narang management. It may be that this means a more independent Cross Bay Brewery, more separate from MBW, but that may have to come with a change in brewery name at some point in the future. Nick then took me inside the brewery which occupies only a small section of the MBW unit, here assistant brewers Arthur and Dan were racking off from 1 of the 2 large racking vessels near the brewery entrance.

Also downstairs are the large stainless steel fermenting vessels; although there are only 6 of these in use in the section the brewery uses today there used to be a lot more (I think a total of 13 was mentioned) but nowadays there is simply no free space available for all of these. Although they can brew to 28 barrels they normally only run with approximately 26, even then the yeast can still occasionally be somewhat lively (as can be seen in the very rightmost FV).

The grain mill, mash tun and the steam-fired copper are all located upstairs, allowing gravity to help with the transfer to all of the FVs. The kit is close to 20 years old and so everything is setup and controlled manually, but it still looks really quite new, and although Nick mentioned that the legs of the vessels have been replaced a few times, it's obviously been very well maintained. The other vessel at the far end is a large Clean-In-Place (CIP) unit but Nick indicated that it had hardly ever been used and really should have been removed years ago.

Today there were brewing Zenith, their award-winning IPA, and the tropical-fruit aromas when I popped my head into the copper were fantastic.

Cross Bay have an extensive range of core beers, ticking the boxes with everything from golden ales, bitters, IPAs, porters and stouts and these use hops from all around the world, but Nick also turns his hand to a number of seasonals or beer festival specials, including a saison (Sand Pilot), a blueberry wit (Project B) and a Green Hop beer (Green Eyed Monster), the latter using incredibly fresh First Gold hops. The latest special is the Morecambe's Sunshine beer brewed for fundraising around the Morecambe and Wise Sunshine Garden of Fame, although it is only the statue of Eric Morecambe that is pictured and not the great comedian himself (licensing issues around Eric Morecambe are a bit tricky).

Many thanks indeed to Nick for the look around and the always interesting beer chat and I left with a couple of bottles of the Morecambe's Sunshine beer in exchange for a bottle of my Craft Beer Kitchen beer (I think I got the better deal, Morecambe's Sunshine turned out to be a lovely light citrus golden ale, with a definite red-berry, bitter-fruit finish). By coincidence there was also just a single bottle of Morecambe's Sunshine beer left at The Wineyard and Deli, one of the specialist shops which line Princes Crescent, a lovely street which leads from Bare to the main Promenade along Morecambe Bay (a couple of miles out from the centre of Morecambe).

Although there was a range of Cross Bay Brewery beers in the window, as well as an additional number of local & Belgian beers, when I first entered the shop I was a bit disappointed at the beer choice (or complete lack of it). However that was before I was ushered into 'Brewery Lane' (there's a real street sign here in the corridor and it came from Mitchell's of Lancaster when they closed the Old Brewery) which led me to a fairly large room at the back of the shop.

I liked this, surprises are always good (especially beery ones), and it was great to see a excellent selection of local beers (Fell, Eden, The Borough & Cross Bay), as well as US, Belgian and German bottles in amongst the beer signs and prints. They obviously take their beer seriously in here and I was quite happy to fill my always present 6-bottle beer carrier-bag from their shelves.

There were also mini-casks available, specialist glasses to buy and a good beer fridge in the corner. I was able to chat away to the owner (when he wasn't selling wine at the front of the shop) and it seems they rotate the stock of local beers quite regularly (apart from the Cross Bay beers) and they also do tastings (beer, wine, whisky & cheese) and hold the occasional meet-the-brewer event. It's just an excellent, local, independent, beer and wine shop.

The promenade from Bare to the centre of Morecambe along the length of Morecambe Bay is fantastic (and this extends almost into Heysham). The sea rushes in and out of the flat basin of Morecambe Bay incredibly quickly (and is thus perfect for Morecambe Bay mussels & cockles) and it's quite amazing the change in the sea even on a minute-to-minute basis. The backdrop of this are the fells & hills of the southern Lake District and there are a number of pieces of art which take advantage of this. At the very north end (just along from Princes Crescent at Bare) is the Venus and Cupid sculpture which I liked because of its textures and fluidity...

... and then the walk into the centre of Morecambe goes past an incredible number of hotels & B&Bs but eventually turns the corner somewhat to reach the start of the town centre which is probably marked by the distinctive Morecambe & Heysham Yacht Club race office.

From here on there are quite a few lovely pubs/restaurants facing Morecambe Bay, of which my favourites were probably The Palatine, a Lancaster Brewery pub which sells most of the Lancaster Brewery core beers, their monthly specials (the Lemon Grass was a lovely subtle thai-spice beer), a number of decent guest beers and also some great food (served with a smile) upstairs until 9pm...

...and also The Royal Bar, with some stunning Victorian decor inside, special food offers most nights and a not too bad a Royal Pale Ale house beer for all of £2.00 (possibly a Marston's beer, but I never found out the actual brewery, damn!).

Almost opposite The Royal Bar is a bronze statue of Eric Morecambe, the centre of a small plaza area (with further developments ongoing), and it's not too bad a likeness at all. This was replaced only a few months ago when someone attempted to steal the statue by sawing off one of the legs - quite bizarre.

Not bizarre at all (especially in a beer-related world) was this epic train beer journey that I chanced upon as I was checking untappd during this holiday break - a beer crawl from the birthplace of Eric (i.e. Morecambe) to that of Ernie (Morely in West Yorkshire). The guys involved managed a real time twitter update (on one of the days when I was in Morecambe) and then blogged about it afterwards - a most entertaining read. The guys obviously had their photograph taken with the Eric Morecambe statue and then further on from this centrepiece are the still being restored Winter Gardens and the impressive art deco features of the Midland Hotel which does a seriously excellent afternoon tea (booking in advance is almost essential for this, especially nearer the weekend) with some great views over Morecambe Bay from the Sun Terrace restaurant.

The last section of Morecambe that I visited was alongside the old Frontierland amusement park. This was closed and pretty well demolished between 1998-2000, but the Polo Tower high-rise ride still stands (albeit only as a mobile phone mast)...

... and the huge Ranch House pub is still operating.

This actually has a good selection of local cask ales (I had an excellent resiny & bitter Burscough Sutler's IPA), and as an homage to its Frontierland past, still has a side room with lots of arcade machines, fruit machine and always inviting toy grab-claws (no, I didn't win anything).

I didn't head into Heysham village where there is meant to be an excellent pub (The Royal Hotel), but instead ended up at The Eric Bartholomew, a JD Wetherspoon establishment close to Morecambe train station.

There are a few pictures and information panels on Eric & Ernie's career & lives but I was possibly a bit disappointed at how few (although it's a pub, not a museum). However when I visited the Gents I came across a far more impressive large stylised picture half way up the stairs - this was far more like it and a good way to end a visit to Morecambe.

Return travel:-
  Train: Northern Line from Morecambe

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Luckie times in the Kingdom of Fife: 2nd May 2015

I've been going to the Kingdom of Fife Beer Festival in Glenrothes for the last few years but hadn't really clocked that the fantastic Luckie Ales is situated on an industrial estate just off the nearest train station at Markinch (though I would have done if I had remembered this post from The Beercast). And now with a new, interesting pub/bar situated in the centre of Markinch this meant that today I could hopefully plan to visit Luckie Ales, have some lunch (and a beer) and then head into Glenrothes for a few (more) beers at the Beer Festival.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St to Perth (41 on the hours + others)
  Train: Perth to Markinch (02 on the hour)
  Bus: Markinch to Glenrothes Bus Station, 46 Stagecoach (00 on the hour + others)

It's quite an expensive trip to get to anywhere in Fife from Glasgow, but for today I'd managed to snaffle one of the Free Scotrail tickets that new Scotrail franchise operator Abellio had given away at the start of April; like most people I won't say no to something that’s free. It was late morning when I left the train at Markinch station and crossed the track using the high, modern footbridge from which vantage point a small part of the red-bricked Haig Business Park could easily be seen.

Luckie Ales have been operating from here since 2011 (after initially brewing at Daubs Farm in nearby Dunshalt) but there's no indication of this from the unit plan at the front of the Park.

The site of the Business Park used to be the huge bottling plant for the Haig Whisky distillery and it's a sprawling, disjointed complex, with some of road-facing units quite well maintained, but with others in out-of-the-way locations looking a bit more run-down.

Luckie Ales is situated next to a gym/fitness studio which today was blasting out 100dB hi-NRG music from its open doors & windows, so it was easy enough to sneak up on owner/brewer Stuart McLuckie as he went about today's brewing duties (I've decided not to put up a pic of the outside of Stuart's actual unit). This morning Stuart was brewing the Locura Pale Ale that he brews with French Aramis hops (there was both a citrus and a nice spicy aroma from these), with the 300 litre brewing kettle on the boil supplied from the gas canister in the corner and the exhaust tube coiled out of the rear window.

I think Stuart definitely finds this a bit of a necessary commercial evil, he'd rather be brewing something a lot more interesting, but he has to pay the bills and it seems to be the Pale Ale that mostly does this (he's not even a Fyne Ales Jarl fan, he finds this a bit bland from a taste and a bit thin from a body point-of-view, which we had to somewhat disagree on!). There's no doubt Stuart is far happier brewing to a 'classic' recipe from yesteryear and he does this brilliantly well - some of these Luckie beers that I've had (he now names these the Resurrection Series) such as Cobb's 1823 Amber, Usher's 1885 68/-, Younger's 1841 XXXP Porter and Whitbread's 1896 Porter have been outstanding, with a depth of complex flavours, intensity and smoothness that is simply not found in many beers being brewed today. After bottling (his wife helps out with this) these are normally left to mature for months, if not years, before being delivered in small quantities to various independent Beer Shops in Central Scotland where they can sell out in days, possibly even hours. Some of the first-off runs of these can generate the Luckie Ales 'gusher' effect since the beers are racked directly from the (mostly) plastic fermenters and then primed into 500ml bottles (if they could mature for months in conditioning tanks that would be great, but it's just not possible for Stuart to do that). Pretty well all the cask beer he brews nowadays goes to the most excellent Hanging Bat Beer Café in Edinburgh (co-owner Chris Mair is a big fan); whereas in the recent past some could be found in The Phoenix in Dundee or dotted around the rural pubs of Fife, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore, it's perhaps just a bit too much of an effort and Stuart would simply prefer to spend his time brewing. Even his excellent Midnycht Myld and the Bitter/Best Bitter are becoming more infrequently seen in cask (really only at The Bat and the occasional specialist pub/beer festival), a definite shame, and I hope they don't disappear entirely (there were still quite a few casks on the floor of the unit today which surely must be ready for filling).

Stuart's still brewing once or twice a week, still hand-bottling (and now using the converted, but still be-signed 'Cloakroom' as a warm bottle store) and then with cleaning and paperwork that's pretty well the whole of the working week occupied. There's no doubt that he will scale back at some point in the future, with even less casks and (perhaps) more bottles, but before then there are likely to be more Resurrection ales (I was very kindly given a bottle which may/may not have had some of the phrases 'Simonds Brewery Reading', '1880 Bitter' and 'needs another 4 weeks' associated with it) and also a proposed series of Belgian-style beers which have got to be worth looking out for. I had a great time chatting away to Stuart about the beers he's been brewing and the state of Scottish brewing in general but I finally had to leave and asked him about the relatively newly re-opened & re-furbished pub/hotel just up the road, Banner's House Hotel (this was previously the Townhouse and seemed to attract some 'interesting' reviews). Stuart had delivered some bottles there quite a few months ago but it seems as if they hadn't taken anything new for a while so he wasn't sure if there would be anything at all available (he's a bit particular about best-before dates). I was quite happy to give the place a go (and I was hungry), so I bade Stuart many thanks indeed and headed back out of the Business Park. It wasn't difficult to find Banner's - it was the first premises on Markinch High Street and the large sandstone building offered a few tables, chairs and chalkboard signs on the front-facing small terrace.

Deciding that inside was a slightly better idea on this dreich day, I entered through the main doorway and found a large, more formal (but still unusual) dining area on the left hand side, and then a lot of differently styled wooden tables, chairs and benches on the right in front of a light, bright, curved bar, with some more tables and chairs as the room turned the corner back towards the windows at the front. I quite liked the informal, colourful layout in there with lots of hand-made decorations & soft furnishings, painted crockery, books and stacked games & toys. They do a lot of their own baking and there were clear stands of bread, cakes and scones on the bar as well as loads of sparkling glasses, kegged Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier (yummm...), Black Wolf Coulis lager (hmmm...) an empty hand-pull (sometimes with a Black Wolf beer available) but also a fridge full of some interesting Belgian beers and (hooray!) a couple of bottles of Luckie Ales Pale Ale.

It really was only 2 bottles, so I took the penultimate bottle (maybe they'll now take another case from Stuart), sat down at the seat at the window/fire escape at the front and ordered my lunch. They're open early for Breakfast, and then do Lunch/Brunch and Evening Meals and the food's quite quirky & interesting as befits an owner who has previously operated a restaurant in Crouch End in London. I'm way too boring for anything like that at lunchtime though, and just went for the cuppa-soup & sandwich deal, in this case smoky cream of mushroom, a BLT baguette and some side salad - very nice indeed and it went well with the subtle lemon citrus and peppery finish of the Luckie Pale Ale.

Full of mushroom soup and crispy bacon I left Banner's and headed further up Markinch High Street where I noticed what seemed to be well stocked, interesting Wine Shop (to those interested in wine) that I'd not noticed before, The Markinch Wine Gallery, even though it’s meant to have been on that site for a good number of years.

It's more than possible to walk from Markinch to Glenrothes via numerous new-town style roundabouts & underpasses, but there’s also a frequent bus service. Today I headed around the corner into Commercial Street to get the 46 Stagecoach from Leven (either that or the 43 are the best choices) which heads directly to Glenrothes Bus Station and not via a far more circuitous route. As always the Kingdom Shopping Centre in Glenrothes was packed on a Saturday afternoon, but it wasn't long before I was at the entrance to the Rothes Halls at the far west end of the centre.

The Kingdom of Fife is a nice relaxed beer festival, not as hectic as Paisley or Troon, it's always well-staffed and they have an interesting selection of beers from local breweries (however no Luckie Ales), other Scottish breweries and from further afield. There was also an impressive choice of ciders & perries (actually quite large in comparison, about 45 beers to 22 ciders/perries which is unusual) with the Waulkmill Clan MacFannie cider (fermented with Irn-Bru!) supposedly going down a storm the night before.

I can't really remember any music in the afternoon at this festival in previous years, but this time they had decided on a single young piper playing some classic Scottish refrains - she was quite brilliant.

Even though I was probably earlier into the festival than last year all the Champion Beers of Fife had finished, which was annoying as I had wanted to try the winning beer, de Brus Scottish Lager. I'd had this from bottle a couple of years ago when it was being brewed at the Allanwater Brewhouse, and although it was OK, I didn't think it was a patch on the 2 beers it had beaten, Abbot BrewHouse Heritage Mild and the St Andrews Brewing Big Red Rooster. I guess now I'll never know unless I see it on cask again (perhaps at The Bruery, perhaps at the Dunfermline Charity Beer Festival, normally held in October). So the best beer I tried (I'd had the fantastic Fallen Brewing Chew Chew salted caramel milk stout a number of times before and so made myself give it a miss this time) was the Hopcraft/Pixie Spring A Good Rodgering (sigh...). It was a lovely roast coffee, dark chocolate, thin, high-abv, piney-bitter Black IPA, but there really can't be a need for that name, why not call it something far more witty as a 'rebuke' to Roger Protz (who thinks this style of beer is 'absurd').

Return travel:-
  Bus: Glenrothes Bus Station to Markinch Train Station, 43 Stagecoach (02 on the hour + others)
  Train: Markinch to Perth (19 on the hour)
  Train: Perth to Glasgow Queen St. (13 on the hours + others)

Friday, 1 May 2015

A Saturday Session before and at Innis & Gunn: 25th April 2015

Even before Saturday's trip to Edinburgh I'd been to some interesting beery events during the week (really unusual for me) - Paisley Beer Festival had continued to raise the bar for Scottish beer festivals in terms of the best selection of beer around (and had further expanded upstairs in Paisley Town Hall with another bar & lots of seating), I'd popped in to chat with James Watt at the BrewDog EFPIV Scottish Launch at BrewDog Glasgow, and now I was heading to another 'craft beer' event in Edinburgh - an Innis & Gunn Saturday Session which seemed as if it was going to be... well, I wasn't quite sure... part tutored beer tasting, part social gathering and perhaps a bit of marketing.

Outward travel was as follows:-
  Train: Glasgow Queen St. to Edinburgh Waverley (every 15 minutes)

I got into Edinburgh around 12noon and this meant I could head out to a couple of places in the centre of Edinburgh before walking up to the Innis & Gunn West End HQ for the scheduled 2:00pm kick-off. I first of all headed out from the rear exit of Waverley Station, along Market Street, up and over the Royal Mile, and eventually into the subterranean narrows of the Cowgate. There are still a number of stag and hen orientated venues along here, but also quite a few more interesting places, the newest of which is the large, two-storey premises of OX184, the latest venture from the Fuller-Thomson people.

The exterior is by no means classical or elegant (resembling a modern University dormitory), but at least there are some huge high windows, they've put flowering plants in the outside window boxes, and there is also some excellent minotaur-style artwork on the outside wood panelling (which can open up on sunny days).

The first thing that hit me when I walked inside was the smoke, not foggy, impenetrable smoke, but a lovely aroma of slightly peaty, wood-fired smoked food, which brought old-fashioned campfires to mind, and that's got to be a great help when going into anywhere for something to eat. Downstairs is a large, high space and has a lot of the industrial chic that is prevalent nowadays - red painted girders, aged panelled wood, a number of long benches & tables, more seats & coloured tables similar to Dukes in Dundee, hanging downlights & larger globelights, shiny air conditioning ducts and combined red heaters/lights which reflect & twinkle in the row of large hanging glass bottles over the bar. And slightly away from the bar are shelves full of whiskies and other spirits barricaded off behind a grid of metal latticework.

There is an array of shiny taps well-spaced behind the bar, today consisting of number of 'house brewer' Tempest beers - Easy Livin' Pils, Long White Cloud, Unforgiven, Armadillo and the fantastic Red Eye Flight cocoa stout, as well as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Fyne/Siren Saudade, Six°North Table Beer and Brewdog Alice Porter - all keg beers, but all excellent beers in their own right. I took a schooner of the Easy Livin' Pils (smooth and bitter) and sat down to peruse the menu sheet which consisted of a number of brunch specialities (served until 3pm) and also mains, mostly grilled/smoked meat-based, but also a fair few veggie options. Selection made, I was able to wander up the winding metal staircase to the first floor where there is a row of high-backed, almost cage-like, booth tables as well as a smaller bar and a collection of high-tech, shiny coffee-making equipment.

Behind the bar is one of the grills, looking a bit under-used at this early time in the afternoon (although they do food until 2:30am (and are open until 3:00am), hoping to cater for the post-pub/bar trade).

I headed back downstairs and it wasn't long before my lunch arrived, a Waffle Sandwich of Fried Smoked Chicken with a heaped mass of savoury fries. I wasn't sure if the slightly sweet waffle would actually work with the chicken, but there was a lot of smoky BBQ sauce in there which actually held it all together really well (and the fries were outstanding, with mayo of course).

Lunch was very tasty (and good value for Edinburgh), the service was excellent and with a great beer choice (all that Tempest!) I'm hoping that OX184 will go from strength-to-strength. Leaving OX184 I continued further along the Cowgate, past BrewDog Edinburgh and then up the cobbles of West Bow to the always inviting frontage of The Bow Bar.

Today was the 100th Anniversary of ANZAC Day, and the Bow Bar was commemorating this with a beer from resident Antipodeans Elixir Brew Co. called (unsurprisingly enough) ANZAC. This has been an annual occurrence since 2013 and I'm ashamed to say that I'd never tried it before, but today I was happy to remedy that by taking a pint, accepting one of the home-made oaty biscuits on offer, and putting all my change into the box on the bar for the Edinburgh ANZAC Memorial Fund. The ANZAC beer is brewed with similar ingredients to the biscuits sent to ANZAC soldiers who were fighting in World War I, oats, golden syrup & coconut, and so was very sweet & smooth but then a mass of Australian & New Zealand hops (I could certainly get the Nelson Sauvin) helped to balance it all - it was a lovely, boozy treat.

And funnily enough, when I turned around and looked at whom else was in the bar, there were Benj and Sevare from Elixir Brew Co. with a few friends (I think the plan was to stay there all day, but I believe the 2 casks of ANZAC were finished off by 9pm, wow!). Benj was kind enough to invite me over and then explain how the ANZAC had dropped in strength from its original incarnation (up at 7.4% to a (vaguely) more sessionable 5.9% this year) and that the home-made biscuits should definitely be eaten with the beer. After chatting away for a bit (we somehow managed to get onto 80's metal-rock bands and blue beer) I had to leave to make my way to the Innis & Gunn HQ just off the very west end of Princes Street. This meant braving the heaving hordes of people in The Grassmarket but then a more sedate wander through Princes St. Gardens.

The Innis & Gunn West End HQ is at 6 Randolph Crescent and looks as if it is a converted townhouse; apart from the small Innis & Gunn nameplate there isn't too much to distinguish it from the surrounding apartments.

I knocked on the door, pushed it open (since it was unlocked) and entered into the main hallway where I was met by a huge, brightly coloured Innis & Gunn logo and a whisky barrel, with founder/brewer Douglas Sharp's welcome words writ large on the other wall.

There's also a brewing and, in particular, an Innis & Gunn illustrated timeline on the ground floor wall...

...which leads up a fantastic spiral staircase to the skylight in the roof. It's a very impressive building indeed.

I was then met by the lovely Claire and shown into the, well, drawing/sitting room I guess, where we were given a choice of Innis & Gunn beer from the well-stocked fridge (I went for the new White Oak Wheat beer) and then just relaxed for a bit in one of the numerous comfy armchairs whilst waiting for everyone else to arrive.

This gave me the chance to chat to some of the other attendees about Innis & Gunn beers and also have a think about my own attitude to them. I definitely really liked them at first (in particular the Original, the Blonde and the Rum Finish), and even though I found them quite sweet (and in some cases extremely so) that didn't bother me too much because they were so different. However at some point either my own tastes changed or the recipe and/or body of the beers changed slightly when they switched from barrel-ageing their core beers to instead using oak chips in 'oakerators', and I pretty well stopped drinking them for a time. It didn't help that I just didn't like their Lager (too corn sweet) or the Melville-branded fruit beers (almost artificially sweet) at all, but now it seems that they have been developing some interesting and innovative smaller batch beers, so I was happy to go into the tasting with an open mind and give them another try. We therefore finished our beers and followed Claire into the tasting room next door.

There were 4 beers to try and Claire let us pour the first one (the Original, which I found to be virtually all vanilla in the aroma with a sweet vanilla taste, but just a tad thin) whilst giving us a brief overview of the history of Innis & Gunn and how the oak-aged beers came into being back in 2002/03. This is pretty well explained on their own web-pages and in other places so I won't go into detail here, but there were a few interesting snippets that Claire told us about. In particular that the amount of 'thrown-away' beer that was being consumed by the William Grant employees in Girvan after being used for the original Grant's Ale Cask Finish Whisky was somewhat higher than reported, that Douglas Sharp had thought about calling the beer something seriously over-the-top (Double Scotch Tartan Ale was mentioned!) before opting for Innis & Gunn, that they use their own Innis & Gunn specified Golden Promise pale ale malt, and that they had now changed over to low-weight brown bottles to replace the clear bottles that they had previously used for most of their core beers - definitely a good decision. We then moved onto the 2nd beer of the day, the new White Oak Wheat beer that I'd had in the sitting room. This was something that one of their brewers, Rachel Sutherland, had wanted to try for a while, but Claire indicated that it had simply taken a long time to acquire all the Bergamot Oranges that they needed for a full brew - the majority of the crop from Italy's Amalfi coast is pre-allocated for Twinings who use it in their Earl Grey Tea. When the shipment finally arrived (all 300KG of it!) into the Innis & Gunn HQ last December the 2000 or so oranges had to be hand peeled (mainly by Rachel) over the course of 4 days - I like the dedication of all of this.
(pic from Innis & Gunn twitter page)

Only the green zest was needed for the beer (which was then dried by a local firm), but that left the problem of a huge amount of Bergamot Orange pulp. Some of this was used in the Innis & Gunn kitchen for the Christmas-time beer & food matching events but Claire also headed around a number of Edinburgh restaurants with a taxi full of free Bergamot Orange pulp which eventually ended up in courses such as a Bergamot Orange Tart with Vanilla Yogurt Sorbet at The Pompadour.
(pic from The Pompadour twitter page)

The dried bergamot zest was then infused into the beer and blood orange juice was also added during maturation. It's a Kristallweizen and so is fairly robustly filtered and therefore poured pretty clear, but there was a nice spicy orange flavour to it, some wheat/biscuit tones and a long, dry tannin-like finish. It's still fairly sweet (it has gone through bourbon-infused oak chips in the oakerators) but I have to admit I really quite liked it (a naturally cloudy Hefeweizen would be great in the future!). Next we tried the Rare Oak Pale Ale which had probably the lowest abv of the beers today (at 5.6%). This had a more biscuity-lemon citrus flavour, not too much sweetness, and then a slight honey-sweet almost herbal-bitter finish. Claire indicated that this could be from the sweet gale that is added and also since Scottish oak is used in the maturation process the full-on oak-sweetness is reduced quite a bit. Finally we tried the Bourbon Cask Dark Ale which was the only beer which hadn't been matured in the oakerators. This is the process that Innis & Gunn developed back in 2010 to head-off a possible barrel shortage at Grant’s and which puts dried oak chips cured with the alcoholic spirit into the maturation tanks (or oakerators) to attempt to replicate barrel-ageing. I'm not 100% convinced about this, but it does mean that for the large full-size brews at Tennent’s Wellpark brewery they can use the oakerators without having to use a quite massive amount of barrels (as an indication Goose Island had 30,000 barrels in their warehouse for Bourbon Country Stout before the AB-InBev takeover). The Dark Ale tasted of mellow-vanilla bourbon, almost some coconut and then had nice burnt bitter finish - it just seemed to be a bit more intense (and a bit more balanced) than the other beers we'd tried that afternoon. Tasting done we then headed downstairs to the small basement bar where there were a few keg lines setup with the Original, Irish Whisky Finish and the Lager available to buy (there's even a hand-pull there, but it's been unused since the Toasted Oak IPA that was brewed for the Wetherspoon Beer Festival back in October 2013).

I instead went for something I hadn't tried before, a bottle of the Scotch Whisky Porter. This had some almost Auchentoshan Three-Wood-like dried fruit-sweetness, more vanilla, and ended in a bitter, sticky-toffee finish (OK, still sweet), and actually this seemed a bit more like the Original that I remembered from pre-oakerator days. Chatting away to Claire and other attendees I realised that I'd had a really fun, interesting and informative couple of hours (high abv beer definitely helps!) and that it was certainly worth the £15 that I'd paid for it. Claire had shown me how enthusiastic, meticulous and hard-working the Innis & Gunn people are and she even dropped a few hints about an Innis & Gunn brewery (plans for which de-cloaked the same week) and we talked about some of the smaller, innovative batch beers. One of these, Hot Rocks, was brewed with no hops (instead sweet gale, meadowsweet, mugwort horehound, pink heather flowers and heather honey were used) and to a supposed 'ancient' process in which the grains are caramelised over hot granite rocks (there's a limited batch of only 120 bottles for this so I can't see it having been brewed at Wellpark, even the Craft Beer Kitchen could do that batch size). It's a really innovative concept, but when I left the Innis & Gunn townhouse I dropped into Cloisters on the (slightly circuitous) way back to Haymarket Station and as a bit of an antidote/balance to some of the sweet beers I'd tried at Innis & Gunn I picked up this - an Elixir beer made with caramelised onions, Indian spices and aji chilis. If I ever find something like coming out of Innis & Gunn I'd be quite amazed (but more than happy!).

Return travel:-
  Train: Edinburgh Haymarket to Glasgow Queen St. (every 15 minutes)