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)