Thursday, 23 August 2012

Beers in the Midi

Our holiday travels shifted gears rather abruptly in late July, as we left Scotland for the south of France. Scottish beers in comfortable pubs gave way to glasses of rosé on a boat tied up along the Canal du Midi. Still, we managed to find a few beers even amongst the vineyards.

Arriving in Aix-en-Provence after a day of busses, planes and trains from Edinburgh, we needed something to wash off the dust of a long journey. Pelforth Brune, a northern transplant rather like us that day, did the job.
It’s got minimal head, and it’s a bit too sweet, but it was a welcome sight -- and taste -- nonetheless. Much like Pelforth Blonde, it is nothing spectacular, but it has a part to play.

We also had two southern French beers. The first was La Cagole, a lager from Marseille, which offers some nuttiness and a black cherry note on top of a malty background. We found it surprisingly more nourishing than refreshing for a 4.7% warm-climate lager. Not bad, but not great. The label is pretty nifty though.

La Belle en Goguette is a reasonable enough bottle-fermented blonde ale from Brasserie des Garrigues in Sommières between Montpellier and Nîmes. Again, nothing outstanding, but not terrible either.

Overall, I’d have to say we’ve tasted far better French beers, both north and south. Most nights along the canal we just stuck with the rosé.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Scottish Wildcat

After leaving the isolation of Knoydart and its remote beers, we journeyed first by train from Mallaig to Fort William and then north by coach to Inverness. It’s a spectacular bus ride snaking along the serpentine banks of the famous Loch Ness, home of, well, you know...

No, we didn’t see a giant reptile rise from the murky waters, but we did see rather a lot of vomit emerging from one of our little monsters.

Our youngest gets terribly carsick -- or coach sick, really, because it only seems to happen on long-distance busses. We had thought she might be outgrowing it, so we went ahead and ordered the tickets. Sadly, not.

I’m afraid it was a rather terrible trip, and we weren’t able to enjoy the fantastic scenery as we’d all hoped. As for spotting Old Nessie, well the beast could have been jumping clear out of the loch and doing triple back-flips for an hour, and we would have missed it.

Now, with a segue as rough as a dry heave, I can point out that I am allergic to cats in a way my youngest is allergic to long bus journeys. And that brings us to today’s beer, Wildcat from Cairngorm Brewery in Aviemore near Inverness.

It pours dark amber, and there’s something almost almost candy-ish -- maybe butterscotch? -- on the nose, which continues into the taste: malty sweet with something else as well... A hint of ginger, perhaps?

In any case, it was a pleasant way to unwind in Inverness after a most unpleasant trip.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Deuchars IPA

“When you get up to Edinburgh, you’ve got to try Deuchars IPA.”

Thus spake the journalist with the sweetest gig ever as we sat sipping Tilquin Lambic Blend at Chez Moeder Lambic a couple months ago. And just a few weeks later, his advice was heeded, and the prophecy was fulfilled at The Standing Order on George Street.

It is a pretty amazing pub. Being a Wetherspoon place might put some people off, I know -- another big chain bar dominating the market and squeezing out the little guys etc. But this location is special: a converted bank, it is really quite a grand space for enjoying a pint. Wetherspoon’s Counting House in Glasgow, also a former bank, is similarly impressive.

Apparently the most popular cask ale in Scotland, Deuchars IPA from Caledonian Brewing is an odd sort of beast. Hop heads looking for modern mouth explosions of passion fruit, grapefruit and pine will be disappointed, as will fans of bubbles.

“This has no taste whatsoever”, says Fiona. “Where are the hops? And where’s the fizz? Everything’s so flat here.”

Honestly, when it comes to beer, you wouldn’t know she was brought up in the UK. I also suspect the salt and vinegar crisps were throwing off her senses, because Deuchars IPA is nothing to complain about.

The hoppiness is there, I think, but it’s a very hempy sort of hop flavour, not the sledgehammer tropical kind you find in, say, a BrewDog or an American IPA. Interestingly, Deuchars IPA is only 3.8% ABV, which makes it light, refreshing and sessionable. I might not rave about it like my journalist friend, but I find nothing to fault it either. In fact, with the greatest of respect to my better half, I quite like it.

Though yes, it’s flat, so if you need bubbles in your brew, this -- and countless other British ales -- won’t be your thing.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Punk Pub

As I was just saying, back when I went to the University of Glasgow, the beery distractions were somewhat limited. Certainly there was nothing like BrewDog Glasgow in the neighbourhood.

This shrine to fantastic beers and fuck-you marketing must distract rather a lot of students these days, but it also makes a perfect recharging station for your batteries after a few hours roaming around the wondrous Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum across the street.

We kept it simple with Punk IPA and pizza for a late lunch, and then played some of the board games they make available to customers.

I’ve described BrewDog Punk IPA elsewhere, so I won’t go on about it, though it would be easy to rave about its passion fruit and pink grapefruit lusciousness. Needless to say, Fiona was in hop-head heaven.

It’s probably a good thing that BrewDog Glasgow wasn’t around in the 90s, otherwise the temptation might have been too great.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Glasgow: Go West

Glasgow holds a lot of family connections for us. It’s Fiona’s mother’s home town, and back in the 90s, Fiona and I spent a year there, while she took a teacher training course, and I did my masters.

Returning there last month was a combination of the familiar -- it rained non-stop for two days -- and the unusual: we found some great beers.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Hebridean Gold

While waiting in Mallaig, Scotland, for the boat to Knoydart and its remote beers, we had a few minutes to enjoy one at The Tea Garden by the pier. It’s not an outstanding place, but to its credit, it offers Hebridean Gold from the Isle of Skye Brewery.

Billed as a “porridge oat and malt ale”, it is sharp and clean, with a slight candy note and hints of bramble, all backed by strong bitterness in the finish.

“This would make a great breakfast beer”, said Fiona.

It was a comment that might have suggested a bit of jet lag after our long travel to get there.

Except we’d taken the train.

Then again, the enchanting five-hour trip up from Glasgow is one of the greatest rail journeys in the world, so some disorientation could be expected. Or maybe she was distracted by all the childhood memories rushing back to her, having spent many family holidays there in and around Mallaig, her father's home town.

“Is that the porridge talking?”, I asked.

“OK, breakfast might be a bit early. Let’s call it a brunch beer.”

Brunch beer it is then.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Most Remote Beers in Britain

We’ve just returned from long holidays in Scotland and France, and now I’m facing an inevitable backlog of beer reviews from our weeks among the Auld Alliance partners. Not sure why I don’t just write them up at the time... It might have something to do with being on holiday.

Perhaps it’s best to start with the most far out beers of the trip: two we enjoyed at The Old Forge in Knoydart, Scotland, billed as “Mainland Britain’s Remotest Pub”. It is, indeed, somewhat end-of-the-road -- or a bit beyond that, actually, as there are no roads connecting Knoydart to the rest of Britain.

To get there, you take the West Highland Line rail service from Glasgow right to its end at Mallaig, a small port town once a major fishing base but now better known as a passing-through point for tourists on their way via car ferries to the islands beyond, most importantly the Isle of Skye.

But to reach Knoydart, you give those big ships a miss and hop on a small boat to the village of Inverie, population 100 or so. For 20 or 30 minutes you’ll bounce across the waves with a few others huddled together on a couple square metres of sea-splashed deck or in a modest cabin with the captain, whom you’ll no doubt see in the pub a bit later.

“The pub”, of course, is The Old Forge, a spectacular place, as welcoming and comforting as it is remote.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

A Previously Unknown Chimay

A couple months ago, one of my interns told me she had found a bottle of Belgian beer I’d never tried before. However, when she said it was a Chimay, I laughed, thinking I’d tasted everything that Trappist brewery had to offer.

But she’s laughing now.

I should learn: every time I pretend to know something about Belgian beer, I end up getting whacked with a new lesson in humility.

True, I’ve tried a number of different Chimay ales, including Chimay Red, Chimay Blue, Chimay White, and a variety of Chimay Grande Réserve bottles of varying ages.

But I’ve never had Chimay with a brown label...